27 Things I’ve Learned About Life & Travel

Bagan, Myanmar - Southeast Asia Travel

It’s my 27th birthday in two days!

To celebrate I’m heading down to Si Phan Don in Laos, also known as the 4,000 Islands. As many of you know, I spend every birthday of my 20s in a different city. My 21st was in San Diego, my 22nd in Las Vegas, my 23rd in Melbourne, my 24th in Wellington, my 25th in Veneta, my 26th in Chicago, and now my 27th will be in Si Phan Don!

I also wanted to celebrate by sharing 27 things I’ve learned from almost three decades on this planet. I mean, you get wiser with age, right? Well, let’s hope so!

My 20s thus far have been all about that learning curve of life. When I look back on who I was in my early 20s, circa 2011, it almost feels like another person. Then again, to my core, I’m still me.

21st Birthday in San Diego, California - USA Travel
My 21st birthday in San Diego, California.

I’m still the girl that loves the smell of fresh squeezed lime on a California burrito, the one who would stay up all night just to climb to the top of that hill to watch the sunrise over the ocean.

I’m still the girl who would stand out on the roof in the pouring rain to kiss a boy that I liked, the one who drinks craft beer to enjoy the taste of a coconut porter on a stormy night.

I’m still the girl who would dance for hours to feel the rhythm in my bones, the one who likes to write in cafes and read books on sunny benches in the park.

I’m still the girl that goes all in, embraces life, and leads with an open mind and an Atlas Heart.

San Diego, California - USA Travel
Me in a nutshell.

Yep, in some ways, I’m still the same old me.

But, I’ve changed a lot since then as well, as do all people with time. I’ve learned a lot in my 27 years about myself and life. The memories, experiences, and people that I’ve met have changed me and and impacted my life in countless ways. They have centered me, educated me, and molded me into the person I’m meant to be.

So here it goes, 27 words of wisdom that I’d like to share on my last couple days of being 26.

1. Happiness is not passive, it’s about your perspective and your choices

One of my favorite life quotes is the following: “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” // Denis Waitley.

Happiness is not deserved, it’s earned. Happiness is not something that you suddenly have one day, it’s an experience that you work on every single day. Who you choose to have in your life, what you choose to do with your time, how you perceive the events that happen to you – this is the essence of what will or will not make you happy.

Only you can decide if you’re happy right now, in this moment, in life.

2. Nothing phases me anymore when it comes to relationships

I was just talking to a close friend from college about this, and how we used to get worked up about our dating life. Now we just shrug our shoulders and walk away. I’d say it’s one of the perks that comes with age, that nothing really phases me anymore when it comes to relationships.

I’ve been with a pathological liar who had a secret fiancee, and another person who couldn’t decide if he wanted to be with me or not – for two years. There was the guy who cheated on me for a summer, and another one who made hurtful and obscene comments about my body (I think that one I dumped the quickest).

I’ve also been in incredibly supportive and positive relationships. My whirlwind first love from high school, the nice flings that would last from a month to three months, leaving me feeling giddy. And my recent relationship that ended, which had love, respect, and a patient understanding of one another.

Relationships - Oregon, USA Travel

I’ve dated a spectrum of men, but I find it easier these days to walk away from all of these relationships, whether good or bad, with my head held high when it’s time to go. Even when my recent relationship ended in March, I spent exactly one week feeling depressed before I decided that I didn’t want to be sad anymore and started being happy instead. It’s really that easy sometimes.

It’s one superpower that I’m thankful to have found in my late 20s, the ability to realize that life is short and there’s no point in being sad or regretful over relationships that weren’t meant to be.

3. Ain’t nobody got time for negative people 

Oh the days when I used to make excuses for the gossipers, the friends who would give me backhanded compliments, and the ones who would consistently flake on me last minute and make me feel insignificant.

Although I don’t have the multitude of friends I used to in high school and college, I select my close friends wisely. And those who are in my inner circle, I love to pieces. These friends are a part of me, they’re meaningful in my life, and they’re a positive addition to who I am. They’re the people that I will always make time for.

