A quick confession. I love birthdays. I am not great at wishing folks a happy birthday online. This is mostly because I don’t know what part of it is supposed to be capitalized (Happy Birthday, Happy birthday, happy birthday). However, I love birthdays because they are a celebration for who you are rather than what you have accomplished. We have holidays that commemorate groundbreaking historical events but birthdays are different. Birthdays celebrate the fact that you stuck for another year and that, in itself, is worth celebrating. A birthday, for me, is a celebration of grace. It’s a reminder that life is a gift.

Today, I am turning forty years old. I’ve heard that forty is supposed to be a hard birthday. In fact, I’ve seen the research on the decline in happiness that hits rock bottom at forty-eight before bouncing back up. But this hasn’t been my experience. In my early twenties, I was angsty and self-righteous and, honestly, pretty angry. At thirty, I could look back at my twenty-one year-old self and say, “I think I’ve grown. I can’t believe who I used to be.”

At forty, I think I can finally say, “Yeah, I’ve grown older and I’ve grown as a person, but that twenty-one year old angsty kid was just really insecure and a little lost. And there are some days when that twenty-one year old kid is still me. And that’s okay.” If I could go back in time, I’d give that twenty-one year-old kid a giant bear hug and tell him, “You’ll be okay. You’re going to meet the most amazing woman and you’ll have three kids who will amaze you and you’ll meet some pretty cool friends along the way.”

I am incredibly lucky. Over the last decade, I have had the chance to give a TEDx Talk and to travel to China, the Netherlands, Australia, and Hong Kong. I got to speak at the White House. I transitioned into a job as a professor, where I get to work with a cohort of emerging teachers and watch them develop in their craft. I’ve gotten to watch my kids grow older and wiser and surprise me with their kindness and empathy. I’ve had the opportunity to witness former students who are changing the world and I’ve felt so incredibly lucky to be a part of their lives.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to share a few lessons I learned over the last decade.

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Seven Lessons I’ve Learned Along the Way

The following are seven things I’ve learned over the last decade.

1. The small life is the epic life.

I remember being thirty-one and having really small kids at home. I was exhausted from teaching and I was worried about how we would make it financially. I found myself daydreaming. Life will be easier when the kids are older. Life will go more smoothly when we have more money. Life will be more fun when it’s the summer break. But then I remembered that life wasn’t meant to be easy and conflict-free. Yes, that leads to happiness but it doesn’t lead to satisfaction. Life is meant to be epic, which means there will always be conflicts and challenges:

This was my reminder to live in the moment and never say, “Life will be better when . . .”

I also believe that the epic life is small. I’ve had dreams of making it big as an author and writing a fiction story that becomes a best-seller. But the truth is, while it would be a great ego boost to have external success, the epic life is much smaller:

The epic life often involves playing catch with my sons or making something with my daughter. It involves being goofy and smiling because I can make my wife laugh. It involves hard conversations that move you to tears but also trusting that the person you’ve been vulnerable with loves you more than anyone else in the world.

2. Break up with busy.

When I was a new teacher, I believed I had to give 110% in everything I did. I thought that the best teachers were the ones who arrived first and left last. I was a busy teacher, taking on all kinds of committee work and saying yes to every project. But then I had a moment when I decided to “break up with busy.”

Then, a decade ago, I arrived home from work and my five-year-old son was already holding up a baseball.

“We can play, but I don’t have a lot of time,” I told him.

All I could think about was my to-do list. I had a department meeting to plan, papers to grade, and small projects to finish. However, as I slipped on the baseball glove, something changed. I forgot about my list. We tossed the ball back and forth.

But my son kept asking, “Is there still time?”

Is there still time?

I couldn’t answer it.

So, that night, I met with my wife and talked about my schedule. It was a hard conversation, where we talked about long-term priorities and what kind of a dad, husband, and teacher I wanted to be. I realized something critical: I was chasing perfectionism and trying to make a bunch of people happy and neglecting the people who mattered most.

