“The Things That Go Wrong Often Make the Best Memories” — and Further Secrets of Adulthood.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: More Secrets of Adulthood.

What have I learned, with time and experience? Not much, I fear. Here are my latest Secrets of Adulthood. Although these items may not seem particularly profound, each one was a revelation when I finally figured it out:

The things that go wrong often make the best memories.
Approval from the people you admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.
If you don’t really want something, getting it won’t make you happy.
It’s enormously helpful, and surprisingly difficult, to grasp the obvious.
The quickest way to progress from A to B is NOT to work the hardest.
Go outside.
It’s easier to prevent pain than to squelch it. (This is true literally and figuratively.)
Where you start makes a big difference in where you end up.
Remember to choose your boss carefully.
There’s no place like home.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Actually, Voltaire came up with that one, not me.)

Here are my previously identified Secrets of Adulthood:

The best reading is re-reading.
Outer order contributes to inner calm.
The opposite of a great truth is also true.
You manage what you measure.
It’s nice to have plenty of money.
By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.
People don’t notice your mistakes and flaws as much as you think.
Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
Try not to let yourself get too hungry.
Even if you think they’re fake, it’s nice to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
If you can’t find something, clean up.
The days are long, but the years are short.
Turning the computer on and off a few times often fixes a glitch.
It’s okay to ask for help.
You can choose what you do; you can’t choose what you LIKE to do.
Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.
What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.
You don’t have to be good at everything.
Soap and water removes most stains.
It’s important to be nice to EVERYONE.
You know as much as most people.
Over-the-counter medicines are very effective.
Eat better, eat less, exercise more.
What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you–and vice versa.
People actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry.
Houseplants and photo albums are a lot of trouble.
If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
No deposit, no return.

I’ve modified one Secret of Adulthood to replace “Someplace, keep an empty shelf” with “Someplace, keep an empty shelf; someplace, keep a junk drawer.”

One of my favorite things to do on the Happiness Project Toolbox (okay, my favorite thing) is to see what other people are saying. A few of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood from other people include:

Some things are worth waiting for, some things are not.
It’s okay to like watching cartoons (even if you are 36).
A job where someone pays you to do nothing is not awesome, it’s boring.
Maturity doesn’t mean acting serious all the time.
If you buy an item that has a part that will frequently need to be replaced, go ahead and buy a replacement at the same time.
When someone is mourning a loss, don’t worry about saying the right thing. Just say something.
You need old friends and new friends.
Seek mentors for more than your career.
It is what it is.

I’m tempted to keep going. but will force myself to stop here. How about you? Have you identified a helpful Secret of Adulthood?

* I love getting the chance to see other bloggers face to face, so am very happy to be meeting Emily from TheMotherHood this afternoon.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 46,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

  • my new favorite secret to adulthood: no one notices if your toe nails are polished.

    and it’s so true – those little details we stress over that we’re sure everyone will notice? no one else notices them. and the people that do? should probably find something else to do with their time than looking at my toes!

    • Msalisburyaz

      I notice

      • Ana

        Yup, I notice mine too, and it makes me very happy when they are painted.
        But you are right robyn, maybe other people don’t actually notice your toes…so I guess the bottom line is…do it for yourself, not others.

  • Unfortunately sometimes even if you DO really want something, getting it still won’t make you happy.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a very good point as well! Add that one to the list!

  • Cor Blimey Gretchen, each one of them could make a post themselves. All are right on the mark of importance in life. May I add a couple of personal faves, ‘A smile lights up the face of the Earth’ and ‘You will never love your parents as much as when they are no longer there’. Beautiful sentiments in this post which gave me a nice feel inside. Aaaah, that’s good.

  • ‘Approval from the people you admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.’

    I spent years making myself miserable trying to earn my father’s approval. Ironically, it wasn’t until I realized I didn’t need his approval, and stopped trying so hard to get it, that he finally started to approve of me!

    • No kidding. Approval-seeking has ruled much of life. So much so that I lied so much about who I was and what I was all about that I never made any sense to anyone, and I could never truly be close to anyone.

      As I have learned to be authentic, to be my true self, there are more honest relationships in my life than I ever thought possible.

      Thanks, Heidi.

  • Trinity

    Everyone makes mistakes, including you. Don’t be quick to judge, be quick to uplift, and remember that you aren’t perfect either.

  • Melladp

    People usually do what makes sense to them at the time (even when that seems impossible to believe).

    People aren’t worrying about you – they’re worrying about themselves, just like you are. (This paraphrased from a Helen Fielding novel, of all things.)

    Your feelings are real, but they don’t constitute reality.

