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30 Things I’ve Learned in 30 Years

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In Botswana, where I took myself to celebrate turning 30

If you’re like me, you will hesitate on clicking further into this article. Aren’t there enough of these lists? I wonder that, too. I’ve lived a strange life – we all have, if we stop and think about it – and most of it has been devoted to travelling. When I actually sit back and reflect on what I’ve learned, however, the things that stick with me most are not how to use a machete or take a shot of tequila without grimacing or find my way through a new city, although those things are pretty cool. The things I’m proudest of learning are those that have to do with relationships with other people, with how I carry myself, and with how I view the world.

On the eve of my 30th birthday (I turn 30 on May 5th), I was suddenly inspired to write down the 30 things I’ve learned. You may agree with them, you may not, but perhaps what I find so fascinating about people are their differences, their quirks and their idiosyncrasies. Yours might be wildly different, but here are mine.


1. Do whatever you want to do, but do it well. This is the most basic piece of advice I think I’ve ever been given, and I’m reminded of it often. Think long and hard about what it is you want to do with your life and what makes you happy and then do it. It took me until the final years of my 20s to figure out that I wanted to write full-time, and I was lucky enough to make a career out of it. Maybe you’ll know what you want to do when you’re a kid. Maybe you’re in your 60s and you still don’t know. That’s okay.

2. Don’t ever make someone feel insignificant or inadequate. Do not bully people, or rub someone’s mistakes in their face. You are not above anyone, especially not anyone in the service industry.

3. Always write back, or call back, or text back. Basically, be honest and considerate. I am pretty bad at this, I admit. Sometimes it takes me months to get back to an email or Facebook message, but I always eventually write back. This especially goes for dating; don’t just ignore someone. Don’t be a coward – treat people the way you would like to be treated.

4. Love as much as you possibly can every single time, even if you keep getting hurt. Love is one of the best feelings in the world. Do not become cynical; this person might be the one.

5. Give back to the countries you’ve visited. I have always travelled as responsibly as possible, but I realise now that this is not enough. I want to give back to the cultures I’ve visited, through donation of time, money, awareness, or all three. Think about how you can help or give back to each place you visit.

6. Be present. I love this piece of advice – my mother says it often. No matter what you are doing, be as present and aware as you can. Give it your all.

7. Stay healthy, both in body and in spirit. I am not a health nut by any means, but I try to stay as healthy as possible. When I don’t, I feel a huge difference in the way that my mind works and the way that my body feels. Be active, eat well, drink wine but drink water, too.

8. Read everything. Books, blogs, newspapers, Twitter feeds, magazines, everything. Read stuff that makes you interested and informed. Read for pleasure, but once in a while read something you find difficult to follow. Try reading new things – you might find you love Russian literature (I’m still hoping to have this epiphany).


9. Find something you’re passionate about and become really, really good at it. Have at least one hobby you love. There are a few magical unicorns that can achieve anything they set out to do; we all have that friend who plays four instruments, speaks three languages, and can cook the best risotto in the world. We can’t all be like that, though. In my opinion, it’s better to be really, really good at one thing than sort of okay at a bunch of things. You’ll get more pleasure out of it.

10. Study. Even if you will forget everything the following year, or month, or day, study it anyway. I often tackle new subjects and learn about things, only to forget them later. I have, for example, studied French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, and Japanese in my life, and it’s only when I have a few beers that I think I can speak any of them. At least I tried to learn them. I still have a huge list of things I’d like to study at some point in my life (and still believe I’ll learn how to play the harp, learn how to speak fluent Spanish, learn basic astrology, and learn how to knit).

11. If it feels morally wrong, it is. We all know that feeling we get in the pit of our stomachs when something is happening in front of us that just feels wrong. Maybe it’s someone getting teased. Maybe tourists are riding elephants. I felt that way recently about cage shark diving – for some reason, it didn’t sit well with me, so I didn’t do it.

12. Have friends of all backgrounds, ages, and genders. You will learn so much about the world, and, inadvertently, yourself. I have friends in their teens and friends in their 50s, friends all over the world. They all surprise me endlessly. Every single person you meet knows something you don’t.

Botswana group

New Friends in Botswana

13. Listen. Really listen. People appreciate it, and it makes you smarter and better and more compassionate. Better listeners have happier relationships with people and better jobs.

14. Ask questions. Think of everyone you meet as a teacher – everyone in the entire world knows something that you don’t know. If you want to make new friends or impress a boss or get a second date, ask lots of questions; make someone feel interesting. They will like you for it.