4. Yoga is my happy place 

When my college roommate introduced me to yoga, it quickly became my happy place to find mental clarity and check-in with my body and current mindset. That feeling hasn’t changed, even six years into my yoga practice.

In fact, one of my goals before I’m 30 is to go through yoga teacher certification to deepen my practice, and finally master those tricky inversions!

5. Tequila is no longer my best friend

There was a time when my friend Julie and I were called the “Tequila Twins” in college. We even dressed up as a bottle of Patron for our joint birthday party one year…yeah, we were those girls in college. Oh yes, Tequila Mimi stories were abundant and hilarious, and shall never be shared on this blog. We had a good run, but me and tequila, I guess we grew apart with time.

Dressed up as Patron at my 20th birthday party in San Diego, California
Me and my tequila twin at our joint 20th birthday party in San Diego, California.

I’ll still have the occasional shot when that drunk guy at the bar thinks a round of tequila shots are always a good idea, but for the most part I stick with beer, wine, and the occasional gin + tonic these days… okay whiskey sours too, but I stay away from those dreaded tequila hangovers.

6. Hangovers do not age well

Which brings me to my next lesson about getting older: hangovers do not age well.

I used to be able to go out four nights in a row in college. After I turned 25, my hangovers turned into all-day events (sometimes even longer!), and I’ve realized it’s not worth it for the sluggishness I feel after a big night out. I still love going out when it’s with the right people, but I know my limits better now. If I can avoid a hangover, I will.

My 22nd birthday in Las Vegas, Nevada - USA Travel
My 22nd birthday weekend in Las Vegas, there may or may not have been many hangovers involved.

7. It’s okay to change your mind 

I’ve always had this tendency to make myself feel better about a bad decision by talking about all the good things that came from it, even if I really have to exaggerate sometimes. I’ve realized in the last year, especially, that it’s okay to admit when you’re wrong and move on.

You’ll be much happier for it than trying to make something work that makes you miserable. This could be about your career, the places you visit that you thought you were going to love, and yes, even relationships.

We are all human, we make mistakes, it’s okay to change your mind and admit that you were wrong. I think this became painfully clear to me after I tried to force myself to like Portland, Oregon last year. I lived there for a year and a half, and I went through one of the most depressing years of my life in the process.

I never want to do that again, if something isn’t making me happy, I will change it.

8. Always think the best of people until they prove otherwise

It’s good to be optimistic and always think the best of people. Even though I’ve been scammed in my travels, let down by the people I thought were my friends, and burned by old flames, I will always believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt.

With that said, I’ve also smarted up a lot in my 20s. If something seems fishy or too good to be true, I know that it probably is. I don’t let people take advantage of me if I can help it. There’s a sense of caution there, but I also try to not be distrustful of people until they prove otherwise.

9. Kindness is not a weakness

It has taken me awhile to realize that kindness is not a weakness, to not take someone saying “you’re so nice” to mean “you’re such a pushover.” You can be a strong person and still practice kindness.

Being a decent human is something I strive for. Kindness to strangers, friends, and family is what I hope to pass on and receive back. I truly believe that what you put out into the universe will come back to you, so I choose kindness and openness, because that is how I like to be treated. It also attracts certain people to your life.

My 23rd birthday in Melbourne, with my Aussie friend who I met in Europe. Another person that radiates kindness.

10. Open-mindedness is the spice of life 

You want to try those fried cockroaches, maggots, and grasshoppers? Enjoy a foot spa with fish nibbling at your feet? Learn about a new culture without judging it against your own?

Keeping an open mind has led me to so many unique experiences and opportunities in my life. And although I learned a lot of my open mindedness from my travels (and growing up in a hippie college town), that has extended to many other parts of my life as well.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Asia Travel
Getting my feet cleaned by fishies in Malaysia in 2013.

