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My Birthday Project

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 23rd birthday by sending out the following message to all my friends for whom I have e-mail addresses.

-----Original Message-----
From: Ian Ybarra
Subject: It's my birthday. Will you give me a present?

Today I turn 23 years old. And I'm writing to ask you for a birthday present.

Don't worry; it doesn't cost anything. I only ask that you give me the gift of answering one of these two questions:

1) If you're over 23 (no need to specify your exact age ;-), what was the best thing you did when you were 23 or what one thing do you wish you had done (or done differently) when you were 23?

2) If you are 23 or younger, what's one thing you hope you'll do or do better when you're 23?

I had this idea a couple weeks ago when I was thinking about how most people naturally stop and reflect on the past year/years and the coming year on two days: New Year's Day and their birthday. I thought this might be a neat way to enrich my reflections, especially since I don't get to ask all my friends and family to share their advice and experience as much as I'd like. If it works well, I might make it an annual activity.

If you're curious to know how this little project of mine turns out, let me know and I'll send you a selection of the answers I receive (sources will be kept anonymous, unless they want to be named).


-------End Of Message--------

I had no idea how this little project would go, but it turned out to make my 23rd birthday one of my best. A few minutes after I sent the message, my Inbox began to flood -- so much that I had to set up a filter to take all the replies to another folder so I wouldn't spend the whole day reading them instead of doing work. In the first 24 hours, I received over 100 responses, and they've continued to trickle in since then.

I'm so proud of my friends and family for sharing some really great, personal stories from the past and for letting me in on their dreams for their futures. I've learned a ton from their experiences, and I'm excited to help them go where they want to go.

I thought I'd give you a chance to learn from the project, too...

Here's a selection of the responses. (I made a few small edits and paraphrased a bit to make everything read smoothly and to condense the longer stories.)

When my youngling friends are 23, they hope they will...

  • travel to a foreign country.
  • graduate from college.
  • have some clue about what I'm doing with my life.
  • figure out what contribution I want to make in this world.
  • find a hot girlfriend, so if you come across any fly honies, please send them my way.
  • pay off my student loans so I can go to grad school to get a Ph.D. so I can later start my own business (Aero/Astro stuff). Nah, screw all that. I just want to go back home and see my friends again.
  • keep in touch with my family better than I did during college.
  • to have a focused 5- to 10-year plan to get myself training & competing at an international level in eventing (it's like the decathlon of horse riding).
  • go on a cruise, travel extensively, and collect monopoly boards from every country I visit.
  • enjoying the moment instead of concentrating so hard on the future or when "one day, I'll be happy."
  • record in my date book all of my friends' birthdays -- something I've been meaning to do for a long time.
  • stay in touch with more people on a more personal level. More phone calls, more face-to-face time. Less mass emails.
  • hit a homerun out of Fenway Park. I am not sure how this is possible but maybe I could sneak in when no one's around.

When my older friends were 23, the best thing they did was...

