61 Life Lessons – A Work in Progress

March 12, 2023

I turn 61 years old this week. Hopefully, I am both older and wiser. I recently heard wisdom described as lessons you have learned in your life once you shed the associated emotion. I like that. 

A friend shared an article that Jon Gordon wrote when he turned 52, in which he shared 52 lessons he had learned in his life. I shared it with leaders in my school district and encouraged them to think about their own lists. I then followed my own advice, and that led to this post. Like the Spinal Tap amplifier that has a volume control that goes to eleven, which is clearly louder than ten, 61 lessons is certainly more than 52. And therefore, louder?

I’ve done a good deal of reflecting to come up with this list. I have also looked through my old blog posts to capture the life lessons I have written about. And I already know that this list will change as I keep examining it. Within minutes of putting it out there, I will wonder how I ever left off something super important, and I’ll ask myself why I included such a trivial lesson. That’s OK. Like all writing, you do what you can in the time you have, then press “publish,” though you know you could always make it better.

Again, I appreciate those who share their thoughts on my writing. I’d love your takes on my life lessons and I’d enjoy hearing about your own life lessons. These responses make the conversation so much better.

Without further ado, here is my list, at least as of March 13, 2023.


  1. I’m happiest when I am completely in the present moment.
  2. And I’m even happier when I am in a state of flow.
  3. The only person responsible for my happiness is me.
  4. Having a positive attitude makes your life (and others’) way better.
  5. Cooking food for others makes me genuinely happy.
  6. Worrying is a waste of time and effort. (I know this to be true, and yet I still waste time on it. I’m a work in progress.)
  7. Try not to see problems in life as huge and overwhelming. My friend Pat loves this quote by Anne Lamott:Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” We need to address our problems bird by bird.
  8. Vacations are a great way to feel that we have time affluence. But we should strive to seek that feeling of being time rich in our daily lives as well. Living like The White Rabbit (I’m late! I’m late!) is no way to live.
  9. Laughter is a cornerstone in my life. I try to surround myself with people who bring joy and laughter into my life. And I try to do the same for those I am around.
  10. Strive to be kind and grateful as many times each day as you can. The positive impacts of both are underrated.
  11. Never be mean, and, to the greatest extent possible, stay away from mean people.
  12. Venturing into the unknown keeps us young. I love adventures, though I’m not a thrill seeker. Some of my favorite memories stem from vacations as a kid and as an adult that did not go exactly as planned. That’s why I try not to overplan my vacations, something that not everyone in my two-person household agrees with.
  13. Family is the main course of life. And having great neighbors is like pie for dessert, or better yet, pie with ice cream, which is the best dessert. Great neighbors who are friends you can talk with, play with, and learn from make life far more enjoyable and far more interesting.
  14. One of the beauties of getting older is being less career-driven and more life-driven. It is freeing. Kris Krisofferson wrote, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” The older I get, the more freedom I feel.


  1. You don’t lose weight by exercising more. What you eat is 90% of the battle. And the less processed food we eat, the healthier we’ll be. I know this to be true, and I love good food. It’s just one of many struggles in my very good life.
  2. Aerobic exercise helps us to live longer; strength training helps us to live better.
  3. And by combining both of those, we Don’t Let the Old Man In. Through hard exercise and good nutrition, we can swim against the relentless tide of decay and, even at my age and older, actually grow stronger.
  4. Having a coach makes me work harder and smarter.
  5. Sometimes getting better is just about not giving up. Professional Golfer Tony Finau, after he finally won his first professional tournament said, “A winner is just a loser that kept on trying.” I remember my dad helping me to get through long bike rides by saying, over and over again, “There’s just one more hill.” Even if he wasn’t telling the truth, he helped me persevere. 
  6. Healthy competition makes me better, and I love it. My beliefs about healthy competition, whether it’s pickleball, golf, swimming, cornhole, pingpong, or seeing how many rocks you can throw into that can over there, are that I really like winning, I don’t mind losing, and, most of all, I love playing the game.
  7. COVID sucks. Our era’s global pandemic stole too many lives and turned our world upside down. 
  8. The world’s longest living people prioritize family, belong to a strong and caring community, eat unprocessed food together, and move throughout the day.
  9. Maximize habits that are healthy, caring, and/or productive. And minimize your ones that are not. 