11. It’s okay to talk about mental health 

It took my a long time to admit to anyone outside of my family that I’ve dealt with a significant amount of anxiety since before I was a teenager.

Let’s just say that if I hadn’t started to address it and learn how to manage it from a young age, I probably would’ve ended up one of those old ladies that never leaves her apartment because she’s too fearful of the outside world.

Instead, I decided to use my anxiety to my advantage. It’s always with me, but it doesn’t define me.

I make it a personal mission to face it and the things in my life that scare me. I never want to allow my anxiety to make decisions for me. It’s part of the reason why I started solo traveling in the first place. It terrified me, but I knew that if I just jumped into the unknown it would work out.

Flower Fields in Carlsbad, San Diego, USA Travel

What I’ve learned through talking about it is that the majority of people I know have very similar stories to mine. If you deal with mental illness too, just know that you are not as alone as you think. It’s a conversation that needs to be brought up more and talked about openly.  

12. I don’t care about peer pressure anymore 

I was at a hostel in Vang Vieng the other night and a girl came up to me to ask if I was going to shotgun beer with everyone. I looked down at my Beer Lao and looked up at her, shook my head and said “no, I’m good just sipping on my beer, thanks though.”

I could feel the disdain coming off her, but honestly, it didn’t bother me in the least. When I was 22, I probably would’ve been more ‘hell yeah’ about it. Not because I actually enjoy chugging beer and getting it all over me (I do not shotgun gracefully), but because I would’ve wanted to impress the people I was with and feel like I fit in.

That’s just one example, but in general, peer pressure doesn’t bother me anymore. If I don’t want to do something, I’m not going to do it. If for some reason that makes me unlikeable, then we probably weren’t meant to be friends anyway.

13. Listen to your inner voice 

If it feels wrong, it probably is. Assuming you’re not a psychopath, it’s a safe bet that listening to your inner voice, also known as your moral compass, is probably a good idea.

14. Always respond back & keep in touch

I try my best to respond to all emails, texts, and letters from friends, family, and even acquaintances. We’re all busy, but you should be able to find five minutes to write a quick reply to someone.

Unless that person has royally screwed up or is one of those negative friends I mentioned above, always respond back. It’s respectful and people will remember the time you take for them.

Keeping in touch is hard when I’m always traveling, but I still actively reach out to those close friends and family members as much as I can. I try not to take anyone in my life for granted.

Friend Catch-ups in San Diego, California - USA Travel
Catching up with my friend Monica in San Diego when I was stateside last year.

15. Talking to strangers can be wonderful 

Contrary to what you learned as a little kid, talking to strangers can be a good thing!

Whether it’s that new girl in the hostel, that guy sitting next to you on the train, or stopping someone for directions on the street – the power of human relationships and connections can lead you to a lot of cool experiences in life.

I can’t say I’ve ever regretted striking up a conversation with someone new.

16. Reading expands your mind, makes you think, and gives you plenty of conversation topics

I’ve always loved reading, but I’ve recently become even more invested in my reading education and how much I can expand my mind through books.

On average, I try to read one book a week, or at least two books per month. I love reading opinions, words, and stories from other people. I love discussing books with people, psychoanalyzing characters, or educating myself on topics like feminism, politics, history, and psychology.

Reading is just another way that I educate myself about the world, or get lost in a new adventure outside my own.

17. Travel is not as expensive as you think

Even in today’s modern age, I still hear people’s main excuse for not being able to travel is that it’s too expensive.

Of course, not everyone is privileged enough to travel, or even wants to travel. But for those people who want to travel, first take a look at your priorities before saying “I wish I could travel like you. If only I were rich!”

If you track your expenses for a month and figure out all the extra things you spend your money on (i.e coffee, clothes, drinks, movies, going out to dinner, etc), you may see a travel fund come into view.

Not to mention, besides the airfare to get to most places (and even then, you can find some pretty cheap deals out there), once you’re in a destination you can almost always find budget options to make it affordable for you.

Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona
Last summer I hammock camped around the the USA and stayed at free campsites around the country. It was super affordable!

Heck, living in Southeast Asia, I’m spending much less per month on ALL of my living expenses than I was on just my monthly rent in Portland.

18. You don’t have to plan everything 

I’m one of those habitual planners. If you look through my notebooks, there are unfinished, half-checked off lists on most pages. Planning is my jam, I love it.

I’ve also learned that it’s not necessary for every aspect in life, especially when it comes to travel. This trip to Asia, I’ve hardly planned anything except for a day or two in advance and it’s amazing how different my travel style has become.

I love that I can change my plans tomorrow if I want to, because I refuse to book anything unless I absolutely have to. That’s not to say that I don’t still do my research, I do. I just allow a lot more spontaneity in my travels these days, and I’ve found that I enjoy it much more.

The best trips are sometimes those you just show up to.

19. Never lose your passion (and don’t do things half-assed)

I’ve always been passionate about a lot of things. It has opened me up to getting hurt and maybe stretching myself too far sometimes, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love being passionate. Doing things half-assed is simply not in my nature.

Always choose to greet the world with open arms. Always love with an open heart, no matter how many times you get hurt. Life is meant to be lived, not wasted in cynicism.

20. Be present and thankful every single day

One of the reasons why I love meditation is the fact that it forces me to stop thinking about a million different things and just be.

When I can find that inner peace, even just for 20 minutes, it can change my day drastically. To be fully self-aware, present, and thankful for the moment in which you’re breathing in and out, there’s nothing better.

My 24th birthday in Wellington, New Zealand Travel
My 24th birthday in Wellington, New Zealand.

The book that first inspired me about this idea of mindfulness was A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I still pick that book up to read random passages sometimes, and to remind myself how to be still and enjoy the moment.

If I can continue to find that little bit of clarity each day, I think I’ll grow into a very happy old woman someday.

21. Handwritten notes and letters are well worth the effort 

I love handwriting postcards and letters to my friends and family around the world. Even after all these years and the progression of technology, where I can call my mom for free from my iPhone when I’m on the other side of the world, there’s nothing like getting a handwritten note in the mail.

Maybe it’s the romantic idea of it, I am a writer after all, but I don’t think this is something that I’ll ever stop doing. I enjoy taking the time to send my love and share my thoughts on physical paper.

On a similar note, I also believe in always writing thank you cards. Again, people remember the little things you do for them that show you care.

San Diego, California - USA Travel
Me and my sister at my going away party before I moved to Australia. One of the many people that I regularly write postcards to.

22. Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re always going to be your own worst critic

I’ve always been a perfectionist of sorts and fairly hard on myself to always be better. I think that harsh critic voice was even harder to silence once I became self-employed. There is always something more you could be doing when you own your own business, and I would often find my 8 hour work day turn into 12-14 hours of sitting at my computer.

In essence, I became a workaholic to keep up with everything I felt like I had to do. And unsurprisingly, it only stressed me out more.

Skydiving in Taupo, New Zealand Travel
Skydiving in Taupo, New Zealand. Sometimes you just have to let those self criticisms go.

This is something that I still work on today, but I’d like to think I’ve gotten much better with giving myself a break, and accepting myself and my work for what it is.

23. Money is not everything, but being comfortable is important

It has been an adjustment going from having a steady income working for other people, to working for myself in a career that is not known to pay very well. Although I’ve started to establish myself in the last couple of years as a blogger, freelancer, and writer, I still struggle from time to time with being able to actually save money and travel and pay off my student loans – at the same time.

I’ll be the first to admit that I had a privileged childhood. I grew up in a middle class family. My parents weren’t rich by any means, my dad was a bus driver and my mom worked in childcare, but I never went hungry.

There was always enough money for birthday presents and christmas gifts for me and my two siblings. I played three sports for the majority of my childhood, traveling all over California for endless tournaments on weekends, playing in multiple competitive leagues at a time, none of which was cheap.

