Corey Wilks, Psy.D.

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6 Life Lessons I Was Given In My 20’s I Wish I’d Taken

“You’re closer to 40 than 20 now.”

That’s how my girlfriend jokingly celebrated me turning 31. But she was right. Where had my 20’s gone? Why wasn’t I as far in life as 15-year-old me thought I would be by this point? Had I wrought irrevocable damage to myself because I hadn’t taken my health seriously enough for the last decade? Why didn’t I stick with learning another language or a musical instrument? Why hadn’t I tried harder in school?

As a November baby, it’s weird having your birthday at the end of the year:

  • You turn a year older and think you should also be wiser, so you start reviewing how you lived the last year of your life and start making plans to be more mature this next year. (Side note: Who the hell came up with “Thirty, flirty, and thriving!” and what is that even supposed to mean?)
  • You celebrate the big holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus—which means taking time off work, spending it with loved ones, and engaging in general food-centric debauchery. For most people, this completely destabilizes any routine or discipline they had going for them. We don’t exercise, we eat 3x our normal amount, we put off any work or school assignments, and generally embrace our inner couch potato for days or weeks on end.
  • The New Year happens shortly afterward. Everyone talks about how great/terrible the past 365 days have been and how everything is going to change for the better starting January 1st (but never December 31st because it’s blasphemous to not eke out that last little bit of socially acceptable gluttony). You can’t escape the flood of New Year’s Resolutioners—people making well-intentioned but nonetheless half-assed attempts to make positive changes.

These three events coalesce into a shit-sandwich of introspection and reflection. You feel pressured to do better in life, so you look to your past for lessons learned—either because you took someone’s advice and benefitted, or you didn’t take their advice and suffered.

In my 20’s, I was given a lot of advice—good and bad—from a lot of people. Everyone was willing to share lessons they’d learned in their lives—whether or not I’d asked for it.

But like any good young adult, I knew better. I alone knew how life worked. I alone was the exception to the rule. I alone was too special for their peasant-level advice to be applicable.

Now in my 30’s, I’ve shed *most* of that arrogance because I’ve learned the hard way that my situation isn’t unique. My body isn’t some medical anomaly that requires zero upkeep or care. I’m not the best thing since sliced bread. And good things aren’t hiding behind every corner waiting to fall into my lap.

So I’ve compiled a list of some of the most helpful advice and life lessons I was given years ago, didn’t take at the time, suffered the consequences, eventually rediscovered and applied it to my life, and *miraculously* started reaping the benefits.

Maybe you’ll be like younger me and won’t take any of this advice, but if you follow in my footsteps, you’ll fall where I fell. Or you could avoid a decade’s worth of lessons learned the hard way—imagine being 10 years wiser than everyone else your age and how much further it would help you get in life.

It’s up to you. Choose wisely.


Life Lesson #1: Embrace the Grind

When I started training BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), I heard this phrase echoed on a daily basis. One of the black belts, Cam, embodied this mantra. I watched him come in, drill the same technique several HUNDRED times, then spar with everyone.

Bruce Lee is famously quoted as saying he didn’t fear the man who had practiced 10,000 different kicks, but the one who trained the same kick 10,000 times.

Cam’s grappling is hyper-efficient, like many BJJ black belts, which translates to him being able to manhandle most people. He makes it look effortless because he’s developed his muscle memory and knowledge base to an expert level. When we rolled, I looked (and sounded) like an angry clumsy gorilla—heaving, grunting, flailing around everywhere—all to no avail. Cam, on the other hand, looked like he was about to take a nap. He was so much better than me, I didn’t pose any threat to him.

Look at any MMA fighter or top-tier athlete—regardless of how many genetic advantages they have, they all put in tens of thousands of hours of blood, sweat, and tears to earn their place at the top. There aren’t shortcuts—work ethic trumps potential every time.

For years my BJJ didn’t improve because I didn’t put in enough reps. When I finally put in the work, my game improved tremendously.

