I was lounging beside a gorgeous infinity pool in Vingerklip, Namibia when Dave asked the question. As I pondered how to answer, I watched a herd of giraffes sip from a waterhole in the valley below.
“I don’t want to tell you,” I confessed, embarrassed by my choice to indulge in yet another self-help guide.
He shrugged and took a couple of photos of the view. Still, I knew I was going to tell him anyway. I tell him everything, no matter how embarrassing.
“Okay, fine,” I said, pulling up the title on my Kindle. “I’m reading The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now.“
He burst out laughing.
“Is it that lame?” I asked, grinning.
“No, it’s not that,” he said. “It’s just, I kind of think you already have that covered?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you think you’ve made the most of your twenties already?”
“Lauren. You’re 28 and you’ve achieved more in the last decade than most people do in a lifetime.”
“Not really, I just–”
“You graduated with a masters in physics. You built a business from scratch that brings in more money than I earned in a corporate job. You got a book deal. You’ve written a book! You’ve been to over 70 countries. You’ve travel the world for a living. Dozens of people have told you you’ve changed their life. Look at your life — you’re relaxing beside a pool on a Tuesday morning and earning money as you do so. You should be writing the goddamn book on how to make the most of your twenties.”
If I’d been standing up, I would have taken a step back. As I digested everything Dave said, it was like I was seeing myself for the first time. Was I… successful?
I’ve always talked about how I feel like the poster child for imposter syndrome, and I was now being faced with a classic example of why.
I shook my head. Why had I felt like I’d needed that book? Why couldn’t I recognise my own accomplishments? Why did I feel as though I was so far behind everyone else; that I was failing and losing and a long, long way from success?
I realised that success to me looked exactly like what I had right now. I just hadn’t realised what I had. I’d needed someone to place me in front of a mirror and show me.
So, as ridiculous as it sounds, at age 28, I suddenly discovered I’d rocked the hell out of my twenties. I’d lived. I’d crammed so much into the past decade.
And so today, I want to sit down and write about all the things I did right over the past ten years. Grab yourself a wine because this one’s a long one.
I Conquered My Fears and Travelled
Leaving to travel the world is a terrifying prospect for most people.
For me, it felt practically impossible. I suffered from an anxiety disorder that had left me housebound, and that resulted in a severe lack of life experience. Let me remind you that anxiety is a constant stream of persistent, irrational, and debilitating thoughts, and that when I had too many of them I had a panic attack. Panic attacks mimic the symptoms of dying, with heart palpitations, chest pains, loss of vision, dizziness, cold sweats, and tremors. I suffered those multiple times a day lest you think I should have grown a pair. It prevented me from living.
A combination of a break-up and my graduation led me to travel. I was at a crossroads and I’d always been happiest when I was away from home.
So, I left.
I make it sound easy, but the night before I was due to leave, I didn’t even pack my backpack for my flight because I was convinced I wouldn’t actually go.
My lack of life experience meant that I had no idea what I was doing. I was too afraid to take a bus, so I walked around Croatia in the middle of the day until I got sun stroke. The hostel breakfast came with eggs and I was too nervous to eat them in case I was allergic, so I didn’t eat at all. I had a panic attack. I slept with my backpack on.
And still, I persisted.
Reaching the person I am today was a slow and frustrating process. And it’s one people often think I exaggerated, because it sounds so over the top and extreme.
But I got there. I transformed into an adventurous eater. I travelled solo to one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I visited 80 countries across five continents. I made friends. I stopped having panic attacks. I took a bus. I ate eggs. I grew confident. I discovered how strong I truly am.
So. When I sit back and think about the riches I have in my life, I can trace them all back to one moment, and that was me taking a deep breath, biting my lip, and stepping on a plane with a one-way ticket to Dubrovnik in my hand.
2. I Went With What Felt Right
Going back to that definition of anxiety I shared a few paragraphs back, one of the enormous downsides to suffering from this disorder is that it takes away your sense of intuition. When your mind is permanently full of irrational thoughts, everything feels like it’s setting your instincts off. If I paid attention to my intuition, I would never step outside.
I had to learn to ignore it and figure out a more scientific way of making my decisions, and it basically came down to whether I felt I would enjoy something or not.
