26 Things I've Learned at 26

A pause in the narrative to reflect on what I've discovered along the way


My 26th Birthday was pretty quiet compared to my 25th.  Exactly one year ago, I woke up to a surprise party on my first day in North Sumatra. I received a culinary tour of Medan by a girl I met on the Internet. I booked a trip to see wild orangutans and began a love affair with yet another continent. Today, by contrast, I spent a lazy morning reading. I worked my part time job for a few hours. I went for burgers with my family before catching a late showing of 'The Wolf of Wall Street.' And although on paper 26 may have began far less exciting than 25, I certainly didn’t appreciate it any less. In fact, the contrast between this birthday and the previous few makes it one of the most memorable I’ve had to date.

Contrast; I suppose that’s the best way to describe the first 26 years of my life. I’ve been lucky enough to fall in love with an array of people, places, and things. I’m a scientist and a writer. I have expensive tastes in clothes but cheap taste in food and music. I prefer a handful of part-time jobs over one full-time commitment. And perhaps most importantly I’ve come to realize the incredible diversity of experiences offered by this planet and made tracking down those experiences my number one commitment. 26 years, 33 countries, 2.5 degrees and a handful of jobs in a number of industries—not bad.

But perhaps the thing I’m most proud of is what I've learned about myself while tripping down a series of not-quite linear, hardly connected pathways. To wrap my 26th, I stayed up late, cracked a dusty old notebook I picked up a couple years ago in a flea market in Amsterdam, and tried to make sense of that learning. Here are 26 things I’ve discovered about myself over the last quarter century.

1. Travel is one of the most rewarding investments you can make: it’s cheaper than school and the memories last longer than material goods. It teaches you your place in the world. It’s also one of the things people find the most excuses not to do. You can accomplish more than you thought over a long weekend. One week in Myanmar – regardless of the time spent to get there – is better than never seeing it at all. Money can be replenished. Wasted time cannot.

2. Journal your experiences. It’s the best way to learn which people and what places and ideas stick with you. Retrospect helps you determine where to invest your future energy.

3. Have trouble keeping a journal? Live your life in the way you'd want to write about it.

4. The most amazing thing about the human brain is its plasticity. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and you’ll learn more and learn faster.

5. Always leave a person, place, or year better than you first encountered it.

6. Volunteer. Support a charity. Be generous with compliments. Host friends, family, and strangers from out of town.

7.  Start a blog. There are millions of like-minded people out there just waiting to connect with you. There’s nothing better than meeting people with similar world-views. Get caught in the positive feedback loop of the internet.

8. Always respond to a message within 24-hours of receiving it. If you need longer than that to answer a question, let the sender know you’re looking into it and will get back to them.

9. It’s always worth waking up for sunrise.

10. Speaking of which, sleeping in is kind of like saying: “I don’t want to be alive right now.” Which is sometimes true when you’re sick or hung-over, but on your average day that's a pretty messed up thought.

11. Admit your flaws. Then try to harness them. I’m vainer than most people but try to take advantage of this in my work: I know someone will see and judge me by it, so I better do my best.

12. A holiday isn’t an excuse to turn your mind off; it’s the opportunity to learn something new without life’s usual distractions. Read, learn a language, and explore a place or culture.

13. NEVER take someone’s photo or use their name in your writing without asking permission. Let them know if you plan on publishing it—for profit or not.

14. There’s always someone smarter or more experienced than you. Ask questions: it’s the quickest way to learn anything.

15. That said, even the wisest people occasionally give bad advice. Three sources. Always three sources.

16. Sure, a mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it but most of that learning occurs in the actual process of trying to remedy your mistake. Shrugging your shoulders and smiling doesn’t count.

17. If a good friend needs to grab a drink, do it. Regardless of how busy, broke, or tired you are.

18. While on the topic, buy drinks for people you’d like to get to know. Memorize their poison of choice.

19. Invest in quality: sports equipment, musical instruments, clothing, and electronics. You’ll always save money in the long run and get more joy out of using your gear.

20. Try giving something up for two weeks. If you can’t live without it, you’ll return to it with a new sense of appreciation. If you don’t miss it, you’ve successfully uncluttered your life and made way for something new.

21. Humans, regardless of their age, religion, culture, or gender, are ultimately the same. Be honest, humble, curious, and passionate and you’ll make friends anywhere you go.

22. The best interactions are mutually beneficial. When asking questions, be prepared to be equally open about yourself. When asking for a favour, be in a position to offer something of equal or greater magnitude. Don’t sell a service unless you think it’s damn-well worth your buyer’s money.

23. Look after your body. You use it to accomplish everything else in life. Eat well and stay energized. Splurge on fitness.

24. Visit friends. And not only when you’re in the neighbourhood.

25. Strive to be the most interesting person in the room, but act like you’re the least.

26. As long as you’re happy and not harming anyone else in the process, you’re living a successful life.