100 Things I’ve Learned In 40 Years

November 29, 2013 by Jennifer Carsen

Today is my 40th birthday – woo-hoo! It’s definitely a Big Round Number day that gets you to thinking.

I’m now about halfway through my life, if I am healthy and lucky enough to get another 40+ years, and I’ve had more than my fair share of blessings so far.

Here are some things I’ve learned in these first 40, for whatever it’s worth – some of these ideas are mine, but many (especially the really profound ones) come from people far wiser than me.

Fashion & Beauty

1. Some women can pull off high heels without feeling ridiculous or looking like they’re in imminent danger of toppling over. I am not one of these women.

2. A haircut that looks good only when it’s professionally styled is not a good haircut.

3. The worse a moisturizer smells, the better it works. Bag Balm and non-cherry Carmex, I’m talking to you.

4. I will always dress just marginally better than the small-town, flannel-clad college student I was back in the mid-1990s. This is why I work at home. (Also, I reek of Bag Balm and Carmex.)

5. There comes a time when you accept that you will never again be on the cutting edge of fashion – or, in my case, that you never even came remotely close.


6. Parenting can be really hard. Having parented, on the other hand, as blogger Glennon Melton notes, is tremendously satisfying.

7. Don’t be excessively careful with your kids, or with your life generally. As some wise, long-departed person once put it, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship is for.”

8. Hearing about the injury, illness, or death of someone else’s child will hit you in a deep, visceral pit of your stomach that you didn’t even know you had before you had kids.

9. Folding baby clothes is a waste of time. We’re talking about people who routinely poop and vomit on themselves. Toss those onesies in a drawer and blindly grab as needed.

10. People always say that nobody ever tells you how hard it is to raise kids. They actually do tell you, all the time – through their words and actions, in the barrels of coffee they drink, and in the weariness around their eyes. They never stop telling you, in fact.

But you just aren’t in a position to get it until you have kids yourself. (It’s kind of like the difference between being in the first-class cabin en route to the Bahamas, casually skimming a magazine article about root canals…and sitting in the oral surgeon’s chair as he’s coming at you with the Novocaine.)

11. Kids are hard, yes – and two kids (unfairly) are way more than twice as hard as one. But the joys are stratospheric.

12. Nothing kills off any lingering traces of self-consciousness and/or vanity more effectively than parenthood. Once Larry, the hospital’s IT guy, has seen your boobs during a lactation consult, all bets are off.

13. Parenting doesn’t actually get easier as the kids get older – just different.

14. Sleep deprivation makes everything feel a million times worse than it is. Knowing this doesn’t, of course, allow you to get more sleep. But sometimes it keeps you from jumping off a bridge.

15. Elmo isn’t nearly as annoying as I once feared. Dora, however, is much, much worse than I expected. (And don’t get me started on Caillou.)

16. The moment you enter the crucible of parenthood, you instantly share a great deal of common ground with everyone else who’s ever been there, too. You find yourself deeply engrossed in conversation, for hours, with people you previously would have had trouble making a single canapé’s worth of small talk with at a cocktail party.

17. Poop is far from the worst thing that can come out of your kid. You pretty quickly learn that anything other than voluminous amounts of blood is A-OK.

18. You have no earthly concept of how much your parents love you – or how much you exhausted and exasperated them – until you have kids of your own.

19. Baby snot is the stickiest substance on the face of the earth, bar none.

20. Just when you find something – a routine, a shortcut, whatever – that works for your family, the kids change (or you do) and you’re back to square 1. There’s never true mastery, which is what makes parenting the crazy funhouse ride it is.

21. Happy parents = happy kids.

22. The only thing in life that you cannot undo is having children. This is not to say don’t have them – far from it – but don’t take it lightly.

23. Your kids will come to value what you value – so it pays to be extremely careful about what you model for them.

24. As much as schedules permit, let tired babies sleep as much as they want to.

25. Teach your kids to be smart and kind and independent. Most of all, teach them to be responsible for the decisions they make. The world is overfull of people who are overfull of excuses.

26. When your child (who still cannot officially swim) is invited to a pool party, wear something you’d be comfortable getting fully immersed in on short notice – note that this includes shoes.

Other People

27. Everybody has their stuff – oftentimes the people who initially seem the most pulled together are, in fact, the ones most in need of multiple carts for all of their baggage. This is comforting, in much the same way as envisioning your audience in their underwear when you’re giving a speech is.