    • MBGKH

      Yeah, what’s that song lyric by Thom Yorke? “Just ‘cuz you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there…”

  • This is so helpful. There is so much pressure to do things right all the time and to feel that we are going to fail horribly and create disaster by slipping up. Maybe I am generalizing too much; I feel this way frequently.

    I love the idea that things that go wrong create great memories. I find this to be true… I think things slipping away from the plan cause me to pay more attention and often to find something beautiful.

    Thank you so much for this post.

  • “The things that go wrong often make the best memories.”

    I feel like my life is littered with great stories about difficult situations, accidents, and embarrassing situations. They have given me countless hours of laughter afterwards. One such situation was a time in which my ex husband was dressed as a pirate for Halloween and had a bit too much to drink. Here’s the story: http://www.postcardsfromapeacefuldivorce.com/381/our-divorce-march/

  • I absolutely adore this list. And that’s all I have to say.


    Someone asked me my opinion on a story that was recently aired on NPR. It was about what you would say to your younger self.

    The thing I came up with was: be nicer to people. And I see that reflected in this list as “It’s important to be nice to EVERYONE.”

    It really is. You have no idea what life someone is living and how they’re handling it. Sometimes it’s bleaker than we can imagine.

    Thank you for this project. I feel it is changing lives.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for your kind words! That question of “what would you say to
      your younger self” is such an interesting, helpful way to think about

  • Michael James

    “Hard is not hopeless.”

    Remembering this can help get me though some very tough times.

  • rachel

    There is a lot to think about here! Great post.

    A few of my “secrets”:

    If you want something to happen in your life, do something– even if what you do bears no obvious relationship to your goal.

    The best opportunities tend to come in unexpected ways.

    Better people tend to appreciate you more.

    Don’t miss a chance to say thank you.

    The little things in life tend to work out for the best. (In other words, save the heartache for love and career and life and death, not the bus you missed or the risotto you burned.)

    • gretchenrubin

      Great additions!

  • elle

    “Smile More.” Smile at the Starbuck’s person. Smile at the grocery clerk. Smile at your secretary. Don’t know if it makes them feel better, but it will sure make you feel better.

  • Hoskido

    My favorite Secret right now is “It won’t always be like this.” Applies to the good and the bad, but most helpful when things aren’t going well.

  • Emily

    Gretchen, it was such a HUGE treat to see you today!!!!!!!

    And what an amazing post! I’m still absorbing all the lessons. I’m going to print this up and post it nearby to let them sink in and remind me – thank you!

  • Jarrod – Inspirational Words

    These are great things to learn. I especially love the “pain is easier to prevent…” one. Question, is it always possible to choose your boss?

    Thanks for sharing, great post!!

  • These are great things to learn. I especially love the “pain is easier to prevent…” one. Question, is it always possible to choose your boss?

    Thanks for sharing, great post!!

  • Chica

    There’s a lot of great stuff here, but the one that jumps out at me is
    “When someone is mourning a loss, don’t worry about saying the right thing. Just say something.”
    When my brother-in-law’s father was dying, I asked a friend who’s mother had died suddenly a year earlier for advice, and this is pretty much exactly what she said. This is kind of a specific example of “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”, but I think it’s important enough to be a secret of adulthood in its own right

  • Bob

    So simple and so important. Thanks for the reminders, esp. “you don’t have to be good at everything.” Recovering Type A’s (like me) need to hear that a lot.

  • As a personal trainer, I often find myself saying…

    You’re stronger than you think you are.
    (But this goes beyond physical strength.)

    I also now believe, at age 55, that…
    It’s good to be the one who reaches out first.
    (Even if you think HE’s wrong and YOU are right.)

  • DiscoveredJoys

    Some good ones here. My offering:

    “What you do means more than what you think.”

  • DiscoveredJoys

    …and another one:

    “Kind words are never wasted”

  • KT

    My current favorite Secret of Adult/Parenthood: Your children may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

    This ties into one of Gretchen’s posts a while back: sometimes a long hug is more powerful than words. I try to extend this to apply to everyone I interact with (as well as my children). Consistently acting in a loving (or simply kind, for those that are non-family members) and respectful manner makes a stronger impression than what you say.

    P.S. I think I read this somewhere but I’m not sure where.

    • Kate Charles

      “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, and forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

      It’s one of my favorite quotes, too, because it’s SO true.

    • I love this!
      As a dance teacher I have always said, they may not remember my class and they may not become professional dancers, but I will forever effect the way they feel about dance and the arts.

  • Mmreyna3

    Irony is God’s way of saying it has happened before.

  • LizYoung

    When tempted to react instead of respond, I remind myself “Keep your side of the street clean.” This helps me when I am dealing with people I find difficult.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great one.