I took a few press trips. It was cool to get free travel, but I felt uncomfortable being shown around somewhere, felt as though my readers would no longer trust me, and despised having an obligation to write about where I’d been. Refusing to take another one was a scary decision, because I knew I’d need to fund my travels while leaving a lot of money on the table. But I didn’t enjoy taking comps.
I stopped, I landed a book deal, I built a financially successful business, and now I can afford to take the trips of my dreams, do what I want there, find a story, write a negative review if everything sucks, and write about whatever I want.
I started taking trips for myself, too.
My travel blog is a business and I have to treat it like one, and there are some trips I’ve taken that have made zero sense, businesswise. They’re trips I know few of my readers will be interested in reading about, places very few people go to, and countries where I can’t monetise the information I share.
I’ll never make money from my trip to the Congo, and the same goes for Tonga. Barely anybody read my posts about the latter. But those adventures made me so happy, and I know it was the right decision to go on them.
I learned to ask myself: if I do this thing, is it likely I’ll enjoy it? If the answer is yes, I go for it, no matter what my “intuition” is telling me.
3. I (Eventually) Learned the Importance of Saving
I’ve never had a full-time job.
When I started saving for travel, I was still a student, so worked several part-time jobs and sold most of my possessions. I’ve therefore never been someone who earned a huge amount of money. My part-time jobs made me just over $5 an hour, and so when I started finding success with my travel blog, making $2,000 a month, I felt as though I was loaded.
It helped that I was living in Thailand at the time.
But I made that mistake that so many do when their income starts to increase and started spending more. I decided that make-up calmed my anxiety, so spent $3,000 at Sephora. I spent another $3,000 on a four-day trip to the Congo. I spent $2,000 on a petty four-day trip to Berlin so that I could write about how it feels to stay somewhere luxurious when you’re spending your own money rather than taking a comp.
I was making good money at this point, and yet I had none of it in the bank. I wasn’t any happier, either.
Suddenly, something clicked and I was like, what the hell am I doing?
I began saving and saving and saving. I took care of my money, putting it towards a pension, investing it, saving for a deposit on a house. I stopped staying in lavish accommodation. I stopped buying make-up because I have enough to last me 30 years. I got back to my budget travel roots and both me and my bank account are far happier because of it. It feels amazing to no longer feel sick whenever I check my balance.
4. But I Figured Out What’s Worth Splurging On
And it’s typically experiences over possessions.
The best thing I’ve ever done? The four nights I spent at Virunga National Park in the D.R.C. And sure, I mentioned it above as something that wasn’t a particularly wise financial decision, but it was one of the highlights of my life. And that makes it worth it to me.
There are very few material items that can make me genuinely happy, and the ones that do aren’t things that cost a lot. It’s candles to light in the evening, books to fill my apartment with, cushions covered with cartoon alpacas, a pretty map for my bedroom. It’s not piles of expensive clothes and bags and purses and sunglasses. It may seem thrilling to buy them at the time, but that feeling fades before the week is out.
So now, when I want to be financially irresponsible, I know exactly what to spend it on to get the most for my money, and it’s nearly always travel. It’s a kickass experience that looks life-changing. It’s something I know my loved ones will adore. It’s a plane ticket to somewhere I’ve always dreamed of visiting. It’s not fancy accommodation, a luxury tour, or a business class flight. It’s adventurous budget travel in a beautiful part of the world.
5. I Distanced Myself From Drama
Being a travel blogger is like heading back to high school.
People bitch and backstab and gossip and fight, and when I first started out, I couldn’t get enough of it. There were bloggers I despised and bloggers I hate-read and bloggers I continuously bitched about to other bloggers. I joined Facebook groups to roll my eyes at other members, and I dove headfirst into every morsel of gossip.
There was so much drama to devour.
It took less than a year for me to realise this was a terrible thing to do. I was surrounding myself in negativity, I was being cruel, and I was spending most of my day complaining about other people rather than focusing on what I was doing.
So I stopped, I stepped away, and I no longer engaged.
I left every single Facebook group. I stopped replying when people sent me gossip or bitchy messages. I stopped caring. I stopped reading the bloggers I didn’t like and wished them well. I developed a hatred of public shaming. I learned to follow, love, and appreciate only the people who’s writing filled me with joy.