That’s when I broke up with busy. I quit committees. I limited my projects. I set a curfew for myself at work. I learned when to give 110% and when to give 11 or 12 percent.

See, I was drowning in busy and yet I’d been wearing busy like a badge of honor; like I was winning some imaginary competition. But life isn’t a game. Actually, Life is a board game and I think it’s also a cereal (at least according to Mikey).

But here’s the thing: You don’t get a trophy for packing your schedule with more projects and more accomplishments and more meetings.

All you get is a bigger load of busy. But busy is hurried. Busy is overwhelmed. Busy is fast. Busy is careless. Busy is a hamster wheel that never ends and a sprint up the ladder without ever asking where it leads. There are moments when life gets busy. I get that. But I never want busy to be the new normal. I never want to look back at life and say, “Wow, I was really good at being busy.”

Over this decade, I have been more productive than ever before. I’ve written books, made videos, created courses, and continued to do blogging and podcasting. But I’ve learned to make the distinction between busy and productive:

This year, my mantra has been to “Have a greyt day.”

This is a lesson that my greyhound has taught me. It’s a reminder that rest is vital to productivity. It’s a permission to be an introvert and take time for self-care. It’s why I am getting back into working out and why I have continued to have my own personal Genius Hour. Right now, I have the following pictures hanging up in my office:

I painted these canvases as part of my personal Genius Hour. I also wrote a novel. I’m about to learn how to make mead.  And I’m convinced that the more creative risks I take, the better I will understand my own students in their creative journeys.

3. I’ve learned how to be vulnerable.

This has been one of the hardest lessons for me. I tend to be introverted and self-directed. However, the last decade has been a journey of learning to accept help and to partner with people. On a creative level, my favorite projects have been collaborative. I co-wrote two books with AJ Juliani and we became close friends along the way. I co-wrote a novel with my wife. I’ve partnered with Chris Kesler to do STEM curriculum and I’ve partnered with Bonnie Hamer at Presto Plans on creative thinking team-builders, alternatives to book reports, and other projects.

Here, I’ve experienced that difference in moving form cooperation to collaboration:

Each of these projects has helped me learn how to be vulnerable and how to trust people in creative work.

But this has also been true on a personal level. I have learned how to be vulnerable with people I trust. I have had to engage in hard conversations with people I care about. I have had to learn how to avoid walking away from conflict. In the process, I have learned how to share more of who I really am with people I love and trust. Along the way, I’ve learned how to ask for help.

On a personal level, this is why I am about to start counseling to work through my anxiety. I had told myself, “This is mild to moderate anxiety. It’s not debilitating. It hasn’t prevented me from functioning in life.” But now, at forty, I’m saying, “Actually, I need help working through some of this. If relatively healthy can get a personal trainer, I can go to counseling without feeling any stigma attached to it.”

4. Listen to feedback that matters.

On the topic of trust and transparency, I have learned to listen to the feedback that actually matters. I know this sounds odd, but I was terrified at first to put videos on YouTube because of the negative feedback I would receive. I felt insecure the first few times I got a one-star review on Launch or Empower. But my growth has been in learning to listen to the people I trust and ignore the people I don’t trust. I use the following grid with students:

This doesn’t mean that I ignore feedback from strangers. I’ll listen to it to get trends and insights. I’m also human, which means negative feedback will always hurt. It’s not that I have thicker skin. It’s just that I have learned how to give more credence to those who provide critical feedback and affirmation.

Listening to those I trust has also given me the permission to take bigger creative risks. Which leads to my next point . . .

5. Take creative risks.

A decade ago, I didn’t share any of my sketches with anyone. Now, I include my sketches in my blogs, books, slideshows (for the keynotes I do), and videos. I actually walked around town wearing a hoodie that I created with my greyound sketch:

In the next few days, I’ll be adding a merchandise store with my sketches on t-shirts, hats, etc. Here’s a quick preview of it.

