25 years 25 lessons

February 11, 1984–a day that will live in infamy… at least for me. It was the day I was born; a day that would change my life forever.

I don’t remember much about the day, or anything actually, but to be fair I didn’t even have a fully formed skull yet. Still, the day is perhaps the most important of my life (and perhaps my parents’ lives as well, depending on whether or not I’m their favorite…).

Since then, I’ve learned a lot.  A ton, even.  Yes, I’ve learned at least 2,000 pounds of knowledge (or 2240 if you’re in the UK) in my lifetime so far. And each new year has brought new challenges, new experiences, and new things to learn.

Below are some of those lessons I’ve learned, broken out by year, and in reference to a significant life event for that year.  Hopefully you’ll learn something from what I’ve learned. I know I have.

Lesson #1: No one has done it alone.

Birth (1984) – I’m going to have to say that the most significant event of 1984 for me was actually being born.  For the first time, I was outside of the womb, breathing my own air, and digesting my own food (sorta). I guess you could say that it was the beginning of my becoming an independent person.

That whole ordeal, from conception to birth, has taught me a great deal, but the most important thing being born has taught me is that no one has done it alone. No one is just spontaneously born, it takes at least two people to bring you into this world.  That doesn’t change after you’re born; every successful person has had help along the way, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Lesson #2: Extraordinary people do the ordinary extraordinarily.

Talking (1985) – The first word I ever coherently said came out when I was a year old, and ever since that day, I’ve been talking.  In fact I’ve probably spoken every day since then. I’ve given speeches to hundreds of people, orated for groups of ten, exchanged dialog with another person, and have talked to myself.

In all of that talking, I learned that while a majority of people can speak, not all of them do it well.  And among those that do it well, there are those whose speech evokes laughter, tears, or action–something an ordinary person can’t always achieve.  That’s because extraordinary people do the ordinary extraordinarily.

Lesson #3: Our own thoughts can become our own biggest enemy.

Ghostbusters (1986) – There were two movies I used to watch over and over again–the Goonies and Ghostbusters. Both involved incredible adventures, great lines, and started with the letter ‘G.’  And while The Goonies is memorable, Ghostbusters is more of a classic for all ages, filled with messages that stand the test of time (or at least 20+ years).

The message that sticks out most to me is that our own thoughts can become our own biggest enemy. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was created from the thoughts of Ray Stantz and was more than just a giant marshmallow of destruction.  He was also the physical manifestation of the fact that often our own self-doubts are the biggest critic and barrier to success.

Lesson #4: You can say a lot with humor.

The Berenstain Bears (1987) – I picked up my love for reading from my mom who used to read a variety of books to us kids.  One of my favorite collections was the Berenstain Bears, with their interesting and usually informational stories.

It was perhaps these wee little bears that first taught me you can say a lot with humor. The Berenstain Bears may be cartoon bears, but they have still passed down a lot of wisdom in their books, shows, and games.  Just because it’s not written in a serious tone, doesn’t mean it’s not a seriously message, ain’t that right Papa Bear?

Lesson #5: Sometimes learning means un-learning.

Speech Therapy (1988) – When I began speaking regularly, my Mom and brother could understand me perfectly.  The problem was that no one else really could–my brother and I had developed our own pseudo-language: Tarvinga.  The subsequent therapizing of my speech taught me more than just how to say “crayon” correctly (note it isn’t “crown”).

Speech therapy helped me realize that sometimes learning means un-learning. To start talking normally, I had to unlearn some of my bad habits I had picked up.  Sometimes that’s what it takes to get to the next level, to let go of what you’ve learned in the past so that the lessons of the future can actually sink in.

Lesson #6: Knowledge is personal.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989) – As a kid, I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I always thought of myself as the Leonardo of my friends, though they would probably tell you I was more like Donatello.  The TMNT toys were my favorite action figures for a long time. I still remember how angry I was when I found out my older brother had drawn all over my Leonardo figure using a Sharpie. I also remember the shame I felt when I got caught “borrowing” an unmarkered version of the toy from a friend… Clearly those toys meant a lot to me.

