30 Things I've Learned

"You played really well, Sean," my piano teacher said. "But you'd do so much better if you practiced every day."

How did she know?

It's true, 13-year-old Sean would cram one week's worth of practice into the hour before his piano lesson, but how did she know?

I had a dream my 30th birthday came and went and I didn't write this post.

I know myself too well. I was terribly afraid I'd procrastinate and wake up the day after my birthday only to realize I'd blown it.

But if you're reading this, that's good news. It means I pulled through, somehow, even if I wrote many of the words you're reading only yesterday.

Three weeks to complete a paper in high school? I would start it the night before it's due, work on it until my class at 8:00 AM, and turn it in with a smile as if I hadn't just gone a night without sleep.

My paper received a passing grade.

The final hour is where I shine. It's inhuman what I can get done last-minute.

Sean McCabe - Piano

My piano teacher's words still echo in my mind today.

What if I applied myself?

What if I could harness the tremendous burst of energy and motivation I seem to get only when I have no other choice? What if I could perform to the degree I do when my back is against the wall?

I wait until the last minute, and then I wait even longer.

No joke, I'd have a big speech in front of hundreds of people and wait until the day before to write, design, create, and practice my presentation.

What's wrong with me?

1. Things take as long as the amount of time you give them.

I soon learned to harness my proclivity to procrastinate.

The key to making the most of this tendency? Give myself less time.

  • 7-day-a-week video show? Sure.
  • Twice-a-week-podcast? Why not?
  • Three different podcasts per week? Okay.
  • Write an 80,000-word book in 15 days? Done.

Were any of these things I should have done? That's a story for another time. But for now, I want to focus on the fact that I learned just how much I was capable of.

When I was 13 years old, another teacher told me, "Sean, you can do anything you put your mind to," and I believed her.

  • I've had many days where I wrote over 10,000 words.
  • I've had many days where I've recorded 60+ video lessons.
  • I've had many days where I did over 8 hours of recording, speaking, or presenting.

You are capable of much more than you think.

The reason it takes you a long time to do something might just be because you give yourself too much time to do it.

Side note: I've only just started this post, and already I've referenced two messages that stuck with me for life—both of which I heard at age 13. Remember just how influential your words are the next time you speak to the 13-year-old in your life.

2. The right advice at the wrong time is the wrong advice.

When I give myself less time to do something, I get a lot done in a small amount of time.

But I want to make sure you're not hearing, "Okay, Sean says to work harder."

That's not what I'm saying.

I'm saying, I learned I'm capable of more than I imagined when I get my back against the wall because it forces me to not waste time.

That doesn't mean I always worked on the right things. It also doesn't mean working harder is always better. Figuring out the right things to work on is a whole other lesson.

In fact, all my biggest mistakes and failures have been as a result of applying the right advice at the wrong time.

Working hard at the wrong thing will only take you where you don't want to go faster.

Context is everything. You have to contextualize advice you get and take it with a grain of salt. It could be the right advice for someone who is in a completely different situation than you.

If you and I had a chat right now, I would not say, "Hustle! Work harder! Get your back against the wall!" For all I know, you're going in the wrong direction.

Get clarity first, then double down once you know you're on the right path.

3. You can make millions of dollars and still have an unhealthy business.

With my first business (a computer repair business), I hired too slowly. The business stagnated with just one employee.

Years later, I was determined to remedy my mistake by hiring proactively.

I hired way too fast. One year, I brought on six new full-time employees. At the height of it, the business had eight full-time employees. Our monthly payroll was a crippling weight on my shoulders.

Our business model was not solid. I knew how to work hard and make money, but that was the only way the business made money. The business itself didn't make money—I was personally making money and using that money to feed the beast.

Why did I do this? I knew I didn't hire fast enough in my first business. I didn't want to make that mistake again.

One problem was overcompensating for my prior mistake (the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme).

But the other part of the problem was applying the right advice at the wrong time.

What was that advice?

Delegate! Hire people to do the things you shouldn't do! Pay people who love to do the things you hate! Don't fall prey to superhero syndrome!

I was determined to fix my superhero syndrome.

This advice was all good advice, BUT (and it's a big but)…

The advice assumes you have a solid business in place. Isn't that a pretty major assumption? Yes. Yes, it is.