Gossiping and bitching about other people is unhealthy, and I’m far happier now that I refuse to participate.
6. I Wasn’t Deterred When I Hit Rock Bottom
March 2016 was when I realised I couldn’t fall any lower.
The stress of writing my book from start to finish within three months broke me, as it would break anyone. I barely slept for those 90 days, focusing on writing over taking care of myself, going outside, having showers, and eating. I woke up at 6 a.m. and went to bed at midnight for three months straight, and I wrote and wrote and wrote.
After my book launched, my body allowed the symptoms of stress to take hold. I had panic attacks, my anxiety-induced eating disorder returned, I forgot how to have a conversation, I avoided going outside, and I cried every single day for months on end.
I would write about my struggles and readers would tell me to stop complaining, unsubscribe, tell me I was so negative, and write about how they were sick of hearing about it. That I needed to realise how lucky I was.
So I’d instead pretend my life was wonderful when the reality was so different.
I cancelled a trip to the Seychelles, Mauritius, and the Maldives because I couldn’t stop having panic attacks. I had panic attacks and cried non-stop on my dream trip to Bora Bora. I spent Christmas with Dave’s family trembling and sobbing in a bathroom like a nutcase because I didn’t know how to handle human contact anymore.
As I continued to drag myself around the world to pretend that I was loving life, my body deteriorated. In January, I landed myself with two ear infections and a sinus infection. In February, I had another sinus infection followed by a bladder infection. In March, I started having symptoms of an auto-immune disease — one that’s known to be one of the most painful conditions in the world. One that left me in so much agony I couldn’t speak.
And still I posted on my travel blog about how everything was great.
I suspected travel was the problem so I stopped and nothing changed. Fuck.
In Lisbon, I was spending every night downstairs on the sofa crying because I didn’t want my tremors to wake up Dave. I was in so. much. pain. I couldn’t eat without retching. I was taking yet another course of antibiotics. I’d try to see friends but go home because social contact gave me stomach cramps. I couldn’t find a therapist in Lisbon and nobody could tell me how to access the healthcare system because the websites were all in Portuguese. A reader emailed me to tell me I was psychotic and needed to be locked up in an asylum. Another reader told me I was boring now that I’d stopped travelling; that I was just another privileged rich girl now. Somebody told me it turned out I wasn’t a real traveller.
I hit rock bottom, but the best decision I made was the decision to fight back.
I jumped on an extreme elimination diet, cutting out alcohol, caffeine, sugar, grains, dairy, legumes, soy, preservatives, and more. I got my blood analysed. I started taking supplements. I meditated for an hour a day. I forced myself to sit in front of a plate of food for three hours to make sure I ate it all. I made myself go outside every day, even if it was just sitting on my balcony. I tried travelling solo again. I bought adult colouring books. I quit social media. I took time offline. I read books. I built myself a sanctuary in our second bedroom that was filled with candles and zen gardens and bean bags and blankets and incense and…
I fought so hard. And fighting was so hard. But I was determined not to let my anxiety take me.
It was a long, exhausting, and terrifying battle, and I’m still scarred by it, but as I write this now, I feel so far away from a panic attack that I’m practically zen.
7. I Learned the Importance of Focusing on my Health Above All Else
The big turnaround in my breakdown was clambering up on to Whole30 bandwagon. It changed my life
By the end of the 30 days, I felt superhuman. I had transitioned from daily panic attacks to ranking my anxiety a 0/10. My debilitating hayfever had disappeared. I stopped getting motion sickness. I no longer needed to take naps. My hair, skin, and nails were strong. My eyes were brighter. I had oceans of energy. I’d lost 10 lbs.
But the anxiety, guys. I no longer had anxiety for the first time in a decade and it felt incredible.
It showed me that so many of the problems I’ve battled in my life could be improved by taking care of what I put in my body.
That changed everything.
8. I Sought Out People from Different Backgrounds
I grew up in a very white town. I think that in my school of a thousand, there was maybe like three black kids and five were from China or Hong Kong. There was maybe one girl from India.
When I left school at age 16, I wanted something different. I wanted to get away from the people I’d grown up around and have a fresh start.