One of the things I learned from those toys was that knowledge is personal. If you asked someone born in the 50’s what they thought of when they heard the names Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael, they’d probably say painters. Ask someone who grew up in the 90’s, and they’ll say anthropromorphized turtles that eat pizza.

Lesson #7: No one bats 1.000.

Cincinnati Reds (1990) – Growing up as a sports fan in Cincinnati isn’t easy. Since my birth in 1984, the professional teams in Cincinnati (the Bengals in the NFL and the Reds in MLB), have gone 2230-2339-5 or .488, with only one national championship.  That championship came in 1990, when the Reds beat the Oakland A’s in 4 straight games to win the World Series.

I realized while watching the Reds go wire-to-wire that no one bats 1.000. Ty Cobb holds the highest career batting average in Major League Baseball, with a .366 average.   The mean (as in average, not as in angry) batting average in the league is around .260.  That means people who are considered that best at their game successfully hit around 1/4th of the time.  No one never fails; it’s the people who keep getting up to bat who succeed.

Lesson #8: The majority of your education takes place outside of the classroom.

First Grade (1991) – My first venture into schooling (kindergarten doesn’t count) primed me for the remaining 15 years of my formal education.  Along with the normal first grade lesson plan, I also learned a few things about life.

Number one was that the majority of your education takes place outside of the classroom. The majority of what I learned in the first grade wasn’t from my teachers, but from the other kids in the class.  They influenced me more than what my textbook said, and made me realize that those around us can be the catalyst to our success or our failure.

Lesson #9: Good friendships are worth the effort.

Moving (1992) – The first time I moved with my family was in 1990, but I was only in kindergarten at the time and was relatively unaffected. We moved again 2 years later and it was a much bigger ordeal, with much bigger lessons attached.

Each move I’ve made since then has only re-affirmed what I learned: good friendships are worth the effort. Some people tend to be “out of sight, out of mind.”  The truly good friends  are worth the additional effort of staying in touch with, even if it means taking the time to give them a call (or at least write on their Facebook wall).

Lesson #10: Simple can be beautiful.

The Far Side (1993) – Gary Larson is one of my favorite “creators” (lumping together artists, actors, writers, etc) of all time.  His single-paned cartoon strip has had a huge influence on my style of comedy and outlook on life.  In addition to all that humor The Far Side brought, it also threw in some important life lessons.

Aside from some of the great lessons individual cartoons have taught me (no matter how smart you are, sometimes you try to pull a door you should push), his entire series taught me that simple can be beautiful. Larson didn’t need an entire page to make a joke; he could use a single paned cartoon with just a picture and a few words to say everything he needed.

Lesson #11: Success comes from challenging yourself.

Handwriting (1994) – Fourth grade is the first grade of schooling that I remember well. I don’t remember it because it was my first year in middle school, or because I turned 10 that year, or even because it was the first year I had a “girlfriend” (I’m not sure you can really have a girlfriend in the fourth grade, but that’s what we called the 2-week relationship).

The reason I remember it is because I missed being placed in the “advanced” classes by a single point on a reading test.  Because of the slower pace, I often finished my assignments early, so I filled my time learning to write with both hands.  Instead of being satisfied with good grades in the class and goofing off, I spent my idle time pushing myself to become ambidextrous, setting my own standard of accomplishment.  Being able to write with both hands hasn’t made me successful, but learning to always challenge myself has.

Lesson #12: You have to learn how to learn.

Report Cards (1995) – I got the lowest grade I ever received on a Report Card the first quarter of the Fifth Grade–it was D- in spelling. Prior to that point, the lowest grade I had ever received was an A-.  After that quarter, I got my act together, graduating 4th in my class with a GPA of over 4.0, and earning a scholarship to The Ohio State University. And yet, that Report Card with the D- will be the one I always remember.

The traumatic experience Spelling gave me (and it was traumatic to me at the time), taught me the importance of learning how to learn. Education isn’t about learning specific details, such as how to spell the 100 words your teacher deems important.  Education is about learning how to learn, since it’s something we never stop doing.

Lesson #13: You remember how you felt.

Acting (1996) – The only play I’ve ever been in was when I was 12 years old when one of our 6th grade class projects was to write, produce and direct a play from scratch.  I was one of the actors, that experience, plus the acting I’ve done since, has taught me a few things that the art can teach us.

