10 Life Lessons I Learned Before Turning 30

You guys, I just turned 30 last month. 30. Remember when we were kids and thought 30 was OLD? I mean geez, my parents were younger than that when they had me.

My life trajectory has gone in a slightly different direction, to put it mildly. I always wondered how it’d feel to hit such a big milestone: would I freak the heck out, a la Rachel from Friends? Would I lament not accomplishing x, y, and z in my 20’s, or feel like I just hopped on an express train to the early bird special and creaky bone central?

The reality is: I feel fantastic. I’ve never been more fit and happy in my life. Aside from the increasing number of gray hairs popping up on my scalp and my lower back occasionally locking up when I try to get out of bed, I don’t feel any semblance of “old” at age 30. And I really believe that’s because I’ve taken great care of myself this past decade, putting health and happiness at the top of my life’s priority list.

I contemplated putting together one of those epic bucket list or “best of” posts to commemorate the start of my 30’s (and I reserve the right to do that at any point, buahaha) – but right now, I feel like sharing something a little different. It’s crazy to think that ten years ago I was a clueless college student still stuck in a bubble. At the risk of sounding less-than-humble: I’m really proud of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown. I’ve still got plenty to work on (don’t we all?), but I thought I’d share some of the best life lessons I’ve learned in my 20’s:

East Coast Tasmania
On the east coast of Tasmania

1. Confidence is everything

I once balked when an old manager told me to “fake it til I make it”. Whaaaaaat, you want me to be fake?!, I thought in disgust. The thought of pretending to be someone I wasn’t, or know about something I didn’t, felt incredibly wrong to me.

Then I realized what he really meant by that. He didn’t want me to be fake, persay – he wanted me to exude confidence, to inspire trust in my team in me as their leader, and to not let on whenever I wasn’t sure about something. Once I started to embrace the mantra, I noticed that I was actually starting to “make it”. Instead of acting like I was confident, soon enough I was confident.

I still have moments where I’m unsure of myself, especially when I’m traveling. Will I be able to navigate from my hostel to the bus station to the airport in time for my flight, and then approximately the reverse of that once I land? Will this Tinder date be awkward? Will that rickshaw driver rip me off or take me to the wrong location if I ask for a ride? I may not feel fully confident about tackling all those travel situations, but I always jump right in, remind myself that I can do this thing, and sure enough – I can. And over time, my confidence continues to grow: from a first-time solo backpacker at 22 who felt the need to plan and structure her entire 5 weeks in Italy months in advance, to a seasoned traveler who packed up her life and moved to Australia without a plan.

Laugavegur Trek Iceland
The Laugavegur Trek in Iceland

2. Do the thing you’re too scared or lazy to do

Man, if I tallied all the times I’ve debated staying home because I didn’t feel like going out, it would undoubtedly be some astronomical number. And you know what? I’m entitled to some ‘me’ time and have every right to take it easy if that’s what I truly feel like doing. But most of the time I can sense that my hesitation is due to either fear or laziness. Birthday parties where I know zero people other than my friend whose birthday it is? Happy hours with coworkers and networking events with people interested in cool shit like travel and photography? Sure, it would be loads easier to be a hermit and kick back with some vino at my apartment instead, but I’d be missing out on some good times, laughs, and potential new friends and connections.

I fall into the same pattern when I travel, too. I’ve contemplated sitting on the sidelines on treks where the option of taking a side hike or a dip in a freezing cold swimming hole arises, skipping local events that I originally thought would be worth checking out, and passing on group outings with newfound traveling friends. Sometimes I do opt out, but when I’m able to push through the fear or the laziness and do it anyway, I rarely regret not staying at home on my couch (or at the hostel, on my laptop).

What I’m saying is: be more of a yes girl (or guy)! Get off your ass, face your fear, and get a little uncomfortable – ‘cause that’s when the good stuff happens!

Thai island
Swinging in Thailand

3. Be Unapologetically You

I strongly believe one of the keys to being happy is to stop caring about what others think of you. When you’re too self conscious, it keeps you from doing what you want to do; being who you want to be.

