21 Things I've Learned

Twenty one things, Levi VanderKwaak has Learned
Twenty one things, Levi VanderKwaak has Learned

This past year has been one of my favourite years of life so far. I feel like I say that every year, but I just can’t stop being excited for all the things I have been learning and all the ways I have been growing this year. I turned 21 last week, and I thought it would be a great exercise to write down some of the most important things that I have learned so far in my life.

Year 21 of my life is the year for writing. I am going to be fighting to write every single day this year. What better way to start off this year than by writing a huge blog post about things I’ve learned. I don’t expect many of you to read the whole post, but I hope that as you scan certain lessons that I’ve learned will grab your attention.

Levi Allen VanderKwaak Has Learned 21 Things
Levi Allen VanderKwaak Has Learned 21 Things

1. Never Let School Interfere With Your Education

This has been my banner for life for the past 12 years. The phrase is a little reckless and has just the right amount of rebellion to make me love it. It was taught to me by my first mentor in life, Jeff, who instructed me, cared for me, and treated nine-year-old Levi like an individual.

School built around a system that rewards you for following the "map" well has never really been my thing. I never got a pat on my back for doing things the same ways as others, I never got applauded for mastering the formula. I dreaded School. Sitting in those concrete classrooms made me feel like I was a failure. This was only to be echoed through every report card I have ever received, which stated how I “wasn’t reaching my potential,” and how “Levi needs to focus more in class.”

I love learning.

Despite the crushing walls of school, I found energy and joy in the world outside. Most of all, I found a passion for learning. I’ve decided never to let school or the systems of life to interfere with my education. I am committed to being a life long learner. Despite struggling with the systems surrounding formal education, I am forever indebted to the teachers through the years that really took the time to invest in me as a person. I cannot thank these adults for the impact they have had in my life enough.

2. You Don’t Need Inspiration to Start

You know those times when you are having a hard time starting and you feel like watching one more video or browsing one more gallery on instagram is going to inspire you enough to keep going on your next big project? I have found that searching for inspiration when I should be starting actually makes it harder for me to start. I end up feeling like my ideas are no good and my project will never work out.

There comes a time when you need to stop the intake of so called inspiration and simply start creating from what is already inside of yourself. I have been learning to use my own perspective, the self-generated ideas that I bring to the table, and letting that be enough.

3. Find Your Confidence in a Willingness to Find Out

I used to think that confidence was best found by becoming competent in everything. With this mindset, my failures would lead to a lack of self-confidence. Instead of embracing my weaknesses, I believed that I needed to get better at everything. I used to find my confidence in skills, talents and the ability to be good at things. I have learned now that confidence is far more healthy and successful in the long run when it is rooted in a ‘willingness to find out.’ You don’t have to know everything, but if you are committed to 'finding out' solutions when you come upon problems, if you you willing to fix things that break, now that is a confidence that can be built upon and carried with you.

4. You Can Expand the Boundaries of Your Story

There are things about myself that I used to think were set in stone that are actually far more malleable than I thought. I used to say, “Nah, I can’t get up early every morning, I’m a night owl.” I decided that staying up late was my story and I wasn’t willing to do the hard work to change that pattern. Once I realized that I was self-defining things in my life that I was actually able to change, I began to re-write parts of my story. As a result, I have been able to change certain components of myself that I thought were just part of who I am. This applies to more than just the time I go to bed. I used to think I was a terrible listener and that would never get better, yet with hard work my listening skills have been improving drastically. There are some things like your height that you have no control over and maybe some things about yourself that you are never meant to change, but I have found that you can grow a lot more than I ever would have thought when you stop enforcing boundaries on your story.

5. You Become Who You are Around

I am so independent and headstrong that I used to think that other people didn’t influence me at all. To my surprise, I have found that I slowly become like the people I surround myself with. There are people with negative mindsets and those with positive mindsets that I can be influenced by, and I have learned that this is actually a choice that I get to make.

Who do you spend your time with? You will become like them before long. I have realized now that life is far too short to spend all your time with people that you don’t want to be like. Your mindset and outlook on life is influenced far greater by those you spend time with than you might first think. Filling your life with people that have good values and a positive outlook on life is so important. People that will build you up instead of tearing you down.

6. I Hate Debt and It Took Getting It to Know That

I don’t have much debt, honestly. But I hate it.

In high school I invested almost all of my money into camera equipment and computers because I was planning on starting a business in the film industry. That’s not a big problem. The problem is that instead of starting a business right away, I ended up studying for a year and I chose to borrow money from the government to make it happen. It was so easy. Just like that I signed up. Now three years after borrowing that money, I resent it. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had sold whatever it took to have the money or found another way to make it work.