Did I have a solid business in place? No. I had a hungry, cash-devouring monster. The business didn't make money. I made money to feed the business and its appetite was insatiable.

Hiring is scaling.

Have you ever used Photoshop? You know how you can transform an object—you get a bounding box with grab handles—and scale it up?

Imagine a vector illustration of a bucket.

Now imagine transforming that object and scaling it up.

What do you have? A bigger bucket.

Bigger is better, right?

Well, what I didn't tell you is the bucket has so many holes, it looks like swiss cheese.

What's more stressful than $3,000 in monthly expenses?

$30,000+ in monthly expenses. More specifically, I needed $15,000 for payroll every 14 days.

Hiring more people will scale what you have. If what you have isn't working, you're going to have even bigger problems.

4. Hire slow, fire fast.

I've often heard founders say to hire slow and fire fast. It's one of those clichés you simply don't understand until you experience it for yourself.

Now I know.

My employees were like family (in some cases, they were literally family).

The last thing I wanted to do was let someone go. I felt personally responsible for their livelihood. I took it as seriously as a parent would caring for their child.

You're going to do whatever it takes to give your child shelter. You will go without sleep to make sure they don't go hungry. You will do whatever it takes.

We didn't have a solid business model. I had to personally run launches and do things to make money to pay everyone's salaries. Nothing they did in the business made money (I know, it sounds insane to say out loud). I was literally the sole breadwinner. It wasn't their fault—this was how I'd designed the business.

I read recently:

The strengths of the founder become the weaknesses of the business.

I personally bore the burden of sustaining my employees livelihoods for far too long. I was deathly afraid of not taking care of my employees. They were like family to me. I took it personally. I was not objective. I drove myself into the ground coming up with $15,000 every 14 days, and I did it for years.

I'm still recovering.

Last year, I let almost every team member go. To say it was a painful experience would be a gross understatement.

But I immediately felt 20 pounds lighter.

There was a physical difference in my body. My shoulders relaxed as if a weight was lifted from me.

Months later, they had other jobs. They had houses, beds, food on the table. They didn't die. Life went on.

All along, it hadn't been my responsibility. Their livelihood was their own responsibility. My responsibility was to the business. I hadn't done what was in the best interest of the business, and the business suffered as a result.

Hire slow, fire fast.

5. You can be depressed and not know it.

There were two dark years. Nobody knew I was depressed. Not even my wife.

That's because I didn't even know myself.

Here is the best way I can describe how I felt for two years:

Imagine you are running a marathon without ever having trained for it. 8 miles in, you feel like you're going to die. Halfway through, it's the hardest thing you've ever done in your life.

Somehow, you finish.

Upon finishing, a masked figure approaches you and says you must run a second marathon right now or he will kill your friend.

There's no question: you're going to run a second marathon.

It doesn't matter if you have no energy. It doesn't matter if you're depleted. You dig, and you find something—somewhere—deep down inside of you that allows you to keep going.

I was in survival mode for two years.

I was severely burned out and I was depressed.

You know how when you're showering, you feel the water hit the back of your neck? I didn't feel that. I felt nothing. Every minute of the day was total numbness. How else do you run a second marathon except by turning off the screaming signals your feet are sending to your brain?

I didn't know I was depressed. I thought depressed people laid in bed and didn't accomplish anything. All I did was work. That couldn't be depression, right? My mental picture was what you might see if you did a Google image search for the word "depression".

I simply didn't recognize it in myself.

It took a year to recover. I don't claim to have any answers for you. If you are experiencing depression, tell someone. Seek professional help.

With that said, I did recount my experience through a very raw podcast episode in which I shared what I did to recover from depression.

However, what was most fascinating to me was the fact that I received many messages from people during those same years who told me I’d helped them or changed their life. They knew nothing about what I was going through, but in spite of my struggles, I was able to help others.

This is not prescriptive in any way, but in my experience, a large part of what I think helped me recover from depression was my dedication to showing up every day and helping others with my work. It took the focus off of me and my struggle.

6. Hustle without rest leads to burnout.

A lot of people are hating on the word "hustle" these days.

I definitely get it: many people are burning out, working unhealthy hours, and not making time for important relationships and people in their life. That's not good.

