I turned 23 yesterday and at least for me personally it’s an age that came with a feeling of uncertainty. No longer a year away from being 21 and in college but not quite 25 where marriage, kids, and actual real life seems to happen for most people. For me being 23, this time right now, represents an opportunity for growth. A time where I’ll find out the man I’m going to be over the next 30 years.
Everyone always said that your formative years happen in your teens. Yet, looking back, I don’t really know how much actual growth you can go through as a teenager. I don’t hold onto a naturalistic view of the world but as a teen I think it’s quite fair to say you’re mostly a product of a surplus amount of hormones that your body doesn’t quite know what to do with yet.
For that reason, I’m not really interested in the difference between someone at 17 and at 21. What intrigues me is the transformation between 21 and 25, 21 and 35. Who you are today, where do you want to be in the future, and how are you going to get there?
In that light, I figured I’d share what I’ve learned so far in my short, yet experience filled life. While in a sense they’re lessons I’ve learned over the years, they are also some of the mantras through which I try and live my life. I grew up in an environment of addiction, attended Harvard, and play professional baseball. None of that makes me special, but I feel they each give me something to offer for those who are willing to listen.
8 Lessons I’ve Learned In My 23 Years
1) Chase what you love
I can count at least a dozen times when I’ve been asked the question, “How long do you plan on sticking with it?”
“It” being my career in professional baseball, albeit one that currently resides in minor league baseball. The big leagues is glamorous. Money, power, status. A fantasy world for those who make it. The minors, on the other hand, are far from “the dream.” You make below the poverty line, you live in obscure towns in the middle of nowhere, and your odds of ever making it to the show are infinitesimally small.
So, back to the original question, how long do you plan on sticking with it? Initially, I told people that I’d assess where I am at 25. It was safe and easy and fit into most people’s conceptions about what you should do with your life. You’re not supposed to toil in the obscurity of the minors for very long when you have a Harvard degree waiting for you. You’re not supposed to chase what you love for a living. Passions are for hobbies you do outside of work. You’re supposed to put your head down, conform to societal pressures, work in a concrete cave (a cubicle for those who didn’t know Coach Walsh), and be miserable for the rest of your life.
F*** that. My answer today? What the truth has been all along… I plan on sticking with “it” until they physically rip the jersey off my back. When no one is willing to give me a shot to continue chasing my dream. When I cannot lift my left arm overhead anymore.
I can’t play a game for the rest of my life. I understand this. Unfortunately, Father Time is undefeated. But what I can do is chase what I love while I can. So many people put chasing money in front of chasing what they love. Money is important, I get it. But it takes risk and courage to try and make a career out of your passion. I don’t know too many people that get excited over derivatives and stocks. It works for some but I refuse to spend my time locked in a concrete cave or live my life playing it safe.
2) Be strong even when it hurts to do so
Growing up and witnessing the perils of addiction first hand is hard. It shouldn’t have to be something that a child or a teenager goes through; yet you can’t pick the cards you were dealt in this life. As bad as it hurts, as much as you want to go cry yourself to sleep in a dark room, as badly as you want to escape the realities of your life, you can’t.
You can’t because there’s always someone counting on you. Someone who needs you to be strong. Someone who needs your shoulder to cry on. Someone, who no matter how bad a situation is, can take comfort in you because you’re their rock. It may be your mom. It may be your little sister or even a friend. Regardless of who it may be, they need your strength. They need you to be strong even when it’s hurting you inside to do so. It’s a sacrifice you make for the ones you love.
3) Ask the hard questions
There’s so much to learn about what it means to be human. So often people go through their life at a million miles an hour that they never have the opportunity to stop, reflect, and question the significance of it all.
I was fortunate enough to go through my own personal crisis of faith a few years ago. Yes, I said fortunate. Was it fun to go through? Not a chance in hell, no pun intended, but I grew because of it. I started to ask the tough questions of life and like any naïve thinker, I wanted, no expected, answers. I was prepared to travel down whatever road, no matter how dark, in my pursuit of the answer(s).
Thing is, when you ask what it means to be human, what the purpose of all this is, there are no answers. Sure, there are moments of doubt, uncertainty, and fleeting feelings of insignificance. Yet, with darkness comes light. With doubt and uncertainty comes appreciation and awe for this wonderful mystery called life. An appreciation that may not come to you unless you start asking the hard questions, unafraid of the answers you may receive.
4) Be mindful of your own mortality
Recently, I started filling out something called my memento mori, Latin for remember that you will die. It’s a piece of paper that marks from the day I was born to that same day 80 years later. Each week of my life that passes, I check off a box.
It’s not for show. I don’t chart my mortality because I want people to think I’m a badass or a psycho when they see my fridge. It’s my weekly reminder that I only have a short amount of time on this earth.
Some may find tracking your mortality to be depressing. Most are so terrified of death that it pains them to conceive of it, so they tuck it as far away as possible. My memento mori is not a weekly shot of depression. Rather, it is my opportunity to ask myself if I’m really living? Did I live up to my values last week? Did I go on an adventure, create memories with my loved ones, and chase my passion with everything I have?