Debt is a choice.

No one is forcing you to take on debt that you don’t want. Yet once you do it's like being a slave. I don’t want to be owned by anything except that which is worth being owned by. I have decided in my life that being owned by a bank is just one of those things that is not worth it. For me, that means no flashy cars off the lot, no new camera equipment on a credit card, not even more education at this point. I don’t think the price of dept is worth it. The burden it has placed on my mind is like a dark cloud looming over every financial decision I make: “But what about your debt?” I want to be debt free, and age 21 is the year it’s going to happen.

7. Have a Wide Range of Influences

Anyone will tell you getting all of your advice from one source is a bad idea. I have learned that getting all your inspiration from one area is bad as well. It’s not good to only consume media content from your industry and your field. Who would have known that one of the biggest influencers on my approach to business and creativity would be a Hand Letterer! What even is a hand letterer? Earlier this year, I certainly did not know.

Yet getting inspiration from this source and many others has helped me build a reservoir of good advice and inspiration that will continue to fuel me for years to come. Try tap into many different fields and industries, especially if you are a content creator. If you only listen to one or two sources, before long all of your work will be but a clone and that is certainly something you want to avoid.

8. If the Door is Closed, Check the Window

Sometimes a door closes on an opportunity that you really wanted to pursue. I have learned that sometimes we shouldn’t give up on a good opportunity as fast as we do. Sure the door is closed, but did you check for a window?

It does us no use in life if we give up every time the path gets tough. Too often, as soon as obstacles are in our way we think it must not have been meant to happen. If there is something I am pursuing and it feels like a door has closed, I have decided to always check to see if there is another way. Might there be an open window?

9. Always Assume the Best

Sometimes people in life are malicious, they are mean, they have no care for others. I have found that these people are definitely the minority. It does us much better to assume the best from others that we meet and interact with. It shows them respect and can even catch them off guard. It can be so stressful to think that everyone who says or does something that rubs us the wrong way is just out to hurt us. So often that is not their intent at all. We can be free of so much negativity if we assume the best from those we meet in life. Sure, we will be wrong at times, but we will experience something far more satisfying the other 90% of the time.

10. Confrontation vs. Clarification

There is no hiding that I am a confrontational person. Anyone who knows me is well aware that I can engage in swift discourse on almost any matter. I am actively trying to move away from this type of mindset and interactions with those in my life.

Sometimes it feels so justified to be confrontational with people. It feels so right. Yet this is rarely the case, and it is almost always followed by regret later on.

I have been learning that seeking clarification with those around you is always the better way to solve tension. I need to continue to make this a priority, but thankfully I have come a long way within the past 4 years.

11. Actively Fight a Scarcity Mindset

It’s so easy to feel cornered, so easy to feel you have to make compromises in order to survive. The pressure to take on that client who isn’t going to pay well, but you feel you should anyways because you need the money. The feeling that you need to stay stuck in the day job you hate because building your own business is too risky. These are all things that go along with the scarcity mindset. This is something that I have been actively fighting for the past 8 months.

That day when risk is gone is never going to come.

There will never be that day when the fears and pressures of life are no longer present. Security is a mirage. It doesn’t exist. I need to stop waiting for security and the perfect situation. I need to stop compromising on my values because I feel I have to in order to survive. If I want to be free of the scarcity mindset one day, I have learned that that day needs to start now.

12. Professionals Take Responsibility

I am a growing professional. One huge area that I have been growing in is acknowledging that if I want to call myself a professional, I need to take the responsibility that goes along with it. There is no such thing as these terrible clients we all talk about. There are only terrible professionals that take on these clients. If they are a terrible client you never should have taken them on in the first place. You should have asked the right questions before hand to find out that this was not going to be a good fit. If a project goes south and has a bitter end, guess what, that’s my responsibility. What could I have done to prevent this? If I want to wear the title of 'professional' I need to be actively taking responsibility over every aspect of my projects. The blame game doesn’t work when you are professional.

13. People See What You Do, Not Your Intentions

Good intentions are great but they only go so far. Most people judge who you are by they way you act and the things you do. I do this all the time without even deciding to do it. I look at someone and I assess who they are based on what I perceive them doing. Yet how often do I get caught up in my good intentions without actually following through with my actions? I need to remember that good intentions are not enough. They need to be manifested by good actions.

14. What You Do Shows What You Love

What do you love most in your life? Are you convinced that if someone took a detailed account of your actions they would be able to recognize what you say you loved? I am not convinced the results would be what I want for myself. There are far too many things that I say I love, and yet my actions don’t reflect it.