I chose to go to Richmond-upon-Thames College, because I didn’t know anybody who was going there, and because 40% of the student body were from minority ethnic backgrounds.
At first, it was intimidating. There were so many different cultures around me, and I remember asking a friend what Eid was when half of the class didn’t show up to school one day. But I made friends — I made amazing friends — and it opened my eyes to how amazing it can be to hang out with people from different countries. It fuelled my wanderlust, too.
By the time I was 18, my best friends hailed from Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. They’re wonderful people that I still hang out with today — still my best friends — and I wouldn’t have met them if I hadn’t gone out of my way to find people who weren’t like me.
9. I Cut Toxic People Out of My Life
For a long time, I was a people pleaser. I wanted every human on the planet to like me, and I went out of my way to ensure they did. I’d do anything for anyone. I never said no. I didn’t draw boundaries. If somebody left a cruel comment on my site, I’d email them to try to convince them I wasn’t who they thought I was.
I remember spending 12 hours straight helping somebody with code on their travel blog and asking for nothing in return.
It was exhausting. But not only that, in order to fit in every single box that people wanted me to fit into, I began to lose sight of who I was. I tried to be non-offensive and beige and boring, because I needed everyone to like me.
I had a lot of people in my life who made me miserable. Who treated me badly. Who only spoke to me when they wanted something. Who I knew were waiting for me to fail.
Cutting them out was scary. I was terrified. Afraid I was going to be attacked online, have rumours spread about me, be publicly shamed in retaliation. But nothing happened. Instead, I stopped crying myself to sleep at night. I stopped grinding my teeth. I stopped feeling so stressed.
I was able to be myself again. And I learned how to build boundaries.
10. I Prevented Myself from Forming a Smartphone Addiction
I used to think that not travelling with a phone was an idiotic decision. It meant I couldn’t get in contact with anyone, navigating an unfamiliar city involved taking photos of Google Maps, and I rarely posted to social media on the fly. I got lost all the time. I believed not having a phone was sabotaging my travels.
It took a while for me to realise the opposite was true.
Without a constant connection fastening me to the internet, I was able to take a true smartphone detox. I liked it. I enjoyed the mindfulness it brought to my life.
I bought a phone when I was two years into my trip, but by then, my enjoyment of a phone-free life had taken grip. I began to feel irritated because, while I left my phone at home, few others did. I spent precious moments with people I love sitting opposite them at a table and watching them stare at meaningless things on social media while I patiently waited for them to notice me gazing at them in boredom.
These days, my phone is only charged for maybe two or three days of the month. I don’t take it with me when I go outside unless I need to get directions. Mealtimes are phone-free situations. I don’t post to Instagram stories. And I rarely sacrifice a beautiful moment on my travels to post something on social media. I’m in the moment and I love every second of it.
11. I Prioritised Spending Time With My Family
Even when I was travelling full-time, I always made the effort to see my family.
I invited them on trips to come and visit me, and adored travelling with them through Ljubljana, Lisbon, Porto, Vancouver, and so many places in the U.S. (Portland, Seattle, New Orleans, and Memphis). I also prioritised visiting them. No matter where I was, I’d always find the time and the money to spend at least a month with my family each year.
Part of the reason why I decided to move to Bristol was to be closer to them, and it already feels like the right decision, as I’m feeling so warm and fuzzy from how often I see them.
Early on in my travels I realised that I would regret spending rest of my life travelling and barely making time to see my family, so I made sure to do something about it. You only get one family and travel will always be there.
12. I Had the Courage to Stop Travelling
Travel is incredible, but full-time travel stopped working for me after four-ish years on the road. I was overweight, unhealthy, unwell, anxious, and depressed. I didn’t have any friends. All I did was plan travel, write about travel, read about travel, and travel. And I was sick of it.
Just as leaving to travel was one of the best decisions I ever made, stopping was just as smart.
I’m someone who thrives from having the best of both worlds. From having a rich home life where I have a gym membership, a kitchen, a group of friends, time for hobbies, a desk to write at, and time and space to gather my thoughts and process my travels. But at the same time, I have a wonderful travel life too. One where I disconnect from the world to explore a destination. Where I’m all about trying new things and wandering through beautiful places.
