30 life lessons learned

14 min read
11 Dec 2018

ctively learning from the world around you is essential for living a life you are proud of, according to successful entrepreneur Ryan Allis. Here’s a list of 30 lessons Ryan has learned throughout his career.

This article was written by the original owner of startupguide.com, Ryan Allis, and published on his website in 2012. Read more about why Ryan was happy to hand over his website domain to us here.

Since 2005, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing down the things that I have learned in my personal journal. I’m going to share a few dozen of the key life lessons that I’ve recorded over the past few years.

1. Listen to that little voice in the back of your head

It’s often alerting you to something very important.

2. You can achieve anything you set your mind to

Back in 2001, when I was 16, I wrote down the very ambitious goal of building a company to $1 million in sales by the time I turned 21. As I’ve shared, I missed that goal, but only by 18 days.

There’s no way that we would have been able to achieve what I did at iContact had I not written down that goal and brought into my life the people, the knowledge, and the resources necessary to figure out how to actually make that a reality.

In 2005, when we got to $1 million in sales, I really started believing that I could achieve anything I set my mind to, as long as I was acting within the Golden Rule.

3. Never let non-communication, or lack of communication, lead to the degeneration of a relationship

Often, when I was growing up, I had the Internet as a shield between me and real people. I wasn’t as good at interacting with others, and as a result, many times I didn’t proactively communicate. What I’ve learned is that it is rare to over-communicate. Spend time investing and communicating with your partners, with your friends, and particularly with your teammates.

4. Don’t avoid doing things because they may cause conflict

One of the hardest things to learn as a manager is sometimes you just have to get in there and deal with the situation, even if it’s going to cause a little bit of difficulty along the way.

5. At the end of the day, integrity is what matters

One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned is that at the end of the day, integrity is what matters. Integrity means telling the truth and doing what you say you are going to do.

6. Never, or rarely, say “but,” and instead say “yes, and”

I learned this lesson in 2006 during improv classes in Carrboro, North Carolina at the Dirty South Improv Theater. There we learned to “yes, and” to life and  “yes, and” to everything our partners in that act were saying.

One of the most important parts of improvisation is to flow with it and just go with whatever is happening and to “yes, and” what your partner is bringing to the table and accentuate and elevate it even further.

I brought that principle back to my business and I was able to have better debates and better discussions with people by being able to reinforce what they were saying by saying “yes, and” instead of saying “but.”

7. There are two ways to determine the rules of life. You can either do it by talking to smart people, or through trial and error. Either way you do it, start learning early

I’ve learned my most important lessons both ways. And I’m grateful to have learned so much before the age of thirty.

8. If somebody sues you, go talk to them in person. Immediately

I learned this lesson the hard way in 2006. Virante, my web design and search engine optimization company, was in a legal struggle with another company down in Texas.

We had a client who wasn’t happy with some of the work we had done. Instead of flying out there and talking to the client, or even picking up the phone, we talked to our lawyer and the lawyer said, “Whatever you do, do not talk to your client. It will cause a legal issue if you have any communications.”

At that time, I was only 21 or 22, and I listened to our attorney and decided to avoid the client, and the client decided not to pay us for a long time. Eventually, we ended up in arbitration and we actually won the case. But it really wasn’t worth it. After all that time, when you look at how much money we made for the hours we put into it, we lost out.

So what I’ve learned is that if someone sues you or threatens to take you to arbitration, talk to them in person and figure out how to have a win-win. Figure out what the communication gap is.

9. Networking is not about business cards.

It’s about building meaningful relationships that can last for life with quality people and seeing how you can help them. It’s not about transactional relationships that are one-off where you can get something in the short-term from someone. It’s about building something that can last for a long time, in which you can both help each other out.

10. 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 per day

In 2006, I started learning a lot about economic development, international development, and global poverty.

I had one of my most inspirational professors as a senior in high school back in 2001 by the name of Mr. Fletcher, who taught economics from a sociological or human perspective, instead of the supply-and-demand curve mathematical perspective from which economics is generally taught. At the time, he taught us that 2.6 billion people live on less than $2.00 per day. That really hit home.