15. Work as hard as you can at the job that you have. Laziness will get you nowhere. You never know who you might meet at that job, what you might learn, or who might be able to give a recommendation.

16. Spend less time on the Internet. If I figure out how to do this, I will let you know.

17. Do not judge someone on the country they’re from, the job that they have, the school that they went to, the colour of their skin, the person they love, or the size of their backpack. Obviously.

18. Drink whiskey and laugh with your mouth open and kiss on the first date and wear mismatched socks. If that’s who you are, don’t change. Don’t get me wrong – there are many things about myself I would change. Nobody is perfect, but each of us can work on the things that we consider (or someone else considers) to be negative. Those little things, though? Those little quirks that make us individuals? Keep those.

19. Appreciate every single day. I don’t mean this is that terrible doomsday sort of way – as in, today could be your last – but appreciate that you have running water and a roof over your head and people who love you and freedom and choices. There are a lot of people in the world who have none of these things.

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Pretty appreciative of this sunset over South Africa

20. Talk to everyone, and be nice to everyone. Everyone on the entire planet is just like you. Everyone is trying to make money and find love and be happy. Don’t ignore anybody, unless he or she is pestering you. Say hello to the barista. Say hello to the bus driver. Say “I’m sorry” to the man who asks you for change. I try to talk to someone new every day, even if it’s only for a moment.

21. Even if you are not religious or spiritual, take a moment of every day, even a tiny one, to give thanks. It doesn’t matter who or what you thank, but give thanks.

22. Write. Write a diary and a blog and notes to yourself. Write letters to friends and family. Write if the moment strikes you, write even if it doesn’t. Even if you are a terrible writer, put down a few words from time to time, even if it’s just a Facebook comment.

23. Take photos. Just don’t forget to actually experience the moment, too.

24. Do not criticise yourself for things you did in the past – it will only drive you crazy. I have a habit of doing this. I think about that one comment I said that I shouldn’t have, I think about why I turned left instead of right, I think about the time my throat closed up and I couldn’t sing in front of the audience of 2000 people (that was 14 years ago, by the way). And what has this accomplished, all this thinking and self-criticism? Nothing. Nothing at all.

25. Similarly, do not lie in bed at night and think, “what if?”. I do this all the time, and it never ends well. It is pointless. Nothing can change the past, and dwelling on it will only drive you mad. Reminisce about the good times, yes, but realise that there will be more good times ahead (even better times, in fact).

26. Be emotional, but learn what to be emotional about. I used to cry a lot. I used to, like most sensitive teenagers, be difficult to get along with. Something happened in my mid-20s; I grew up. I now try to look at life as maturely as possible. I also think like this: if I won’t be upset about a situation in 24 hours, I don’t get upset about it at all. If someone is pissing me off, I think long and hard: will I still be pissed off about this tomorrow? In a week? In a month? If I won’t, I try to bite my tongue.

27. Keep in touch with people. Your friends, your teachers, your siblings, your coworkers. Cherish them. If your life is a mosaic, they are the pieces that complete you. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have the friends and the family that I do. Appreciate every email, letter, postcard, phone call, text.

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Lovely blogger friends

28. Put yourself out there, even when you’re scared. I don’t necessarily mean jump out of an airplane. I just mean, if something scares you, take a deep breath and try it out. It’s okay to make mistakes. I was the kind of kid who cried if I was separated from my mum for more than an afternoon (no, I didn’t go to summer camp, in case you were wondering). Then one day I decided to just be different. It was tough and frightening at first, but now I love who I’ve become.

29. Trust that people are inherently good. This is a very difficult one to remember, especially when we are constantly bombarded by warnings of murder and rape and muggings. It’s hard to remember when people lie and cheat and steal, when friends betray you, when boyfriends dump you, or when bosses fire you. But most people are good. Most people who behave badly are actually acting out because of their own problems, not because of you. The majority of people in this world are wonderful, helpful, friendly people.

30. Happiness is earned, not deserved. I strongly believe this. 99% of the time, if something isn’t going well in your life, only you can change it. All of us should be happy, but you will only be happy if you make yourself happy, if you lead a good and fulfilled life. It’s taken me three decades to feel this confident, independent, and content, and to learn how to lead a happy life, but damn, it’s pretty amazing. I can’t wait to see what my fourth decade holds.

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With my sister and my mum in London

And a bonus 31. Life is amazing. Truly. Every day I am wowed by this world and by the people in it. Keep a positive attitude. Smile whenever you can, and try to make other people smile. Love your life; it’s the only one you’ll ever have, so make it the best fucking life ever.