It took me three attempts to get into grad school. I didn’t put in the work in undergrad because I didn’t take it seriously, so I wasn’t competitive compared to other applicants; I had a low GPA and my CV lacked relevant experiences. Once I put in the work to improve my GPA, did academic research, volunteered in the field, and took feedback, I earned my spot in a program.

Getting better at anything requires repetitions.

  • Want to control your anger better? Practice relaxation skills.
  • Want to be a better writer? Read a lot and write a lot.
  • Want to be a better carpenter? Do more carpentry.
  • Want to get better grades? Develop better study habits.
  • Want to get in shape? Develop a diet and exercise routine and stick with it.

In the words of retired Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander Jocko Willink: discipline equals freedom.

Whatever it is you want to get better at, the more repetitions you put in, the better you get. Just show up, put in the work on a consistent basis, and trust the process. Get so good they can’t ignore you.


Life Lesson #2: Wish In One Hand, Shit In The Other. See Which Fills Up First

There’s a difference between dreaming and doing. Most of us daydream about the life we wish we could have—being a famous rockstar, being a wealthy business owner, living on a private island, whatever—but we don’t take any steps to make it a reality. We don’t embrace the grind and practice music, we don’t read business books, and we don’t save money or learn how to invest wisely. We stay where we’re at in life, growing increasingly dissatisfied yet doing nothing to change it.

  • I wish I wasn’t so anxious. Look up strategies to control it or go to therapy.
  • I wish I could get a better job. Apply to other jobs and put in the work to make yourself more competitive.
  • I wish I could start my own business. Research how to develop a business plan. Most states have small business development centers that offer free help.
  • I wish I could quit smoking. Start by reducing how much you smoke each day and learn your triggers for smoking.

I spent a significant amount of my 20’s daydreaming about all the things I’d do if I was successful—financially, physically, romantically—but never actually taking any steps toward that vision. I sat around and criticized people around me who were taking steps to improve their lives because they didn’t do it how I, as Armchair Quarterback Supreme, thought they should do it. It got me exactly nowhere in life but bitter and resentful. Once I stopped dreaming and started doing, learned how to make and implement SMART goals, I started getting somewhere in life and felt better in the process.

If you had a sink that leaked what would you do? Would you wish it wasn’t broken or would you do something about it?

But what if I don’t have money to hire a professional?

Professionals are great for complicated issues, but if you can’t afford it, there are other options. Google, Wikipedia, Youtube, libraries, and TM are free resources—use them. They’ll get you pretty damn far on your own. Gain knowledge. Learn skills. Read books. Take courses. Do something about it.


Life Lesson # 3: Drop Your Bag Of Rocks

We all accrue baggage throughout our lives. Traumatic childhoods, toxic relationships, bad breakups, career failures, the list goes on and on.

In undergrad, I took a Love, Intimacy, and Attachment psychology class by Dr. Keelon Hinton. The class consisted of pointing out all the ways we as humans are emotionally and romantically fucked up, how we fuck up our relationships, and ways to break this cycle.

In one of his examples, he compared our emotional baggage to a bag of rocks. We’re all born with an empty bag, and every negative experience becomes a rock. We go through life picking up these rocks, putting them in our bag, and carrying them around with us. So when we get into a relationship with someone, we strike a deal of “You help me hold my bag of rocks and I’ll help you hold yours.”

This works…at first. But after a while, you both fatigue because the longer you hold those bags of rocks up, the heavier they feel. It gets to the point where neither of you can focus on your relationship because it takes all of your energy to hold up those bags of rocks. Eventually, you both get worn out and break up—too much baggage.

Your rocks are your insecurities. You constantly check up on your partner because your ex cheated on you. You have abandonment issues and need constant reassurance because your parents were abusive or negligent. You apologize to your partner all the time then feel resentful about it later because you feel like a burden to others.