  • moving to Paris.
  • taking a European vacation, my first foreign trip without a native host in a country where English wasn't very predominant. It made everything in the U.S. seem "smaller" afterwards. Or maybe I just feel bigger.
  • taking up a hobby fixing antique pocket watches.
  • getting married (or meeting the person I would marry).
  • skiing a lot while I was in grad school at UCLA. Zooming down a slope surrounded by snow-capped peaks is one of my happiest memories.
  • going to Landmark Forum (www.landmarkeducation.com). Afterward, a world of possibility opened up because I finally confronted all of my past from 23 years of living.
  • quitting my job...and subsequently squandering my savings by traveling around the world.
  • buying my first home.
  • realizing that having a career that pays you great money doesn't necessarily bring you a life of happiness.
  • getting a divorce and moving on to a much more loving, lasting relationship.
  • taking a spontaneous roadtrip with my college friends
  • growing up a lot from moving to a new town with my husband and two babies, with no family nearby, during the poorest year of my married life.
  • completing a mini-triathlon with some friends.
  • playing open mike night every week even if I sometimes (read: always) had horrible stage fright, had no new material to play, was hungover and my voice was hanging on to a very fine thread, and didn't have time for it.
  • quitting my job on Wall St. and taking one working in the finance department at [a very popular magazine]. I wouldn't recommend working in the finance department of a magazine, but I would recommend quitting a job on Wall St.
  • focusing my life on God and my family after watching my brother die of leukemia.
  • living on top of the city. We paid a lot for rent but it was worth it every day when we looked out the window and saw an awesome view of Boston.
  • committing to the Priesthood.
  • moving to San Francisco on a whim -- with no job or anything.
  • quitting grad school. It was a tough thing to do, but it was the right thing for me.
  • taking dance classes. In the process I met my wife, many good friends, and a few people who worked for a company I started.
  • getting into mountain biking, which helped me meet some great friends and kept me in good shape.
  • spending the summer in Newport with friends.
  • making a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field to watch the Packers. I froze my butt off, but the Packers won, and it was awesome!
  • giving up reading fiction. I decided that I'd rather spend time searching for interesting characters in the world outside rather than in the pages of books.
  • flying in the Navy and living on Aircraft carriers. I ended up visiting 38 countries during the 30 years I spent in the US NAVY. My advice to you is "Do what you love to do, because your work years will be hell if you don't."
  • running my first marathon.
  • singing karaoke. Eight of my friends fed me shots until I got enough courage to sing "Sweet Caroline" in front of the entire restaurant. Now it's my calling card at any karaoke event!
  • learning about many foreign cultures (and ate tons of ethnic foods!) while working at the University of Chicago. The professors and students I worked with were from Taiwan, the Phillipines, Hungary, and many other countries.

When my older friends were 23, they wish they would have...

  • gone after life a little more, started thinking about what I really wanted out of both my present and my future, and done something to prepare for it.
  • been more determined about my career and my interests. The 1st of January, I wanted to become a journalist, the 2nd - a diplomat, the 3rd - a poet, the 4th - a traveler, the 5th - a professor, the 6th, 7th, 8th. 9th and so on for 365 days a year.
  • relaxed and enjoyed life. Not been in such a rush to get that job, figure out my career, etc. Spent some time doing what mattered to me most.
  • earned a college degree and become a physical education teacher. That was always my dream, but I didn't follow it!
  • not drank so much and continued to go to the gym. Instead, I got really fat (~175 pounds is a lot considering I wrestled 112 in high school and 126-149 in college).
  • gone to NYC and pursued a career in classical music.
  • joined my crazy musician friends when they invited me to play in their bands. I may have picked up some guitar chops, some singing skills, or just gotten some other good stories out of it.
  • explored more of the places and careers that sounded interesting and exciting to me before choosing "the next thing" in my life.
  • bought real estate and other passive-income assets so that I could retire early to play golf, hunt, and fish for the rest of my life.
  • planned as much for marriage and family as I did for every other area of my life (career, etc.). I just thought of dating as a way to pass time on Friday nights. But I never thought about the things that really matter -- not just my 20 year personal goals, but my 100 year goals, too. What sort of kids, grandkids, etc. do you want to have? What do you want your family to be known for? Or, if you don't want to get married and go down that path at all, that's fine, but it's critical to know that and plan accordingly, too.
  • spent more time with my Mom. She told me stories of her professional career before children and living in a southern city with a culture I still marvel and wonder about today. I didn't see then how important her wisdom was, and she died suddenly when I was 23.
  • gone after the work I loved -- photojournalism. I did briefly attend a school of photography, but I didn't try hard enough to see what I could have done. And women photojournalists were somewhat of a novelty at that time.
  • continued to play the guitar. I'd be a killer guitarist by now and, more important, I'd be able to teach my son, who wants to learn how to play. I still harbor ambitions to take lessons again so it's not too late, right?

No, it's not too late. My friend could still learn to play the guitar. We could, too. We could do any of these things, or we could do none of these things and make up our own. The main thing is that we're doing what we love.

That's how this little birthday project of mine came about. I love coming up with crazy new ideas for making cool stuff that helps people think differenlty or puts more fun in my life. This year, I want to execute more of my crazy ideas than in years past. I think this was a good start.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 8 June 2005

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23 was a pretty boring year for me. (About 25, on the other hand, I could tell you cautionary tales for HOURS...) What I most wish I'd done differently in either of those years? Pay more attention to how much my friends and family mattered to me.

Posted by: Matt at June 9, 2005 04:50 AM