You might argue that $2 in another country goes a lot further than $2 in the United States. While that’s true, this figure is actually “purchase power parity” (PPP) adjusted. What that means is that this figure is adjusted based on what actually costs to buy bread, fuel, and other basics in other countries.

Imagine having to get through an entire day on less than $2. It would be very difficult. The reality is that 39 percent of the world, (2.5 billion people), do that every single day. In fact, $1 billion people live under $1.25 per day, which is the World Bank’s measure for “extreme poverty.”

11. 22,000 children under 5 die every day

Most of them die in the developing world from preventable diseases and low nutrition. This simply doesn’t have to happen in a world where we have the amount of resources that we have.

Think about how much you make per day if you’re in the working world, (if you’re not, think about your parents). In America, the average wage annually is around $40,000 or $45,000. If you work, say, every day of the year, that would be about $120-$130 per day, per year.

The reality is that the mean average wage in the world, per year, is right around $5,000. But if you were to adjust that for all the high income earners at the top, looking instead at the median (the most frequent) wage that’s around the world, it’s actually right around $4 per day.

That’s about $1,200 per year, again purchase power parity adjusted, so it’s comparing apples to apples.

12. 80 percent of humanity live on less than $10 per day

$10 per day adds up to about $3,500 or $3,600 per year. The reality is that 80 percent of humanity lives on less than this. If you’re living on more than $10 per day, count your blessings.

13. Life is precious and it can be very, very short

You should always value life and every day, express gratitude and tell those you love that you love them as often as you can. I had a friend who experienced a tragic loss in her life back in 2007, and I learned that lesson very quickly.

14. One can see further by standing on the shoulders of giants

In other words, by having great mentors, you can do so much more and see so much further. Find mentors who are giants, in other words, people of high-integrity.

15. The world has so many more opportunities than you might even imagine

Growing up where I grew up, I didn’t really realize how many opportunities (scholarship programs, fellowship programs, and work programs) there are in the world for great people to do good things.

If you simply define your purpose and know what to want to achieve, you will start surrounding yourself with people who are passionate about the same things as you. When that happens, you will start to find out about amazing opportunities. Once you define your purpose, you can more easily seek out these opportunities.

16. Positive developments occur when you associate with extraordinary people

Once you find extraordinary people by aligning with your purpose, great things can happen: access to networks, new opportunities, chances to up your game, do better, do bigger, think bigger, and execute at a higher level.

17. If there’s one thing in life that you overdo, make it communicating with others

This lesson applies particularly in a work environment or in a loving relationship.

18. Let your inner child come out daily and silly dance!

Throughout my teenage years and early 20s, I was very serious all the time.

In 2007, I went to a course in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, called the Grinnell Leadership Program.  The Grinnell program gave me a “360 review,” which meant I asked all the people who reported to me at work to write up an assessment of myself as a leader and manager.

One of the things that came out of that review is that for a 21 or 22 year old, I was too serious. I found out that I had something people called a “stone face,” where I would curl my eyebrows, show very little emotion, and look very serious.

That was my way of trying to act like an adult,  to come to the table every day and be seen as an older, mature person. But the effect was that it made it very difficult for others to connect to me on an emotional or human level.

I still have a lot to learn about relaxing, letting my inner child out, and silly dancing. One of the things we’ve implemented at my new company, Connect, is that after every daily meeting, we take about 30 seconds to silly dance.

Today we have a team of eight. Someday hopefully we will have a team of 800. I can’t wait until we have our monthly meeting with all 800 and we can end it with a massive silly dance.

19. Wait until you’re fully able to stand on your own two feet from a financial standpoint before you choose to get into a partnership with somebody else

I learned this lesson after seeing a lot of my friends from childhood and college get married at the age of 21, 22, or 23. It’s not only important from a financial acumen or financial safety standpoint; it’s important for a sense of self-worth.

When two equal partners come together, both of whom can live apart if need be, and choose to create a partnership, it’s a much stronger bond than when two people have to be codependent on one another to even cover basic financial needs.

20. If possible, wait to have children until you can really financially afford to have children

Oftentimes, someone who is in their early 20s might make plenty of money, but it’s not until your later 20s, or even your early 30s, that you really have enough savings in the bank to be able to afford to raise children. I’ve always wanted to delay having children until later in life, in order to really do it well.

