40 Life Lessons in 40 Years of Life

I recently turned 40 years old. The last few weeks have brought deep reflection and gratitude as I think about what I wish to create in the next decade. Thinking back on the people whose guidance most helped me create paradigm shifts in my life, I realize that what they did was give me permission to explore who I am at my core, and who I aspire to be. They made it okay for me to push the envelope and discover what’s at my edge. They showed me new ways of thinking and existing, which has translated into me living a life with an immense freedom of being.

In my desire to share the gift of freedom of being with others, I’ve put together a list of 40 actionable learnings that opened my eyes to what is possible. The list started as I was on a train trip in Peru to celebrate this milestone birthday. As I looked at the passing landscapes, I started scribbling down all the learnings that I want to pass on to my daughter (she’s only three years old now, but I like to think ahead!), all the ones I wish I’d been taught when I was a young(er) woman. I soon realized that these could be insightful and valuable for others, so here they are for you, too. This is my most personal post to date; everything I share here is based on my own life or my observations of those directly around me. These 40 learnings are meant to enliven, challenge, enrich, and encourage you. They are not for everyone (I am, after all, a fiercely happy, nonconformist, liberated woman) but, as you read them, you will know if they are for you.

If you’re game, pour yourself a cup of tea; we’ll be here for a while. May this post be one tiny—but mighty—force inviting you to dance, love, and touch others with your radiance.

1. Stop pretending you don’t like yourself.

Yes, self-deprecation is “in” these days and false humility is everywhere, but it’s not really what’s going to elevate you and others around you. The world benefits much more from your existence if you’re happy in your own skin, and move through the world as the radiant badass you are.

2. Always have something exciting to look forward to.

It’s what The Good Life Project calls the ARC of happiness: Anticipate, Relish, Contemplate. It makes life so much sweeter and lighter. This does not have to be costly. When I was a grad student living in Paris with very little money, my favorite thing to do was to pack a picnic and head for the Seine riverbanks to meet friends, watch groups of tango dancers rehearse by the water, and enjoy the sweet sound of someone playing the guitar nearby. The excitement leading up to these moments of fun and enjoyment is often enough to keep me lit up when the day-to-day gets boring and predictable.

3. Always have something to share with others.

It can be bringing a lovely bottle of champagne (my personal favorite) to the party, or sharing a new podcast recommendation with someone who needs it, or inviting them to an event you’re attending next month.

4. Know your personal triggers and own your ‘shadow’.

Be willing to do the work it takes to give your emotional best. Every day.

This means not dumping your emotional baggage and past hurts on the people in your life, or subjecting them to the unhealthy behaviors you’re unaware of because they’re hiding in your blind spots. If you’ve never heard of shadow and how to integrate it into your life so it no longer runs the show from behind the scenes, this book by Debbie Ford is a good place to start.

5. Know your boundaries and be clear about them.

Gently enforce them when needed. Here’s how to set yourself up for healthy boundaries.

6. Fill your day with play.

This one took me so long to “get” (think: forty years long) but once I decided to make play and pleasure a part of my life, everything changed. From how I show up every day to myself, my clients and my loved ones, to how I set goals and make choices. And I am having so much FUN! Make sure to infuse playfulness and levity into your life every single day. Because otherwise, what is the effing point of all this?

7. Make intention-setting a daily habit.

Set an intention every morning for what each new day will be about. Going into a brand new day without an intention is like getting in the car without knowing where you’re headed — you end up out in the middle of nowhere, wondering where the hell the last 12 hours went. Here are some of the daily intentions I’ve set for myself in recent mornings: “I’m committed to staying super present with my daughter when we go visit the aquarium today”, “I’m going to bring curiosity and electricity to date night with my partner”, “I want to do 1 minute of mountain climbers every 90 minutes today”, “I’m only going to eat clean foods for all three of my meals.” You get the idea.

8. Let your Core Desired Feelings be your guide.

Uncover your Core Desired Feelings (CDFs) and use them as a filter for making big and small decisions as you go about life. This one was a game-changer for me. Once I got clear on what my CDFs were, making decisions became so easy! Right now, my CDFs are: Ease, Peace, Grace and Flow. Which means that, if I’m gonna say yes to ANY-THING, whether it’s to go to happy hour with a certain group of people or whether to move to Portugal, it has to be in alignment with at least one, if not all my CDFs. If not, then: I’m not interested, thank you bye.

9. Design the life you want proactively every day, every week, and every year.

Otherwise, life will happen to you by default and you’ll be left feeling like you’re not in control of your destiny. I recommend Dave Evan’s “Design your Life” book and his other tools.

