The first of my Godchildren just turned 18, and I grappled with how to acknowledge this big moment in her life. What could I give her that would be long-lasting and meaningful? On my own 18th birthday, I was given an easel that I still enjoy using today. I tried to think of what else I would have found useful, and kept coming back to: life lessons. All the things I wish someone had told me then to save me the pain / embarrassment / trauma of learning them myself. I decided to write a list for my Goddaughter (and slip one of the UK’s new banknotes among the pages, since that’s a pretty momentous thing coinciding with her birthday).

As I wrote these lessons out, over and again I kept thinking “this is still a mantra I live by today”, or “hmmn, yes, I’m still working on this one”, or remembering a workplace moment where that lesson had been useful, or a colleague from whom that lesson had been leaned. I realized that much of the wisdom I was imparting had either come from my professional development, or had unlocked my career progress. This made me think perhaps there’s a Scholarly Kitchen post in this — for our early career readers, and maybe some of our longer-term readers too. So, here are my 18 suggestions as to how you might ease your passage through your career, and through your life.

  1. Celebrate your own brilliance.

    When you feel good about yourself it gives you the grace to be generous and kind to others. A wise and wonderful woman colleague once advised me to keep a “praise” list of complementary things people say to you. I’ve since advised others to also keep a “go, me!” list of things you are proud of, or times you did something good for someone, however small. Don’t wait for other people to notice every good thing you do. Give yourself a quiet pat on the back on a regular basis.

    (This also reminded me of a fabulous quote from H.H. Munro, writing as Saki, which was on the back of a housewarming card I was sent: “If one hides one’s light under a bushel, one must be careful to point out the exact bushel under which it lies.”)