  • Joe

    Thank you Gretchen,

    My mantra each morning when I wake up is, “to live this day with joy, happiness and gratitude for all that I have now”.

    I only wish I could experience happiness like my Jack Russell who treats “everyday” as if it were occuring for the first time.

    – My helpful secret of adulthood is to experience each day as if it were the first day of your life.

  • As I’ve been reading these, I was wondering if every “Secret of Adulthood” has to be positive and uplifting. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes there are not so pleasant ones that we learn as we go through life. Does anyone have some of those to suggest?

    • gretchenrubin

      Interesting question. I think that some of those listed aren’t positive and
      uplifting…but I’d be very curious to see what people suggest.

  • LivewithFlair

    I love this post! Thanks, Gretchen!
    PS–Did somebody already say that a good secret to adulthood is finding significance in everyday (menial) tasks? It’s good to love work by seeking the meaning in it. http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/

    • I very much agree with this comment – I’ve found huge increased happiness by paying attention to daily pleasures in my life. Makes the good stuff better, and makes the yucky stuff weigh less…

  • Dylan

    I just set-up my Happiness Toolbox and I love it!

  • I think mine is:

    Yes now you are a flawed grown-up and guess what so are your parents, mentors and teachers

    It’s sobering to realize that people my age were teaching me the ‘rules’ of life as a child.I know I barely have anything figured out, gives you a little more grace when viewing rebukes and ‘wisdom’.

  • Thanks for the insightful post. These are great maxims and principles to live by. I particularly like, if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. This is reassuring and inspiring. There’s not a better way to learn. I will sure to pass this along.

  • martha in mobile

    “You can’t get enough of what you don’t really need.”

    If what you are using to try to fill a void in your life isn’t working (say — with food, possessions, hobbies, etc.), then no amount of that will work. You will only end up fat, or with too much stuff, or with too many demands on your time..

  • This is great – I like that you’re sharing how your thinking is evolving on this.

    The other day on a plane I started jotting down some thoughts I had in terms of big thoughts around happiness (not sure they’d qualify as secrets of adulthood or personal commandments or something else) and I realized that it’s really a moving target, and that a lot on my list was true today, not true a few years ago & I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it in the future.

    Ultimately I decided “true today” was a good enough starting point but I was wondering if or how your thoughts evolved, so I’m really glad to see this post today!

    I’m going to start putting my thoughts down somewhere, knowing I can evolve and change them as I wish.

  • Heather

    “The things that go wrong often make the best memories”… I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s more like “The things that almost go wrong but don’t because of miracles or heroic effort on people’s parts often make the best memories.” Or, “Often, when your plans get messed up, you find yourself doing something you never would have, and often that’s cool.” But I think anyone saying “The things that go wrong often make the best memories” has never had anything go SERIOUSLY wrong! I have, recently, hence this mini-rant.

    However, many of your other Secrets are deeply true. “Go outside” is my own personal mantra since the wrong thing happened, for example.

  • A great post! Growing into adulthood for me sometime means letting a lot go.
    I say to my kids with the exception of very few things any thing I was ever really upset about in my life ~ is totally over. I don’t even remember what they were and in the moment they felt so important.
    There will be others, but they too will fly into the ether, so to get bothered is really such a waste of time.
    Sometimes I like to remember Andy Warhol’s saying,
    ~ SO WHAT?

  • Country Gal

    I really enjoyed reading the list and comments regarding the secrets of adulthood. However, I do question the last item “it is what it is”. Maybe I don’t have a clear idea of the meaning of this statement even though I hear this almost daily at work. Usually it is used as a way people explain a shortfall in communication or a job that didn’t quite work out. I wonder if the phrase is actually meant to represent the serenity prayer (grant me the serenity to accept those things that I cannot change)? If not, whatever happened to “It is what you make it”? Sure, some things may be out of your control and may still happen despite your best efforts. But, if we are really talking about working toward true happiness would “it is what it is” be an acceptable way of thinking?

  • Andrea

    Your secrets of adulthood are great! Here’s another …. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks, but they have to WANT to learn.

  • Shirley

    Wherever YOU go there YOU are. (Not original)

  • Sophie Spence

    I do not understand what you mean by several of these, and I strongly disagree with others.

    The quickest way to progress from A to B is NOT to work the hardest.  Not sure what this means…don’t work hard? Work but don’t be the hardest worker? Or is it a “slow but steady wins the race” reference?

    No deposit, no return. Umm?

    Where you start makes a big difference in where you end up.  This seems like a commentary on class in America —  i.e., it’s much easier for babies to end up as healthy, intelligent, well-educated adults in well-paying jobs, if they start with healthy, intelligent, well-educated parents whose jobs also paid well — but that seems rather out of place in a generally upbeat list.