  1. Teachers who focus on memorization are missing the point. Memorization is nice, but it’s not the goal of learning. Understanding blows the doors off of memorization.
  2. Teaching is a spectacular career. I feel very fortunate to have hundreds of students that I still know and keep in touch with. 
  3. Being a lifelong learner (Steven Covey calls it Sharpening the Saw) is what it’s all about. It starts a flame if we can imbed that in mindset of the children we teach. It keeps us happier and makes us better if we make it part of who we are.
  4. We all need heroes. Among my heroes are my mom and dad, my amazing siblings, my wife and sons, my high school principal (Father Tribou), Jackie Robinson, Abraham Lincoln, and  Vin Scully. And now I know that I need to think more about this list, as it is quite incomplete. More later.
  5. I try to keep a sense of wonder about nature. I am awed by all that I learn about Earth, its 23.5 degree axis, its relation to the sun, moon, and planets in our solar system, and our tiny spot in our universe. I have so much to learn, and I’m looking forward to that learning.
  6. The teacher as coach model works far better than the traditional teacher model. I loved teaching Advanced Placement US History, mostly because it transformed me from teacher into a coach. Coached correctly, every student in the class feels that they are working together to meet college-level standards.
  7. My hope for each student is that they have at least one great reason to go to school each day. It could be a teacher or subject they love, a sport they are passionate about, something artistic that gives them meaning, or their daily conversations with the school custodian. One thing can make all the difference. Having more than that is even better.
  8. Our non-metric measurement system makes no sense. Acres, tablespoons, hectares, feet, Fahrenheit, and miles – they are arbitrary and nonsensically related. It’s something I hope we can remedy in my lifetime. The mathematical beauty of the metric system is far more understandable. I will be writing a future blog post on my aspirations for the United States in this regard. We kind of have a non-metric calendar too, which also in my opinion, has all kinds of problems.  But that’s for a later post. 
  9. There is magic that happens in schools. If I only listened to the stories I hear from people who come into my principal’s or superintendent’s office, I might think I was in a school or district with nothing but problems. But when I get out of my office and into the classrooms, I am reminded of the powerful lessons and beautiful moments that occur in our classrooms every single day. I am proud to be an educator.


  1. When we camped as kids, one of our jobs was to leave the campground better than we found it. That’s how I try to treat my short time on Earth.
  2. Storytelling is essential in our lives. Great books and movies are wonderful stories, and, like visiting old friends throughout our lives, they are worth reading and watching again and again.
  3. I love a great museum, and I never need to spend more than one hour on any museum visit.
  4. I love lifelong sports, like swimming, golf, and pickleball, and my desire to get better at each of them, even at age 61, is one more reason to enjoy each and every day.
  5. I am an omnivore, but based on what I’ve learned about health and the planet, I am trending in a plant-based direction. And I don’t care what my son Ryan says; eggplant parmesan is an outstanding dish!
  6. Jill’s grandfather Charles Richards was right. When 5:00 PM arrived, he would often say to his bride, “Ah, Velma. This is what all of civilization has been working its way toward – the cocktail hour.”
  7. Writing these blog posts has become an important part of who I am. Joan Didion wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” However imperfect I am as a writer, I love that it makes me both introspective and reflective. My thanks to my friends Dawnalyn, Jen, and Heather, as well as my son Ryan and my wife Jill for their constant insights, edits, encouragement, and friendship. I would not be the writer I am without you.


  1. We parents need to strive to find that perfect balance between adequately protecting our children and overdoing it by being a helicopter parent, or worse, a snowplow parent.
  2. Family dinners should be mandatory in family households. The ritual and the togetherness provide a rock of stability and solace for families.
  3. At a certain point in our children’s lives, the natural consequences for their poor decisions are far worse than any consequences we can assign. That’s when we move from the parental authority mode to the parental mentor mode. I have loved making that transition.
  4. Never let your kids beat you in any game, and celebrate when they finally do it. After that . . . it’s on.
  5. One of the hardest moments in our life was dropping our youngest child off at college. Jill and I are extremely happy in our empty nest, and we miss our kids terribly. To me, that means I’ve been lucky in marriage and child raising.
  6. Thanksgiving is by far my most favorite holiday. It’s the only day truly focused on family, with the added layer of celebrating family through cooking and food. What’s not to love?
  7. Albus Dumbledore said, “It is our choices…that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Ability can open doors, but good choices and hard work are what can lead to success. Parenting is about making and modeling good choices for your children, and guiding your children to do the same in their lives.