Balance is important to me, and now that I have a home, I appreciate travel even more.
13. I Took on Terrible Jobs
Back when I was saving for travel, I was a student and could only apply for part-time jobs. I worked as a cashier in a garden centre, a pharmacy, and a supermarket. I had a very short trial run at banqueting at Wentworth Golf Course. I took on a six-week internship writing code for particle accelerators.
The most I earned at any of those jobs? £4.20 an hour. That’s around $5.50 for my American readers. And so I worked a lot and I saved everything, and I earned very little.
I’m so glad I did this.
First, it taught me what it’s like to be on the other side of checkout. Dave often comments on how I’m so friendly, polite, and kind to pretty much anybody I meet, and it’s because of those years spent dealing with rude customers. It taught me empathy, and to appreciate those that are working in under-appreciated jobs.
Secondly, it showed me how little I needed to live and how to be resourceful. I would buy seven £1 frozen ready meals for my dinners for the week. A loaf of bread, some butter, and some ham for lunches and breakfasts. That’s £13/$17 a week on food. I didn’t put the heating on in winter and I didn’t buy anything that wasn’t essential. I learned I don’t need much to survive and can handle living on a pittance.
14. I Changed My Plans to Follow Love, But Still Found Independence
When I started travelling, I was determined to prove I didn’t need to be in a relationship to make myself happy. Four months later, my soon-to-be boyfriend quit his job and moved to Thailand, vowing that he was going to focus on his business because the last thing he wanted was a relationship.
We met within eight days of him moving to Thailand, and moved in together immediately. For the next six months we lived, worked, and played in Chiang Mai, and I’d never been happier.
Then, I was torn. Dave had always planned to head to Europe. I was desperate to see Southeast Asia and had a visa for Australia that was due to expire in a few months. I thought Europe was boring. Dave thought Australia was boring.
It made sense for me to say goodbye, write it off as a wonderful travel romance, and continue soul searching my way around the world. But I didn’t want to.
So, feeling like a cliche and a disappointment to strong independent women everywhere, I changed my plans and travelled with Dave to Europe.
Seven years later, we’re still in an incredible relationship that I can’t believe is still this amazing. I made the right decision to follow my heart to Europe. But not only that, but I later found my independence, too. These days, if I want to go somewhere and Dave doesn’t, I wave goodbye and set off on my own solo adventure.
15. I Worked Hard on Becoming More Open-Minded
Yeah, I used to be a little bit judgmental in my early-twenties. It wasn’t until I started travelling that I realised what a dick I’d been.
I stopped believing that physics was the all-ruling discipline and that liberal arts degrees were worthless after meeting people with liberal arts degrees and realising some were more intelligent than I could ever be. I began to worship at the church of Dan Savage and he showed me a different side to things I once judged, like open relationships, affairs, and kink, whether they worked for me or not. I listened to Dear Sugars and felt inspired to become the most empathetic person on the planet.
I met incredible people who believed in religion and chakras and crystal healing and all kinds of other things I once regarded as stupid. And most of all, I started saying yes to the things I was naturally inclined to have a negative opinion of. Most of the time, I loved them.
At the end of the day, if someone’s doing something and it’s not hurting anyone else, there’s no reason to care about it. And if you think something’s ridiculous, why not try it before forming a judgment? Within reason, of course. Don’t do meth!
16. I Didn’t Drink in College
Due to my anxiety disorder and my belief it would worsen with alcohol, I spent my four years in college entirely sober.
While that means I wouldn’t necessarily label my university years as wild and full of bad decisions, it was good for me. I got to witness friends binge drinking and waking up with regrets without experiencing it for myself. And I also had to learn to do hard things in life without using alcohol as a crutch, like dealing with huge social occasions. I didn’t drink to take the edge off.
I decided I wanted to drink when I left to travel. I’d spent so much time reading blogs about backpacking life and they had made it sound so appealing that I wanted a huge part of it.
I remember training myself to drink at home before I left — buying a small can of cider from the supermarket and then passing out for five hours after drinking it.