10. Don’t let past tragedies or wrongdoings define you.

Don’t be that person who sabotages every new relationship by thinking: “I don’t trust anyone anymore because my last partner cheated on me.” You’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to be loved in the present while blaming someone in the past for it. Which brings me to my next point.

11. Create the story by which you wish to live.

It’s all a story my friend, so you may as well be the one writing the script you choose to believe and live by. Every morning, you get to invent the future you will live into. When you don’t do this intentionally, you end up letting outside forces dictate your experience of life each day. If you want to learn how to write the Story of the life you DO want to live, my best recommendation for you is to participate in the Landmark Forum. I was lucky enough to take this transformational course when I was just 23, and I believe it played a big part in me creating a life I love. Just as important, this course gave me the tools to face adversity and tragic events in my life. Go find your teachers. Learn the tools. Use them to create; use them to heal yourself when needed.

12. Stop punishing your parents for their crappy parenting.

Let’s face it: most of us did not have the parents we wish we’d had, or the parents we’re striving to be for the next generation. But it’s much healthier to just remember that our parents did the best they could, with the tools they had at the time. And that they have evolved from who they were as young inexperienced parents. Stop making them pay for what happened decades ago. This letting go of resentment towards my own ‘immature’ parents has been transformational in how I relate to them, to myself, and to my child.

13. Get a village to support you through different phases of Life.

Allow yourself to be supported by various experts for different challenges. Psychotherapists, healers, advisors, bodyworkers, hypnotherapists, doulas, coaches, friends, books, talks, naturopaths, podcasts, mentors, trainers, etc are more easily available than ever. Take advantage. You don’t have to do it alone.

If you don’t have money to invest in these, there are creative ways to still get that support. When I was younger and didn’t yet make much money, I would teach Yoga to a friend in exchange for her Thai massages.

14. Get moving.

“Sitting is the new smoking” is a real thing. If you want your body to last you a long time, use it often. Schedule frequent movement breaks if you sit in front of a computer for long periods during the work day. You can take a few flights of stairs or go for a power walk around the office block. I personally love dance breaks. I put on Juan Luis Guerra, Maluma or Celia Cruz on my smart speaker and dance around my living room in between coaching sessions. (Email me if you’d like my “Dance Breaks” itunes playlist). Regular movement keeps my body happy and healthy, and my brain clear and crisp.

15. Ask yourself the right questions.

When you don’t know what decision to make, ask yourself: “What would provide the highest good for me and the parties involved?” Here is Lissa Rankin’s beautiful list of questions to ask when you need help making a decision.

16. Transform your social anxiety by constructively focusing your attention on others.

Whenever you start to get self-conscious, ask yourself “How could I be of help or service here?” It takes you out of self-centered mode. This is a trick I use when I’m about to step onstage to give a talk to hundreds of people I’ve never met, or when walking into an event / party where I don’t know anyone (which is often). It immediately gets me excited about discovering how I can make a difference in someone’s life by focusing my energy other than on my own nervousness.

17. Transform your money story.

Get to know—and tame—your ‘money story’. Understand where your “I can’t have abundance / enough money to live my dream life” beliefs came from. It’s usually childhood crap. Do the work to reprogram yourself from the faulty conditioning you received regarding money, and then decide what your new money story will be. Jen Sincero’s book, “You Are a Badass at Making Money” is a great start, and so are Marisa Peer’s hypnotherapy resources.

18. Stop buying into the idea that disparaging money (or people with money) is an admirable quality.

You will do more good for those around you (and the world) if you have a healthy relationship with money. On a similar note, notice if you have a hidden belief that you making more money will mean you’ll be less ‘spiritual’ or less noble. Too many people have this belief and it makes me want to cry big fat tears because the two are not even related!

Here’s a dare for ya: if you’re not where you want to be financially, go figure out a way to make a boatload of money, then come back and show us all how you’re still a good person who now can do a boatload of good for others with your newly created wealth.

19. Have a good reason for choosing to have children.

Some people have baloney reasons for wanting a child. You know what I’m referring to. Reasons like: “I think it’d be really fun to have a mini-me running around!” . Oh boy. Really? This is why you want children? Parenting is THE hardest job I’ve ever had (by far), will probably be the hardest of my entire life, and I CHOSE to become a parent. Having a meaningful reason makes it easier when parenting gets hard, which it does, all the time. Also, please know that you can have a meaningful life without becoming a parent. Don’t get pressured (by society, your partner, your parents) into bringing children into this world if you’re not totally sold on it. It’s OK to not want children!

