9 Important Life Lessons I Learned From Surviving My 20s

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Back in my early twenties, I was a loose cannon. Music, clubs, and drugs were my passion and I took every opportunity to indulge in these hedonistic pleasures as much as humanly possible. Partying two or three times a week was the norm with the usual session lasting well over 24 hours.

It’s hardly shocking to hear that a two-time university dropout turned up-and-coming DJ was living this kind of lifestyle. I had no direction in life and the only thing I was certain of was that I didn’t want to be in a classroom again.

I was naive, reckless, and lost. Had I continued down this destructive path, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post right now.

In just a few short weeks, I will turn 30 years old. Unlike my 20th birthday, which was fuelled by drugs, alcohol, and deafening electro-house music, this time I will be running off a mountain with some fabric and string above my head. I do this fun thing called paragliding, where I attempt to fly like bird. On this particular occasion, I’ll be cruising around an active volcano called Mount Bromo, on the island of Java in Indonesia. Pretty wild, I know.

I’ve changed so much in the last 10 years. Although I’m still the same old Tom, my thoughts, feelings, and actions are dramatically different. I have taken full responsibility for my life and have been able to do and create some rather special things. I’ve built a successful online business and travelled to over 20 countries learning exciting sports like rock climbing, skydiving, freediving, and paragliding.

When you look back and consider all the experiences you’ve managed to squeeze in over the last decade of your life, you really can see how far you’ve come. This helps you realize that change takes time. The idea of an overnight success is complete horse shit. The life you’re living right now is a reflection of who you are. And so, to change your life, you must change who you are at a very fundamental level. This process takes years.

The obstacle in your path, that devil on your shoulder, is your ego. It doesn’t like change because change is  uncomfortable. Your ego wants to keep you in the familiar and known — and it’s not going to go down without a fight. But when you struggle against it and win, a whole new life will open up right before your eyes, and you’ll be laughing at all the silly decisions you used to make.

My 20s were a wild ride that I wouldn’t change for the world. Here are 9 important life lessons I learned on the way:

1. Life Is Not All About Partying to Excess

It doesn’t matter which college or university you go to, everywhere you look there is a strong culture of drinking to excess and partying hard. While most of us pass through this phase and have a lot of fun in the process, it’s important to remind yourself that there is more to life.

When you’re staying up past 6 am absolutely off-your-face, you are borrowing precious energy from your future. Sooner or later you’re going to have to repay this debt. We all know the effects of too much alcohol and sleep deprivation, and hopefully, you’ll realize this is not a sustainable way to live. Anyhow, when you approach your 30s, hangovers will turn into a miserable two-day affair and you will be forced to cut back on the booze. At least that’s what happened to me!

Being able to say “no” to your friends who will try every trick in the book to persuade you to join them on another “wild one” will help strengthen your will. Plus, you will have more time to sit on your own and let your creative juices flow — just be sure you’re not distracting yourself with Netflix or Youtube. It’s in this fresh, sober state that you can actually create a future you’ll enjoy. This is the place where we make better decisions and is the place you want to start living your life from.

2. Not Everyone Is Going to Like You

If you’re like me, you try to avoid conflict as much as possible. The unfortunate side effect of this can be a chronic case of “people pleasing”. You hold back what you really want to say so as not to cause offence, and eventually you become the yes-man others take advantage of.

As you can imagine, being a DJ, and later, a business owner, I wanted to be liked and accepted. I thought that acceptance and being liked equated to more gigs and sales. But bending to the will of others and only saying what they want to hear, doesn’t put you in a powerful position.

Not everyone is going to like you, no matter how much you suck up to them. When you accept this and start speaking your truth, people will actually respect you more. It’s OK to have a difference of opinion or disagree with someone. What they think of you as a result has nothing to do with you.

Speak your mind and you will quickly find out who you can get along with and who is probably worth giving a wide berth.

3. Failure Is Not the End of the World

In my early 20s, the only job I could find that didn’t involve stacking shelves was commission-based cold calling. Yup, I was that guy interrupting your grandma’s dinner to aggressively persuade her that she needed some new windows and an expensive conservatory. This was my first experience with objection handling and I sucked at it. The hit rate with cold calling is extremely low in the best of cases, so when you put a shy, inexperienced pothead on the phone with complete strangers who were not expecting your call, it’s a recipe for disaster. But the silver lining was that I still got paid at the end of the week by my employer.

When starting out in business on my own, all responsibility was firmly placed on my shoulders.  When you don’t have any idea what you’re doing, it’s pretty easy to assume that failure is imminent. I tried social media marketing, app and website development, software-as-a-service, and a whole host of other projects that all failed miserably.

What I learnt here was that failure was part of life. When it happens, don’t beat yourself up about it, figure out what went wrong and try not to make the same mistakes again.  Staying calm and unreactive when the shit hits the fan is one of the most valuable qualities you can develop as a human. Just know that when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up.

4. Consistent Effort Every Day, Compounds Over Time

Ten years is a long fucking time to learn what works and what doesn’t. Chances are there aren’t many things, apart from masturbating and scrolling Facebook, that you do on a daily basis. So now’s the time to commit to something you’re interested in or want to get better at and find a way to make it a new daily habit.