Once people learn about this, they try to remove each rock from their bag. This means rooting around in your bag, finding a rock, taking it to the person who originally gave it to you, and returning it to them saying “I don’t want this rock anymore.” This can work, sometimes. But most of us have rocks we’ve carried for so long, we don’t remember how we got them, so there’s no way to “return to sender.”

His advice? “Let go of it.” Easier said than done, yes, but that’s the goal. Instead of each of you focusing on holding up the other’s bag of rocks, focus on how you can let go of your own. This helps you break the cycle of being codependent and work toward becoming a whole person.

While I was taking his class, I was in a toxic relationship. The amount of cognitive dissonance this created was staggering. It took so much mental effort to ignore the truth of all the red flags in my relationship that every class felt like a cage match between my carefully constructed lie and the reality of my situation. I told myself he was wrong, full of shit, it wasn’t like that with my relationship, everything was fine.

It wasn’t fine.

It ended several months later after a Ross-and-Rachel from Friends-inspired fight, complete with an argument over did it count as cheating if we were on a break, what a break meant to each of us, and the ensuing insecurity over them sleeping with one of my friends. It was a relationship full of insecurities on both our parts that ended poorly. Insert a couple more not-so-stellar relationships afterword, and I eventually started working on how to let go of my bag of rocks.

I’ve since learned how to work on my own insecurities, improved my communication skills, and learned how to be a better partner overall, but it’s taken significant work and years of practice. None of this shit is easy. Relationships are difficult—the relationships we have with others and the relationship we have with ourselves.

Work on yourself instead of blaming others for your issues—anger, abandonment, insecurity, trust, body image, etc. Maybe you were cheated on by your ex, but your current partner isn’t them and doesn’t deserve to be treated like they’re a cheater-in-disguise. Maybe you do have anger issues, but what are you doing to improve your emotional control?

You can make excuses or you can make changes, but you can’t do both.


Life Lesson #4: Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior

This piece of advice came from Dr. James Werth, one of my internship supervisors. Sometimes people get weirded out by psychologists because they think we can read minds or something because of how good we get at predicting how people think and act. We can’t read minds, at least as far as we’re legally allowed to admit.

But what we are able to do is identify behavior patterns. If someone has a habit of starting projects, getting frustrated, then quitting, chances are they’ll do it again. Maybe they have a low frustration tolerance and don’t like to be challenged. Maybe they didn’t break down their goals into manageable pieces and got overwhelmed. Maybe their new project didn’t resonate with their values, so they got bored. That’s what we delve into—figuring out why you behaved the way you did in the past so we can help you perform better in the future instead of continuing to get stuck in negative cycles.

But you can learn to identify patterns in your own life:

  • If you date someone who’s been abusive to their partners in the past, they’re likely to be abusive toward you eventually, even if they tell you it’ll be different this time. This is a red flag.
  • If you have friends who are narcissistic and manipulative toward you or make you feel like a burden, chances are this dynamic won’t change. Consider finding better friends.
  • If your family routinely talks down to or invalidates you, they probably won’t stop anytime soon. Learn to set better boundaries with them to protect your own wellbeing.
  • If you’ve survived bad breakups in the past, you’ll probably survive the next one no matter how world-shattering it may seem in the moment. You’re more resilient than you give yourself credit for. Remember that.

Going back to my failed attempts to get into grad school, my arrogance blinded me as to why the schools weren’t accepting me with open arms. “But I’m smart enough to do it! I could be successful in grad school!” It didn’t matter if I was right. It didn’t matter if I had potential. Because my past behavior indicated I was a lazy person who half-assed assignments and didn’t take the work seriously.

What program or employer, in their right mind, would want someone like that? My past behavior didn’t predict future success, it predicted failure. Once I got my head out of my ass and put in the work, then I had the track record, the past behavior, that demonstrated I had a better work ethic and was serious about my work.

No one cares about your potential. It doesn’t matter how great you could be, it’s about how great you’ve already been. How’s your track record? If you go to an interview, they ask you about what you’ve already done–your experience.