The sad thing is that my actions reveal far more about what I actually love than I care to admit. This has been an amazing litmus test in my life.

Levi, tell me how you spend your time and I will tell you what you love. This is scary, and it reminds me that everyday I need to be spending time on things that I actually care about.

I don’t love instagram, I don’t love vimeo, and yet if you looked at how I spend my time day to day it would certainly be hard to tell.

15. Operating on Values is Far More Important

You are the only person who is going to make decisions on your values. I realized that I am the only person responsible in my own life to make sure that my decisions reflect my core values. Do I want to be a man of integrity and humility? How important is that to me? If I claim these characteristics are important then I actually need to be making the hard decisions that reflect this. When you compromise once for a quick gain, you are putting far more at stake than just one situation. I have realized that now more than ever I need to be aware of what my values are and hold them as the highest priority in my decision making.

16. Taking the Path Less Chosen is Harder for A Reason

It’s easy to complain when your are trying hard to find your own path through life. It is easy to flake out when you are trying to take the path less chosen. It is easy to feel down when you are trying to fight a scarcity mindset and think separate to the culture that surrounds you. Yet sometimes I forget that it’s that way for a reason. Acting different than the majority is harder because it is different. If it wasn’t harder everyone else would be doing it. The reward on your investment through making your own path can be far greater, but that does not mean the path to getting there is going to be easier.

17. People Put You in a Box

I used to hate the idea of people putting me in a box. I wanted to be the drummer, filmmaker, photographer, geek, mountain biker, surfer, snowboarding person. But people don’t know what to do with you when they see all these things about you. They want to simplify you to one component and remember you based off that. I used to think of this as a bad thing. I was troubled by the idea of being put into a box and was convinced that I would be an exception.

By wanting to be known for everything, people ended up not knowing me for anything.

Now this is mostly the case with interactions on the internet, but it also happens often with the people you meet and work with in real life. You don’t have to be the mysterious elusive person. When you have the courage to find your niche and actually become an expert in one specific area, it benefits your professional career immensely.

18. The Days are Long but the Years are Short

I may not be old and wise, but I am old enough to see in my own life that the days have been long and the years have been short. It gives me perspective in my young years that I need to make the most out of the present. I am a dreamer and a visionary. I spend so much of my day thinking about the future and things that are yet to come. I need to have a healthier balance on this and fight to live in the present and not let the long days slip by too fast. There are only so many opportunities you can have in one life. I am sometimes afraid that I might miss them if I live too much in the future.

19. People Don't Spend Much Time Thinking About You

I try not to spend much time thinking about the opinions of others. Sometimes when I do, it can feel like others think about my actions and decisions far more than they actually do. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what other people feel about the choices I make in my life. The truth is, though, those around you, even those that are really really close to you, think about you a lot less than it ever seems. How often do you spend pondering the daily lives of those around you?

Now this isn’t something that is supposed to be upsetting, rather it is just a fact of life. You are the only person who lives 100% of your life. I have realized this and I want to continue to live more freely from the opinions of others.

20. I Need to Write Everyday to Reach My Biggest Goals

This is one of the hardest things for me to come to amends with. I don’t feel like a writer, and I certainly never aspired to be one. When an older and wiser filmmaker told me that if I wanted to make it in the film industry I needed to start writing, I doubted his advice but started to think more seriously about the importance of writing.

I finally decided it was worth it because I realized that writing is a stepping stone for literally every project I care about. When I think about the beginning process of anything that I want to create I realize that it all starts with this seemingly insignificant step: written communication.

Capturing your next brilliant ideas. Sharing your plans with others. Selling your skills to clients. All of these things hinge heavily on the skill of writing. I knew my writing wasn’t great and that made me not want to start, yet I know one of the only ways I can get better is if I start writing every day. That's why my commitment for 2015 is to write everyday. I still won't be calling myself a writer, but I am committed to write because I know it will take a lot of writing to reach my biggest goals.

21. I Can’t Keep Waiting for Tomorrow

Showing up and working hard, enjoying life to the full, starts today. I tend to get into a cycle of procrastination when I am faced with a challenges. I assume that the day that follows will be a better day to tackle some of the harder things in life. I do this with so many things including my laundry, my relationships, and my spiritual growth. I put things off far more often than I ought to.

I need to realize everyday that today, the present, is the best day to start showing up. You can wait forever but tomorrow isn’t going to come any faster.

Thanks for checking out 21 things that I’ve learned! This year is going to be the biggest yet. I am so excited for what’s in store and I can’t wait to keep sharing it with you as the months go on. Stoked for the journey.

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