20. Don’t make your child/ren your sole focus in life.

Or anyone for that matter. Not your demanding spouse, your diabetic pet, or your alcoholic father who can’t get his sh*t together. This leads to codependency and both parties will lose from existing in this dynamic. Make your focus in life a purpose greater than you and your child, something that will benefit many people in the world. There are so many reasons for having a greater purpose, but for starters here’s one: when your children leave the nest, you’ll still have a joyful reason to get out of bed every morning. Bonus: I’ve noticed that children get super inspired by parents who go after a big mission in life.

21. Sort out your baggage before you have children.

If we’re not mindful, we risk bringing all our wounds, insecurities and other negative patterns to our parenting. Take some time to uncover your issues before you become a parent. If you don’t think you have any issues and don’t need to do this work, then I DOUBLY recommend you do it, because this means your harmful patterns are hiding in your blind spots, putting you at greater risk of unknowingly projecting your crap onto your kid. Awareness of your darkness (Did you hear? We all have darkness!) and healing what needs healing in you, before your child arrives into the world, is the greatest gift you will ever give them. Ever.

22. Be prepared to piss people off.

You will never be able to please everyone around you so you may as well choose to embark on your path with the people who ARE your tribe (those aligned with your heart and mission). Those are the people who will benefit from your gifts and your implicit permission to be themselves thanks to your authentic being.

23. Be the gatekeeper of you mind.

There is noise all around us 24/7 and big companies trying to get our eyeballs and attention. Don’t get mindlessly bought like that — you’re not cheap! Be super protective and intentional about what you CHOOSE to give your energy and time to. You’re the only one who can do that. Choose what nourishes, enlightens, and uplifts you each and every single day. I personally don’t watch or read the local news because I know that I’m super sensitive to everything that goes on around me, so I need to have solid boundaries (Okay, I allow myself a little NPR and NYT here and there, but in limited doses). I usually ask the smart people in my life to tell me what’s going on in the world. I’d rather look uninformed to my friends than feel anxious on a daily basis.

24. Be bold in your interactions.

If there is tension with someone, be bold: ask them to have coffee with you and be ready to start an authentic conversation about what’s happening. And be ready for people to sometimes cower away, too. And that’s okay, because at least you did what you know is right and you can walk away from the situation feeling complete.

25. Know and accept that you’ll be attracted to many people other than your partner, and it’s normal.

Please, please, please don’t confuse “I am so attracted to this new person” with “It must mean I’m not in love with my husband anymore and I need to end my marriage”. How many relationships could be saved if people were able to recognize that being attracted to other people is completely normal and expected, and thus need not be turned into a problem in the relationship? What if we made it mean nothing more than “I have a pulse, yay! I can still notice attractive people — what a beautiful thing!”?

26. Know that you can choose whether or not monogamy is for you.

Yes, society may make it seem like monogamy’s the default mode for relationships, but I’ve got news for you: it’s not. There’s a whole spectrum out there for you to explore. If you wonder about this and feel bad because you suspect you may not be the monogamous type (gasp!) start by reading “Sex at Dawn.” Not everyone is built the same way, and only you and your partner(s) can choose how you want to build your relationship. If monogamy isn’t your bag, there are plenty of supportive communities/resources to help you figure out what is. Start with Dan Savage’s column and podcast, and the True Sex & Wild Love podcast with two ladies who make sex and relationships talk really fun (Dr. Wednesday Martin & Whitney Miller). Whatever you do, be honest with yourself and with your partner(s) about what makes sense for you, and create your relationship from there.

27. Happiness is a habit.

It’s also a choice, as I’ve come to learn and practice. My amazing coach Steffani Lefevour makes this concept a central point of her work with clients and I think it’s just brilliant. Most people think happiness is something that either happens or doesn’t happen, like it’s bestowed by whether “good” or “bad” things happen TO them. What they don’t realize is that their happiness is their responsibility, and that there is a set of actions, habits, and ways of thinking that lead to happiness if practiced daily.

28. Signal to others how you want to be treated.

Recognize that each of us is constantly broadcasting to the world how we want to be treated. If you don’t like how others treat you, recognize that you are the only one who can do something about it.

29. Have your toolbox handy at all times.

Have a set of tools to help you grow and live your best life. Some tools you’ll use for your entire life, and others you’ll use as you go through different periods. If you don’t know where to start getting these tools, write me and tell me what you want to learn more about, and I’ll share the best ones I’ve got.

30. Have a set of tools handy for when the sh*t hits the fan.

Or at least be ready and willing to seek them out when things get hard. Pema Chodron’s, “When Things Fall Apart” was a lifesaver for me when I was going through the most difficult period of my life many years ago.

31. Have big, bold dreams that you’re going after with every new year.

Don’t be lazy or modest in setting these intentions for yourself. When you look at your new list of dreams each year, you should be left a little breathless and nervous. If that’s not what you feel, then your dreams aren’t really dreams, they’re just ideas along the expected curve of your predictable future. I love using the Life Compass to plan the upcoming year. It’s an exercise my husband and I look forward to, and we spend a couple of date nights working on it together in December. You can also do it by yourself, and with friends.