28. Listen – really, really listen – to people. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to do…but worth it every single time.

29. The people who knew you when you were growing up (before you became adept at concealing your truest self) will always know the real you – even if you go decades without talking to them.

30. Beware of people who don’t know what they want but think they do. They will hurt you, even though they don’t mean to.

31. Life becomes a million times easier when you accept that other people just don’t view the world the way you do – and they never will.

32. Keeping score in life will always make you unhappy, even if you’re theoretically winning.

33. The very smartest people in the world aren’t afraid to admit what they don’t know. You can’t learn anything new if you already think you know it all. (Took me way too long to internalize this one, alas.)

34. The smartest person in the room is never the one who’s doing the most talking.

35. Being smart in the ways that truly matter in life has zero correlation with where (or whether) someone went to college.

36. People can change, but most of the time they just aren’t going to.

37. Everyone always make time for what’s most important to them – look at how they spend their time, and you’ll be able to figure out what it is. If they don’t have time for you, pay attention to that.

38. People almost always mean well. Even the judgmental nutjobs.

39. Don’t take things personally – it’s rarely actually about you.

40. People aren’t thinking about you nearly as much as you think (or wish, or fear) they are.

41. You can tell a lot about a person by how he or she behaves in a restaurant.

Love & Marriage

42. You will never, ever truly understand what’s going on inside someone else’s marriage, no matter how well you know either or both of the people in it.

43. Marry the right person, and everything else in life just falls into place so much easier. Marry the wrong person, and nothing will ever feel 100% right – no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise.

44. Don’t marry anyone you wouldn’t want your kids to grow up to be just like (this is true whether or not you have any intention of having kids).

45. Marry someone you can laugh with.

46. Do not marry someone who says, “That’s funny” instead of actually laughing. Take my word for it: It’s far more entertaining as a Seinfeld episode than when it’s your life.

Goals & Success

47. If you don’t try, you’ll never fail – but you’ll never win, either. Put yourself out there and see what happens.

48. Most of the time, your best is more than enough.

49. You can have it all – just not all at once. Ecclesiastes (and The Byrds) had it right; there is a season for everything.

50. Consistently doing what you say you’ll do, and hitting your deadlines, will set you apart from well over 99% of the people on this planet (in both your personal and professional life). Sad but true.

51. Trust your gut. It will never, ever lead you astray. But ignoring it will. Note that rationalizing your decision to duck out of something because you’re just plain scared is your brain’s doing, not your gut’s. Your gut knows better.

52. Remember: Whatever it is you’re trying to do, people far stupider than you have successfully managed it. I take great comfort in this fact when it comes to parenting.

53. If you have a dream, it does not go on the bucket list. It goes on the to-do list. (Thanks to Jennifer Lawler for this one. She’s right.)

54. The timing and circumstances will never be perfect. Do it anyway.

55. There is joy in watching anyone who’s truly good at, and invested in, what they’re doing.

56. You can make excuses, or you can have what you want. You generally can’t have both.

57. Very little in life that’s worth having comes easy – though, ironically, realizing the truth of this makes everything a little bit easier.

58. If you focus on looking at things from the other person’s perspective – what he or she really wants, needs, and values – it’s hard to go too far wrong.

59. You can’t edit a blank page, in writing or in life. Just get started and keep making adjustments (and correcting typos) as you go.


60. It doesn’t matter where you’re flying, or where on the airplane you’re sitting – the amazing views are always on the other side of the plane (Exception: When you’re sitting over a wing that completely obscures your view of the ground).

61. Keep your passport up to date. Because you never know.

62. Don’t be afraid to get to the airport a little early. Something always comes up (and, in the immortal words of Marx Carsen, my paternal grandfather, “I can sit there as well as I can sit here”).

63. Take your kids places when they’re young. It’s rarely convenient, and often incredibly messy, but it’s the best way to get them comfortable with new experiences and new people.

64. Always pack binder clips, earplugs, a small sewing kit, and an old-school alarm clock.

65. Take a minute to help the old lady who’s struggling with her bag or looking lost and confused. She’s probably somebody’s mom. And, someday, she may be you. (At the very least, don’t mow her down in your haste to make your connection.)


66. Anybody can come to a party – but real friends are the ones who are there for you even when it’s not particularly fun or convenient to do so. Hang onto these people.