I think there's a time and place for hustle. If you work hard on the wrong thing, you'll only head faster in the wrong direction.

I'm not much of a sports guy, but for some reason a baseball analogy popped into my head.

If you run around, blindly swinging a wooden bat as hard as you can, you're going to tire yourself out at best or break things and hurt people at worst. Careless effort does no one any good and can certainly do a lot of harm.

How hard you swing the bat is your hustle.

Clarity enables you to make contact with the ball.

But to hit a home run, you need to make contact with the ball, and you need to swing the bat HARD.

"More" isn't always better. "Hustle" alone isn't the answer.

What has served me well is doing more of what's working.

When you find clarity, when you discover what works, and when you make contact with the ball, swing hard. Hustle! Do more of what works.

But then go home at 5:00 PM and spend time with your family. Tomorrow is another day.

Hustle without rest leads to burnout. This is true at a micro scale and a macro scale.

The micro scale is the daily cycle. Work hard on the right things during reasonable hours, then go home and rest.

Rest at a macro scale for me looks like taking off every seventh week. I call this Seventh Week Sabbatical. I've been taking off every seventh week as a sabbatical for four years now and it's completely changed my life.

The title of my next book is Seventh Week Sabbatical, and you can read the book as I write it at sabbatical.blog.

7. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

For most of my 20s, I worked as though the world was ending. I put in crazy hours. Ridiculous hours. 16–18 hours, every day, 7 days a week, for most of a decade.

I wasn't physically active. I didn't have fun. I slept little. I didn't develop relationships with friends. I just worked.

I made a lot of mistakes.

Though to be fair, I almost never think about the fact that I was a 20-year-old. 20-year-olds make mistakes (often catastrophic ones).

I'm technically 29 as I write this. It's so bizarre to me that I'm in my twenties. The incongruence between my age and how I feel is staggering. I guess that's a good thing?

Mentally, I feel 48. Turning 30 feels at least a step closer to reality aligning with how I feel inside.

I didn't exactly have a normal youth. As the oldest of 13 kids, I grew up pretty fast. I changed well over one thousand diapers. I didn't go to college. I didn't party. I've never done drugs, never gotten drunk, and didn't go into debt to buy a house or car.

I worked. I invested literally the entirety of my 20s in work and business. I had a relentless drive. Crazy perseverance. No matter the setback, the only way out was through.

I'm well aware of how extreme I tend to be. I only have two modes: ON or OFF. Either I'm all-in on something, or I don't care about it at all. I've had to work on a lot of systems to compensate for this fact out of pure survival and burnout prevention.

I have a theory we all have a permanent age. You probably have a friend who acts 22 even though he's 38. My theory would be his permanent age is 22.

I think my permanent age is 48. Until I turn 48, I'll feel old. But when I'm 66, I'll feel young. It's a working theory, we'll have to see how it pans out.

My 20s were a sprint. I've learned more recently, life is a marathon, and I'm adjusting. The decisions I make now are more about 20 years from now, and less about tomorrow.

8. 8 hours of sleep is a game changer.

I used to run on between 5–6 hours of sleep per night. I did this for most of the past decade. I convinced myself I felt even better with 5–6 hours than with 7–8 hours of sleep.

The Matthew Walker interview on Joe Rogan's podcast shocked me.

I'm going to keep this section short and urge you to listen to the episode (I linked you directly to a helpful comment that lists jump links to main points in the episode with timestamps).

I was convinced I was one of the ultra rare people who could run on less sleep.

I was wrong.

The shorter you sleep, the shorter your life. That's just one of the mind-blowing takeaways you'll get from that episode. You will never think about sleep the same way again.

I now sleep 8 hours per night (and you will too after listening).

9. Routine creates freedom.

Regularity breeds productivity.

If you do not have a consistent routine, you are sacrificing productivity. You are wasting time and getting less done.

Many people resist the idea of a routine because they believe it is restrictive by nature. They think of a routine as a prison.

The exact opposite is true: a routine will create freedom.

Start waking up early. Go to bed at the same time. Create structure for your day, and you will stop feeling so overwhelmed. Your lack of routine is only causing you stress.

If you want to reduce stress, stick to a routine. You will feel more free than ever.

10. Prioritize physical exercise as soon as possible.

My birthday falls the day before Thanksgiving this year.