    “It’s important to be nice to EVERYONE.”  As a mother of two daughters in a society that values niceness in girls
    over strength, I think this “Secret” is dreadful and dangerous to
    women, and would rather have seen, “Do not accept bad treatment from
    anyone, even someone you love.” Because you must NOT be nice to the jock with the locker next to yours who keep putting his hand on your ass, or the jerk in the subway who keeps asking for your number, or the boyfriend who always wants to know where you are and who you’re with and who shoved you that one time you made him so mad….

    • Cole

      No deposit, no return, i.e. what you put into something (deposit) has a direct affect on what you get out of it (retun)

      Where you start makes a big difference in where you end up. – I think this is universal, it may not always mean positive but its true nonetheless. Start a relationship in a bad place, it will have an affect on how the relationship turns out. Start out poor, its harder to get rich. Not impossible, but if people don’t acknowledge life’s struggles, we can’t appreciate the triumphs

      “It’s important to be nice to everyone” – I agree with this wholeheartedly, its not easy but its important. Another person’s actions should not determine your own, we should be nice/kind/good-hearted because we know it is the right thing. Nice is not a synonym to weakness anymore than mean people are strong, they have nothing to do with each other. I think you are confusing nice with submissive.

  • My favorite one is by scott berkun”The web doesn’t notice if you are gone and there won’t be any sort of organized search party on Facebook/ Twitter searching for you.” and the other one is “Your concentration sharply increases when you disconnect from internet world and start engaging on other work.”

  • Jack Hammer

    Hope is a disease of the soul.

    This one kind of wrecks the happiness, but it reminds me that sometimes hoping for something to happen is not good enough. Some of my friends hate me because I say it. I don’t remember where I heard it, but it is a quote from someone famous.

  • Jack Hammer

    Oh, I notice it is quite an old blog post, but I decided to write down a few more that I keep in mind for myself.

    If nothing bad is ever said, nothing good ever gets done.

    Don’t live outside the box. Build a box.

    The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it.

    Great leaders resolve their conflicts with words.

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  • Lynne

    Hi Gretchen, I would have liked to have been able to share this easily on Linkedin, but a share button not immediately obvious.

  • Lisa

    My most recent secret of adulthood (it took me 31.5 years to get this one) is: “Do things for yourself before doing things for other people”. Although this may border on selfish, I have chosen to ignore that aspect because I have learned the hard way that if you do not give to yourself, you have very little of anything to give to anyone else. Doing things that give you a sense of fulfillment will make you more patient, understanding, and empathetic, and will give you the motivation to give your time to others.

  • Noelle

    The “mourning a loss” advice is the only one I feel strongly against. When my brother died at 30, people said many things that made it much more difficult. The best thing to do, I think is to listen. Having had many conversations with mourners, I feel that the advice must have come from someone who hasn’t ever dealt with the loss of an immediate family member.

  • outtahere78

    Thanks for this. I love that I can’t choose what I like to do.

  • thank you Gretchen you have actually made me sit up straight to read you (never mind my widowhood or osteoporosis in my polio leg since the the last7 years) yippeee to maturity i am 16 going on 17 but act 65 accordingly 🙂 have a lovely day GREAT MEETING YOU

  • Jenna

    It’s okay to not have everything in the future figured out.

    This is especially hard when others expect you to…

  • PS

    Some of my my mantras:
    Excellence, not perfection.
    It is OK to ask for help.
    It is OK to pay for help.
    And because I live in the San Francisco area: Always take a sweater!

  • boop

    I don’t get “No deposit, no return.”: Is this a reference to saving money?

    • Pete

      I think it means; If you don’t put effort it, you will not get anything back ??

  • Justice Chidi.

    you are just wonderful,may God continue to bless you with more wisdom in Jesus name,,Amen!!!

  • Stacey

    I realize that this is a very old post but I will add my 2 cents:
    “Action is the antidote to despair” (Joan Baez) and “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” (Eleanor Roosevelt). Words to live by for me..

  • MM

    Regarding the wedding registry, I don’t want someone to dictate what to buy them. If I choose to buy a friend a gift for a wedding, I wish it to be personal, not some set of glassware or whatnot that will probably just sit around collecting dust anyways. Really, wedding registries are pretty much just tacky.

  • Kate

    Recovery from some losses is impossible. Best to create balance.

  • Michelle

    My personal favourite saying is: “Bloom where you are planted.”
    The soil ( life/work/environment) can be dry,
    rocky, clay-ee, sandy, fertile, soggy, marshy – but what ever it is, you can
    achieve growth in different ways and you can bloom.