    Photo of a greetings card with the quote ""If one hides one's light under a bushel, one must be careful to point out the exact bushel under which it lies."
    Drawing by Simon Drew,
  2. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so (Hamlet).
    When I was 18 I was studying Hamlet. I loved this phrase then, and I still think it almost every day. I’m genuinely thinking of taking up cross-stitch and making myself a sampler of it. Every emotion, every feeling, every ache and pain, is all coming from our brains. And ultimately WE are in control of our brains. We CAN change how we react to things. We can CHOOSE to feel better, or to feel differently. Explore neuroplasticity.
  3. Be a team player not a game player.
    Treat other people how you would like them to treat you. Be courteous and fair, and don’t get drawn into talking about people behind their backs. Avoid “negative solidarity” (building friendships based on complaining about things). You’ll be happier in life if you try to be positive. That doesn’t mean letting people push you around or get away with being mean to you — stand up for yourself when you need to.
  4. This too shall pass (old Persian saying).
    However bad things feel, it will get better. It is by experiencing bad times that we can recognize and appreciate good times. What is clever about this expression is that it’s a comfort in bad times, but also a reminder to make the most of the good times, because they too will pass.
  5. Don’t judge people on first impressions.
    Everyone is grappling with their insecurities and anxieties; everyone has bad days. Many of my greatest friends / favorite colleagues are people of whom I was initially a bit wary. Possibly the corollary here is more important. I have had some great ‘flash in the pan’ friendships with people I felt an immediate connection with – but it waned over time, as I discovered things about them I maybe liked a bit less. I’ve learned to keep my powder dry, be patient, and let people’s true colors emerge gradually.
    Collage of pictures showing the notebook Charlie wrote for her Goddaughter and the handwritten page for life lesson 2
  6. “It’s not all about you.”
    When I was 18, I was in therapy. My counselor would patiently listen to my teenage angst about what it meant that someone had looked at me a certain way, or had not looked at me a certain way, or had said a certain thing, or not said a certain thing. And when I waffled to a stop she would pause and say gently, “It’s not all about you.” That is a very, very helpful phrase that I’ve kept with me. You are only the center of your own universe — no-one else’s. The decisions they make, the contributions they make in meetings, their party plans — are not all focused on you. That thing you think everyone is thinking about you? They’re not. That reception you are too tired to go to? No-one will notice. That pointed comment that person just made in that project update? Wasn’t pointed, wasn’t at you.
  7. Don’t behave like you’re in a soap opera.
    My early relationships didn’t work because I couldn’t just be myself (I didn’t know who “myself” was, to be fair). I would act like a dramatic heroine (or, more specifically, like a character in EastEnders). It didn’t help. I think this advice is good for the workplace as well as for relationships. Flouncing is not productive and just puts people’s backs up. Try to be authentic. You don’t need to play a role. You don’t need to puff up or play small; you are good enough to just be yourself. Be honest with yourself about what you feel and why (which doesn’t mean you have to share all this with other people — just try to learn what your triggers are, how they make you feel, and how that can make you behave — so you can rethink that behavior if it is making your life hard). Know yourself and learn to manage yourself: take control of your emotions rather than letting them control you.
  8. Don’t let past bad experiences stop you having good new ones.
    Remember that your feelings will be shaped by how things have happened before — but they may not happen that way again. Don’t pre-judge things especially if it’s a different situation with different people. Even you will be different as you gain more experience, perspective and confidence.
  9. Take chances.
    Take risks. Sensible risks, calculated risks, but still risks. Sometimes you’ll feel nervous – that’s natural; courage and vulnerability are two sides of the same situation.
  10. Don’t be afraid of looking like an idiot.
    Always ask the “stupid” questions. Other people will be glad someone did, and will probably thank you for it. Often your “failure to understand” is actually someone else’s “failure to communicate clearly”.
  11. Don’t fall for the bad guys [or gals].
    You won’t be able to save them, you’ll just condemn yourself.  Don’t give your time, energy or love to anyone who puts you down or makes you feel bad. Keep moving. Your soul mate is out there. PS there might be more than one. Don’t give up if you find one and lose one. <– Scholarly Kitchen edit, not sure I have found the workplace relevance of this. Except you are quite likely to meet a partner at work, I suppose. (I did!)
  12. Always be learning.
    It’s easy to be afraid of things that are unfamiliar — don’t let that fear make you push them away; don’t express that fear as anger. Try to approach new things with positivity. Always be ready to reconsider your opinions.
  13. You don’t have to win every conversation.
    You don’t even have to participate in every conversation. Sometimes we’re so busy trying to get heard that we talk over other people. Sometimes we’re so busy trying to prove ourselves that we actually undermine our own credibility. I used to be in meetings where I felt like my role and contribution wasn’t being valued, so if I was given the floor I’d go into even more detail, argue my points even harder, say the same thing 3 times in different ways, generally try to make myself more important. I achieved the opposite, I realise in retrospect — pitching my contribution wrongly for the setting and making myself look like I didn’t get that. Later, I worked with someone else who often didn’t say much in meetings; he explained that he would only speak up if he felt he was adding value. I worked at having the confidence to adopt that approach and it’s been illuminating. Leaving space for others empowers them, and when I do pipe up, I’m saying something more interesting and getting a much better reaction.
  14. Stand up for yourself and your values.
    If you don’t like how someone is behaving, towards you or towards someone else, say so. Call it out, graciously and calmly. You might not be *right*, of course (everyone has different boundaries), so don’t be sanctimonious about how you call it out. But feel free to say you are uncomfortable.
  15. Have your own back.
    Make time for yourself; treat yourself as you would a good friend. If you are feeling bad, don’t beat yourself up — console yourself. If you are feeling guilty, ask whether you’re being too hard on yourself. You will occasionally so or say things that you regret, whether immediately, or later. Forgive yourself.
  16. Make sure your life has balance.
    A little work, a little play; a little solitude, a little time with others. I’ve always been inclined to throw myself headlong into things, but I have burned out on occasion through over-commiting. The management of my first company were inveterate networkers who encouraged us to work every room, attend every drinks reception, every dinner. The management of my second company would say, you’ve given your all today — get room service and watch Friends, be ready to go again tomorrow. I now do a bit of both. Learn how far your social batteries last and give yourself time to recharge them.
  17. It takes time to find your tribe.
    Friends from your younger days will always be a solid bedrock of shared experience. But some might wander and fall out of touch — don’t take it personally. They might need to shed old skins for a bit to find who they really are. And don’t worry if you move into a new phase of your life (slash, job) and don’t immediately find great (team)mates. You might be in your 20s or your 50s or your 80s when you “click” with someone new. The same is true of your “dream job”. You might fall into it straight away; it might take you a while to figure out what skills you enjoy exercising, what challenges you look forward to tackling, what topics you love discussing. If you don’t feel you’ve found your tribe yet, don’t give up.
  18. Time really does fly.
    Be present and enjoy your life. Live your life / career in a way that you will be able to look back with pride and happiness.
Of course, the best way to learn any lesson is to learn it yourself, and I don’t expect that by offering some beautifully-written notes of advice, I am going to help my Goddaughter dodge all of life’s difficulties. But I hope it will set her out on the right foot. Meanwhile, I promised I would send her regular postcards with lessons I haven’t yet learned myself. So please share your pearls of wisdom below!
Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple is co-founder of Kudos, which showcases research to accelerate and broaden its reach and impact. She is also Vice Chair of UKSG and serves on the Editorial Board of UKSG Insights., and In past lives, Charlie has been an electronic publisher at CatchWord, a marketer at Ingenta, a scholarly comms consultant at TBI Communications, and associate editor of Learned Publishing.


