On the verge of turning 30 years old, I sat down to think long and hard about the past decade. What were my greatest lessons and truths?
Here is what I came up with.
- Your twenties don’t matter. Okay, that’s a lie. They do matter. But if, by the end of this decade, you don’t have a career or a mortgage or a partner, it’s not a big deal. It’s okay to spend these years exploring. In fact, you’ll be glad you did. Seriously, there’s no need to rush. You have time.
- There’s a value in working shitty jobs. Between planting trees and telemarketing and slinging coffee, I put in thousands of hours doing tasks that ultimately lacked a lot of meaning. But you know what? Now I’m familiar with the reality of the labourer and the waiter and the administrative assistant. And this ultimately increases my ability for empathy. Don’t underestimate the value of what you’re doing right now.
- The Internet is my meal ticket. As someone with imaginative tendencies and a strong aversion to the 9 to 5 lifestyle, the Internet will inevitably provide a platform for the creative possibilities of my future, while continuing to link me to the people with whom I’ll engage. Whether that’s a place to crash for a night via couchsurfing.org or a twitter friend giving me a personal tour of San Francisco or even the potential of publishing my first book independently on amazon.com, the Web is the greatest marketing and networking platform that I will potentially ever know.
- Vegetarianism is good. I spent the majority of my twenties without meat. In the grand scheme of things, a diet without meat is more environmentally friendly, while reducing cruelty to animals. And I hear that my colon will thank me in 50 years if I eat smaller amounts of meat.
- Absolutisms are to be avoided. I started eating meat again in my late twenties for a few specific reasons: marathon training and prepping my digestive system for global travels. And because it tastes good. I don’t want to miss out on experiences based on rigid paradigms that I impose upon myself. I will always have vegetarian tendencies, but I am increasingly less “absolutely opposed” to anything.
- A little bit of debt is okay. For the first few years of my academic endeavours, I was fiercely allergic to the idea of going into the red. I dreaded the shackles of loan payments, and their limitations of future freedoms. But I took a risk: I quit my job where I served over-privileged girls their no-fat-sugar-free-vanilla-lattes, and I obtained a student loan, which enabled me to volunteer in the fields where I eventually wanted to work. Within eighteen months of graduation, I had paid off my loans by working a job that I loved. A bit of risk can go a long way.
- Travel is a solid investment. I have never looked back on a trip with regret. Each time I wander through foreign lands, or simply walk down a street in my own hometown that I’ve never walked before, I have no choice but to experience a minor expansion.
Lessons on Love
- I can do it alone. I have spent the majority of my twenties as a single man. This independence has forced me to develop my self-care abilities, and the state of “un-attachment” has encouraged my biggest project to date – attempting a solo, yearlong, multiple continent backpacking adventure. Being alone has hollowed me, yet strengthened me.
- Heartache is a good sign that the heart works. Unrequited love has been a theme of my twenties. I state this without melodrama and without the search for pity. Instead it is simple observation. And ultimately I can put a positive spin on my fleeting dolour(s): if I am still susceptible to heartache, it’s a good sign that I am still vulnerable. This is a good thing.
- Love’s the finest thing around. Being without a partner doesn’t mean I am (or have been) without love. In fact, I’ve been “in love” many times in the past ten years, and I can attest to its deliciously uncentering state. It is what I am ultimately seeking while I fill up my time with other delightful distractions, such as the “Internet.”
Lessons on Others
- The brave are the ones living. Fear and apathy cause the heart to shrivel. But fear can also be harnessed to one’s advantage. If I want to feel alive, I might consider doing something that scares me; butterflies in my stomach are a good sign. The people who I respect most – personally, spiritually, professionally – are the ones that took risks. Be brave.
- Comparing myself to others is counter productive. It’s tempting to do so. But considering life’s infinite variables, we really have no idea of the advantages or disadvantages that have contributed to the current reality of others. If you’re set on measurables, try comparing yourself to yourself: run a race faster next time, handle a conflict differently, start a savings account (and challenge yourself to save), explore forgiveness. Reward your accomplishments.
- Those on the edges of life have much to teach me. When I look into the face of my little nephew, I am filled with a contented calmness that I rarely access in other aspects of my life. And those in their final phases of life have the potential to teach me more than anything I’d learn in a textbook. In my thirties, I’d like to have more babies and elders in my life.
- The most important things in life are not things, they are people. I can only imagine that this statement has been branded across countless Hallmark cards. But I don’t care; I want to state it nonetheless. Value people over profits; chose relationships over possessions. We are bathing in cultural and material superfluousness, and the only way to overcome this is through relationships.
- Relationships take work. But the most excellent relationships, whether family or friends or lovers, are not taxing. If a relationship is taxing, that’s a sign that something needs to change. And you have the ability to change the dynamic of every single one of your relationships. Seriously, think about it.
Lessons on Self
- I have an accent. As a somewhat ignorant nineteen-year-old chap on a ten-day outback safari through the heart of Australia, I argued with my guide that everyone else had an accent, but the Canadian accent was true English. I look back on that moment with DEEP embarrassment of my ethnocentrism. In my twenties, I came to see the error in my thinking. We all have accents. Embrace yours.
- My “differentness” can become my advantage. When I “came out” to my mom, her biggest concern was that I would lead a life as a second-class citizen. And make no mistake that there have been (and will continue to be) some struggles in the day-to-day realities of a gay man. But in 2009, Tourisme Montreal invited me to blog about the city because of my uniqueness (read: openly gay lifestyle). This subsequently launched my career. In short, you have no idea how your distinctive perspectives and willingness to “be yourself” will become a resource to others.
- I have the power to attain goals. My most recent venture has been a marathon. But this long distance race is simply a metaphor for the process of acknowledging the goal, then working diligently towards it. In applying this template to other aspects of my life, I know that I am capable of great things.
- It’s okay to be unsatisfied with where I am at. But it’s my responsibility to not stay in that place permanently. Instead, I can use the dissatisfaction to fuel action: apply for new jobs, end the stagnant relationship, go back to school, travel, talk to a mentor. Much of my twenties were spent making minor alterations towards a state of increased contentedness.
And if you absorb only one of these lessons, let it be this:
- Maintaining an unobstructed-heart is of utmost priority. Tend to it. Do what it takes to keep it clear and open. Ensure the heart is accessible. There are a couple of specific things that have worked for me: journaling, yoga, travel, conversation, cooking, running, expressions of gratitude. But each of us needs to find what works best for ourselves. Don’t give up. Maintain that little fire inside.
This list was first published in 2010.
Up next: 20 Things I Learned from Travel