Unfortunately this lesson is a tough one to embrace because so many of us have been wired for years to care too much. It takes a lot of time and self help to overcome this mental barrier, but if you want the most out of your life, you must do it! Here are a couple points to get comfortable with, for starters:

  • Know that most people actually aren’t thinking about you. And of the ones that are, you should only care about what your friends and family think – if that.
  • Be selfish. Live your life for YOU, not for all the people you encounter who you’ve somehow convinced yourself are judging you.
  • Stop trying to be someone else. Whatever you are, embrace it – live it – love it. And feel special, because there’s no one else out there quite like you.

See also: Be A Honey Badger

Laos boat
Boats in Laos

4. It’s ok to quit

I seriously struggled with this notion all through childhood and into my 20’s. I take commitment very seriously: my word is my bond. If I say I’m going to do something, that’s it – it’s done. Consequently, I get immensely offended when others don’t value commitment as much as I do and feel justified in flaking on plans or not delivering on projects.

It’s why I stuck with softball and swimming all through middle school, even when I grew to hate them. I didn’t want to disappoint my dad and grandpa by quitting.

It’s also why I stuck with my first-ever job for so long, despite every bit of me screaming that I wasn’t meant to be there. I’d signed a contract and committed to working for the company after they so generously offered me a job; who was I to back out of our agreement?

Somewhere in my 20’s, I finally came to terms with the notion that quitting is liberating. When something stops bringing me joy, I cut it out of my life: activities, jobs, people, you name it. It’s perfectly acceptable to make changes like these in order to rechart your course and carry on toward happiness. It’s ok to quit your job to travel, just as it’s ok to quit your traveling to ‘settle down’.

See also: How To Quit Everything

In Sydney, Australia

5. Invest in experiences, not things

If you’re hooked on travel, you probably learned this lesson ages ago. If not, I encourage you to be honest with yourself and, with each possession of yours, ask: How often do I derive happiness from this? e.g. Do you really need to keep adding to your massive closet of clothes? Is that fancy piece of jewelry worth the price? Is upgrading to the latest version of a gadget truly necessary? How many knick knacks and other dust-collecting items do you need to furnish your home with?

I do believe that some ‘things’ are worth spending money on if you get a ton of use out of them, or if they enable you to have awesome, happiness-inducing experiences. That’s why I feel no guilt over all the money I pour into photography and coffee: yes, I spent $90 on a polarizing filter and $40 on a new coffee grinder recently… but I use them both almost daily whilst I enjoy the experience of waking up to a delicious cup of coffee and later frolicking around taking photos.

But honestly, I’d rather pour all of my extra money into traveling, activities, events, and the occasional spa treatment or dinner out. The happiness I get from the experience itself, the strengthened relationship between me and those I spent the time with (sometimes it’s just myself), and the memories it leaves behind are worth so much more to me than what I’d get from spending the same amount of money on a tangible object.

iceland street art
Street art in Akuyeri, Iceland

6. It doesn’t matter which college you go to (or if you even go at all!)

Of all the things on this list, I wish I’d learned this lesson sooner. I had it ingrained in me that I had to excel in high school, so I could attend a top university, so I could obtain a well-paying job and live a comfortable life. That was the only option, in my mind – and I’m still paying dearly for it, to the tune of about $750/month in student loan payments (though I do still travel with student loans!).

Then a paradigm shift occurred right around the time I finished college. First, securing a good job had less to do with your academic achievements and more to do with your connections. (But what connections? I was too busy with my head in the books to have bothered with an internship or research group at Cornell). Second, the notion was born that there might be other paths in life besides the *high school – university – corporate career* trajectory. To skip or delay schooling was unheard of back then in the US. Coinciding with the rise of the millennials, following your dreams became more important than following the path your parents laid out for you.

My advice for teens nowadays? Take the time to think about what YOU really want to do. If you love to learn or have a dream job you want to work towards, attending university is probably a good idea. But if you’re not sure yet or perhaps want to pursue a specific trade or skill, consider other options (e.g. work part time while taking a few classes, start your own business, travel). And remember: you’re always allowed to change your mind (ahem, see #4 above).

Iceland yoga
Planking in iceland

7. You can always justify investing in your health

It’s a little ass-backwards how much less you spend when you don’t give two craps about eating healthfully or working out. Junk food is far cheaper than fresh produce, and don’t even get me started on how obscenely priced some gym memberships are.