Each box forces introspection. Yes, memento mori is a reminder of my own mortality, yet I’ve found that instead of giving me angst over the certainty of death, it inspires me to get busy living.
5) Don’t allow your work ethic to limit you
My father always instilled in me from a young age that there’s no shame in not being good enough. Not having enough ability isn’t a crime; rather, the crime is not maximizing every ounce of talent that you’ve been given.
My dream, as you know from above, is to become a Major League baseball player. I may make it there, but the odds are certainly in my favor that I won’t. I’m very ok with that given one condition: that I worked as hard as humanly possible and left not one ounce of talent on the table.
If when I look back, I didn’t make it because I wasn’t good enough…I can live with myself. If I was sure that I maximized every ounce of innate ability I was given, and that still wasn’t good enough, well that is a condition I can accept and accept with pride.
It is question of commitment that we should ask ourselves daily. Is my work ethic limiting how far I go in life? For me, effort should never take days off.
6) Win Today
“Nothing is guaranteed in this life. So to celebrate something, it’s like a quick celebration; ok, it’s on to the next day. Whether I’m three years sober or three years and a day, you only have that day…Three years is the best thing in the world but I know that at the end of the day it’s just another 24 hours.”
– Chris Herren in the Espn 30 for 30 documentary Unguarded
This quote carries special significance for me. I’m not an addict or an alcoholic but alcoholism runs in my family and I’ve seen firsthand the destruction that it can cause. Anyone who has experienced it understands that there are few things in this life worse to experience.
Yet, darkness does not subsist. There is a calm after every storm. The sun rises even after the darkest of nights. These moments of peace in fighting addiction may be small, may be ever fleeting, but they exist. Despite the pain, there are few things more satisfying than seeing someone you care about and love winning their battles to recovery. Because with any addiction, you never win the war. The battles never stop coming. Just as Chris said, three years (sober) is the best thing in the world, but he knows at the end of the day it’s just another 24 hours. Just another battle to overcome, another day to win.
These concepts may be foreign to most of you and that’s ok. I really hope for your sake they are. Yet, despite your unfamiliarity with addiction, I think there’s something incredibly valuable for all of us to apply as we chase meaning and substance in this life.
For all that may have happened yesterday and that may happen tomorrow, all we have is today. You could have had the worst day or game in the world yesterday and it’s over. Today is a fresh start. A new 24 hours. A new battle to conquer because for us, if we’re truly pursuing something special in our lives, the war is never won. There is always room to grow, new areas to seek improvement, new skills to master, new battles to wage.
To accomplish something significant, you can’t have a five or ten year plan. It’s too far in the future, too hard to conceptualize and tangibly act upon. What we need is a plan for today. How can we win today? And once we win today, how can we win tomorrow? Soon, a single day turns into a week, a week turns into a month, and soon months turn into years. Years of small victories stacked on top of each other. Little battles inching us closer and closer to achieving something special.
Just as addicts always have a calm after the storm, so may we have our fleeting moments. Times when we think we’ve won the war and some individuals may eventually feel this way. They are satisfied, content, and lack a true desire to be great. When you truly pursue greatness, that thirst is unquenchable. You are always in constant pursuit. You always have another battle to win, another 24 hours to conquer.
7) Have faith
This world can be a dark and unforgiveable place. Many of us will experience times of immense struggle. There will be times when life throws us into a hole so deep that it requires every bit of our strength and courage to climb back out.
It’s times like this where we need faith, albeit faith that is not necessarily religious nor faith that acts as our emotional crutch when times get hard. Rather, faith in an ideal or a series of values. Faith that the human spirit can persevere through anything. Faith that light always overcomes darkness. Faith that we are not defined by our failures but solely on how we fight and respond to them.
Many of us don’t have a value system. We’ve either never critically thought about it or believed in its importance. So when shit hits the fan, and in life it will eventually, we’re left scrambling. We don’t have faith in anything nor have any light to guide us through the storm.
I need faith. I need faith that I can persevere through anything. My value system, my faith, governs how I respond to any situation, good or bad. It is my compass when all hope seems to be lost.
8) Chase your legacy
Afterlife? Reality or wishful thinking? Is immortality possible? Do the religions of the world point to some existential truth about the nature of reality?
To be completely honest, I’m not particularly interested in the answers to any of these questions. Whether I survive death is of no real significance to me.
I am guaranteed one mortal life. That is all. Hopefully I live as long as possible but no man knows the day or the hour.
What I concern myself with is when my time is up, will my life transcend death? What kind of legacy will I leave behind? Will I be phenomenal or will I be forgotten?
Don’t get the wrong idea. By legacy, I am not concerned with amassing enormous amounts of wealth or power so that I have some legendary Wikipedia page nor do I have to be remembered or known by thousands.
Rather, how will my friends and family remember me after I’m gone? Am I an example of hard work, of overcoming adversity, of a man who loved with reckless abandonment? If so, in my eyes, I will have transcended death.
That is a legacy that I chase every day of my life.
“The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.” ~ Richard Rohr