What has your life taught you? Do you agree with this list? What would you add? 

44 Responses to 30 Things I’ve Learned in 30 Years

  1. Helen May 1, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    Aw, I love this! You are so very wise. Love the Africa pics too!!! I cannot wait to hear all about it!!

    • Brenna Holeman May 1, 2014 at 11:34 pm #

      Thank you, Helen! Can’t wait to share the stories with you…

  2. Flora of Flora the Explorer May 1, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

    Absolutely excellent list, Brenna! Less internet, more language learning/reading/being present for me I think – and I’d add in “don’t be afraid to make mistakes” – sometimes you never know where they’re going to lead 🙂

    • Brenna Holeman May 1, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

      Thanks, Flora! I agree, I try not to be afraid of making mistakes.

  3. Christine May 1, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    Belated Happy Birthday Brenna! Love this list!

    P.S. if you want to learn how to knit, just go on youtube. I learned how to knit a scarf by watching youtube videos.

    • Brenna Holeman May 1, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

      Oh great – I should check it out! I’ve always wanted to be able to knit.

  4. Katrina May 1, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    I actually love lists so I definitely didn’t hesitate to click on this post! I feel an affinity with #2, especially when it comes to political differences or cultural comparisons. Be nice, people!

    Happiest of birthdays to you!

    • Brenna Holeman May 1, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

      Be nice, indeed. Thank you, Katrina!

  5. Linda May 1, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

    I love these thirty (actually 31) thoughts, Brenna. They all ring true, and speak of the examined life, the life worth living, the life open to many possibilities.
    “Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    with your one wild and precious life?”
    – last two lines of The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver

    • Brenna Holeman May 1, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

      What wonderful lines, thank you so much for sharing (and for all the amazing advice over the past 30 years).

  6. Alyssa May 1, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    All great advice! Do not criticise yourself for things you did in the past – it will only drive you crazy. – I wholeheartedly agree but, like you, have yet to achieve this. I suppose that it goes hand in hand with being present!

    • Brenna Holeman May 1, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

      Thanks, Alyssa! I’m still working on that one, too.

  7. Katie @ Domestiphobia May 1, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

    1. Beautiful list! I find I learned many of these things by 30 as well — though some I’m still working to master.
    2. I think I struggle the most with #9. This is probably because I always want to try all of the things, and also why it feels like I’m paddling and paddling but never actually going anywhere.
    3. I played the harp for 3 years — it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. 😉

    • Brenna Holeman May 1, 2014 at 11:38 pm #

      Thank you, Katie! I still think I’d love to play the harp (or the cello). Maybe I just really want an excuse to have a harp in my house…

  8. Hayley (Lovepuffin) May 1, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    Beautiful, as always, Brenna! Sometimes I’m guilty of not being ‘present’ or properly listening to people. I get myself so wrapped up in my thoughts and what I’m going to say next that I forget to really digest what people are saying.

    Wishing you a fabulous 30th birthday in Botswana! xxx

    • Brenna Holeman May 1, 2014 at 11:41 pm #

      Thank you, Hayley! I’m back in London now but Botswana was fantastic.

  9. Haley May 2, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

    Seriously love all of these! As someone who is just graduating university, I am very thankful for all these reminders and lessons 🙂 Thanks so much! xx

    • Brenna Holeman May 2, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

      Aw, thanks Haley! Congratulations on graduating. Best of luck!

  10. Tom @ Waegook Tom May 2, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    I’m fully loving this post, Brenna. You’re right about your mid-twenties, you do do a lot of growing up. Me now is a lot different to 24 year-old me, who is very different from 21 year-old me, who is very different from 18 year-old me. It’s scary if we don’t grow, and I expect to have grown more by the time I’m 30 (August 2016…). I’ll be worried if I haven’t.

    I actually read this post earlier but haven’t been able to leave a comment on it until now, and I used your tip about getting angry while I was on the subway. People pushing in, and I thought to myself, “will I be angry about this tomorrow, or an hour from now?” and the answer was no. I took a deep breath and went back to trying to fit in with the locals – by scrolling through Line and Facebook on my phone.

    • Brenna Holeman May 2, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

      That is such a great comment, Tom – I’m glad it finally posted! I really try to use that 24-hour rule (although subways/the Underground definitely test that rule constantly).