21. Good health is everything

I learned this in 2007, when a good friend of mine became very sick. Investing in healthy eating and exercise, regardless of your age, is critical to your daily performance and your long term existence.

22. Don’t ever let your mind limit yourself

Many people have a sense in their mind that not much is possible. What I’ve found is that a lot of limitations are self-imposed or come from friends who are saying, “Oh, don’t be silly. Don’t even try to be ambitious.”

Earlier, I talked about aligning yourself with people who tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to. Whether it’s your friends or your own self that’s limiting you, don’t let them.

23. One way to avoid criticism is to do nothing. The world will then leave you alone

Oftentimes, people fear criticism. If you do nothing worthwhile, you’ll avoid it. The world will leave you alone.

If you do something, if you put yourself out there, if you try to do something that’s a little bit abnormal, most likely you will be criticized. That just comes with the territory of trying to be a leader, trying to be someone who might be in the public eye.

If you really want to make a huge impact on the world, or live a public life, you have to learn to deal with other people criticizing you. It’s one of the hardest things to learn.

When that happens for the first time professionally, it can be very challenging to deal with. But getting through that and getting to the other side will enable you to become a much more effective leader and manager.

24. Arrogance is not over-confidence. It’s being dismissive of others

Growing up, I always thought arrogance was just over-confidence. But I learned that in fact, it’s being dismissive of others.

I’m a pretty confident person, but I hope I don’t come across as arrogant. I hope I come across as valuing everyone, regardless of where they’re from, their background, and their perspectives.

I hope I come across as recognizing that we all have amazing gifts to give the world. You can be extremely confident, as long as you’re not dismissive of others.

25. Never cheat on your spouse, period. And especially not if you’re planning to run for national political office

I’ll leave the people who taught me this lesson nameless, but it suffices to say that there have been some very high profile cases where people ended up ruining their political careers by not being faithful to their partner, their lover, or the person that they have committed to.

26. It takes ten years to become great at something. Choose carefully

In a 60-70 year productive life, you can only really be great at six or seven things. It takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, according to Malcolm Gladwell.

Putting in that amount of time usually takes around ten years. And for every kid you have, that six or seven things goes down by one.It’s possible to do four or five things in life really well that will last beyond your own lifetime and leave a legacy. Choose those four or five things carefully.

27. Every day, do something wonderful with infectious enthusiasm

Going into 2009, I had a wonderful friend who taught me this life lesson. I’ve tried to follow that every single day. Ever since, life has been even better.

28. Just say “Okay, good” to life

In 2009, I was traveling with my friends Bob and Jess in Uganda. We woke up a little late and we had missed our bus from Gulu down to Kampala. I was fumbling for my alarm clock and I spilled milk all over the place. And the words came out of my mouth: “Okay, good.”

That became a saying between that small group of friends. Whenever something was difficult, whenever something was not going our way in life, we would just say, “Okay, good.” It means: That happened and that’s all right. I’m going to deal with it and move on and be able to do something better in the next iteration of time.

29. Cancer really is a horrible thing

In 2009, my business partner, Aaron, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and I saw the horror of cancer firsthand. Regardless of the cause, cancer is a horrible thing.

I’m really hoping that in the years ahead, as scientific research advances and we learn about the wonders of what’s possible with new materials like carbon nanotubes, new drugs, and new vial treatments, we really can, once and for all, end many, if not all, of the forms of cancer.

30. We all have challenges in life. It’s how you interpret them and respond to them that counts

I am always humbled and inspired by the examples of people who went through unimaginable trials, yet emerged as better people, with a greater desire to do good in the world.

It all comes down to how we interpret our challenges: do we simply feel sorry for ourselves and be angry at life for having dealt us a bad hand, or do we see opportunities for growth and wisdom even in the hardest of times?

Eager to find out more about the lessons Ryan learned throughout his life? Read the full list of his 47 life lessons here.

Main photo: Unsplash/Artem Sapegin

*This article was originally published on October 17th, 2018 and updated on December 11th, 2018.