The biggest lesson has been about the importance of emotions.  One of the struggles I have with acting is showing emotion (we’ll leave the psychology as to why that is for another post), but emotions are so important because we remember how we felt–that’s what memories are. People don’t want to watch two people just talking back and forth.  There has to be emotion and meaning.  All of our memories are emotions that we had about a certain event, and acting reminds us that that’s what’s most important.

Lesson #14: Our own lives are more important than fictional ones.

No TV (1997) – By the time I entered the educational system, my mom had concluded that TV was the reason my oldest brother was a “C” student.  As a result, from Monday – Thursday, we weren’t allowed to watch TV or play videogames (the lone exception was Macguyver (I guess my Mom thought we could learn something from him)).

When you have that much free time growing up, and no preprogramming to fill it, you learn a thing or two.  You also learn that our own lives are more important (and luckily more interesting) than those on the small or big screen. While others talked about the adventures of Pete & Pete, I talked about the adventures my brothers and I had.

Lesson #15: You perform better when you’re relaxed.

Golf (1998) – During the 7th and 8th Grade, I played on the Princeton Junior High School Golf team–I know, Mr. Cool.  (Don’t worry, I got even cooler when I was on the Varsity Bowling team in high school.)  And while I’ve never been amazing at golf, I have always enjoyed it.  There’s more to the game than just trying to hit a tiny ball into a hole in a green, and a lot of it applies to more than just golf.

For me, the key to a better game was to not try too hard. It was tough for me to learn that by actually slowing down my swing and not trying so hard, I was able to hit the ball farther and straighter.  Sometimes we get too tense and don’t allow our natural abilities to take over and deliver results. Take a deep breath, relax, and get out of the way of your own success.

Lesson #16: The sky is the limit.

Rap Music (1999) – When my Mom first found out I was listening to rap music, she was not happy.  Her assumption was that all rap music was about sex, drugs, and money.  And while a lot of it is, there are some artists out there that use their wordsmithing abilities to teach us a thing or two.

Take Notorious BIG’s “The Sky is the Limit.”  Biggie raps that the sky is the limit to what we can achieve and if we keep pressing on we can achieve our dreams, whether they be to open up a pet shop or become a hip-hop superstar.

Lesson #17: What you do has an affect on other people.

Driver’s License (2000) – In 2000, I took the next step to my growing independence–I got my driver’s license.  No longer was I limited to places to where I could walk or my parents could drive me; I was now in control of my own destiny (or at least my own Ford Ranger).  But learning to drive is more than just learning how to parallel park.

For example, learning to drive means learning that your actions affect others. Giving someone the keys to a car is giving them a lot of responsibility: one misstep or wrong turn can cost someone their life, and even if it isn’t yours, it will change it forever.  We don’t operate in bubbles, our actions in life have an impact on other people; the question is if that’s impact is good or bad.

Lesson #18: Brains are rewarded over brawn.

Factory Work (2001) – My Mom works as an HR director for a small manufacturing company, which was great when I needed a job, but not so great when she needed workers.  Between my Junior and Senior year, I spent an entire summer working in a factory loading and unloading heavy shower doors in a warehouse and the education I received there was worth far more than $6.75 per hour.

Doing physical labor in the heat made it crystal clear that brains were rewarded over brawn. I have yet to work as hard as I did that one summer out in the factory: the day started at 6am, I had only an hour break all day, and I was moving over 500 lbs a day.  But that’s not rewarded in our society; right or wrong, being the one that can manage, sell and strategize earns more money (and has more responsibility) at a company than someone that can pick something up.

Lesson #19: Being an adult has nothing to do with age.

Senior Year (2002) – Senior year is the pinnacle of your high school career.  You’re finally a Senior–you’re in control of the school, you’ve gotten the education thing figured out, and it’s a year-long celebration of becoming an adult.  It’s also full of lessons that will stick with you for the rest of your life.

My senior year helped me realize that being an adult has nothing to do with age. When you turn 18, you’re “officially” an adult, but everyone knows that being an adult has nothing to do with how old you are, but in how you behave.  In many ways, I’ve been an adult since I was 14; in other ways, I’ll never really be one (because I’ll always love my peanut butter & jelly).