Like most people, we visit family during holidays. Last Thanksgiving, one year ago, I spoke to some family members and relatives while I was in town visiting.

I asked people in their 40s and 50s what advice they'd give their 30-year-old self.

The advice varied, but what I heard most often had to do with physical health and exercise.

"I would tell myself to get active right away. Prioritize physical exercise. It's never too late to start, but it only gets harder as you get older."

I'd put off physical exercise for nearly all my 20s. I knew it wasn't good. My fast metabolism had helped, but I could already tell it was slowing. It wouldn't carry me forever.

Besides, how you look physically on the outside isn't everything. There's also heart health.

30 minutes of brisk activity every day can help minimize the chance of stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and weight gain. It can also help improve sleep and mood, as well as reduce stress.

(From Apple's Close Your Rings page.)

This year, I made a commitment to start closing the rings on my Apple Watch. It changed my life.

I started simply by walking. One mile every day. Two miles every day. Six miles.

Eventually, I started running. Three miles. Four miles. Five miles.

During my best week this year, I logged over 60 miles of activity.

I went so hard, I injured my hip (remember that thing about me being extreme?).

Part of the problem was pushing myself too hard, too soon. The other issue was inflexibility. Sitting at my desk for hours a day, year after year, had taken a toll.

I started stretching for 1–2 hours every day. I'm now on day 40 in a row of stretching every day and I feel incredible. It took months for my hip to heal, but it's finally better and I'm able to walk and run again.

But I never broke the exercise streak. Even though the injury prevented me from running, I still did other core training and HIIT exercises. Over the months, my body has slowly started transforming.

I feel good. Really good.

I have kept up my daily exercise for 84 days in a row and counting. I'm setting myself up for life-long health.

11. Mini dates revolutionized my marriage.

Every day, I have a "mini date" with my wife for 30 minutes. We talk about whatever is on our minds.

We have a dedicated time of day set aside specifically for doing this. Sure, we spend much more than 30 minutes together in a typical day, but these 30 minutes for the mini date are special. We dedicate this time to each other. They always happen no matter what.

There’s no agenda for the mini date. It’s just 30 minutes of time spent together talking. I can talk, she can talk, we can take turns, or one of us can take up the whole time today and switch it up tomorrow.

Sometimes, the time share is 50/50, but often the split ends up being something like 80/20. Usually, one person will have something going on in their life that day they really want to talk about. The other person will do more of the listening. This tends to flip back and forth from day to day.

I'll keep this short, since I wrote a lot more about mini dates in another post.

12. Don't network, build relationships.

Invest in people and give. Don't think about what you will get back. Give with no expectation whatsoever. Be a friend to get a friend.

My friends have been there for me in remarkable ways. I know I could ask them for anything, but some times they've just offered when they knew I was in need, and I'm so humbled (you know who you are—thank you).

We don't keep score. It's the opposite of Han Solo's, "That's two you owe me."

The best connections I have came from building relationships, not networking.

Give.

Don't expect anything in return. Just be helpful.

13. It's not about the numbers.

I met a friend for coffee, and during our conversation, he said four words that shook me.

"You're not a millionaire?"

In that moment, I became a time traveler.

I've known I'll be a millionaire one day. I've known since I was a teenager because I set my sights on it. I was determined. It was going to happen, and I wasn't going to stop until I got there.

I always hoped I'd be a millionaire by age 30. I thought I would be able to do it. I don’t know what the reason was for choosing that particular age. I guess I believed it would mean I was special or something? Well, the day has come: I'm 30 and I'm not a millionaire. Not even close.

But that doesn't matter.

Will I be one? Sure. It won't matter then either.

"If you don't think it'll matter, Sean, I'll gladly take your money!"

I should use better words. What I mean is, becoming a millionaire won't mean I matter.

I already matter. I don't need to be a millionaire to matter, and becoming a millionaire won't be the thing that makes me matter.

"You're not a millionaire?"

His words still ring in my ears.

Learning I was not a millionaire surprised him.

In that moment, I realized something. All prior times we'd hung out, he had been operating on the belief that I was a millionaire.

