3 Variable Life Lessons from Humans of New York

Two of the silliest assumptions you can make are:

  1. to think everyone is like you, or
  2. to think no one is like you.

Both of those are ridiculous.

We each share so many similarities in what we hope for, the kind of life we want to have, and the way we want to be treated. Within that similarity, there are also an infinite number of variations in the way we live out those ideas. So if you don’t mind a bit of paradox, you can see how you’re simultaneously commonplace and unique.

When I was writing stories for my book about searching for meaning and trying to figure out the kind of person I wanted to become, I wondered if the ideas would resonate with readers. Were the stories only isolated experiences that I had and no one else? Or did I get close to some of the universal truths, things we all experience in one way or another even though the surface-level details may look different?

From the feedback of readers, friends, family, and even strangers, I heard time and again: “Me too!” [Read some of the Amazon reviews and you’ll see.]

Growing through change, learning to face conflict, growing healthy relationships, and wrestling with faith and doubt are things we all experience. So if those are so common to each of us, where else might we find those themes playing out?

The other day, my wife [Kati] read a post from Humans of New York, and it made me see how we’re all trying to find clarity and confidence in a world of choices. Here are a few examples:

3 Variable Life Lessons from Humans of New York

1. Change is Essential to the Process of Growth

photo credit: Humans of New York

“I don’t think I’m going to miss eighth grade. It’s been a tough year. A lot of my friends are struggling with depression and self-harm, and it’s hard for me to watch. I just care about them so much. Growing up is so hard for some people. It’s such a big thing. It’s your foundation, I guess. You’re becoming you. It’s such a big thing and we’re going through it right now. Some of my friends are struggling with loving themselves and loving life. I think they forget that we’re still learning. They think that they’re already who they’re going to be. They think they know the future. And it’s going to be horrible. And they’ll never be able to fix it. But that’s not true because we’re still changing. And we’ll always be changing. Even when we’re old, we’ll be changing.”

Embracing change is how you grow. In The Variable Life, I wrote:

Humans are meant to grow. We are designed with an unrelenting need to reshape our existence. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard knew: “Now with God’s help, I shall become myself.”

At some point, you will change more than others around you. It’s hard, but it’s an inevitable reality. It will help you love others even when it’s difficult, and it will teach you more about yourself and the kind of person you want to become.

2. Escape Your Routine to Gain New Perspective and Feel Alive

photo credit: Humans of New York

“I’m practicing French right now. I want to move to Europe so I can force myself to start over. I have a nine-to-six job. It’s a good position. They pay me well. I love my team. But everything just feels so familiar. There’s no discomfort or uncertainty anymore. On weekends I go to the same neighborhood bar. I eat at the same restaurants that I know are good. I take interesting vacations, but even those tend to follow a regular pattern. As much as I tell myself that I’m being adventurous when I hike in Peru—it’s a very planned risk. I think a new city will be good for me. I’ll start out alone. I’ll be forced to reflect. I’ll have a sense of unexpectedness. I want to feel like a tourist in my own life again.”

Have you ever gotten the sense that you were on the edge of a cliff, and you were scared to death, but you knew you had to take the leap?

Every so often, you may feel the urge to quit your job, or take a trip somewhere totally foreign, or do something that you’ve never even considered before. Why is that? Is there something deep within yourself, or is it God telling you to take a step further, or is it your desire for a more exciting, meaningful life?

That’s an important voice to listen to. It may not be wise to make major life changes without considering the cost, making plans, and consulting trusted loved ones—but maybe we need a little discomfort so we realize

From the book:

When we’re comfortable, we put down roots and plant ourselves in a current situation, relationship, or job. We build a routine, a schedule to provide us security and consistency. Avoiding or ignoring conflicts now impedes our ability to navigate them later. It enables us to coast because we know what follows the next thing, and the thing after that. When we know what’s next, we don’t need to trust in anything but ourselves.

The best thing for your sense of purpose, your faith, and your perspective could be to try something new and different.

3. Being in Relationships Teaches You So Much About Yourself

photo credit: Humans of New York

“I’m turning thirty in July. And I’m still working out a lot of childish things in my dating life. I’m learning how to communicate. I’m learning to ask myself: ‘What do I want?’ instead of ‘What can I take?’ I’m learning that another person can never ‘complete me.’ And I’m learning that in certain moments it’s OK to not like somebody—even if you love them. It’s taken me longer to figure this stuff out because I had to hide my identity for so long. I know that nobody ever fully arrives, but heterosexuals definitely have a head start.”

Many of us know pockets of people who expect us to get married by age xx, have kids, land a stable career job, or fulfill any number of spoken or unspoken expectations. If you want to waste time and emotional energy, listen to what others expect of you and ignore your own sense of what you must do—especially in relationships.

Yes, being married or in a partnership can be profoundly rewarding and fun—but it also requires a lot of effort and humility. Whether you want to or not, being in a relationship will show you all kinds of beautiful and ugly things about your true self because you have far less space to hide or pretend.

One thing I learned about myself while dating was this:

Failed romances made me a calculated risk-taker. I learned to analyze and wait longer to act—usually not out of maturity, but out of a fear of making the wrong choice. That’s how you avoid getting hurt. Yet love always includes conflict; you can’t avoid it.

It’s OK to be imperfect. Be highly suspicious of anyone who claims to be great at relationships and never admits he or she needs forgiveness, grace, and second changes. That person didn’t listen to the lessons embedded in every relationship: humility, vulnerability, and authentic love.

In a life of variables and challenges, nobody ever fully arrives. Life is an ongoing journey. Don’t worry about success or reaching a destination. You’ll keep passing mile markers and gain some perspective on your problems as you go.

What variable life lessons have you picked up so far? Share in the comments.


Life is complex. You can find clarity and confidence in the midst of it. The Variable Life is a book for you along the journey. Start reading it for free instantly.

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