I want you to look back 10 years from now, after you’ve mastered that particular skill or habit, and recognise the moment you decided to change. These moments don’t seem important at the time, but upon reflection, these were the moments when your life changed.

The same can be applied to negative thoughts and habits. If you consistently indulge in self-doubt, worry, and judgement of others, it’s likely this pattern will get stronger and stronger unless you do something about it.  

I see so many people wasting hours and hours of their precious time on meaningless computer games and Netflix shows without realizing that they are strengthening the habit of distraction and laziness. I know this is not what you want for yourself, so pick something productive and creative to do instead. It will be uncomfortable in the beginning but totally worth it in 10 years time.

5. Pleasing Your Parents Won’t Make You Happy

If I’m being totally honest, I went to university with the intention of getting a degree partly to make my parents proud, and partly because I thought this was the path I had to take to get a good job. But just three months in, something didn’t feel right and I decided to leave. I didn’t want to waste three years of my life studying something that I knew in my heart wasn’t going to make me happy.

In order to avoid upsetting my parents, I had crafted a clever back-up plan. I would re-apply to a different university and try something else!  You can guess how that turned out. It wasn’t something I was truly passionate about (meteorology) and I dropped out after three months. Looking back, It was a pretty ridiculous decision, but in the moment it was one that I couldn’t escape from.

So when you make a big decision, like what university or college to go to or what job to apply for, take some time to consider why you’re doing it. Is it what you “really” want to do? Or perhaps you just don’t know what you want, and are too scared to share this with your parents.

When you start doing things for yourself — the things that make you happy — you will finally create a life you love. It’s OK if you haven’t got it all figured out yet, time is on your side.  

6. Be Patient, You Still Have Time

Your 20s are all about figuring things out. You have just been released into the big wide world with hardly any solid life experience. This is your time to try new things and fuck up a lot. It’s unlikely you’re married with kids, so the only consequence of losing all your money on that new business project is probably a bruised ego. Maybe you’ll have to go live in your parents’ basement for a few months. But in the grand scheme of things, this is a small price to pay.

7. Travel Will Make You a Better Person

There is nothing quite like the giddy excitement you feel when you arrive at the airport ready to board a flight to a new country. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve travelled out of your country on your own, making the moment even more memorable.

Science now shows us that travel physically rewires our brains. When you visit a novel, new location your brain is forced to make sense of new stimuli and triggers the growth of dendrites. These branch-like extensions grow from neurons and facilitate the transmission of information between different regions of the brain. The more dendrites you have, the better your brain will perform.

On your travels, you will encounter problems and challenges that you are not used to. This will allow you to gain new knowledge and wisdom by working through these situations and learning from them. Ultimately, this can lead you to becoming a better human being.

8. Taking Risks Is Scary, but Worth It

I’m not just talking about things like skydiving or rock climbing. While those are great activities that can push you outside of your comfort zone, any kind of activity that requires a certain level of commitment with no guarantee of success can be defined as a risk.

To grow as human beings we must test the limits of our capabilities. How can we do that if we don’t push hard enough to find them? As someone who’s still in their 20s you can afford to take bigger risks: If your world comes crashing down you still have time to rebuild things. Anyhow, you will learn so much about yourself in the process you’ll want to do it again!

When I was about two years into my first business and making hardly enough money to cover my bills, I decided to sell all my DJ equipment and invest $4000 into an online course that showed me how to find and solve a painful problem in any industry using software. After busting my ass for six months, following everything I had learned exactly, the software business I had been working on completely failed. No one would put their money where their month was and pay for my software.

I tucked my tail between my legs and admitted defeat. In the process, I stumbled across an opportunity to apply the marketing skills I had been developing to the fitness industry. After another six months of trial and error, I finally got my first paying client and the business soon snowballed into a $15,000 per month beast!

If I had given up and settled for a “proper” job, I would have never discovered this new opportunity and the success that came along with it.

9. Your State of Being Is Your Priority

All I wanted to do in my early 20s was get “out-of-my-mind”. I was constantly seeking to change my state through drugs and music. But in truth, I was so uncomfortable with myself that I saw these things as the only way to be me.

We shouldn’t have to sedate and distract ourselves with drugs and alcohol to feel OK. There is a deep reservoir of peace, love, and happiness inside us all. We just need to figure out how to tap into it.

I realized that to have mastery over my life I had to master my state. This means having an awareness in every moment of how I’m feeling, thinking, and acting.

When you think you need a drink after a long day at the office, ask yourself why. You don’t need a drink to relax. You crave the feeling you get from alcohol and the release you get from the sedation of your mind.

But when you start to sit with yourself in silence and stillness you can observe the unconscious reactions of your mind. By just observing and not reacting you are training your mind to stay present. It’s through this process that you purify your mind and generate your own sense of peace and happiness. Your mental chatter quiets down and all you’re left with is the real essence of you.

When you master your state you won’t need to get “fucked up” because you’ll be so intoxicated with your own feelings of love, compassion, and gratitude, that no external substance will be able replicate these magical feelings.