This made my head spin, because it meant I already knew what it felt like to have someone treat me like a millionaire—and I didn't even notice. It wasn't tangibly different from what I knew at all. Yet, I know if I dug down, there was a belief that things would be different. I would feel different, surely.

They're just numbers. Numbers aren't what's important.

This lesson goes beyond what's in your bank account:

Followers, likes, subscribers, viewsnone of those things matter.

People matter. Conversations, smiles, stories, experiences.

Two years ago, I attempted to log into the media server for the seanwes podcast (we host the podcast files on our own servers). I was greeted with an unfriendly message: "Unauthorized."

My password didn't work.

I was trying to log in to view the stats. It had been a year since I’d checked. I knew the podcast had millions of total downloads, but I didn't care too much because we don't run ads or sponsors on the show. It was more that I was morbidly curious.

"Unauthorized."

I could have pestered my developer to get me access, but I decided not to worry about it. It's been years since I've known how many downloads the podcast receives, and I don't even mind.

The numbers aren't what's important. What matters to me are the messages and emails I receive from listeners—the people I've helped.

My Instagram account has some 70,000 followers. The numbers used to matter to me, but they don't anymore. I spoke to friends with 10X the number of followers I have. They told me nothing changes. When you add a zero to the number of likes you get, you just adjust to the new normal. You still fight the same feelings of "not enough", and you still have the same insecurities—just with another zero.

Numbers don't matter, people do.

14. Meaning is more satisfying than enjoyment.

I don't know how to help you find meaning.

What I do know is meaning will bring you more lasting satisfaction than enjoyment. If you pursue enjoyment, it's like hugging a cloud expecting a pillow, only to find nothing in your embrace but the empty mist of reality.

Last summer, my wife and I did an 8-mile hike in beautiful Idaho. The views at the top were stunning, but what I remember most was the climb.

The climb is tough. It's challenging. It's hard work and it takes energy. But the climb is where meaning is.

Enjoyment is what you feel when you watch Netflix or play video games. Meaning is what you feel when you write a thousand words or go for a run.

One feels fun in the moment, and leaves you wanting. The other is hard in the moment, but leaves you fulfilled.

What I do know is you will not find meaning without embracing responsibility. If you shy away from responsibility, meaning will evade you.

Seek responsibility, and you will discover meaning. Do the hard things that bring lasting fulfillment not those that produce fleeting enjoyment.

15. Your life is better without toxic people.

Nothing is worth keeping a bad person in your life.

Drama is a drain on your energy and your happiness.

Remove toxic people from your life. Get around those who will build you up and choose to see and believe the best about you.

Toxic people:

  • Blame others.
  • Don't trust you.
  • Take and never give.
  • Talk behind your back.
  • Don't take responsibility.
  • Say unkind things to you.

You probably don't need these prompts to recognize the bad people in your life. When you read "toxic people", someone came to your mind right away. Waste no more time, energy, or life: cut your losses.

You'll only wish you did so sooner.

17. If you're wondering whether you're burned out, you are.

Whatever you think you can’t afford to lose—whatever is causing you to push, and push, and push yourself beyond your limits—it's not worth it.

What you truly can’t afford is burnout.

Once you’ve burned out, you’re out of commission. While it’s not impossible to come back, it’s a long process of recuperation.

  • You think you’re saving time by pushing yourself.
  • You think you’re preventing problems by overworking.
  • You think you’re getting more done by grinding harder.

But the time you will lose with burnout is a million times worse than the time you think you’ll lose now.

Pull back, and slow down. Do not push.

Schedule purposeful rest now. Schedule three times the amount of rest you think you need. The fact that you've reached this point shows you're not a good judge of when to take a break, so schedule three times the amount of rest you think you need.

  • If you feel like a spare day would be good, schedule three days.
  • If you feel like you could use a week of rest, schedule three weeks.
  • If you desperately need a month off, schedule three months.

Whatever you think you're gaining by pushing right now, you will lose threefold when it all comes crashing down (and it will).

It takes more rest to fix burnout than you want to accept. You'll probably have to learn the hard way, like I did.

But maybe you can learn from my mistakes instead, and schedule purpose rest.

18. These are 3 different skills: Making money, keeping money, multiplying money.

Millions of dollars have passed through my fingers over recent years, and I have little to show for it.

I learned how to make money. I've put such demands and pressure on myself, I've marveled at my ability to produce cash under pressure.

