40 for 40: Things I Wish I Had Understood When I Was Half My Age

When you turn 40 years old, you take stock of life, repeat inane lines like “I’m not 40. I’m 18 with 22 years of experience” — and make lengthy lists. 

In this case, here are 40 counterintuitive things I wish I had known when I was half my age:

  1. The paradox of our age is how most Americans think they are morally virtuous, yet believe that the state of moral values in the country is worsening. 
  2. When you finish a PhD in politics, they take you in a special room and tell you that more art, less politics is necessary for a healthy democracy.
  3. The most impressive answer to most questions is, “It depends.” 
  4. Pragmatism can be moral cowardice — and so can absolutism. It depends. 
  5. The critic is not superior to the artist. 
  6. It is easy to destroy and difficult to build. 
  7. The path to self-worth is through worthy sacrifice for others. 
  8. The time is always right for a good story.  
  9. We have more agency than others want us to realize. 
  10. We are not dogs because we can learn new tricks. We can adopt good habits and eliminate bad habits. We can acquire improved beliefs and replace refuted beliefs. Yet, we are all judged based on first impressions.
  11. Envy tends to be at the heart of resentment. 
  12. Curiosity is the distinguishing line between interesting and dull people. 
  13. Curiosity is superior to certainty. 
  14. We ought to sign as if we’re right, listen as if we’re wrong. 
  15. It is easier to type a 10-page paper than a 5-page paper. 
  16. Making a good friend is better for good health than quitting cigarettes. 
  17. If youth is wasted on the young, tradition is wasted on the elderly.  
  18. Most of us don’t have a deliberate opinion about most things until we’re asked for it at which point we will throw something together then proclaim that this 2-minute-old molehill is, in fact, a mountain worth dying on.
  19. Be a steelman, not a strawman. When we are able to frame the opposing view on an issue as well as the people supporting it, then we finally understand it well enough.
  20. Not everyone who disagrees with us is stupid or evil. 
  21. Not everyone who agrees with us is smart or moral. 
  22. Empathy means recognizing that what is easy for you may be difficult for others. 
  23. Manners and gratitude are smart for the soul and the world.
  24. Just because something is novel does not mean it is better.
  25. Just because something is traditional does not mean it is worthless.
  26. Self-reflection is to democracy what exercise is to fitness.
  27. Research shows disagreement affirms diversity, fights complacency, discovers truth, advances justice, strengthens democracy, and makes sex better. 
  28. One of the greatest mysteries in life is why we do not disagree more often. 
  29. Parenthood is about being reminded of what matters in life. Again and over again. 
  30. Self-righteousness has killed more people than car accidents, climate change, and cancer combined. 
  31. We don’t say “I don’t know” often enough even if it is the most intellectually honest answer we can give.
  32. There’s only one correct answer when your spouse complains about you ordering more books despite piles of unread books in the house: “I have more than I need, fewer than I want.”
  33. If we want to persuade rather than preach, we have to give others the opportunity to change their minds without looking stupid.
  34. Do not underestimate the power of nature. 
  35. Do not underestimate the power of nurture. 
  36. Members of ‘communities’ have less in common than most people realize. Until we understand groups of people as individuals rather than as abstractions, anti-semitism and audism will thrive.  
  37. Democracy is a system to deal with disagreement, not to discover agreement.
  38. Everyone thinks they are teaching critical thinking. 
  39. What we may think is good luck or bad luck has a funny way of turning out otherwise. 
  40. Democracy is a book, and those who do not disagree, debate, and engage in good trouble read only a page.