  1. Do the best you can to save at least 10% of your salary, and when you get a raise, use part of that to increase your savings. It’s easier to save when you never felt like you had the money in the first place. Read Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kyosaki, and make your children read it when they become teenagers.
  2. Don’t be afraid to change jobs. I’ve applied for many new jobs. Those applications have been both unsuccessful and successful, eventually leading to a career spanning seven jobs in five different school districts. I have absolutely no regrets.
  3. I am at my best when I spend one hour a week prioritizing my activities for the week, and 10 minutes each morning prioritizing my activities for the day. Steven Covey’s Big Rocks lesson is timeless.
  4. For those of us who are actually working to make the world a better place, and in doing so suffer the slings and arrows of critics, Theodore Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena speech can give us strength.
  5. Marie Kondo has shown me the light. Without going overboard, we should all make the effort to minimize the “stuff” we have, keeping only what we truly love, and making our homes and offices more simple and organized in the process. Then we need to do our best to not undo what we’ve done.
  6. The Lego Movie was spot on. Everything is cool when you’re part of a team. I’m lucky to have been a part of so many wonderful teams in my career. One of the best things about going back to work as a superintendent has been getting to know and work with a new team of educational leaders who inspire me and make me better each and every day.
  7. I don’t think that a career has to give you purpose in life, but my goodness, I feel so fortunate that my career has given me four decades of a purpose-driven life.
  8.  Do everything you can to avoid credit card debt. Suffer through not having stuff you want (and sometimes need), pay off your balances, and live within your means.
  9. Dance like nobody’s watching, and email like it will be on the front page of the LA Times the next day.
  10. Winston Churchill was right when he said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” For all of its problems, past and present, I feel extremely fortunate to be an American.


  1. A good marriage gives a person the strength to deal with just about anything.
  2. My mom’s unconditional love helped me to believe in myself, even back in middle school when I had very little going for me. I would not be who I am without that love. Thanks, Mom.
  3. Love is the greatest risk of all, and the pain associated with having a loved one be ripped out of your life is unimaginable. But . . . We can survive the unimaginable. In fact, if we let ourselves, we can thrive.
  4. Knowing we are not alone in our battles makes those battles more manageable.
  5. Jean Valjean had it right: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think!

– Mike

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  1. Pam Brady says:

    Outstanding…thank you for sharing.
    I am grateful for knowing you and considering you a friend! Pam

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Right back at you, Pam Brady!

  2. RoseAnn Hansen says:

    Hi Mike, Thank you for sharing another insightful and inspiring post. However, I take exception with #58…. that you say you had very little going for you in middle school. If my memory serves me correctly, you were the smartest and the cutest boy in our class. I was a bit lost when you left to go to Central in seventh grade, lucky you…I had two more years with the nuns!! Dis-irregardless (am I using this correctly here?), I enjoy your thoughts, lessons learned, and happy memories.
    Happy Birthday!! I am right behind you! 🙂

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Well, if you ask my siblings, they would whole-heartedly agree with that statement. Thanks for being a positive voice!

  3. Michelle Krzmarzick says:

    Love it, Mike! Everything was spot on. My favorites are keeping positive, being a lifelong learner, and prioritizing family.

    If I could add on, I would say:

    1. Leave people better than you found them. Be the reason that they are lighter when they leave you.

    2. Live unapologetically and without regrets. When that nagging feeling to contact someone comes up – do it! If something needs to be said or done, say it and do it kindly, but do it. Now.

    3. When faced with doing this or that – do the right thing. Be a human first.

    4. To move from grief, despair, disappointment, fear, or debilitating feelings – find the thing that makes you look forward to the next day. Always look through the dark for the light.

    5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Always look for perspective to keep from being overwhelmed by things that are unimportant in the big picture.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Truly outstanding, Michelle. All of them. Thank you.

  4. Connie Harrington says:

    This is my favorite of all your blogs and I can see you in every one of the 61 life lessons. And I agree w every one of them! Thanks Mike! ❤️

  5. Carolyn Diemer says:

    I’m happy that I was a part of one of your teams and always glad to see your smiling face around town. 🙂

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      And that was a great team. I miss those days.

  6. This is my favorite blog post so far. Very inspiring to me. I’ve always said you can’t lose if you try. Thank you for so much positive insight into life. Love you, brother, T
    Giving you so many HEARTS TODAY. (inside joke)

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I’ll take those hearts from you anytime. Thanks, TM.

  7. Eileen says:

    Thank you, Mike, for your well thought out and organized list. For me, to that I would add ‘find ways to say yes.’ Have a great rest of your weekend.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      That’s a great one, Eileen. Some of my biggest leadership successes have come from that philosophy.

  8. Ruth Perez says:

    Hi Mike. So glad I took the time to read this. So rich are your life reflections. I just turned 60 and I am going to do the same. May take me a while but, after reading yours, I believe it is an opportunity to leave a legacy of learning, which is a gift to those we love and those we have spent time and effort to support and inspire in our professional lives. Bless you, my friend. Happy Birthday!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Ruth. You are one of the most reflective and giving persons I know, so I believe you will create a powerful list. If you’re willing to share it when you’re done, you have me as a very willing reader!

