40 Things to Do Before You’re 40
By Dave Willis
I’ve written some blog articles in five minutes or less, but this one has taken me almost 4o years! Seriously. I’m turning forty in October and I’ve been pondering on some mid-life reflections about what I’ve learned, what I’ve accomplished and all the times I’ve failed. I wanted to get a tattoo, a crazy hairstyle and a motorcycle for my stereotypical mid-life crisis, but Ashley wisely talked me out of it, so I decided to just write a blog post instead. I’ve put together a list of the 40 things I believe everyone should do (or at least attempt) before they turn 40.
This list isn’t necessarily tied to an age number, but I’ve found that when we put a specific timeline on something, it’s much more likely to get done. That’s why “Bucket Lists” rarely work. We keep putting off stuff as if we’re going to live forever and then it never happens. Even if you’re reading this and you’re past forty, don’t view this list as an indicator of your shortcomings. Rather, make this your list to achieve before 50, 60, etc.
If you’re reading this and you’re young, please take this list to heart! I firmly believe that these simple actions could steer a course to a brighter future for you. It could also help you establish some healthy habits that could be transformative in your life, your health, your finances and your relationships.
If you want your life to be all it can be, then commit to doing these 40 things before you turn 40 (in no particular order)…
1. Define Success
If you don’t know what success really means for you, then it’s like throwing darts at a target in the dark. You’ll never even know if you’ve hit it! Step out of the rat race and do some soul searching, some praying and some goal-setting. Decide what you want your life to be about and then go after it with focus.
2. Choose happiness
This connects to the first one on the list. Happiness is much more of a choice than a feeling. You need to not just pursue happiness in a self-focused way, because true happiness is found it loving relationships, faith and living for something bigger than yourself. Life with purpose and don’t settle for anything less with your one and only life.
3. Let go of bitterness
Life isn’t always fair. Get used to that and don’t let it make you bitter. Learn to forgive. Holding a grudge doesn’t make you strong; it makes you bitter. Forgiving doesn’t make you weak; it sets you free. Bitterness and peace can’t live in the same heart. Each day, you must decide which one gets to stay.
4. Learn to say NO
This will be one of the most important words in your vocabulary. It took me a long time to learn to say it, because I’m a people pleaser by nature. I finally learned the hard lesson that every time I automatically said “Yes,” I was automatically saying “No” to a lot of other things and I was on autopilot letting other people define my priorities. Don’t say “maybe” when you really mean no. Don’t hit the snooze button on these things. Say no and move on.
5. Learn to say YES
Here’s the flip side of “No.” You’ve also got to say YES to the people, priorities and opportunities that matter most. If you’re having trouble deciphering between what should be a yes and what should be a no, there’s a great book called Essentialism by Greg McKeon that could help.
6. Find Financial Freedom
Life isn’t all about money and if you make money the main thing, you’re chasing the wrong thing BUT if you don’t have a financial plan and financial discipline, money stress will dominate your thoughts and rob you of peace. Work had to get out of debt, build your savings, invest and give generously to causes that will outlive you. If you need a good tool to get started, read “Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey.
7. Embrace Discipline
The D-Word causes some push back because it has a negative connotation, but discipline is really the pathway to freedom. Discipline refines your mind, body and soul to be at their very best. In a world of laziness and entitlement, choose to embrace discipline. The book of Proverbs in the Bible is the best roadmap for what it looks like and how a wise (disciplined) life stands in stark contrast to the broad road of foolishness where so many people life.
8. Discover the Narrow Road
This goes along with #7 and again, the Book of Proverbs in the Bible along with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament can help you discover what the “Narrow Road” looks like. Don’t stay on the highway to nowhere. Take an exit. Blaze a new trail. Don’t live to be a copy of someone else when God created you to be a unique masterpiece!
