The Twelve Biggest Lessons I Learnt in my 30’s

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You know I had hoped to be able to get to a pub for a pint on my 40th birthday this year, sadly that dream went out the window (a small hardship compared to so many that have been endured over the last year for sure) so I used the time to write a blog instead … really it’s funny how you can read so much (and even remember some of it if you’re lucky) – but really when you look back there’s just a handful of really big things that really changed how you think:

Stories matter more than anything, but be wary of them for that reason. I naively spent many years of my career thinking that numbers and analysis was king, only realised late on that all that really matters is stories. Stories persuade and influence like nothing else, we are all storytellers even if we haven’t realised it yet. But for that reason we should be especially on our guard as others deploy stories. My experience is the more charismatic the person the more they have realised the manipulative power that stories have and they will deploy them to their advantage – not necessarily a bad thing but you need to have your eyes open about this.

Personalities matter. Drivers, guardians, pioneers, integrators view the world fundamentally differently and this shapes all interactions with others and responses to challenge. There are some basic patterns that repeat again and again and it pays to be aware of these. People respond in predictable ways, YOU respond in predictable ways, learn these.

Related: all personalities have a dark-side. Over-use of personality strengths quickly become quite negative traits. Charisma becomes manipulative, confident becomes arrogant, shrewd becomes distrustful, independent becomes detached, and so on. Beneath it all our brains are built on the same animal / reptile fundamentals which often dictate how we react- get to know and manage your chimp.

We’re all playing a role. Personality can be context specific, and change through time and we take on (or get nudged into) different roles with different people at different times. Your school friends, uni mates, work colleagues, football team. We’re different in different scenarios – sometimes you’re the “quiet” one, sometimes the funny one, sometimes the silly one. These might also represent different versions of ourselves – the role we play when with old school friends is likely to remain “stuck” where we were at that point in your life. Old roles can be comforting but it’s a fine line between being entrenched in playing a certain role and being in a rut, and a difference that’s often only clear in hindsight. A fresh start can open up new and different roles, or let you “update” your role to where you’ve evolved to personally.

Changing peoples’ behaviour is really really hard. Your colleagues , customers , friends , yours , everything. Don’t make your most important projects dependent on changing peoples’ behavior, don’t burn yourself up on it, if it happens it’s great, but know the odds are always stacked against you. Accept it.

Groupthink and conformity drive far too much behavior. They are everywhere. We are wired to social confirmity – it’s what kept us alive for millenia on the savannah. Being thrown out of a group was literally death for our ancestors. So we do everything we can – without even knowing it – to preserve group harmony and often the status quo.

Bias is both real and hard to spot. The way we think, act, speak – so much of it is pre-determined by the configurations of our brains and the specific world we’ve been raised into. Lesson (1) is that this is true, lesson (2) is that it so much of it is beneath the surface and hard to recognise epecially in ourselves. Once you realise this, psychology becomes one of the most valuable fields to understand so much of what goes on.

Focus on the journey, not the destination. What a massive cliché this sounds like, but it’s true. I guess like many people my early adult life was spent focused on specific and achievable goals, mainly academically focused. Mapping this system across to professional life works for a bit, and gets you so far especially in a profession defined by exams , but you hit the limits. The targets become less and less clear, and the rewards don’t quite seem the same even when you hit them. You can easily get caught up in what starts to seem like an endless treadmill of goals. I realised that really you’ve got to learnt to enjoy the process, that’s what it’s about.

But – Make moments matter when they do come along. The further we get into professional life the easier it can be done to rush from one project into the next and we let the landscape of the experience become smoothed out. We all need some kind of little high points and we can turn them into something more with a bit of effort. lessons from Chip & Dan Heath’s book Moments has stayed with me on this point . Stay present.

Happiness = reality – expectations. The last part of this is vitally important here, often missed, and you can get a lot of mileage from it. The title of Dan Gilbert’s book – Stumbling on Happiness hints at this insight.

Dualities are a fact of life – few things are black and white, but inevitably our brains try and make them so. Normal people do good and bad things for bad and good reasons, the inverse is also true. Events rarely turn out exactly as we’d have liked them to – we can have both regrets and fantastic memories of the same event in our lives. The insight is don’t waste brain cycles trying to resolve all these apparent contradictions, it’s how it is. Take the positives and move on, don’t burn yourself up.

The End of History Illusion. I did some reading on this one and found it is so common it had it’s own name (there goes my idea of being special!). This is the idea that we all recognise that we’ve experienced significant personal growth and change up to that point in our lives, but won’t change going forward. We’re always just at the start, projecting a decade forward, you’ll be staggered how much you’ve changed, how the things you said, wrote and did today will seem naive or silly. That’s good, it’s progress. I’ll probably cringe reading this in 5 or 10 years, that’s as it should be.

Related point: we’re always at the beginning of the tech revolution. Look back and it’s amazing the progress over the last 10, or 20 years. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is somehow now going to stop and things are going to remain basically the same. We’re always at the start.

Everything’s a “people” issue. I used to be silly enough to think that numbers, calculations, rational arguments were what mattered. But no, everything comes down to people and psychology. Want to get a project off the ground? Persuade the boss and the committee. Want to make real progress: motivate and insprire your team. Want to solve a problem – understand how people are operating.

Quick fire round – lessons I’m still learning

your personal experience makes up 0.00001% of what’s ever happened but probably explains 80% of the way you see the world


Some key skills are vastly underrated

Never make powerpoints for internal presentations (2 page text memos rule)

Intensity makes a good story , consistency makes progress

Saying “yes” to things is a great strategy early in your career, less so the further into your career you get

Finding ways to say “no” nicely is a superpower

Mental models get you far (see: 80/20 rule, inversion)

Any of this resonate? Tweet me and let me know!

4 thoughts on “The Twelve Biggest Lessons I Learnt in my 30’s

  1. I agree on the internal Power Point thought. Far better and quicker just to write down what you want to say.

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