33 Thoughts on "18 Life Lessons"

Love the words Charlie , your goddaughter will find these life skills very helpful . Well done , something to cherish and pass on to her children one day maybe .

Number 20: Flight is an option. If it is too tough or just too much, leave – whether it be a job or a relationship. That includes family – just because you are related, doesn’t mean you have to like people or tolerate their bad behavior. (hmmm…. maybe that’s two things.)

Number 21: find a mentor. Someone who can give you “reality checks.” This person may be older than you or younger than you.

#20 this is a really good one. It takes such courage to make a decision like that and it’s easy to put up with too much because the alternative is so unknown.
#21 I like this too, especially the point about who can mentor you – they may not ‘look’ like a mentor in so many ways but still have a lot to offer you.

I often frame #20 as “Understand the ‘sunk cost’ principle and develop an instinct for when to stop throwing good money/energy/time after bad.” It was when that finally clicked with me that I knew it was time to get out of a very bad relationship — and soon after, I also applied that to my job and got out before it got worse.

This is lovely, Charlie! Even if your list doesn’t mean that your god-daughter can avoid having to learn these things for herself, I’ll bet she notices when she does! It reminded me too of the interview Michael Mosley recorded at the Hay Festival just before he died with Paul Bloom on How to Live a Good Life (currently on the BBC site) – Dr Bloom’s 5 pieces of advice were [my words] to find contrast, find the ability to lose yourself in something, look for satisfaction, embrace suffering, and know yourself (all described in a more eloquent way than that!)

Oh that is a great list, Jo, thank you, and very poignant timing in relation to Michael Mosley. The ability to lose yourself in something is a valuable skill for weathering tough times.

I’ve got a few. One is “People like happy people.” I learned that one from my mom, point being not to force fake happiness, but to be a positive person and that being positive will get you far. She also taught me “if you want to be treated like a lady, act like a lady.” i.e. act in ways that are respectful and not de-valuing or disrespectful of myself as a person and others will do the same (not, of course, that people shouldn’t be respectful and valuing regardless). The other one is from my pastor, who always says that if people are mean or unkind or unloving, it’s our job to “draw a bigger circle,” meaning that those people may just need a little more love than others. To your point above, it’s not about trying to fix or save them, but just acknowledging some people for whatever circumstances they’ve had need a little extra care and sometimes we need to go a little farther to bring them into the group. Going that extra mile in the past has absolutely improved relationships I’ve had with people, including co-workers. The impact on the work projects we tackled was immense.