9. Choose wise mentors
You don’t have to be a Jedi Knight to need a mentor and your mentor doesn’t need to look like Yoda. Find people in your life who are further ahead than you and who have the kind of life, career, family, health, faith, finances, etc. that you’d like to have and learn from them. Buy them coffee. Ask their advice. They probably want to share it and you need to hear it!
10. Be a mentor
Once you’ve gained some experience, it’s not just for your benefit alone. You need to share it with others. Find people in your life through your work, your church, your family, etc. where you can share your experiences in a way that will positively impact others.
11. Travel overseas
Saint Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read only one page.” I didn’t even have a passport until I was in my twenties, but now at 39, I’ve been to Australia, England, France, Belgium, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Haiti and Israel. Those experiences have shaped my worldview, stretched my thinking and made me a better person. I hope keep traveling and keep learning all my life. I know it can be expensive, but it’s better to be rich in experiences than rich in possessions. The wisdom gained from travel is always worth the investment.
12. Invest in your Community
It’s nice to see the world, but there’s no substitute for investing into a community right where you live. Build relationships. Volunteer. Make your town a better place to live because you are there. Most of life’s greatest lessons and greatest blessings happen through community and relationships.
13. Find a cause that captures your heart
What is that issue that when you hear about it or see it, your heart starts racing and you think, “Somebody needs to do something about that!” That “thing” is probably your cause. Invest into it. Make the world a better place by serving where you’re passionate. Don’t just complain about the way things are. If you want to see change, roll up your sleeves and make a difference.
14. Say “thank you” to those who have helped you
Jesus tells a story in the Gospels of him healing ten men of leprosy, but only one of the ten came back to offer thanks. In my experience, that same approximate percentage (one in ten) live with an attitude of gratitude. The rest of us get what we want and before we can really give thanks, we’re racing ahead to the next things we think we want and need. Be the one who goes back to say thanks. Write thank you notes. Live with gratitude. It will encourage those you thank and make a HUGE difference in your own heart and mind too.
15. Forgive those who have hurt you
This is similar to #3 on letting go of bitterness, but it’s also a specific item in itself. Bitterness can the be the result of disappointment, failure or disillusionment even if nobody has specifically wronged you. Forgiving is intentional and specific. Think of those who have hurt you. Some of them might already be dead and gone. Choose to forgive. Let go of the pain and put it in God’s hands. Even if they don’t apologize, forgive. Sometimes, the most freeing choice you can make is to accept an apology that never actually comes.
16. Say, “I’m Sorry” to those you’ve hurt
You don’t have to be a recovering addict to experience the life-changing power of steps 8 and 9 of the 12-step program. Make a list of those you’ve harmed in any way and then make direct amends. Take responsibility for what you did to hurt them. Apologize without making excuses. Offer to help restore what was broken if they’re open to allowing you to.
17. Do something that terrifies you
Nothing gives you more confidence and momentum toward your goals than doing something that terrifies you. Whether it’s giving a speech in public, starting a business, going back to school to finish your degree, skydiving or you fill-in-the-blank, just do it. Once you’ve done it, that fear won’t have a grip on you and one fear at a time, you can tackle those monsters that still live under your bed and you’ll realize they weren’t so scary after all.
18. Evict your negative habits
If you were starting your life new right now, what are the habits that you wouldn’t want to be part of your life? Is it smoking? Overeating? Overspending? Co-dependent relationships? Gambling? Be specific. Take an honest inventory of your habits and choose to get rid of any that aren’t helping you.
19. Do an honest self-assessment
The self-assessment isn’t only for the negative habits. You also need to pause to evaluate where you’ve been, where you are and where you want to go. Don’t be too hard on yourself but don’t be too easy on yourself either. Plato once wisely stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. Most people go through life on autopilot. Choose to be countercultural. Examine your life and respond with positive change.
20. Create something that will outlive you
A rich life is one that has planted many seeds that bear fruit long after the planter has stepped from this life into eternity. If you have kids, invest the best of yourself into them. There’s no higher calling than that. Whether or not your have kids, we all are called to shape future generations through our actions and our generosity. Spend your time, talents and resources on causes that will matter after you’re gone.