But the way I see it is that either way, you’re going to pay for your health. I much prefer to invest the time and money in it now while I’m young and work on preserving my health, rather than later on in life when I’m suffering from any number of physical ailments and having to foot bills for medications and hospital visits in order to treat my poor health.

By this mindset, I feel zero guilt over spending extra money on healthy foods, vitamins, or any sort of physical activity. In the past five years, I’ve dropped plenty of cash on pilates reformer classes, climbing gym memberships, and most recently: crossfit classes. Not only did they keep me physically fit and feeling good in my daily life, but they were also super enjoyable. Then the trick is to make it a routine – that way you stick with your healthy eating and workout habits, to the point where to stray from them would feel wrong.

To save a bit of money on your fitness, I recommend using the city or nature as your gym (running, walking, cycling, doing body weight exercises) and taking advantage of deep discounts on sites like Groupon or Living Social, where you can find amazing deals on yoga, pilates, boxing, and heaps more workout classes.

See also: How To Stay Fit While Traveling

Cartagena Colombia
Cartagena, Colombia

8. Listen to your gut

I’m wired to think rationally – to always do what makes the most sense. The problem here is that I’ve spent most of my life ignoring how I feel. I’ve based most of my life decisions on logic and pro/con lists that completely discount my feelings on the matter. My thought process generally looks something like this:

  • I only have one more day in this city and I’m so exhausted and in need of a chill day, but I need to see this and do that and and and… #burnout. (All I really wanted was to sit in a coffee shop and write all day, why didn’t I just do that then?)
  • He’s smart, fit, adventurous, and holds two passports – perfect for me! (But wait, I’m not actually that attracted to him… why are we dating?)
  • Job A is offering me $X; Job B is offering me $X+Y. Obviously I’m going with Job B! (Why am I so distraught after quitting Job A? Do I even like Job B?)

Though I haven’t fully mastered it yet, here’s what I’ve learned: Stop analyzing, and listen to your gut! You know what you want deep down, and all that reasoning only serves to muddle that clarity.

See also: F-ck Yes or No

Iceland glacier hike
Glacier hiking in Iceland

9. Be strong – in both mind and body

I think the greatest compliment anyone could give me is to tell me I’m strong. Strong is sexy. The stronger you are, the more you’re capable of. And as someone who always wants to do All Of The Things, being strong helps immensely in that perpetual quest.

I can’t even tell you how valuable strength has been for me while traveling. It’s allowed me to traipse around Asia for months on end with a 50 lb pack strapped to my back, trek through forests all by myself, and climb mountains without keeling over. Strength is a mental game too, though. It’s what helps you get through difficult situations, like the moment just before diving head first into a bungee jump, parting ways with a lover you acquired while on the road, getting lost, or having your wallet stolen. The stronger you are, the better you’re able to persevere through travel pains and mishaps.

More than anything, having the strength to kick ass in outdoor travel adventures has made me a more confident person overall (see point #1 above). I feel like I’m strong enough that I could plop myself down in most any country in the world and be able to make it.

For my female readers out there: you want to be strong? Try your hand at solo female travel. I guarantee it’ll turn you into a kickass lady!

Boston river
The Charles River in Boston

10. Everything always has a way of working out

Remember that horribly cheesy quote that every other person seemed to post in their AIM profiles back in middle school? “Everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end” (apparently said by John Lennon, says Google). Turns out, the Beatle was right. And it applies to more than adolescent heartbreaks – it’s relevant to most everything in life.

The bottom line is that shit happens. Shit will always happen. And when it does, things may not “be ok”. But you do what you have to do to get through the tough times and eventually you’ll see the light again. Similarly, things will always go wrong when you travel, but you’ve just got to roll with the punches and remember that IT WILL WORK OUT.

If you accept the natural up and down nature of life, then there’s no need to stress because eventually things will look up – they always do. And the really beautiful thing is that often you come out of it with new doors opening that weren’t even there before – better, more exciting opportunities with the potential to bring even more joy to your life. How’s that for being ok in the end?

What’s your biggest life lesson? Do any of these resonate with you?