Turning 30: The 15 Most Important Things I Learned in My 20s

Six months ago I faced the grim reality that I was about to turn 30 years old. I like to think I’m made of pretty strong stuff – I’m not a sentimentalist – so I assumed it wouldn’t affect me. I was wrong, and I’ll be frank; so far I do not like it, not one little bit.

It’s not that I’ve gone through any kind of tangible pre-midlife crisis; I just have an aching feeling that I’ve squandered my twenties. Maybe “squander” isn’t the correct word. Dawdle – that’s more suitable; I feel I spent my twenties dawdling, getting nothing of substance achieved in any particular sphere. Of course I know this is completely untrue…well, partially untrue at least. I feel I should have simultaneously toiled both more and less, to have dominated the mutually exclusive areas of work and play to such an extent that I could now look upon my life’s just-begun fourth decade as being “The Decade of Execution”; where all of life’s chess pieces are positioned perfectly and the time to strike is nigh. Alas this is very much not the case.

I’ve mulled and contemplated this list a great deal, but I doubt I’ll ever be truly happy with it, so it’s about as good as it’s going to get. In no particular order, I present the 15 most important lessons I learned during my twenties:

  1. First and foremost; I’ve gotten this far – I must be doing something right.
  2. The best plans have better backups.
  3. Sleep governs everything. Having always been something of an insomniac I have spent my life surviving on scant amounts of sleep. Up until a couple of years ago I could survive on three hours a night, but then something weird happened – in the space of a few months I suddenly stopped being able to function while sleep deprived. I went through something of a repose menopause, and now if I don’t get at least six hours then I am a bore until my missing sleep is restored. Shakespeare succinctly termed it the “balm of hurt minds”, and the fella was right.
  4. Bite off more than you can chew, then spit some out.
  5. Use all of your holiday allowance. I estimate that in my career to date I’ve surrendered over three month’s worth of vacation days by leaving them unclaimed at the end of each work year, never to be seen again. If you work in a place that allows you to carry days over or be remunerated for them instead then that’s just dandy, but I’ve never been that fortunate. Once they’re gone they’re gone, and now I wish I’d taken every last one of them.
  6. Learn how to say “No”. From a young age we are indoctrinated into believing that “No” is a naughty word, that it is better to grin and bear things rather than actively refuse them. I don’t know how many work and social events I’ve attended over the years that I did not want to be at, but to which I was simply too polite/afraid to refuse an invitation. I’ve learnt my lesson now; if I don’t want to do it, I don’t do it, and I am a zillion times happier for it. Do things willingly, or ignore them wilfully.
  7. The sound volume of your sneezing is directly proportional to your age.
  8. Get your “Sow-to-Reap Ratio” right. At the age of 21, upon graduation from university, I vowed to make the rest of my twenties a solid period of investment; to work hard now so that I could laze about later. I estimate my twenties’ Sow-to-Reap Ratio to be 90:10. This turned out to be far too harsh, because now I feel I didn’t have enough fun during my twenties. With the benefit of hindsight the ratio should have been more like 75:25 or 70:30. I should have allowed myself more “me” time, I just didn’t live enough.
  9. Reading is the greatest hobby there is. Books are better than TV, cinema, video games and listening to music. Books are just bloody brilliant. I partake in all of the above recreational activities, but reading is undoubtedly my favourite. Read more.
  10. You don’t need to know everything.
  11. Breakfast is vital. I’ve always been a breakfast fan, but only recently have I gotten truly fanatical about how much it sets the pendulum swinging for the rest of the day.
  12. As you age your tolerance for alcohol consumption increases, but hangovers and the recovery time required afterwards also increases: you don’t get to have it both ways. I’ve never been a huge drinker, but when in the mood I’ve put away a fair bit in my time, and still I didn’t get my first proper hangover until I was 27; for the majority of my twenties I thought I was some kind of superhuman – an indestructible Captain Scarlet of spirits. How naive I was.
  13. When it comes to clothes, discover what your “style” is and what suits your body shape and skin tone, then work from there. Prioritise clothes that fit well over expensive brands, and learn to accept that some garments will just not look good on you, no matter how much you want them to. Looking good on the outside makes you more comfortable on the inside.
  14. If you preferred your school days over being at work then you’re in the wrong job. I hated school, so for me pretty much any job is better than being back there.
  15. Whatever you do in life, do your own thing.
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