Thank you Abby! The “draw a bigger circle” phrase resonates strongly with me. Funnily enough I did lots of illustrations in the book I did for Abi (Goddaughter) and as I went through the process I noticed that I seemed to use circles a lot. (I then realised this is true of my diagrams in the Kitchen too!) I clearly like a circle metaphor and “drawing it bigger” is a good tactic when you are doing it purposefully. I totally agree with your mom about positivity, too. It can be a concerted effort but it benefits you yourself as well as others.

Such a gift which will keep on giving! Thank you. I’m pondering #2 a bit and extending it to the optimists framing. My mom is so optimistic. She plans and believes. She’s recovered from a traumatic brain injury, lived on a sailboat for 13 years traveling where she wanted, then overcame a rare cancer and lives in a happy place. I wonder if there is a research link or two to add in that one about the power of optimism…here’s a highly cited JAMA review article on cardiovascular outcomes, but there is much more

Yes, good point. If positivity is about the here and now, and optimism is about the future, there is certainly a lot to be said for both. Wonder how you’d design a study to explore this?!

I needed to be reminded of at least 10 of these today! I don’t have a dramatic story as to why. I just loved that I stopped by to see what hot news was happening in my industry and was instead reminded to love and honor myself and cherish the moment. Sometimes we need these moments more than news. Thank you!

That’s great to hear Miranda, thank you! Have a good day / keep your chin up 😄

When did my little sister get so wise?
#76 (or whatever we’re up to now): Always have a friend (or sister) to keep you grounded when you get too perfect for your own good…
But seriously, this is absolutely lovely, and excellent advice for anyone of any age, in work or at home.

I’d love to say I learned it all from you but we were brought up not to tell lies.

(Only joking, obvs; your voice comes through here too. “Be fair” – and not “be kind” – for example!)

Here’s one of my guiding principles: “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.” When we forgive others, we release ourselves of the burden of carrying a grudge and reliving the hurt over and over. Forgiveness allows us to put down our emotional baggage and tread more lightly on our path.
Love this post, Charlie! What a wonderful present for your goddaughter!

Yes! that is beautifully phrased, thank you. Really hard to do, though – my son did one mildly naughty thing at school, months ago, and I keep telling him he doesn’t have to feel guilty about it any more, and that he can forgive himself. But I struggle to articulate *how* you actually forgive yourself. I think it relates to neuroplasticity – reprogramming your physiological responses so you don’t get that hot twist of “shame” when you are reminded of something you regret. It’s a wonderful liberating thing when you do learn how to do it.

Hi, Charlie,
Wonderful post, useful for all career stages –and life in general!
I think #11 may apply to the workplace. There can be “bad guys (or gals)” in the form of projects that we hold on to, just because we think we have to, lest the time we invested them already goes to waste –this happens a lot in academic research.
I am bookmarking your post for myself, and to share.

I meant to say “…lest the time we already invested in them goes to waste.” Apologies for the typo!

Thanks Monica! That’s a good point about treating a bad project like a bad relationship!

Another great piece, Charlie, that I know I will keep returning to. THANK YOU!

I am working on “pausing” as it lends me the needed clarity to not only find my bearings, but also explore new directions.

Thanks Chhavi! “Pausing” is a good skill. Our brains are amazing at finding solutions or seeing the way forward, if we just leave them alone to figure it out in the background.

I’m a bit late to this conversation – but echo everyone’s appreciation of this great post Charlie, thank you! My one addition would be, try to think the best of other people, ie, when someone does something you don’t like, don’t assume it’s intentional/because they’re a bad person. In my experience, often people behave “badly” because they’re having a bad day or just weren’t thinking; if their intentions were genuinely bad then assuming the best of them can be very disarming 🙂

Great post, Charlie, thanks.

One lesson I’ve learned (the hard way, and more than once) over the course of my career is this one: “The further you are from a system, the simpler it looks.” When I succeed at bearing it in mind, it helps prevent me from jumping to conclusions about the realities other people are facing, and then to conclusions about how simple and easy it would be to resolve the challenges they’re facing.

More selfishly, and thinking in terms of my own mental health, I find that the more I restrain myself from jumping to those conclusions the more peaceful and happier I seem to be.

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