I don’t think I realized just how privileged of a childhood I had until I started living check to check to keep up with my travel expenses, my bills, my taxes, you know, all of that ‘adulting’ stuff.

Now that I’m getting closer to 30, I’m really conscious of the fact that I want to have legitimate savings for my future. I mean, you don’t get built in health insurance when you’re self-employed, and I want that rainy day fund if I ever need it.

No, money isn’t everything, but you definitely notice when you don’t have it. Money may not always bring happiness, but it brings freedom and more options than you would’ve had otherwise.

I don’t need to be rich, or have a lot of material things, but I want to be comfortable and enjoy the odd luxury now and then. I want to be able to create a life for myself that makes me happy.

24. Loss is one of the hardest things to deal with in life 

My 20s have been all about adjusting to the inevitability of life and death. The only person I had lost before my 20s was my Grandpa Al in high school. Then soon after I arrived to college, I received the news that the childhood friend I grew up with had committed suicide. My Grandma Jo passed in 2015 the day before I came home from New Zealand, and my Nana Joyce passed away this last February.

It’s really hard to not let loss affect you negatively sometimes.

Visiting with my Nana Joyce before she passed away - Oregon
The last time I saw my Nana Joyce before she passed away in February.

I’ve learned that loss never really gets easier, you have to learn with each person that leaves your life how to live with a hole that will never be filled.

I try to focus on cherishing the person for who they were and the profound impact they had on me. To keep them in my memories and to appreciate the time I had with them.

25. Education doesn’t end with a degree

Just because you’ve graduated from university doesn’t mean that your education has ended. Read, stay up on current events, learn a new language, keep asking questions, explore a different culture, dive into politics. Be curious, and daring, and put yourself in new situations that take you outside of your comfort zone.

There are countless ways to stay engaged and well-rounded citizens of this world, go out and grab your education by the horns.

26. Stop wasting time on comparisons

There will always be someone prettier, more successful, and richer than you are. That’s their life not yours, and no matter how much you stare at their perfect curated Instagram feed, that will never be you. Because only you can be you.  You will never reach your full potential if you keep wasting your time on comparisons, so stop.

Stop. Comparing.

You’ll have your own success and happiness that will be completely your own. This is your life, don’t waste it on being petty, jealous, insecure, or constantly thinking of those lingering what ifs.

27. Travel is not the end all be all 

Ahh shocking, I know! A travel blogger saying that travel is not everything in life? So much of the last decade has been about my next trip, where I want to go next, and saving money so I can stay on the road.

But there’s something to be said for the idea of a ‘fixed life’ as well. Travel will always be a part of my life, I’m sure of that, but I’ve known for awhile now that a life that’s constantly on the road is not for me. This is partly why I slow travel and take my time in places, but even slow travel can be exhausting in the longterm.

My first trip to Costa Rica - Central America Travel
My first trip to Costa Rica when I was 18.

I miss being a regular at that coffee shop down the street, having my group of friends that I hang out with every week, cooking in a kitchen where I know where everything is. Portland wasn’t the right place for me last year, but I know someday I’ll find that place and I’ll want to stay, still traveling regularly but having a permanent base to come back to.

I’ve also realized that travel is not the most important thing in my life anymore. The people I call friends and family back home, the relationships I cultivate on the road, writing about something I’m passionate about, the little joys in life that make me who I am – these are what make life meaningful. This is where I find the most happiness.

Bonus: Drink that extra glass of wine, go skinny dipping, and most importantly, be free 

To never lose that feeling that life is worth experiencing to the fullest, to be filled with adventures, and to be free to be whoever you want to be. Do whatever makes you happy, love passionately, and throw yourself into this crazy world with all of your senses.

Life is too beautiful to let it go to waste. Life is too short to not dive in completely. And finally, life is what you make of it.

So be free, be happy, and be kind.

Santa-Cruz-California-usa-travel
Me when I was 13, before I knew all of this life wisdom.

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've Learned in 27 Years - The Atlas Heart

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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