About a month ago, Campbell Walker (aka Struthless), put out a video entitled 32 Ways to be Better at Life in honor of his 32nd birthday.
In the video, Cam explained how he had heard Kevin Kelly on a podcast talking about 68 Ways to be Better at Life—a list that Kevin had put together in honor of his 68th birthday.
Both Kevin and Cam created a list of very specific advice about living well. (Think “Don’t draw to an inside straight” rather than “Work smarter, not harder.”)
As a list aficionado and birthday haver, I was intrigued. What would my list of extraordinarily specific life advice look like?
Well, you’re in luck, dear reader! Not only am I a birthday haver, but it’s actually my 44th birthday this month.
So, I’m going to lay down the 44 best pieces of very specific advice I have learned in my 44 trips around the sun.
1. As long as you’re naked, you might as well say hi.
I can’t claim credit for this piece of wisdom, which I learned from a friend down the hall when I was a freshman in college. This friend was very surprised late one evening when her roommate’s boyfriend burst into the dorm room without knocking. His timing was propitious, as he managed to catch my friend in the moment just after she had hung up her towel and just before she had donned her pajamas.
My friend, who is a stone-cold badass, refused to feel embarrassed about her state of undress. She had nothing to be embarrassed about, since the non-knocking non-resident of the room was the one clearly in the wrong. So she greeted the very flustered boy who was looking anywhere but at her with a resounding, “HI.” (She followed it up with, “Next time let’s knock, okay?”)
2. If your butter is too cold to spread on the toast, put it in between the two toasted slices of bread and upend a bowl over top.
The trapped heat of the toast will melt the butter enough to make it spreadable in about 30 to 45 seconds.
3. If you need to get up-to-speed quickly on a complex topic, read a children’s book about it.
This is another one I learned from a friend. The late, great Kathy Mayer who was my freelance writing mentor told me she used to do this when she had to interview someone about a topic she was unfamiliar with.
4. If you think you want a tattoo, wait a year.
And if your inner Veruca Salt stomps her foot and says, “I don’t wanna wait a year!” double down on the need to wait.
Trust me on this one.
5. Consistent > ideal.
Half-assing something every single day will always, always, always win out over whole-assing it once in a while.
6. There isn’t much that needs your whole ass.
A commenter on Carolyn Hax’s weekly chat said the most wondrous thing about knowing how much of yourself you need to apply to any given situation. “Think there is very very little that's worthy of my applying my whole entire ass. I'm not interested in burning myself by whole-assing stuff that will be fine if I half- or quarter-ass it. Being able to achieve maximum economy of ass is an important adult skill. God knows there's no shortage of women out there wearing themselves to nubs because they feel like they can't half-ass ANYTHING.”
7. If you decide to go by three names with no hyphen—like an assassin or Ruth Bader Ginsburg—you will NEVER know for sure which of your last names you are filed under.
Expect to direct them to look under G and then B and then spell both last names and then look over their shoulder to help…
Your future self has enough on their plate. Take the decision of when to save money or pay bills off your future self’s to-do list.
9. You never regret going for a walk.
I have gone for runs, bike rides, hot yoga classes, and other strenuous exercises that made me rethink all of my life choices to that point. A walk has never once done that to me. Not even in subzero Wisconsin temperatures.
10. Take your dad to a movie on Father’s Day.
You can be together without talking if you’re at a stage when talking to each other is tough. And it’s a lovely tradition that adds meaning to the movies you see. I will always have a special place in my heart for City Slickers and Despicable Me because they were movies I saw with my dad on Father’s Day.
11. When someone offers you specific help, ACCEPT IT!
My mom got sick in 2012 and had to be hospitalized. I lived in Indiana and Mom lived in my hometown of Baltimore. My eldest was 18 months old and could not come to the hospital with me—and I couldn’t travel to Baltimore without him. My best friend Erika offered to take the train from Connecticut to Baltimore to stay with me and look after my son when I went to the hospital. She’d come with her youngest, who was a year old at the time, and the boys could play together.
I nearly told her no. It seemed like such a huge favor to ask of someone. It took me longer than I care to admit to realize I hadn’t asked her. She offered. The days we spent together were a bright spot in a tough time.
12. It’s okay to get rid of that box of cables and cords.
Ditto the boxes all your electronics came in.
13. Walk away from any “opportunity” that is urgent.
At the tail end of my college career, I applied for a job in Columbus, Ohio that had something to do with sales, I think. I’m not entirely sure because the whole setup was weird as hell. The person who interviewed me had a cluttered office in one of those industrial parks sprinkled all over the outskirts of midwestern cities. I just remember that his office was covered in boxes and papers, the walls had the kind of fake wood paneling that looks like it belongs in a basement rec room, and there was a baseball trophy prominently displayed.
The interview went well, I guess, and I was invited to come back two days later for a ride along with a rep so I could get an idea of the business. I still had no idea what the business actually was.
I dutifully came back and mentioned to the interviewer and the rep that I was graduating in a week and a half and would be unable to start for at least two weeks. Both the interviewer and the rep told me I couldn’t go on the ride along because they couldn’t wait two weeks to start a new candidate.
I am beyond relieved that I didn’t get in the car for that ride along or whatever it was. It was clear to me that no legitimate job would be unable to wait a couple of weeks for the right candidate. And I still don’t know what I was expected to do.
14. A hot shower, fresh clothes, and a warm meal may not fix anything, but you’ll feel better.
15. Sing Happy Birthday to yourself while you wash your hands to make sure you scrub long enough.
(Please note—I have been doing this since long before Covid made it cool.)