21. Restore a broken relationship
Is there is someone in your life whom you loved but is not in your life anymore? Regardless of it’s the result of something they did, something you did or just a mutual drifting in different directions, be the one to extend an olive branch. Some of your strongest relationships later in life will probably the result of this kind of intentionality.
22. Give new life to something old
When my wife Ashley and I were newlyweds, we restored an old home and it gave us both a lifelong passion for restoration bringing new life and new beauty that things that have been forgotten. Look past the dust and look past our modern culture’s obsession with throwing things away to replace them with something brand new. There’s something beautiful about restoration (and it doesn’t just have to be an old house. Get creative.)
23. Get comfortable in your own skin
One of the most common deathbed regrets goes something like this…”I wish I would have been myself instead of living my whole life trying to be who I thought everyone wanted me to be.” Choose to be yourself. Embrace your unique gifs, talents, quirks and God-given uniqueness. Don’t live to be a copy of someone else or to play a role someone else wants you to play. Be yourself or the world will miss out on the unique contribution only the real you can make.
24. Help someone who can’t repay you
The Bible says it is more blessed to give than to receive which seems counterintuitive, but it’s absolutely true! When you help someone who can help you back, it’s called networking. When you help someone with no thought of repayment, it’s called love. Be the kind of person who is willing to help others. True greatness isn’t about be served; it’s about serving others.
25. Throw a surprise birthday party for someone you love
This one is FUN and memorable. I’ve thrown several surprise parties for my wife Ashley. I was also part of an epic surprise 50th and 40th birthday party for two friends in the guise of a fake funeral (nobody actually died). I know it sounds kind of morbid, but it was a brilliant way to get everyone gathered together! Surprise parties make great memories and the show the people you love that you care enough to spend a lot of time planning a celebration.
26. Establish healthy boundaries
In almost every sport, there is a field or court with clearly marked boundaries. Anything “out of bounds” doesn’t count and those boundaries give order and structure to the game. So many people live life without establishing what’s out of bounds so their life has no real order or structure. Your relationships, your schedule and most every part of your life needs boundaries. If you don’t know where to start, the book Boundaries by Drs. John Townsend and Henry Cloud is a good resource.
27. Write a book (or a song)
I remember the first time I held a book with my name on the cover. It was surreal. It was just a short, self-published book full of typos, but I felt like I was holding gold. When you write a book (or if you’re musically-inclined, write a song), it puts your thoughts and feelings into an enduring and tangible format you can share with future generations. It’s also very rewarding.
28. Look good in a swimsuit (at least once)
I love Mexican food and ice cream too much to be able to see my abs, but I have one picture with my shirt off from college where I look pretty good. At the time, I don’t remember thinking I looked that good, but now at almost 40 looking back, I was pretty hot! This list item is more funny than serious, but you probably will be glad you have at least one swimsuit picture of yourself you’re not embarrassed of!
29. Read the Bible cover-to-cover
Of everything on this list, this one has been one of the most helpful to me. I read the Bible everyday as part of a morning quiet time, and it’s the best way I can start my day. I first read through the Bible cover-to-cover shortly after college and that experience was transformational. It’s the bestselling book of all time and it’s shaped more lives, more cultures and more stories than anything ever written. Read it for yourself. As a “Part 2” to this item, I’d encourage you to memorize as many scriptures as you can. Put God’s word in your mind and heart. Aim at memorizing 40 Bible verses before you turn 40.
30. Make a personal commitment to your faith
This one links to the previous one about reading the Bible. Each person must come to a place in his or her own journey where their faith isn’t just inherited from their parents. It must become very real and very personal. Decide for yourself and then build your life on a foundation of your faith. For me, that decision meant following Jesus and trusting the Bible as my guide. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
31. Volunteer to coach a kids’ team
I was never a great athlete, but some of my most rewarding memories happened on a sports field. I wasn’t playing; I was coaching. For the record, I’m not a great coach but I love kids. I’ve coached several of my kids’ little league teams and investing into them and their teammates (and the other parents) has been richly rewarding. Even if you don’t have kids of your own, volunteer to coach. The kids need you and you’ll gain some great memories.