  9. Kelli says:

    Happy Birthday, March brother. Miss seeing you out this way and love reading your work. I am sure you’ll make the most of this 61st spin around the sun. Enjoy and thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Kelli. I look forward to seeing you and your recently retired husband some time soon.

  10. Kevin McCarthy (the other one) says:

    A great piece of reflection Mike.
    Two to add.
    My 91 year old dad: routine is more dangerous than adventure
    My lunch with John Wooden: he repeated one of my favorites- you haven’t taught it until they have learned it.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Routine is more dangerous than adventure. Solid. Love it. And I’ll never argue with anything the Wizard says. Thanks for the comments!

  11. Carrie Larsen says:

    Hi Mike! Thanks for sharing this powerful list. 61 perfect points.
    If you could get that metric system changed that would be appreciated. Happy Birthday and I’ll give you a cheer today at 5pm 🍻

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thank you, Carrie. We’ve had a few of those in our life. Cheers right back!

  12. Bill McGarvey III says:

    Happy Birthday my new friend Mike! 61 Life Lessons are right on….(so you’ve kept your eyes wide open)!
    Congratulations with so many positive and insightful observations in your short 61 years! I’m pushing 70 this year and feel and have a mind (not body) of my 45 year old self! (May be fooling myself) but doesn’t feel like it! Continue making positive moves in your quest for health/happiness /& most important LOVE ( life,family,others and your humble self) you’ll catch me in time and you will have added 9 lessons to your already impressive list! Congratulations!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thank you, Bill. From the moment I met you, I could tell I was talking with a kindred positive spirit. Let’s both keep acting much younger than our age, pushing ourselves in the pool, and trying to make a difference.

  13. John "Jack" Loose says:

    Very impressive list, Mike. One of my life lessons came when I was in Navy flight training. Sometimes the upcoming phase would seem rather daunting, like landing on an aircraft carrier for example. I would just say to myself, “I’m as good as all of the other guys (there were no girl Navy pilots then) in my class, and if they can do it, so can I.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Great addition, Jack. Self-belief is critical. I’ll say this about landing a jet on an aircraft carrier, you and the “other guys” you are talking about are a lot more skilled and courageous than I. That’s just one more impressive part about you, in addition to being one of the awesome neighbors I was talking about.

  14. Pat Cairns says:

    On the eve of your birthday, I enjoyed every minute reading this as well as going back and rereading past posts. I cried (again) reading what you wrote about me. Thank you,

    I loved this post and I love you, my dear, dear friend.

  15. Susan Scheding says:

    #28: If you’re wondering what star or planet you’re looking at in the sky each night, subscribe to cosmicpursuits.com It’s a monthly email. It’s free and it’s simple to understand. I love it.
    #31: Every teacher since the 3rd grade warned me that I’d better learn the metric system b/c the US would be adopting it any day. I’m still waiting…
    #37: Eggplant Parmesan -Sorry, but I wholeheartedly agree with Ryan.

    Happy Birthday to You!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      You always side with Ryan. The person I live with has given up waiting for the US – we have become a metric household. Thanks for the star tip!

  16. Mikke Pierson says:

    As has been said already, very well done. I am glad you’re not 85 as that might exceed the amount of wisdom my brain can absorb! (haha). And I like that you listed your thoughts on happiness first, because without that a lot of the rest doesn’t mean as much.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      We’ll see what kind of wisdom I have at 85. I’m hoping to have the keen mind and wit of my father who is near that age. If I do, I’ll put out a post with 85, mostly just to overwhelm you, Mikke!

  17. Seth Finn says:

    Happy Birthday Mike! There is just so much good stuff on that list that I find myself paralyzed trying to add anything to it. That said, one thing shines through, your thoughtful approach to life. I’ve gotten so much from your writing, and read many of the books you’ve suggested. But really the point of it all seems to be living an examined life, you talk about doing that for our kids, which makes a lot of sense. You’re also showing us all how to do it ourselves.

    I’ll share something I’m working on. I’m trying to distance myself from the way my father reacted to the world, which was often angrily. He never told me to react that way, but in the wrong circumstances, that’s what comes out. It’s deep, and quiet, these things we pass on to our kids, and at 56 years old, I’m still untangling it, or at least trying to.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Seth. To me, you’ve always been a model of reflective response. And I agree with you on the power of responding and reacting without anger. There’s an article in the OC Register today about how students are watching the adults in the world, many of whom are speaking with anger, and how it is changing student behavior as well. Our children are watching, and we need to model what works best.

  18. Kevin Skelly says:

    Really inspiring. Thank you.

  19. Kevin Skelly says:

    I appreciate this insightful post. Keep them coming!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks for your encouragement, Kevin!

Comments are closed.