In honor of my 40th birthday, I’m doing a series of posts highlighting valuable lessons I’ve learned in my time on this planet.

My mom used to have a sign on the refrigerator that said something like “Hey teenagers! Go ahead and move out of the house while you still know everything!” As much as I hate to admit it, my life pretty much reflected the message of that sign for the first 20 or 30 years of my life.

I thought I knew everything.

I was at a wedding the other day, and was so impressed at how mature the young newlyweds were. Someone remarked that I was mature at that age, to which I replied, “Not a bit. When I was that age I thought I still knew everything.”

My “knowing everything” was, as are most personality flaws, a defense mechanism I had carefully constructed. I suppose I thought the way the world worked was you projected an inflated version of yourself so that everyone else would think of you as worthy of existing. I wasn’t good at sports, so instead my competitive drive was expressed in the area of intellect. I bet if you look at your own life, you have at some point lived your own version of this. Maybe your method was through humor or power or popularity. However it shows up it’s basically the same thing. And it’s a lie.

There’s a common saying that people throw around in different forms. It goes something along the lines of “Act as if you are already the person you want to be.” I guess there’s some merit to that advice – sometimes you genuinely don’t know the right path so you “fake it til you make it”. I get it. But that approach assumes that you already know the true nature of that person you are trying to act like (And you know what you get for assuming!). This mentality usually starts with a stereotype and goes downhill from there.

  • Artists are self-absorbed, so I guess I should be self-absorbed.
  • Business people are self-important, so I need to be self-important.
  • Musicians are competitive, so I’d better be competitive.

(On a side note, notice how all of these statements involve “should”, “need”, and “I’d better”. A sure sign that you’re operating from the wrong motivation.)

All of those approaches are so wrong on so many levels. And that was exactly the approach I took to the first phase of my life. Several things happened to teach me otherwise:

  • Getting married and learning to let go of my own selfish goals and becoming part of something bigger than just me.
  • Being in a band with other guys who can, and regularly do, call my bluff.
  • Having kids and learning to place the needs of someone else over my own.
  • Being in many, many, life situations where my carefully crafted exterior self failed me miserably.

OK, so if acting like you know everything isn’t the answer, then what is?

Listening and learning.

Listening sounds like such a simple and obvious answer, but how often do we do it? When are we truly listening, and when are we just smiling and nodding and waiting our turn to talk? When you truly listen, you are taking the focus off yourself and placing it on somebody else. It places you in a servant mindset, and hopefully makes the other person feel important in the process. And you will be surprised at how much you learn in the process, and (gasp!) how much you don’t know.

Learning is a mentality that is tough to get into in daily interactions with people. We are so wired to share our opinions with others that at first it can require a sheer force of will to listen to the opinions of somebody else. But when you are able to let get out of your own way and listen to people, you will be surprised at how much you can learn. Even if you disagree with their opinion, you might be able to better learn where they are coming from.

Once you get into this way of thinking, it will be as if a huge weight has been taken off of you. The heavy burden you’ve been carrying around will be lifted, a burden that you basically placed on yourself. Without this extra baggage, every interaction you have with another person will be an exciting opportunity to learn.

You will begin to live life with a sense of wonder.

One last thing on the topic of wonder: while it has been a decade or so since I gave up trying to know everything, this dragon has reared its head in another way. Maybe it’s because I’m the son of a librarian who used to work at a library myself, but I still feel an insatiable need to look up the answer to everything. This wasn’t so bad in the dial up days, when I would make a list of things to look up when I was at my computer. But nowadays I literally have a computer in my pocket, and can look up anything, anywhere, anytime.

I came across a phrase, on Facebook of all places, that has become a mantra of sorts in these kinds of situations. Wonder without Googling. I still look stuff up quite a bit, but hopefully I’m getting better. Hopefully I’m learning a little more every day.

Because I don’t know everything.