32. Read a thousand books
I’m an author, but, ironically, I used to hate reading! I didn’t really develop a love for reading until I was in my twenties. Now, I wish I would have started much earlier. I try to read a book a week (which is approximately a thousand books in twenty years). For full disclosure, several hundred of my thousand are short picture books I read to my kids at bedtime! Books have shaped my thinking, stretched my worldview, entertained me, challenged me, instructed me and inspired me. Develop a love for reading. It will change your life. For some books to get you started, once you finish this article, google my article on “12 Books that Will Change your Life.”
33. Sing karaoke (while you’re sober)
I’m not a good singer, and the thought of singing in front of people used to be a really phobia, but ever since my wife talked me into singing a karaoke duet with her, I not only conquered a fear, I had a blast! Don’t do it drunk. (As a quick sidenote, I wouldn’t recommend doing anything drunk.) Drunk karaoke doesn’t require courage. Everyone should try sober karaoke at least once. Get some friends together and plan a group number as a first step.
34. Give away something very valuable
There was a quote posted on a plaque at my college that says, “That which a man gives away often becomes his greatest possession.” I understood what the quote meant in college, but I didn’t fully believe it was true. The older I get, the more I see the truth and wisdom in those words. When we give away our forgotten junk to Goodwill, we don’t fully appreciate the joys of giving. When you give something that matters to you; something of great value, it becomes an even greater part of you. When the Bible says, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive,” the Bible is telling the truth!
35. Live in the country
I grew up in the country and I didn’t appreciate it until after I had grown up and moved away. The solitude and simple pace of life of rural living can give you peace of mind, a new appreciation for all God’s creation and some breathtaking sunsets. Everyone should live in the country at least once. I’ve done it once and hope to do it again.
36. Live in a city
The energy of a city is electrifying. I’ve spent a lot of time in cities, but this is one item on the list I’ve not yet done. I’m in a season of life where it’s difficult because of our young children, but I would have loved the experience of living in a major city before I had kids. I love the energy, culture and diversity an urban setting provides. It’s probably still something I’ll do later in life.
37. Live in the suburbs
This is my life right now. There’s a special connection that happens when you’re part of a neighborhood. It’s Americana at it’s finest with all the quirks, blessings and unexpected friendships neighbors can provide. For bonus points, go to at least one neighborhood association meeting in your life. You can base entire sitcoms on those meetings!
38. Have a dog
I don’t think a person has fully lived until they’ve owned a dog. There is such a special bond between humans and “man’s best friend.” If your parents didn’t let you have one as a kid, then get one for yourself as a grownup. I currently don’t have a dog, because our life and travel schedule is so crazy, but I’m thankful for the time I’ve had with my pets in the past and I’m sure I’ll have more in the future.
39. Go to counseling
As a pastor, I’m often counseling with people and referring people to counseling, but with the exception of some premarital counseling, I had never been to a counselor until recently. I finally took my wife’s advice and went to see a Christian counselor and I’m SO glad I did. It’s giving me a fresh perspective that I really needed. I don’t see going to a counselor as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of wisdom. Don’t wait for a crisis before you go (although if you’re in a crisis, definitely go). Going early could prevent the crisis from ever happening.
40. Believe that your best days are still ahead of you
Never buy into the myth that you’re past the best and it’s all downhill from here. As a Christian, I believe that the best doesn’t truly begin until we step from this life into eternity, but even in this life, there are new adventures and new lessons to learn in every season. Don’t try to recreate the past or recreate the “Glory Days.” Every new day has a glory all it’s own. I pray your next 40 years are your best yet!