Lesson #20: Sometimes you need to rest.

Halo (2003) – Although I graduated with a degree in Computer Science and Engineering, my major my freshman year of college was Halo.  I played it non-stop.  In addition to getting really good at it, I learned that there are a lot of valuable lessons that can be learned from Master Chief and playing Capture the Flag until 4 o’ clock in the morning.

Playing Halo taught me that sometimes you need to rest. I don’t mean from the game (which obviously you do), I mean in the game (because of the advanced armor technology in the Halo world, you could live a lot longer by letting your shields re-charge after being hit).  Life is the same way–if you take the time to rest and re-energize, you have a much better chance of staying alive and getting ahead.

Lesson #21: It’s better to teach than to command.

Resident Advisor (2004) – My sophomore year was also my first year as an RA.  At the age of 21, I was responsible for helping 23 freshmen students navigate their way around one of the largest colleges in the country, all while still trying to figure it out myself.

My experience in those residence halls taught me a lot, but nothing has stuck with me as much as what I learned from my assistant hall director: It’s better to teach than to command.

My Assistant Hall Director was both awesome and super annoying.  Whenever I had a problem, I would talk to her about it.  Rather than tell me what to do, or even give me advice, she’d ask me questions that would trick me into solving my own problems.  It wasn’t always the most efficient way, but it definitely taught me a lot more than if she had just told me what to do.

Lesson #22: Treat other people like geniuses and they will be.

Improv (2005) – I can say, with no exaggeration, improv has profoundly changed my life.  What started as a fun thing to do in the basement of a residence hall has completely changed how I approach everything from the way I work to what I do on the weekends.  The rules that make improv work are the same ones that can make life better.

It’s hard to pick only one thing that improv has taught me (it was the inspiration for Humor That Works after all), but if I had to pick, it would be to treat other people like geniuses. When you treat other people like geniuses, you’ll often find that they are. Too often we look at what mistakes people have made instead of seeing what they’ve done correctly. When you look for the positives and build on successes, your team (or family) can achieve far better success both as individuals and as a group.

Lesson #23: Things don’t always go as planned.

College Graduation (2006) – The day you move the tassel to the other side of your college graduation cap marks your entry into the “real world.”  Your job is no longer to get good grades or get a diploma, it’s to start living a life devoid of some pre-defined mark of achievement.  Most people know they’re going to go to college but what you do after that is all up to you.

Graduating from college taught me that things don’t always go as planned. If everything worked out as planned, people would use what they learned from their major on a daily basis.  But the reality is that few people end up doing what their degrees actually suggest they will.  I know former engineers who are now writers, psyche majors who are actors and microbiologists who are program testers.  While you should definitely make plans, it’s important to be able to deviate from them and take advantage of opportunities as they come to you.

Lesson #24: The gift of laughter is one of the best gifts you can give.

Stand-up Comedy (2007) – Standing on stage making a room full of strangers laugh isn’t easy, but it’s amazingly rewarding.  Performing stand-up comedy has become a passion of mine that is both selfish and selfless at the same time.

The things a comedian learns are valuable for everyone to know, especially how important it is to give the gift of laughter. As simple as it sounds, making someone laugh is a great gift to give because with laughter comes joy, stress-relief, muscle relaxation, better health and a temporary break from the crazy world around us.

Lesson #25: You have to make your own luck.

New York (2008) – I’ve only ever lived in 3 areas my whole life–Cincinnati, Columbus, and New York City. The first two are 90 miles from each other and both in Ohio; the third is, as they say, the capital of the world.  Moving to the city that never sleeps has taught me a lot of things. And regardless of where I end up, my time here will always have a lasting influence on me.

The biggest lesson this concrete jungle has taught me is that you have to make your own luck. Even in New York, people aren’t just plucked from a coffee shop and made famous.  The people who make it are the ones who make their own luck by developing their own skills, projects, and luck.


25 Years (2009) – In 25 years, I’ve learned quite a bit.  From being born to dealing with report cards to living in New York, life has provided quite an education. And if I can give one tip that all of the above lessons have made me realize, it’s this:

Never stop learning.

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