And I drank as I travelled, and I drink now. It’s not that abstaining from alcohol made me sanctimonious, but that it made me more sensible. Buckets in Thailand, beer-margarita cocktails in Mexico, port in Portugal, and so on. I remember waking up every morning in Koh Yao Noi, and having a can of beer with my breakfast because I could. But also, that would likely be my entire alcohol intake for the day.
I didn’t push myself to excess, and I didn’t use it as a crutch. And now, I find it easy to detox from alcohol and take a break — I do it regularly. Thanks to pushing through my difficult early-20s without substances to help me through, I feel better equipped to deal with life sober.
17. I Focused on Taking Time Off
When I first started travel blogging, I worked a lot. I’m talking 90-hour weeks here. I felt like I had something to prove. My site was bringing in income and some people thought my trip was either being funded by my parents or that I was lazily spending my lazy life lazing on a beach. Rather than not caring what other people thought, I instead worked for every second of every day and wore it as a badge of honour. I’m self-made! I work hard to travel! I work so hard that I don’t even get to see the places I visit!
Try to rein your jealousy in here.
Passive income was a game-changer for me, and the realisation that so many of the hours I spent working had no positive effect on my income changed everything. I started to work smarter rather than harder, and found that I was achieving just as much as I did before, but in 20% of the time.
These days, I tend to work 40 hours a week when I’m at home in Bristol, and then take myself offline whenever I travel. It means I average out to working 20 hours a week over the year, and that I get to fully immerse myself in my destinations rather than skipping out on activities to head to my room to write.
18. I Was Disciplined When I Needed to Be
I used to label myself as the laziest person on the planet, but it turns out that I can be disciplined when it really matters.
And, well, I wrote about my book-writing process above. If I can work 18-hour days for 90 days straight, produce 90,000 words by the end of it, and receive great feedback on the quality of them, I can do pretty much anything.
Being so disciplined showed me that I can do it when I need to. That I have it in me to work 18 hours a day for weeks on end to get something finished. And it reminds me that every time it takes me a week to write a blog post, I could be doing so much better.
19. I Kept My Private Life Private
Being a blogger is weird. There’s an expectation that you’ll share everything about yourself online, and a sense of entitlement by a few if you try to take a step back.
Having my book published was the catalyst for me drawing a line between my travel life and private life. After sharing everything with the world and experiencing complete strangers analysing and criticising and judging who I am, I was ready to gain some privacy.
There are some things I simply don’t care about sharing — breakdowns, battles with anxiety, me messing up, my greatest fears — and by writing about them honestly and authentically, I’m giving so much of myself to my readers. The important thing is that I don’t mind giving them up. I’m happy writing about them.
But I keep aspects of my home life to myself. I rarely write about my relationship, my friendships, my favourite spots in the places I live. I didn’t write a single post about Lisbon in the 18 months I lived there because I wanted to keep it for myself. People are surprised to learn that Dave and I are the most sappy couple you’ll ever meet because I’m only comfortable sharing the parts of us that are the exact opposite of romantic.
I think being a person on the internet can be overwhelming at times and there’s a pressure to give so much of your life away to your readers. But by drawing a line, you can stay sane, and treasure the things that only a handful of people in the world know about.
20. I Found a Sense of Gratitude
I moved to Bristol a couple of months ago and it showed me just how much gratitude I have for things I used to take for granted. When you travel and come across so many people with so little, and when you spend time in tougher living situations, it prevents you from ever taking anything for granted.
Drinkable tap water. Drinkable tap water! I marvel over how wondrous it is every time I have access to it. Hot water in my shower! A clean toilet! No malaria or dengue or other harmful tropical diseases! My health! A bed! Food! A job that pays well! Money in my savings account! The ability to communicate! Spare time to travel! Tap water!!!
In my 20s, I discovered I’m more fortunate than maybe 95% of the planet. And sure, it lands me with a ton of guilt at times, but I try to give back as much as possible, especially to the places I’ve fallen in love with along the way, like my monthly donation to Virunga National Park’s Fallen Ranger fund.
I’ve been so blessed in life, and I think it’s so important that I recognise that, appreciate it, and then try to help others.
And that feels like the perfect note to end on! Stay tuned, as my next post is going to be one I think you’ll love: the 20 things I did wrong in my 20s! I promise I’ll try to make it shorter than this one.
What did you do right over the last decade? Share away in the comments below!