The best things in life are not things

Written for Quora: What is the best thing in life?

There are tons of “I wish I knew when I was younger” articles on the internet teaching young people about the life lessons of elders. Understanding that the best things in life are not things is one of them.

Talking to many people that are much older and experienced than me gave me the idea of what really matters at the end of life. Everyone says the same — the most important thing in life is

People.

We will not remember the material things that we filled up our lives with.

We will judge about the quality of our lives by the quality and depth of our relationships.

I love Quora because there are so many things a person can learn about life from those who lived it up to the finish line. I love Quora for accomplishing where many startups failed — bringing people back to reading.

This summer I will turn 30. I followed the question “What do you wish you knew in your 30’s?” on Quora and I learned a lot.

Here is the answer I fell in love with:

I’m 76. My high school and college classmates are dropping like flies. My time is coming fairly soon. I’ve had a varied and active life from stealing food from hotel corridors to survive to owning 4 successful companies and retiring at 49 to backpack the world with my kids.
35 was my best year. I was young enough to do it all and smart enough to see the traps ahead of me. One thing I wish I knew back then, not just philosophically, but at the basic level of my soul:
It doesn’t matter. Nothing really matters.
There is no point to all of the pain, stress, arguments, hassles, and the rest. I can buy a Lambo for cash and have my clothes custom-made, but I drive a 2,000 Toyota 4Runner with 242,000 miles on it, my pants are almost as old as my sons, I wear shoes I bought in 1999 that still have miles on them, my favorite food is spaghetti, and I tossed my smartphone six years ago. It drives my sons nuts. They want my wife to buy me a new Toyota Sequoia, a smartphone, and something other than the $9 tee shirts I get off Amazon.
But I learned something years ago, long after my 30s: It doesn’t matter. None of that stuff made me happy. It gave me pleasure, but pleasure fades and the darkness falls unless you are happy at your core. I am. So, I’d have liked to know not to take life so seriously. It cost me my first marriage and bad relationships all over the place because I tried to grind my way up the “ladder of success”. And it didn’t mean a thing.
~ M.B.

Thank you M.B. Every time I need a reminder I come back in my thoughts to this answer. Whenever I am in the middle of the hardship, face some challenges or simply contemplating about my life I ask myself:

Does it matter? Will it matter a year from now? 3 years? 10?

And the answers that I find usually dissipate the matter of my doubts. I understood too late what are the best and the most important things in life.

Decluttering.

I recently moved out to the new apartment and the number of possessions struck me. I formulated something that I would call a law of filling:

It doesn’t matter how big your home is, after some time it will be full of stuff.

Recently, I made a decision to get rid of the things that fill up my life. I decided that I will throw out everything and will buy nothing that doesn’t contribute value to my life. I started a decluttering challenge and I can say that 10 days in I feel so much better.

Every object, every possession has an information structure on it and constantly drains the attention of the owner. Decluttering is like a sip of fresh air. It saves your energy.

I learned that the physics of life is same as basic physics — in order to let something beautiful into your life you should first make some space.

Our parents.

The time flies. They don’t get any younger. I am angry at myself that I live in another country and I will never be able to return the day that I didn’t live by their side.

If you are a millennial like me and your parents are still alive.

Spend time with your parents.

If you can come to their house — go and help them. If you can’t meet them — call them. Tell them that you love them. If this is not important then I don’t know what is.

Our children.

I remember I watched the lecture about the startups by Paul Graham the father of Y-Combinator. At one point of the lecture he said:
“Starting a successful startup is similar to having kids, and that it is like a button you press that changes your life irrevocably. And while it is honestly the best thing in the world — having kids.”

After a short pause he habitually “hummed” and laughed:
“If you take away one thing from this lecture, remember that”.

I did.

I learned many things from Mr. Graham about startups, but I these his words, in particular, have been engraved in my brain.

I don’t have kids. Not yet. But I am preparing myself for becoming the best version of father they could have.

At some point in my life I realized something:

You shouldn’t give birth to a child until you can raise them to become creators.

And you can only do so by becoming a creator yourself. I want to raise a child who is better than me. I believe that it is the ultimate purpose of any parent. I can only do so by besting myself every day. I want to be a human worth following not just a “self-reproducing bio-waste”.

I started a series of letters that I write to my unborn child where I write about the life lessons that I learned the hard way. I believe that one day my child will be thankful for that. I would be.

My Grandma just turned 83. She is full of wisdom and life experience. She used to say:
“A happy home is the one that smells like soup and full of children’s laughter.”

I hope my home will be the one you described, Grandma.

Our friends.

I was blessed with friends. I don’t have many and I learned that there can’t be many.

There were many people who entered my life and made a choice to leave it sometime after. I don’t feel bitterness. I feel gratitude. These people taught me a lot and one way or another have made me to the man I am today. They helped me to internalize the truth about relationships.

Those who decided to stay I wish to carry throughout my life. With some of them, I have almost telepathic connection. They are my brothers and sisters. They are the light of my life and I am so grateful to them for reminding me of who I am at the end of the day.

Our partners.

I remember the movie The Legend of 1900 about the genius pianist who was born, raised, and lived all his life on a ship portrayed by magnificent Tim Roth. There is a scene showing him grown up when he finally got the moment to put a foot on the land and explore it. He froze…and returned to the ship. He made a decision to stay, live and die on the ship making all of the crew and his best friend Max puzzled.

It wasn’t what I saw that stopped me, Max… it was what I didn’t see.

He was scared by the immense quantity of possibilities that world has. He was paralyzed by the choice.

Choosing a significant other is like picking a single version of life in the infinite Space of Variations.

It’s hard.

But it is not the attributes of the partner that makes them special. We do. We make them special by creating shared history, investing our time and emotions, making future plans, setting life goals.

The beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Making our significant others feel special. That what will count in the end.

Service to others.

Helping others is what will make you feel exceptionally good and is actually matters. Proven in practice. I had a privilege to have organized several volunteering events to collect money for hospitals and orphanages. I can say without a doubt, it gives you a feeling incomparable to any other.

Service to others is what is inherently in human’s nature. Help people. Follow your heart.

Final words.

Being young unfortunately has an implication of being stupid. However, youth is a shortcoming that dissipates fast. Too fast, I would say.

Wisdom takes time. And the pain of mistakes and lessons to learn. Especially the lesson that our life is too short to be exchanged for triviality.

I wish we will not will regretful when it is time for the sun to go down.

The best things are so close to our eyes and we get so caught up in the routine that, at times, we fail to see the obvious.

The best things in life are hugging tightly your parents, keeping silence with your friends near campfire at the dawn,cuddling with your partner on a Saturday morning, feeling kisses of your child on your face when she comes to wake you up, seeing the tears of gratitude on the faces of those you helped in need.

The best things in life are not things at all.

Don’t miss ’em out.

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