I like that I can feel celebratory every time I wash my hands. And doing this helps ensure you get as many actual birthdays as possible.
16. Let people underestimate you.
Someone else’s opinion of you is not your problem. And I learned from watching Rose on Golden Girls that there’s power and satisfaction in being underestimated. She was both hilarious and effective at leaning into people’s assumptions and subverting them when it suited her.
Busting out something sweetly scathing after someone has decided what or who I am has been my MO for anytime I have been patronized.
Betty White taught me that it was okay if people thought little of me because it didn't matter—and when it did, I could respond with surgical precision and maximum surprise.
17. Celebrate negative milestones.
When we got our first scathing review of Stacked, my husband got a giant cookie and wrote “You Suck” on it to celebrate. (We did something similar the first time the words “I hate you” were bandied about by one of our kids.)
These moments may not feel good, but they represent something good. A bad review means I have a book out that people are reading. Your child hurting your feelings means they are growing up and trying out their independence from you. Celebrate it to show your pride and love.
18. Use the word delighted.
Especially when accepting invitations.
19. When you see a fussy baby out in public, catch the little one’s eye and salute them.
You can see their little minds whirring as they try to figure out what the heck you just did. I learned this one from my friend Donna Freedman.
20. When you go to your sweetheart’s parents’ house for the first time, ask to see old photos of your beloved.
It will charm the parents, give you some fun insight into your paramour, and smooth over the awkward attempts to find something to talk about.
21. What works now won’t work forever.
Be ready to change your routine, moisturizer, parenting philosophy, operating system, or route to work.
22. If you don’t know how to handle someone making an offensive joke or comment in front of you, act confused.
It forces them to explain it to you, which means they have to confront exactly what they are saying. This is a great non-confrontational way to push back on awfulness.
23. If you ever have to interview someone, end the conversation by asking “What do you wish I had asked you about?”
There are any number of issues, problems, peeves, misconceptions, etc., that are common in an industry that it’s impossible for someone outside the industry to know about.
24. Don’t give money to anyone soliciting door-to-door.
They know where you live.
25. Never wake a sleeping baby or cat that is using you for a pillow.
26. Try to be the parent you want your kids to remember.
You never know what will stick in their little minds.
27. Someone out there thinks your life is exotic.
When I was kid, I could remember seeing a television spot about a kid my own age who lived in the Pacific Northwest. It blew my mind to think of what “normal” life would look like for anyone who didn’t live in suburban Baltimore, MD. No steamed crabs. No Orioles games. No long-lasting state-wide grudge against Mayflower trucking.
When I realized that other kids might feel the same way about me, it suddenly occurred to me that the things I find ordinary or even boring might be bizarre, fascinating, or exotic to someone in a completely different situation.
28. When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!
29. Whatever you joke about is what will happen in your life.
I made jokes about moving to Columbus, and years later I moved to Columbus.
I made jokes about working at a bookstore, and months later I started my four-year stint at Barnes & Noble.
I long claimed that Indiana didn’t really exist, and 10 years later I moved to Lafayette and had two kids who will forever have Indiana birth certificates.
Yeah… Be careful what you joke about.
30. Use O’Keeffe’s Working Hands lotion on your hands and feet.
31. Most people just want to feel heard. You can defuse a lot of contentious situations simply by listening whole-heartedly.
32. Happiness isn’t sustainable, and neither is misery—but misery is much easier to prolong.
Cultivate contentment and do what you can to reduce misery.
33. The meaning is in the doing, not in the accomplishing.
34. There is something good in every day.
35. Don’t assume you know why someone is doing something.
36. Getting lost builds confidence.
I lived in Paris for 6 months when I was 21 years old. My first weekend there, I went for a walk and got hopelessly lost. I walked for probably 2 hours. I ended up near an estate agent that had a large map posted in its window to show where there were properties for sale. I studied the map to figure out the way back to my host family’s apartment.
I was tired, my feet hurt and were getting blistered, and I had been anxious when I realized I didn’t have any idea how to get home. But after that day, I never worried about getting lost again.
37. If you wouldn’t pay full price for a thing, don’t buy it when it goes on sale.
38. You’re going to look stupid sometimes. Better to embrace it and ask the question you need the answer to.
39. Learning a language and learning to be friendly are very similar.
When I lived in France, I would practice potential conversations in my head before going to the post office, the salon, the grocery store, the laundromat. I’d imaging these conversations like dance steps to practice on my own so I was ready to use them once I had a conversational partner.
When I decided to cultivate friendliness, I went through a similar process. I imagined how I’d start conversations, what questions I would ask others, how I could help put a shy person at ease. And like my French practice, I thought of those building blocks like steps in a dance that create a conversation that feels welcoming.
40. Trying to feel optimistic and hopeful is more responsible than embracing pessimism and dread.
41. Magazines are aspirational.
I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to learn this, but the beautiful homes and rooms and outfits and careers and bodies featured in the pages of a magazine (or online these days) are not what your life is *supposed* to look like. I always thought I was failing at adulthood because none of my stuff looked like that. Once I realized these spreads were intended as something for the reader to aspire to, I felt a lot more satisfied with my own home, clothes, career, body, and life.
42. If you think something nice about someone, tell them.
43. Throw yourself a unicorn-and-rainbow themed birthday party as an adult.
Or Batman or professional wrestling or Studio Ghibli or whatever theme the kid version of yourself would love. You’re never too old for the things that make you happy.
44. You’re going to screw up. And that’s okay.
Accept that it’s going to happen and you can respond to criticism or corrections with curiosity and gratitude.
What pieces of advice would you add?