If you want to know where you’re going, look at where you’ve been. What habits do you have? How many good habits do you have that help you succeed? What bad habits do you have that have held you back? They’ll likely keep holding you back. Let your past inform your future.


Life Lesson #5: Eat An Elephant One Bite At A Time

Taking this advice literally, if you were tasked with eating an elephant, it would seem insurmountable. How could you possibly consume such a behemoth?  According to NPR, humans consume about 2,000lbs of food per year. An average African elephant weighs between 5,000lbs-14,000lbs. This means that we eat the equivalent of an adult elephant every 2.5-7 years. So how does this apply to you?

It means that, no matter how Herculean your goals seem, they’re more doable than you think.

Let’s say you wanted to write a book. Seems impossible at first. How could you possibly write an entire book like the great writers of history? You can’t. At least, not all at once, but neither did they. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King breaks down the math of how he writes.

  • His goal is 10 pages per day, which is about 2,000 words
  • This equals about 180,000 words in 3 months (The Shining is 165,581)

One of my long-time mentors, Dr. Tom Linz, gave me this advice when I was neck-deep in doctoral research requirements. The amount I had to read and write to graduate was staggering. After every meeting we had he would ask me about my progress, and I would lie and say I was fine—I wasn’t. I had perfected the art of feeling busy without being productive. He always saw past my smokescreen, so he’d tell me to just write a little bit each day and I’d have it finished in no time with minimal stress.

I didn’t listen. I procrastinated, became increasingly stressed about impending deadlines to graduate, coped by distracting myself, then stressed some more. In a mad-dash that culminated in submitting everything one day before the no-exceptions-you-won’t-graduate-if-it-isn’t-turned-in deadline, I managed to submit and pass my requirements. But if my paper had needed any revisions, I would’ve missed the deadline and graduation would’ve been pushed back another year. I could’ve avoided a lot of stress and sleepless nights by just taking Tom’s advice.

Say you wanted to learn to play guitar. If today is Day 1, then you suck at it and watching people like John Petrucci play can be demoralizing. I could never be that good, you say to yourself. But Petrucci wasn’t born an elite guitarist, he became one through practice. If you practiced guitar for an average of one hour each day for the next five years, that would equal around 1,825 hours. If you put that many hours into anything, it’s difficult to not be good. Maybe not top 1% in the world, but pretty damn good.

Accomplishing any big goal requires accomplishing lots of small goals. It’s about developing a habit and taking it one day at a time, one training session at a time, one bite at a time. When an interviewer asked Stephen King about his writing process and how he wrote, he replied:

“One word at a time.”


Life Lesson #6: Memento Mori

This piece of advice is thousands of years old, but I first came across it in The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. It translates to remember you will die. It reminds us to cherish what we have while we have it.

Three things you can’t get back after you lose them:

  • Your health
  • Your time
  • Your loved ones

Money can’t buy you more time, it can’t bring back those you’ve lost, and many wealthy people have succumbed to cancer and other mortal diseases irrespective of their net worth.

Take care of your body while it’s healthy and it might stay healthier longer as you age. The alternative is “garbage in, garbage out.” Donuts and pizza are delicious. Lounging around binge-watching mindless television can be relaxing. Getting high can give you a head change for a minute. But at what cost? How is your current lifestyle contributing to your health down the line? If you want to be active as you get older, you have to be active now. How you live now creates compound interest on your health later in life.

In my early 20’s I pounded energy drinks all day, ate like shit, and could’ve melded into my couch with how rarely I moved. The result? Hitting 30 and feeling like my body was rusted. It didn’t fully hit me until I spent time with family members who were in their late 60’s and they were in better shape than me despite the fact I was more than half their fucking age. We ran errands and did some sight-seeing in Charleston, SC. By the end of the day I was exhausted, but they were still chugging along like it was nothing.

I felt age-shamed by people who had qualified for the senior citizen discount since I graduated high school. So I bought a kettlebell and started eating healthier, not to get yoked, just to be able to move around without feeling like I was held together by duct tape.