      I can’t believe how I acted in my early 20s, and I’m so thankful for these past few years of maturing. I think that travelling and living abroad on my own definitely helped. Just promise me this: no matter how old we get, we will always wear boas to the club together.

  11. Zalie May 4, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    What a truly wonderful, honest, and inspiring list! I loved reading every single one of these life lessons. I can’t wait to see what you learn in your fourth decade sister xoxo

    • Brenna Holeman May 4, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

      Thank you so much, sister! I’m excited to see where life takes us both.

  12. Amy May 5, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    I love this Brenna; I turned 30 in December during my first year of full-time travel and I agree with so many of the points you’ve made. The biggest realisation I’ve had since travelling is that I am so lucky to have been born into the life that I have; from travelling I now know that the majority of people (particularly women) in the world don’t have half the options I have.

    • Brenna Holeman May 6, 2014 at 10:52 am #

      Totally – I agree. Thank you so much for your comment, Amy! Happy Belated 30th. 😉

  13. Torsten May 6, 2014 at 2:30 am #

    Fantastic list – really enjoyed reading it. There’s some excellent tips.

    Just followed you on Twitter so I can read more!

  14. rebecca May 6, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    I love this! one of the best posts I read in a while! Specially love number 18 – so me

    • Brenna Holeman May 6, 2014 at 10:35 am #

      Awesome, I’m glad you liked it Rebecca!

  15. Sarah May 6, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    Very well put, I couldn’t agree more. I never really tried to put into clear thoughts what life has thought me so far, but this pretty much sums it up. Thanks for sharing and Happy birthday!

    • Brenna Holeman May 7, 2014 at 1:07 am #

      Oh great, I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Sarah! Thanks for your comment (and the birthday wishes).

  16. Jacquie May 6, 2014 at 9:54 pm #

    This gif is perfect for #16, and so darn cute…

    • Brenna Holeman May 7, 2014 at 1:06 am #

      Ha ha! That’s amazing. If only I had a cute cat to drag me away from the computer…

  17. Marlene Mutch May 9, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    Brenna…Awesome, awesome, awesome!!
    In my collection of precious things from my 53 years of teaching, I have a writing that you did for me in Grade Two. I have in my memory a picture of you, Zalie, your Mom and I eating chocolate chip cookies at your home near Oakenwald School. During that visit, I seem to remember you sitting on a widow bench as I toured your lovely uniquely decorated home? I found your list to be so true to life experiences and emotions. I am amazed at your travels to so many places…Bravo! I especially enjoyed seeing the picture of your Mom, Zalie and you. Hi to them as well. The last time I saw your Mom was at the launching of a book that she had written. At that time, she told me she was leaving Winnipeg. Happy 30th and keep doing what you are doing! I’m still teaching at Oakenwald after 35 years, but only (usually) Thursday afternoons. Your Grade One and Two teacher…Mrs. Mutch.

    • Brenna Holeman May 12, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

      Oh wow, thank you so much for writing, Mrs. Mutch! This comment really means a lot to me – your classes had such a bit impact on my life (and, I know, for Zalie and Kitt, too). You always encouraged me to read and write as much as possible, and always took the time to review the work I did. I remember making a book all about birds in my free time and you sat and went through every page with me. I don’t know if I would be writing as much as I do now if it wasn’t for your encouragement and your kind words.

      I would love to see you when I come back to Winnipeg… I will email you when I’m in town, and perhaps we can meet for coffee. I’d also love to visit Oakenwald again, it has been years!

      Thank you again, and I hope you’re doing really well. Lots of love, Brenna

  18. Nadine November 3, 2014 at 12:29 am #

    I recently found you blog and have loved looking through some of your posts… and I just wanted to say that this one (among others) is beautiful. I’m in my early 30’s and agree with so much of what you’ve written, and still marvel over how much growing and changing has happened in the last 10 years even if much of the time I still feel like I’m 23. I’m not, and it’s actually a great thing.

    I’m looking forward to reading more!

    • Brenna Holeman November 3, 2014 at 1:07 am #

      Thank you so much, Nadine! I’m so happy you found my blog, and that’s great that you agree with what I’ve written here. I look forward to your comments!

  19. Kathi March 4, 2015 at 6:30 am #

    I somehow only stumbled upon your blog now but have read a few posts already and I really, really like your writing.
    I do think about a lot of the things on your list on a daily basis. Thanks for inspiring me even more to try and become the person I want to be.

    • Brenna Holeman March 4, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

      That’s amazing, thank you so much for letting me know! And thank you for saying you like my writing… I hope you’ll keep reading. 🙂


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