I Turn 30 Tomorrow. Here’s What I Learned In My 20’s

I have a close friend named Mike. At the end of every year he writes a summary of what he’s learned over the previous 12 months. Since I’m turning 30 tomorrow, Mike’s yearly ritual popped into my head and I thought this would be a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned over the last decade.

It might be a ridiculous premise, either because I learned too much to condense into one post, or because I didn’t learn anything and when I’m 40 I’ll shake my head that I thought I had anything important to say. It could go either way.

In either case, here are some random reflections on the last 3,650 days of my life.

  1. Friends

When I was 20 I spent a couple semesters studying French in France. Every day in class our teacher would ask us what we did the night before. We would always say something like “I hung out with some friends” or “I went to a friend’s house.”

One day our teacher told us “you guys are using the wrong word for friends.” We were confused. “Doesn’t ami mean friend?” we asked.

“No, what you’re trying to say is copain.” She explained. A copain is more like a buddy. “Copains are great, but an ami- that’s something really special. If you have 2 or 3 amis in your entire life, you are a truly fortunate person.”

That distinction really made a big impact on me. It’s important to notice the difference between casual friends, or even relatively close friends, and the people who are true ami who will be with you for life. Thinking about all of the people in my life, I can honestly say I can’t imagine anyone being much more fortunate than me. I am so grateful and humbled and honored to have more amis than I deserve. I love you all.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.

2. Family

When I was in my mid-twenties my dad was living in the same town as me and my siblings. It was great because we got to see him all the time, rather than waiting for every other weekend like we did growing up. After a while though his wife was offered a job in Las Vegas and they decided to move.

I was really angry. I couldn’t believe that he would willingly choose to put himself in a position where we could only see each other once or twice a year (especially since my siblings were still young at this point). I felt like it was yet another injustice in a long line of injustices stemming from my parents’ divorce.

I finally realized though that this was a pretty shitty situation for him too: he probably felt like he could move to Vegas and not see us, or stay and possibly risk another divorce. Choose between your wife or your kids. At that moment I think I saw my dad as a regular guy for the first time, a guy not sure what the least-crummy option was, just trying to make it through life the best he could.

Through that process I realized that I’ve only got one dad. I’ve only got one mom, one stepdad, one brother, one sister, one grandma, a few aunts, uncles, and cousins too, and they’re all just imperfect people like everyone else. Just because they’ve got certain DNA doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes. (I’ve often been a selfish dirtbag to my family so I hope this doesn’t sound holier-than-though.)

There are 7 billion people in the world that you can hold grudges against or hold to ridiculous standards if you want, but you’ve got to do everything possible to be patient, kind, forgiving, supportive, and understanding with your family. I’m fortunate to get to share the same blood as so many cool people; I love and appreciate you all so much and I feel blessed to get to spend my life with you guys.

3. People

I got to do a ton of traveling during my 20’s. I rode motorcycles across Central America. I backpacked around Europe. I interned in China. I lived in a kickboxing gym in Thailand. A giant crowd of people sang me a love song in Iran. I’m pretty sure I almost got murdered in West Africa, and I’m pretty sure I almost got raped and/or eaten in Vietnam. I went to college, but this was my real education.

I learned so much by traveling. I learned about myself, I learned about the world, but the most important thing I learned is that people are inherently good. You can argue about Hobbes vs. Locke all you want- is man innately good or naturally selfish- but for me the answer is simple. I have received overwhelming warmth and generosity from complete strangers all over the world.

I think the importance of this lesson can’t be overstated. The way you see other people affects just about every aspect of your behavior. And if we all operated on the assumption that people are (or want to be) good, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately just turn on the news and you’ll see this isn’t the case.

4. Purpose

For more than half of my 20’s I desperately wanted to have a higher purpose in life. I felt like there surely must be a reason why I was put here, some divine calling or grand mission I was meant to fulfill. I waited and waited for it to reveal itself to me but it never did. So I kept waiting.

Finally I realized something. God doesn’t have your life purpose written on some secret card, and he doesn’t magically reveal it to you one day. You pick your purpose. You dive into life, start trying things and figure out what fires you up the most, then you decide that that’s your purpose. You claim it as your mission. And there’s no such thing as picking wrong: if you lose enthusiasm for it, you pick something else.

5. Love

Most humans are team-based thinkers. Identity is a huge part of our psyches, and the easiest way to establish your identity is by what groups you associate with. And if you’re going to be part of a group, the more exclusive and the more elite it is, the better. That’s why people can say things with a straight face like “This is the greatest country in the world.” and “Everyone who doesn’t believe our religion is going to hell.” These are easy things to think until you go to other countries or meet people from other religions, then suddenly things aren’t so black-and-white.

So much of the hurting in the world is caused by team-based thinking. When you think your team is better than everyone else, it becomes easy to dehumanize other people, and that’s when you see religious whack-jobs screaming at gays, and kids getting blown up in wars on TV, and racial issues engulfing the country.

Albert Camus famously said “I know of only one duty, and that is to love.” Everyone, please realize that we’re all fundamentally the same. Love each other.

