36.

Saturday was my 36th birthday. The hardest question I faced was “is this where you saw yourself at 36,” to which I could say no, but the truth is I never saw myself at 36. It’s not some milestone year that I had a life plan for. What I increasingly am realizing though is that I’ve reached a bit of a lull in life where I don’t really have much of a plan for anything. That is a scary realization on some level, but also a liberating one on another.

My life plan coming out of high school was to graduate college, go to law school, and then make money. I totally abandoned that in college, and by the end of school my plan was to go to Iowa or New Hampshire and work on the 2008 Presidential campaign. I did that, and kind of became the dog that catches the car- now what? I had planned to leave political campaigns after 2016 and get a “big boy job” in Washington, but then the election happened and kind of took that option away. Fast forward to 2019 and I’m realizing that I never really re-calibrated my goals, and maybe I should. I’m no longer young enough to simply say “tomorrow.” I still kind of am though.

I’ve come to realize that while I have an impressive resume and body of experience, I’m in a much tougher world today. I’ve advanced beyond the career point where I can just interview for any old position I want. In stepping up into a more advanced job market, I’m competing with better applicants. I’m also competing in a job market that values diversity considerably more than just experience (not a bad thing). I don’t provide anything for diversity (there’s a bunch of even older, experienced white, straight guys already there). I’m facing some challenges right now. They’re not likely to get easier in the near future.

I’m also just starting to face Father Time. No, I’m not facing death soon (I don’t think?), in fact I feel better than I have in 18 years at the gym. But time is starting to matter to my future plans. If I ever plan on going into the government and working towards a pension and other retirement benefits, I have a couple of years to figure that out in order to work until I’m 65. If I want a family life, I probably need to get serious about that soon. I’ve started saving some money in anticipation of “grown up life,” but not much. I’m not one to be anxious about life, but time is beginning to be something of the essence. Being rich is not an important value to me, but dying under a bridge with nothing is something I want to avoid.

All of this leads me to an anxious point in my existence. You start wondering “is this what I want?” You know what, to be honest, I’m not sure. My current life is fine, but is it leading me towards future wants? Do I value being happy now over happy later? Do the challenges I face now lead me to change the values I’ve always held? You start questioning your bedrock values of who you are, and if you don’t address that, it leads to a dark place.

So with that, I’ve done thinking about my core values, as I want them to be. In considering them, I’ve come up with a few thoughts:

  1. Stand up for those who need it. In disputes between those with power and those without, do everything you can to side with the disadvantaged. Sure, there have to be laws that protect insurance companies, or a police officer deserves a fair investigation after shooting someone, and we have to have laws about immigration. Even with all of that, remember far too often that the rules are written by those in power, and the people out of power will be the victims far more often than those in power are.
  2. Be skeptical of power. Yes, we need order and laws. Yes, we need standards. Don’t assume that all of these standards are set with the best of intentions for everybody. Too often, they are not. They are written to advantage those in power, and help them maintain their power. Poor people don’t have lobbyists. The disadvantaged often do not have a seat at the table. Don’t assume anyone is looking out for them. My advisor in college tried to instill in students a natural skepticism towards the status quo. I feel like I’ve somewhat lost sight of this. It’s great to understand how things work. It’s important though to…
  3. Don’t accept things as they are. Just because things “work that way” doesn’t mean they have to. Indeed, almost every major change in human history came as a result of someone finding a better way to do things. Progress requires at least some level of questioning the existing norms accepted facts, a vision of improvement. This doesn’t mean all progress is good, or that change is always a necessity, but you should be open to it.
  4. Tell the truth, good or not. Not all truths are good. Some hurt. Some will cause pain in life. Don’t use that as an excuse to lie. As we are seeing in our world today, every lie helps those who would like to see an erosion of facts. They’re dangerous. The temporary pain of the truth may cause you embarrassment or loss, but it will allow you to fight another day. It also allows others to understand who and what you are, on a real level. That can go a long way.
  5. Be liberal with disagreement, but be frugal with making enemies. In politics, your friends today can be your adversary tomorrow, but the inverse can be true. No two people see everything alike, and you should expect to not see eye-to-eye on every question. Don’t scorch the Earth with people whom you see mostly eye-to-eye, or even just respect. They could be a valuable ally in the future. Certainly don’t make an enemy over anything you’re not absolutely passionate about. It can burn you later.
  6. Be careful with whom you align, and never become drunk off the praise of others. You may agree with me on something today. You may praise me and call me a friend today. I may love hearing how great I am. That doesn’t mean I want you as an ally. That doesn’t mean I want us to be associated. That doesn’t mean I should allow that to go to my head. All the praise in the world isn’t worth guilt by association. You can’t buy back the world’s perception from one mistake.
  7. See other perspectives. You’re always right in your view. That doesn’t make it so to others. Allow yourself to try and see their side. Try and be decent to them. Realize they may be wrong to you, but that doesn’t mean they entirely are.
  8. Understand that others may rather be happy than right. And that’s ok. We all only live once, forcing others to be unhappy in the name of being correct on everything will usually result in problems and backlash later. There are times to push people to change. There’s also times to let them be. Don’t treat every situation as “one size fits all.” That’s not life.
  9. Don’t chase money or power, or you’ll get neither. Life will always go up and down, no matter how hard you try to stop it. If you chase the highs of material things, you’ll never quite get there. Don’t worry about the opinions of others. Don’t worry about how important you appear to others. You can’t control that. If you’ve got a lot, don’t flaunt it. There’s nobody the rest of the world hates more than those flaunting it. When you go down, it will be harder. You will have a down.
  10. Live by your values. Seems simple enough, right? Be who your dog thinks you are.

Almost inevitably, I will fall short of living up to these values in the future. I will make mistakes and lose sight of them from time-to-time. I’ll try my best though. It’s all I can hold onto.

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