Do this before you turn 30

Paris Sunset from the Louvre window
Paris Sunset from the Louvre window (Photo credit: Dimitry B)

As Broadside has grown — now almost 3,000 readers worldwide — it turns out that many of you are in your 20s, even teens.

Oh, the 20s!

I loved mine and have so many great memories of that heady, dizzying decade. Dated a ton of guys, from the bad-boy Serb with the black leather trousers to the blue-eyed Welsh engineer working in Khartoum I met on an airplane to the Actor who dragged me off on a three-day canoe trip from hell. I began writing for national publications right after my college graduation until 1982 when I won a fellowship to go to Paris for eight months and travel Europe on someone else’s franc.

I shrieked with joy when that letter arrived, desperate to flee Toronto, a stale relationship and the hamster wheel of freelance work.

At 26, back in Toronto (that boyfriend now history), I was hired as a staff writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s best newspaper, having never studied journalism or any newspaper experience anywhere. But by 28, I was bored and restless and at 29 moved to Montreal to work for the Gazette. I needed to lift my foot off the gas pedal of workworkworkworkwork. I wanted a husband, (and found one there, a tall, clarinet-playing American medical student at McGill.)

My 20s were a heady mix of insatiable professional ambition, dating, taking five dance classes a week, ballet and jazz. I traveled alone to Kenya, Tanzania, Ireland, France and England for pleasure — in addition to traveling to places like Copenhagen, Istanbul and Sicily for my fellowship. For work, I met Queen Elizabeth, spent eight days crossing Europe in a truck with a French truck driver and danced in the ballet Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center (as an extra). I had a small black terrier named Petra.

So, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, for those of you hoping to get it all figured out (hah!) by 30, some advice:

Date a few people who aren’t your “type.” You’ll learn something about them, yourself and the world. I once dated a man named Bob from a small town in Saskatchewan, who drove a Beemer and worked at IBM and wore white shirts and blue suits. In the middle of a dinner party with my writer friends, he said, “You’re a bunch of limousine liberals.” He was right.

Become financially literate. Understand, if you live in the U.S., what a 401(k) is and why you need to pay into it, right away and every year. Especially If you’re self-employed, put away 10 to 20 percent of every check you earn and be thoughtful about how you invest it. Read widely and deeply on personal finance so no one can bamboozle you. I suggest the books by three funny, down-to-earth, plain-spoken personal finance writers I’ve interviewed: Americans Manisha Thakor, Carmen Wong Ulrich and Canadian Alison Griffiths.

Learn the meaning of the acronyms RRSP, REIT, ETF, APR. Learn your FICO score and how to improve it.

Have two credit cards. That’s it. And one of them is only for emergencies. Make sure they have a low APR, preferably 10 percent or lower.

Needs beat wants. You want a $600 handbag/new car/bigger TV. You need: food, water, safe housing, health, savings, a decent education and good friends.

Conduct yourself professionally! Use proper grammar, diction and spelling in every business communication; dress appropriately for the occasion or job; look people in the eye and shake their hand as if you mean it. Show genuine and sustained interest in their skills and experience. (Thanks to social media there is no excuse for not preparing adequately for a meeting. conference or job interview.)

Get a passport and use it. Try to flee your native land at least once every year. We live in a truly global age. You must learn firsthand how other people live — and not just by visiting “Paris” in Vegas. Here is a beautiful blog post by someone just past 30, recently Freshly Pressed, about what she is discovering in India on her own.

Read and listen widely. Don’t limit your consumption of “news” to Facebook or Twitter or outlets whose political values comfortingly echo your own. Continue to choose intellectually challenging material after you have left the halls of academe — or be prepared to have your lunch eaten by those who do.

Buy and stock a toolbox. Know how to use an Allen wrench, cordless drill, hammer, screwdriver. Self-sufficiency is sexy in both genders.

Read the business pages every day. Everything starts with economics.

Figure out what you want sexually. It might be abstaining until marriage, or for a while, or forever. Get to know your own body and what pleases you most. Learn to clearly express what you want — and do not. No means no! If you’re sexually active, consistently use a highly efficient form of birth control; know what the morning-after pill is and how to get one quickly.  Know how and why you must avoid HIV, HPV, chlamydia and the rest of the STDs. If all you want from a sexual encounter is some quick amusement, try not to break someone’s heart.

Travel as often and as far away and for as long as you can possibly afford. The best way to find out how much in common we all have with one another — yet how differently we interpret religion, culture, ethics and public policy. Even a road trip within your own province or state can teach you something (and be a lot of fun.)

Always pursue personal projects unrelated to your job. It’s tempting to meld your identity with your job and title and company and paycheck. You’re a person with multiple interests, not just a worker. If you get laid off (which is likely these days), you’ll have other passions and skills.

Unplug regularly. Get away from everything that beeps and buzzes, every day. Silence, and solitude, is deeply restorative.

Find a community where you feel deeply loved and valued, no matter how much you weigh or earn or who you sleep with (or if you sleep alone) or whether you even have a  job. When times get tough, and they will, you need a solid posse.

Spend an hour every day in nature. Walk to work. Find a park bench and stare at the sky. Invest in clothes to keep you warm and dry so you can be safely and comfortably outdoors even in rain and snow. For a super-icy or snowy walk, Yaktrax rule!

Find doctors you like and trust. Ask lots of questions. If they won’t listen to you or answer you, find those who will. Take your good health seriously and protect it through eating well, exercise, sufficient rest. Right now, you’re taking it for granted. In 20 years, you won’t.

Ditto hairstylist/dentist/massage therapist/accountant/career coach/tailor/florist.

Invest in some really beautiful personal stationery and/or business cards. Use them, often. Write real thank you notes, promptly. They leave a powerful and lasting impression.

Find at least three forms of physical activity you love so you don’t have to go to the gym: softball, volleyball, cycling, hiking, skiing. Invest in some decent equipment so you’ve got no excuse not to get out and stay active.

Cultivate a compassionate heart. Don’t forget others whose lives are still much tougher than yours. Mentor a kid. Be a Big Sister or Big Brother. Volunteer. Set aside some cash for charitable donations or offer your time and skills to a cause you passionately believe in. By the time you’re partnered and/or a parent and/or super-busy with your career, it’s easy to forget how many people helped you achieve your dreams.

Learn to cook. Healthy, cheap, sociable and fun. One of my favorite cookbooks is Bistro Cooking, with yummy easy stuff like clafouti and vichyssoise.

Don’t take everything personally! Some people are just mean. Some are deeply distracted by a personal sorrow you cannot begin to imagine. Or they have a headache. It’s not all about you.

Fail. Don’t just keep picking the safest and easiest path. Take a (calculated) risk and live with the consequences. (That’s where resilience comes from.) The most successful people are not those who avoid risk, but know how to live with it and bounce back from it.

Drink less. A shocking number of young women and men routinely drink to excess. Empty calories, hangovers, (and the sexual risk of being drunk around people you don’t know well), and alcoholism are really unattractive.  Step away from the margarita!

Find a few old fogies you like and trust who are not related to you. Spend time with them. Listen to them. They have wisdom to offer.

If someone is unkind to you, flee. Don’t waste your time and energy trying to figure out why they’re a dick. Just go.

Remember that everyone comes with some emotional baggage. But it’s not your job to carry it.

If you’re utterly miserable all the time, tell a good friend and find a therapist. Honor what your heart is trying to tell you. Don’t hide your sorrows. They are lightened when shared.

What other advice would you offer?