6. Positivity

For probably ten years, from my mid-teens to mid-twenties, I was borderline infatuated with the military. I grew up playing with toy guns and G.I. Joes and I loved the idea of strength, honor, courage, and service. All through college and even into grad school my goal was to join the CIA and become an intelligence officer. I thought the only way for a man to truly make a difference was by being a warrior; after all, look at all the figures we revere throughout history- they’re almost all soldiers.

As I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I would look at almost any other profession and think “what difference do they truly make? A dentist doesn’t change history. No one talks about accountants from the 15th century. A plumber can’t change the world.” (In hindsight I guess I had kind of a bleak outlook on life.)

Then I remember one day watching a video from the 80’s of Judas Priest performing You’ve Got Another Thing Coming. It was so awesome: Rob Halford strutting around stage, howling into the microphone and waving his arms, and probably 15,000 people in the arena absolutely losing their shit. I bet every single person went home with electricity in their veins, and probably a week later they were still buzzing from the experience. Finally it clicked and I thought “That’s it. That’s the meaning of life.”

Maybe Rob Halford didn’t win a battle or liberate a country, but he poured himself out on stage and he changed people’s lives. Maybe only for a couple hours. Or maybe for a week. But maybe for the next 30 years, who knows. And that’s what it all comes down to: pouring yourself out and touching people around you.

Men have been fighting since the beginning of time, and no war ever brings us any closer to the point where we no longer have war. We just keep doing it (which is the definition of insanity), so that’s clearly not the point of life. Instead it’s building each other up and moving humanity a little farther forward. And heavy metal of course; the point of life is heavy metal.

7. Curiosity

I have a lot of hobbies. I ride motorcycles. I shoot guns. I practice martial arts. I like death metal. (I might be saying these things because I feel like a bit of a pussy for talking about love and positivity so much.) There are so many things to do with your time.

One time my brother and I went to a shooting competition called Cowboy Action Shooting. The competitors dress up like cowboys, give themselves western names like Big Tex and Toothless Willy, and run around shooting old fashioned revolvers, shotguns, and lever-action rifles. I remember thinking “This is kind of insane…in an awesome way. A mile away from here there’s probably a bunch of people complaining that there’s nothing to do in Tigard, Oregon. But here are a bunch of people running around a giant gravel pit reciting Clint Eastwood lines and blowing shit up.”

The point is there are so many things to see and do in the world. You need to cultivate a sense of curiosity and experience as much as you can (except meth. Definitely don’t experience meth). Motorcycles make me feel alive and have given me an excuse to explore. Martial arts have made me feel strong and confident and have helped me make friends quickly whenever I’ve lived in a different city. Death metal makes me feel like a superhero. Shooting guns is just badass. Always try new things and get excited to be alive.

8. Money

Over the last year or two I’ve been bungling my way through entrepreneurship and self-employment. What I’ve learned so far is that all business at its core is an exchange of value: I give you value in the form of a product or service, you give me value in return in the form of dollars. If you want more money you have to provide more value. It’s that simple.

Even though I’m still grinding, I have to tell you, when you create something, send it out into the world, and people willingly give you their money because it makes their life better in some small way….that is an awesome feeling. It’s addicting. And my projects are building momentum- more sales, more customers, more opportunities every day. To be in the driver’s seat and to be in charge of your future is such an exciting position to be in. It sure as hell beats thinking the only way to accomplish anything of meaning in life is to join the CIA…

9. Health

People always talk about having to be more and more deliberate about diet and exercise as you get older. I’ll be 30 tomorrow and I’ll weigh less than I did in college. My pant size is smaller than it was in high school. I don’t really have any wisdom to impart on the subject, I just felt like health is such a huge part of life, it would be weird to not address it here in some capacity. (Or maybe I just wanted to be shitty and brag.)

I guess my one piece of advice would be if you stop eating junk and eat lots of veggies, eventually they’ll end up tasting good. You can reprogram your taste buds and it’s totally worth it. Do lots of pushups and pullups. Also, join a Muay Thai gym that does sparring. If you slack off on your fitness you will literally get your ass kicked. That honestly was my fitness routine for 1/3 of my 20’s.

10. Integrity

When I think of integrity I think of the hull of a ship. A ship is designed with structural integrity: it holds its shape, withstands the pressure pushing against it, and keeps the water out. But if the integrity is compromised, the whole structure will collapse and the ship sinks. The same is true for a person.

I think the most important thing in life is being able to go to sleep with yourself at the end of the day. If you manage to do that every night, then pretty much everything else will work itself out. And integrity is how you do that.

Looking back over my 20’s, I’m mostly happy with how things went. I don’t think “Oh my gosh, I was such an idiot.” I didn’t fuck up in any big ways. But there were a few moments and periods where I wasn’t holding my shape. A major goal for my 30’s will be to always stay structurally sound.


There you have it: friends, family, people, purpose, love, positivity, curiosity, money, health, and integrity. I didn’t list those out ahead of time, I just sat down and started typing. If I started over from scratch it might come out totally different. In any case, thanks for reading and taking this little journey with me. Please tweet me @GarinEtch and let me know what you think!

This article also appears on Medium and is published here with permission of the author
Title photo credit: flickr