But after 13 years in business, I'm only beginning to learn to keep money. That's a whole different thing. Keeping it looks like not bleeding cash with unnecessary expenses and overspending. Keeping it looks like not maintaining a $30,000/mo payroll to sustain a business model that isn't working.

Grant Cardone says you need to learn three things when it comes to money:

  • How to make it.
  • How to keep it.
  • How to multiply it.

Understand that these are three different skills. You don't develop them overnight. You likely have one, maybe two right now (possibly zero).

Over the next decade, I expect to learn how to multiply money.

19. Writing is by far the most valuable skill you can have.

Writing is how you make a name for yourself.

Everything you want to do starts with writing.

Writing is the fuel for all other mediums:

  • Want to make a film? Write.
  • Want to sell products? Write.
  • Want to record a song? Write.
  • Want to author a book? Write.
  • Want to present a speech? Write.
  • Want to produce a podcast? Write.
  • Want to teach an online course? Write.
  • Want to shoot a compelling video? Write.

Writing will get your message out of your head and out into the world so people can hear it!

Building a writing habit is one of the best things you can do for your career.

If you learn to write, you will become a powerhouse. You will be unstoppable. You will become a better thinker and better communicator.

The moment you build a daily writing habit is the moment you will look back and say, "This is where everything changed for me."

20. Not everything has to be perfect.

A large truck backed into our driveway to deliver a wooden pallet stacked with 1,000 hardcover books in shrink-wrapped boxes. I don't know if you've ever seen 1,000 books before, but it's a lot, and they're heavy.

I'd just invested thousands of dollars and waited months for these books.

They better be perfect.

I opened the first book and noticed something. It doesn't matter what it was. What you need to know is it was the kind of absurd detail only I would ever notice. To this day, no one else has ever noticed.

But I was this close to canceling the entire book launch because of a tiny detail. The book wasn't perfect.

Looking back, it's so stupid. I had to read Chapter 14, Curing Perfectionism, of my own "imperfect" book to remind myself of what truly mattered.

I shipped the book anyway. No one said anything because they neither noticed nor cared. Only I knew what was in my head. Only I knew what didn't align with my vision. It didn't matter because people still enjoyed the book.

I skipped #16 above and you didn't even notice. Not everything has to be perfect. No one cares. Your real problem is obscurity. You're unknown because you don't put yourself out there, and you're scared to put yourself out there because you think you won't be perfect.

Put more imperfect work out into the world. Let it drive you to make the next thing better.

Perfectionism isn't a badge of honor (I used to think it was). Stop patting yourself on the back for your perfectionism and high standards. Without the discipline to ship, you’re just a glorified procrastinator.

My book, Overlap, is free to read online. Read Chapter 14 for how to cure your perfectionism.

Final 10 Things I've Learned

A list of 30 is both long and short. At first I thought, "Of course there are 30 things I've learned!" Then, I realized it's a pretty big list to come up with. Later, once the floodgates opened, the list was not big enough!

Once I culled the items down to 30, I had a list of lessons that were of great meaning to me. Because they're meaningful, I have a lot to say. As a result, this post ballooned rather quickly.

I decided to condense the final 10 things I've learned into bullets to keep this from getting too long (I know, it's already too late for that).

I desperately want to say more on each, but I'm letting them stand on their own today:

  1. Early is on time. On time is late.
  2. Everyone is struggling—even the person you least expect (maybe especially the person you least expect). Be kind to people.
  3. If you want to sell someone on anything (including an idea), you must first find a way to agree with them.
  4. Trend in the right direction, and stick to small, consistent gains over time.
  5. You will be as happy in the future as you are now.
  6. Reading only 20 minutes a day is still worth it.
  7. Sweet Heat Skittles are the best Skittles.
  8. You probably don't need <insert newest Apple device>.
  9. Waking up at 4:30 AM isn't fun, but I like who I am when I do.
  10. You're not a failure if you haven't reached your goals yet. The point of a goal is to give you direction.

Bonus

Since I skipped a lesson to make a point earlier, I had to add one as a bonus or I'd never be able to sleep tonight:

Embrace your weirdness. The moment you overcome your insecurities and lean into what makes you unique is the moment you become memorable.