A decade ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of selling my work. I would have called it “selling out.” But now I realize I was just scared to launch at the time. I hid my voice and my creativity and I won’t do that anymore. This last decade has been a journey of taking creative risks. It’s meant putting myself out there when I felt like an imposter. It included helping design and launch a student blogging platform. It’s meant launching a podcast. It involved moving from Arizona to Oregon and stepping into higher education. It meant saying “yes” to my first keynote even though I was terrified of speaking in front of an audience.

6. Judge less and celebrate more.

You know those self-righteous people who refuse to own a television? That was me at twenty-one. When my wife and I were engaged, our first argument was about whether or not we would own a TV. She rightly called me out for being smug and elitist. Years later, we binge-watch our favorite shows together. And I’m so glad I did because I was absolutely moved by Parks and Recreation and The Good Place.

But I spent so much of my youth railing against things only to fall in love with the same stuff in my thirties. I hated pop music and now, after having kids, I might just be blasting a Taylor Swift song in my office. I made fun of those dog owners who treated their pets like a member of the family but now I am that dog owner that wore a sweatshirt with a sketch of my greyhound.

In teaching, I was anti-homework. I railed against it. I angry tweeted about it. Now, I see it as much more nuanced. Make it meaningful. Make it optional. Gradually ramp up over time. I railed against the system of school itself. I called it a prison. But then I saw children who found school to be an absolute refuge.

At forty, I can still have the occasional cynical streak. But something inside of me has changed.  Instead of assuming that something is automatically wrong, I am quick to say, “In what context is this right?” I am far more likely to celebrate what I love than to cynically insult what I don’t love.

By the way, this doesn’t mean I ignore injustice. There is a time and a place to say, “This is wrong and unjust.” But by being less cynical and more hopeful, I am actually better able to see the real injustice in our world and try and do something about this. Yes, Comic Sans is annoying but it’s a waste of anger to rail against it when my former students who are undocumented still don’t have a shot at the American Dream.

7. Be Open-minded.

I used to think that certain topics were shallow. I didn’t understand why my students wanted to write about fashion or video games or skateboarding. But I learned in my early thirties that there is no such thing as a shallow topic, just a shallow understanding of a topic. There was a critical moment for me about a decade ago when students were doing their Geek Out Blogs. Three students chose fashion as their topic and I immediately thought, “Really? Clothes? How deep can that be.” They blew me away with articles on the politics of black hair, the history of fashion, the dangers of fast fashion, and the double standards in school dress codes with gender bias. I realized that I had been the shallow one.

Fast forward nine years and I just finished watching a Netflix fashion reality show. When I don’t get something, I now see that I probably have a shallow understanding of it. I now delight in learning about stuff that might have once seemed trivial. This last decade has been a journey in becoming more open-minded. I have fewer convictions but I hold them more tightly. My views have evolved and grown more nuanced.

As I move forward, I want to be open to new ideas and new possibilities. I never want to stop listening to new music or trying new foods. I never want to gripe about “kids these days.” At forty, I am still discovering new things about myself and about my world. My hope is that this continues to be my trajectory in the future.

Looking Toward the Future

So, here I am at forty. I’m not feeling “over the hill.” I’m actually feeling fortunate today. I get up each morning excited about my job. It’s meaningful but it’s also a lot of fun. I know that my oldest kids are now teenagers and this is supposed to be a hard age but I am loving being a dad to older kids and I can’t wait to see who they grow into as adults. I have an amazing wife and I love being with her so much that I’ve become that guy who joins her on an errand to the post office or the bank just because I like being with her. And sometimes those little talks become the highlight of my day.

I’m excited about the possibilities in the future. I’m dreaming up new projects that I want to pursue while also trying to be present in the moment and remember that the small life is the epic life. And today, I’m just feeling really, really lucky to be alive.

 

John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

One Comment

  • Joy Kirr says:

    My forties have been my favorite, John. (I’m on my 7th year of them.) Enjoy the HECK out of them – looks like you’ve got a great start! Happy happy day and decade ahead!

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