67. Don’t mistake electronic contact for in-person quality time. Both have their place, but one can’t replace the other.

Keeping House

68. Your house should be just clean enough that you wouldn’t be totally mortified if a friend dropped by unexpectedly.

69. Whoever cares more will always wind up doing most of the housework. I go back and forth on whether or not this is fair, but it’s undeniably true.


70. Unless you are extremely crafty or just a glutton for punishment, avoid Pinterest. It will just make you feel bad. How come I didn’t think to make pointillist Santas using multicolored Pop Rocks? What the hell have I been doing with my time?

71. Find a place you really love to live.

72. Forgive yourself for anything you did more than 20 years ago. Most crimes, including ones you can actually go to jail for, don’t even have a statute of limitations that long.

73. Don’t multitask beyond your ability to do so. It just enables you to do more things badly. (For me, the extent of this ability goes no further than sometimes – sometimes – being able to listen to the radio while I’m driving.)

74. “With everything, there is something.” – Wanda Carsen

75. Getting defensive never helps anything. When you can fight the near-universal impulse to do so, you will always learn a lot.

76. Whatever it is, even if you think it’s unforgettable, write it down. You will forget. If you have kids, the forgetting often happens even before you can locate a shard of crayon to write with.

77. Don’t let yourself get trapped in a bad job or a bad marriage – either will break your spirit. It may feel scary or even incomprehensible to contemplate leaving, but once you’re out you will look back and wonder why the heck you didn’t leave sooner.

78. Do things at off-times, when possible. The toy store at 10 a.m. on a random Tuesday is a far kinder place than it is at 6 p.m. on December 24th.

79. Back up your computer regularly – before you experience the disaster that is a blue-screen loss of everything you’ve been working on for the last two years. Cloud-based storage is your friend.

80. Lost socks will always resurface, but usually only when it’s too late to do you any good.

81. Anytime you find yourself thinking, “Maybe it will just work itself out” – it won’t.

82. Make decisions as soon as you have sufficient information, and don’t change them without a good reason. It’s hard to tell people “no,” but it’s much worse to string them along for a while and give them false hope before doing so.

83.Whatever your age, be grateful for it – there are so many people who would have given anything to have reached that number.


84. Life is far too short for fake food. (And who even came up with the idea of fat-free half-and-half? What is in those halves?)

85. Salad is not a meal.

86. Unless an actual, bona fide medical doctor has diagnosed you with celiac disease, eat bread. With real butter.

87. At least twice a year, “Ice cream!” should be the answer to the question, “What’s for dinner?”

88. For some reason, chocolate chip cookies and mashed potatoes always taste better when someone else makes them for you.

89. I’ve never understood when people say, “It’s too hot to eat.” Those people must live on the surface of the sun.

Integrity & Manners

90. Always do the right thing – even if no one is watching, and even if (especially if) your lawyer would advise otherwise.

91. Chronic lateness, failing to properly acknowledge gifts and kindnesses, and paying more attention to your phone than the people around you are all still really rude – despite how common they’ve all become.

92. If you’re not willing or able to tip well, then you should not be eating out.

93. On a related note, don’t forget to leave a tip for the housekeeping staff at the hotel. Their job is harder, and grosser, than you could possibly imagine.

94. Respect authority, but don’t be afraid to (respectfully) question it. Sometimes there’s a reason for things that you don’t know about – and sometimes people just make mistakes.

95. When you borrow something, return it. And, on the flip side, don’t ever loan anyone anything you truly need or expect to get back. This includes money.

96. There’s enough to go around – there always is. Be generous with your knowledge, your time, and your stuff.

97. Apologize quickly and sincerely for your mistakes. Note that any apology with a “but” in it doesn’t count.

98. When you admire someone, or something they’ve done, tell them – even if you don’t know them all that well. It may mean more to them than you could ever know.

99. Learn to become good with names, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you. It means a lot to people – even those among us whose first names are more common than dandelions.

100. It’s important to be smart. It’s even more important to be kind.


  1. […] 39 or 40 minutes of alone time, depending on […]

  2. susie says:

    love your blog. Happy birthday. hope u had a great day/night.

  3. Roy Carsen says:

    Just loved it Jen, every single one of the 100.
    Happy Birthday!

  4. Sarah says:

    Well said!

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