32. Have a personal financial growth plan and actively take steps to implement it every year.

For the first decade of my career, I had the mindset of “I’m making money and saving some of it here and there, so I should be all good, right?” but wasn’t tracking my growth or giving myself financial milestones to reach. Instead, I was letting my life partner at the time drive the bus. He did a good job, but the problem was that I wasn’t involved in influencing our financial decisions. My cultural and family conditioning about a woman’s role in finances was not an empowering one, so I did not pay much attention to this topic. What a mistake! The result? After we split up, I didn’t have much to show for. I wondered why I was in a worse place financially than before the relationship. Until I decided to start treating my finances with the same diligence I treated everything else. I live a very different reality now and it all started with that commitment. When I was just getting started, I was recommended two books: David Bach’s “The Automatic Millionaire” and T. Harv Ecker’s “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind”. I loved the simple (yet powerful) lessons and actionable advice they contained.

33. Take others’ feedback with a grain of salt.

Most feedback you’ll get in life is actually just someone’s opinion, or is based on their personal preferences. Which means it’s likely not that useful to you and the life you’re creating. This is partly because most people giving you feedback (especially at work), don’t truly know your personal vision for where you want to go. So next time you get feedback from someone, ask yourself, “Would me improving on this area actually help me move towards my personal goals / my dream life?”. The shift happened for me during one particularly crappy feedback session with a boss several years ago. This reframing (realizing this person’s feedback actually had no value for me) changed the course of my career and life.

34. Gratitude saves the day, every day.

Practicing gratitude daily is shown to increase your happiness, so there is a compelling reason to make it a daily habit. BUT I have found that gratitude really shows its power when I’m in a dark place and having a hard time. Somehow, listing the blessings in my life instantly helps me feel less crappy and crabby. Writing them down and putting them where I can see them for a few days adds extra pow.

35. Have a morning routine.

How you start the day sets the tone for the day. Here are some ideas on how to get started, courtesy of Thomas Oppong.

36. Know your Life Purpose and your CDFs

Set your goals and life plans around your Life Purpose and your CDFs (see # 8 on this list). A person who knows her life purpose is magnetic and influential. If you feel like nothing seems to be working for you anymore, often it’s because you’re not living from your purpose, so check where you are misaligned with it.

37. Get yourself an accountability & thought partner.

This is someone who both challenges you and cheers you on. How many people do you talk to on a consistent basis who, in mere minutes, help catapult you to create the best version of yourself? I have a couple of them. Every Monday for the past five years, I’ve gotten on the phone with my accountability & thought partner, Najeeb Khan, a serial entrepreneur from Toronto. We talk for 30 minutes and the intention is to help each other have a powerful week, move towards our goals and stay true to our respective life visions. The format is pretty simple but it’s our intention that makes all the difference: we’re committed to helping each other build our best life. This is one of my most valued and cherished friendships, and I recommend that you find one too!

38. Only spend time working on your ‘weaknesses’ when it’s necessary for fulfilling your mission and purpose.

Instead of spending so much time on overcoming your ‘weaknesses’, figure out where your genius lies, and then go become the best of the best at that thing. Leverage and magnify your strengths. By that same token, accept your weaknesses and be honest enough with yourself about what they are. Then, if you can, remove yourself from situations where you’re subjecting yourself and others to your weaknesses, so that you can focus instead on giving them your genius.

39. Be comfortable being with yourself, and by yourself.

This has been one of the greatest gifts my mother gave me as a child. When I was little, I was rather nerdy and precocious and spent entire afternoons perched up in a tree reading books while everyone else was playing. Needless to say, I was teased a lot and did not have many friends. Most days, I did not care much because I really loved reading and spending time by myself, since I’m more introverted by nature. On days when I would feel sad or lonely, my mom would say: “You’re never alone, Sylvana. You’ve always got yourself!”. Her words completely changed my perspective on what loneliness is and is not. Today, I can confidently say that I don’t seek out people simply to avoid feeling loneliness. I seek them out because I feel like we have something to offer each other. So my life is only filled with quality people, friends, and clients. I adore them all. It also means I’ve had some magical solo adventures because I’m always willing to go places by myself.

40. Practice telling the people in your life what you appreciate and cherish about them.

They’re not getting enough praise as it is (because no one is), so you may as well be the person who changes that. Be specific about what you love about them, what it is they do, and the impact it has (how it leaves you feeling or what it creates in the world). You’ll make their day. And you’ll feel so good, too.

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