In Your 20s? 7 Powerful Life Lessons You Have to Learn on Your Own
As the wheels lifted off the tarmac and the plane soared into the sky, I felt like an electric current surged through my veins. People say the best part of a trip is checking into a luxe hotel or lounging by a pool without a care, but I disagree. For me, it’s the moment of anticipation before the adventure begins when it feels as if the entire trip stretches out ahead. You know some of the best memories and moments of your life are just about to unfold, but you don’t know what they’ll be.
Even though my six-month backpacking trip started with this sense of optimism, I wasn’t always so sure of my choice to leave my career, boyfriend, and life behind. One month prior, I’d been faced with a decision that made me want to throw up with nerves. A company I’d followed for years approached me with a job offer—one that made me want to cancel my ticket and retreat back to routine.
I felt sick with angst, but a piece of advice from a friend’s parents swayed my decision: “You’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did.” I knew with certainty that if I chose to continue my life at its current pace—working long hours, seeing the same friends on weekends, going to the same bars—I’d always look back and wonder what could have been.
So I made myself a promise. If I was going to upend my life and make a potentially reckless and regrettable decision, I vowed to throw myself into the experience. I had to do things that made me uncomfortable. I had to seek out people who challenged my world view. And most of all, I had to try and learn as much from the experience as possible.
Was it all worthwhile? Six months and over 30 countries later, these are the most powerful lessons I learned.
Wonderful Things Happen When You Stop Living Passively
I’m the girl who looks at her phone in the elevator, who feels a bit awkward if the person on the plane wants to chat the whole flight, and who would rather email than call. Traveling taught me that this passive approach will make you miss out on amazing experiences.
A few weeks into my travels, I noticed the shift in the way I engaged with people. As I hiked through the jagged landscape of Rose Valley, Turkey, I struck a conversation with a shy elderly man who was tending his crops. He couldn’t speak much English, and I certainly couldn’t speak Turkish, but he invited me and my friends to have tea with him at a local farm. He led us through an incredible locals-only cave passageway and poured us homemade apple tea. It’s crazy to think that if I kept my gaze down as I hiked through the valley, this incredible moment would have passed me by.
This lesson hasn’t just changed the way I travel; it’s made me realize the value in being truly present wherever you are. You’ll be surprised by how many unexpected experiences unfold when you genuinely engage with every person you meet.
IN MY PACK:
You're Not the Center of the Universe—and That's a Good Thing
When I ventured into the jungle in Laos, I was forced into a digital blackout. It wasn’t a trendy digital detox retreat—there was just literally no internet reception in that remote pocket of Southeast Asia. When I emerged three days later, nothing had changed online. My Facebook feed was awash with the same viral videos, people at home were talking about the same Netflix shows, and no one really cared that I was MIA for a few days. There’s something humbling about knowing that life goes on, with or without you. I learned that social media gives us an inflated sense of self. We think a short pithy tweet or worldly travel snap with a ton of likes shows that people care what we say and do. Traveling made me realize that’s not the case—which was strangely liberating.
You Probably Don't Need That Shiny New Thing
A measly 50-minute flight from Barcelona to Mallorca caused one of the most challenging, eye-opening moments of the trip. The airline lost my bag, which, as a backpacker, was like losing the home you'd carried on your back for months. I was devastated. Suddenly, I found myself in a foreign country with literally no possessions. I didn't even have spare underwear. I didn’t think I could last a day without my belongings, but as the weeks went on, I realized how little I actually needed. Friends lent me clothes, and I purchased the bare necessities—sunscreen, sandals, and, yes, underwear. My once overflowing cosmetic bag was replaced with just five products, and I didn’t notice the absence. I traveled for one month without belongings, and when the bag was finally returned, I opened it up and felt like I was peering into someone else’s life. I couldn't help but wonder What on earth did I ever do with all of these things?
We're More Alike Than We Are Different
Small orange objects floated limply just off the shore in Kos, a small island in Greece. When I squinted, I realized what they were: lifejackets. Refugees had worn those orange lifejackets as they boarded an overcrowded boat in Syria and made the voyage to enter Europe via Greece.
When you live in a peaceful, privileged country, it’s easy to dismiss conflict as something that happens on the front page of the newspaper. But when I arrived in Kos, the landing point for thousands of Syrian refugees each year, I realized just how narrow and limiting that perspective is.
Wandering through the scattered camp that had been erected by the shoreline, I was embarrassed to realize how flawed my concept of a refugee was. Dignified women groomed each other, despite spending the night on the hard concrete floor. Mothers gathered around chatting while they nursed their babies. Boys kicked plastic bottles through makeshift goals. It was this scene of total normality that made me realize there's no such thing as “us” and “them.”
Dating Can Be a Crutch
The decision to travel indefinitely didn’t just mean I had to leave my job and home; it also meant leaving my boyfriend behind. Having been in a relationship for eight years, I found the prospect of venturing out on my own terrifying, but it also became the most energizing.
A few weeks into my travels, I realized that I'd become dependent on my S.O. Relationships give us a sense of worth and validation, but if you rely on someone else to feel that way, it can lay the foundation for an unhealthy relationship. Traveling taught me to stand firmly on my own and analyze my own wants and needs, so that when I did return to the relationship, I was totally secure in myself.
THE ONLY TECH YOU NEED:
Life Happens in Between Photographs
We often remember a vacation based on the curated feed of photographs we take, but looking back on my six-month stint, it’s clear that the most important moments happen in between. Just because something doesn’t warrant a picture doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Moments like playing cards while your flight is delayed or eating an indiscriminate dish from a local food stand will become the memories you cherish most. When I returned to my career and routine, I kept this lesson in mind: Savor those seemingly unimportant moments like commuting to work or sipping coffee with a friend because they matter more than you know.
You Don't Need to Travel to Learn About Yourself
I’ll admit it: There’s something bold and awe-inspiring about a tale of throwing your old life away to discover a new truth, but the reality is you don’t have to travel the world to learn about yourself. Traveling in your 20s has become such a popular life choice, but choosing to take the opposite route can be just as illuminating. Marcel Proust’s wisdom holds true: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Looking back at that excruciating choice to travel the world rather than accept a dream job, I can’t help but wonder, did I make the right decision? It’s hard to say whether turning down that role temporarily stalled my career, but I’m okay with that choice. When I think about the highlight reel that will flash when my skin is creased and my breath is shallow, I know exactly what it will show: a barefoot girl whooshing above the jungle on a zip line, Berber tribesmen singing in the Sahara under the blanket of stars, and the insignificant moments in between with my closest friends. That sounds pretty good to me.
Have you been traveling for a prolonged period? What did you learn from the experience?