Beside shoveling garbage down my gullet and seeing how long I could go without having to get off the couch, I also spent a significant amount of time doing fuck-all. Hundreds of hours playing video games I don’t even remember much about. Going to parties or spending time with people I didn’t enjoy being around. Wasting time going to things I didn’t want to go to out of obligation. Time I’ll never get back.

Now I’m protective of my time and my quality of life has shot up. I spend it on things that are important to me and add to my quality of life. I try to stick to my Fuck Budget. I spend my time with loved ones, reading, writing, teaching, and training BJJ. The people in my life who matter understand and respect my time boundaries. Those who don’t understand or support them simply don’t get any of my time.

Few things in my past make me feel guilty. One of them is that I didn’t spend enough time with some of my friends and loved ones before they passed away. My paternal grandfather is one of them.

An army veteran who went to college for a few semesters before dropping out and running his father’s convenience store in a ghetto, had two of three children survive to adulthood, got divorced but continued to live and be in a relationship with her (my grandmother) until their dying days, loved experimenting with recipes and coming up with off-the-wall dishes, and loved gardening. He was an odd bird. One time, he wanted to grow tomatoes but didn’t have rods to put in the ground for the vines to grow on, so he grew bamboo in the backyard, cut it down, then used the stalks as posts for the tomato plants. Practical, but charmingly weird.

He didn’t tell me any of these stories. My dad did. Papaw didn’t talk much, so I had to get collateral information about him from other people. After my grandmother died, I planned to get a drink with him at his favorite bar, wryly called The Office (“Hey honey, I’ve been at the office all day”). I wanted to learn more about him and our family history. But I let other things get in the way and kept putting it off. I acted like he would always be there tomorrow, next month, next year, whenever was convenient for me.

Then I got the call—“Papaw died last night.” Fittingly, he was found in his garden the next morning after having come home from The Office. A beer in his system and the scent of his flowers in the air as he died—may we all have so peaceful a death. 

Now I make time for loved ones and practice being fully present with them instead of distracting myself on my phone or treating them like an inconvenience.

So, dear reader, remember you will die, as will everything and everyone you love. Live your life accordingly. Unapologetically set boundaries with others to protect your own wellbeing, be unabashed in your self-expression, focus on what adds value to your life and discard the rest, stop wasting the precious little time you have on things that don’t matter, prioritize your physical and mental health, and cherish what you have while you have it.


Moral Of The Story

Hopefully, my pain can be your gain. If you want to improve in any area of life you have to put in the repetitions and do the work. Stop looking for shortcuts and “hacks.” Focus on your work ethic.

Stop dreaming and start doing. Fairytale Land is nice, but it isn’t reality. If you want to have a better life, develop a plan and start executing on it. Wishing, wanting, and dreaming don’t get you anywhere without action and forward momentum.

Work on yourself. Work on your insecurities, your self-esteem, your anxiety, whatever’s holding you back. Work on everything that’s within your control if you want any hope of breaking toxic cycles in your life. And stop making your problems other people’s responsibility to fix.

How you’ve lived your life before influences how you’ll live it in the future. The way people have treated you in the past, for better or worse, predicts how they’ll treat you in the future. Don’t be surprised when someone doesn’t change. If you want to change, examine why you behaved the way you did before and work to break the cycle.

No matter how big or insurmountable a task or goal seems, it can be broken down into manageable chunks. Your job is to break those chunks down small enough to accomplish them. One task at a time. One goal at a time. That’s how success happens.

Remember that nothing is permanent. If your fridge has food that will expire in a few days, you prioritize eating that food first because you know it won’t last forever. You and everyone around you has an expiration date. Enjoy things before they’re gone—your health, your time, your family, your dog, whatever’s important to you.

There are plenty of other lessons I’ve learned the hard way over the years, but I figured this article is already pushing the word count limit of our collective attention spans. If you’re interested in more content like this, let us know!

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