29 Lessons From My 29th Birthday


Lily Leung, Copenhagen, Denmark

Canals in Copenhagen, Denmark.

This has been a year of growth and change. I just turned 29 and even though I feel I’ve gained much life wisdom in the last 12 months, I actually don’t feel a day over 23.

From learning to let go of belongings, to finding the courage to travel alone, taking leaps of faith to go with the flow (instead of being a militant planner), to being fun-employed past the one year mark, I feel like I’ve had an emotional growth spurt.

In the process of exploring our beautiful world the past 10 months, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a few new life lessons too.

29 Things I Learned This Year

  1. Being happy doesn’t require very much. I’ve lived out of a backpack for the last 10 months, with 3 pairs of pants, 4 pairs of shorts, 6 t-shirts and 3 sweaters, I’ve (surprisingly) never once missed my closet of clothes or wished I was back in my apartment. Some of my favourite moments have been from experiences and not from material things, like simply looking the stars in the Thar Desert in India.
  2. Fear can be beat by believing in something bigger than yourself. I’ve been scared to write since high school after my English teacher stamped a big, red cross bone & skull on one of my essays. Somehow in my desire to share my journey and travel experiences, I’ve summoned the courage to write this blog and even post on other major blogs. I’m happy to say I’m no longer (as) scared of sharing my thoughts with the world.
  3. I’m more capable than I thought. I’ve managed to navigate from town to town, overcome shyness to make new friends, even go scuba diving to 18 metres deep without freaking out. In facing new situations and with no companion traveller to lean on, I’ve seen myself step-up to challenges and achieve things I couldn’t imagine myself doing before.
  4. The body is surprisingly resilient. I expected to get sick as soon as my trip started in India. I thought I’d get indigestion from Southeast Asian street food or to sprain an ankle from always around with my backpack. None of these have happened. Maybe I’ve been lucky or maybe happiness has kept me healthy, but I’m grateful and pleasantly surprised at how well my body has coped with the stress of long-term travel.
  5. The mind is also just as resilient. As I discovered at my 10 day Vipassana silent meditation course in Malaysia, it’s possible to go suddenly not talk, read, write, surf the web, take photos and not eat meat for 10 days straight. Discovering that I can live without what I thought were life basics was empowering and clarifying.
  6. Working remotely isn’t as easy as it sounds. Not only is the internet sometimes not reliable enough to handle large or talking on Skype, I was in a different timezone from the colleagues I was working with. For anyone who wants to experiment with working remotely, I recommend starting off by staying in one spot for a few weeks a time rather than move from city to city every few days.
  7. Life unfolds in unexpected ways, that’s a good thing! After Southeast Asia, I was supposed to go to the South Pacific before heading home. In an unexpected turn of events, I met another traveller and I ended up going to the opposite direction to Turkey and then travelled for 5 months by rail in Europe instead.
  8. Travelling = living life. When I was working, I saw travel as an escape from life and that everything would magically become perfect when I was on vacation. Travelling long-term has made realize that travel is far from “perfect” and since you can’t escape yourself, long-term travel becomes just living life.
  9. I feel whole by myself. When I was a long-term relationship, I had the emotional security to know there was someone to support me up when things were overbearing. In challenging myself to travel alone, I’ve discovered that I feel like a complete person in my own company – this is probably been one of the most empowering realizations I’ve had in my life.
  10. Change brings more change. When I first left my job I couldn’t imagine being without a steady income. When I got over that, I couldn’t imagine not having a place to live. Then I couldn’t imagine spending major holidays away from home. However, the more change I created, the more I experienced, and the more I grew as a person.
  11. Imagination is very powerful. I was shocked by how bright and happy Dracula’s castle was in Brasov, and far from the dark place I imagined. Since then I’ve wondered what seemingly daunting ideas or obstacles are actually creations of the imagination.
  12. The individual voice does matter. Sometimes we lose perspective and believe we’re not important to the world. But your unique story, feelings and knowledge do make a big difference to someone else. On days when I forget why I blog, I read comments like this one, and I’m reminder that it’s a privilege to connect heart-to-heart with other people.
  13. Have faith, jump, and the net will appear. I’ve attempted a lot of things this year that I didn’t know would be possible. I sold a 1,500 sq. ft apartment worth of furniture in 3 weeks on Craigslist, pitched an article to a major newspaper editor and had it accepted, and even started using my blog is an asset to help fund my travels.
  14. Everyday is a gift. In having the freedom to choose how I spent everyday this past year, every “regular” day has been my “own”. This year, days that I used to consider major holidays like Christmas, New Year’s and my birthday, have each felt like a “regular” day, but in the most extraordinary way.
  15. 29th Birthday in Berlin, Germany

    Spending my 29th Birthday in Berlin, Germany.

  16. The world isn’t as scary as the media leads you to believe. From watching news, I associated many parts of the world with civil unrest and crime. In Thailand, I thought I’d see nothing but drugs and prostitution; in Romania I thought I’d get robbed by gypsies. Both countries, among others I’ve visited, have turned out to be friendly and hospitable and nothing like how it was portrayed in the media.
  17. Living well doesn’t have to cost a lot. I first heard of “geo-arbitraging” from Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week book, but I didn’t the strategy applied to the average person until now. As some of my fellow travel blogger have mentioned, Thailand, Mexico and Berlin are just a few of the places in the world where you can live comfortably for under $1000 per month.
  18. Following travel dreams is not so crazy after all. Back in Toronto, where it’s normal to only have 3-4 weeks of vacation per year, leaving your job for a year sounded insane. Now I find myself surrounded by others who also left behind secure jobs and nice apartments to travel around the world. No matter how crazy your goals are, you are not alone.
  19. I’m lucky to have access to education and economic opportunities. I’ve taken for granted my standards of living in Canada, access to post-secondary education and economic/job opportunities. It’s not as easy in other parts of the world, especially for women. In India, there are children and families living in slum-like conditions and in Cambodia the literacy rate is only 75%.
  20. I know too little about the world. I’ve never really learned much world history/culture until now. Travelling has been an educational experience, but most importantly I’ve learned just how little I actually know about the world.
  21. It’s possible to cry tears of happiness. I cried the night I before leaving tropical Koh Tao, Thailand because I felt like I had left a piece of my heart there. In Rome, I felt so thankful to have the opportunity to see the Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel and to be in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It’s been an honour to see these beautiful pieces of the world in person.
  22. Life and identity crisises are on-going. Finding my passion and identity has been an on-going process. I thought I wanted to pursue web design, then I realized I was attracted to the web because of it’s strength as a way to communicate, learn and interact with others. Looking back to the first-time I thought I was having quarter-life crisis, it was actually just the moment that I became aware that I felt disconnected with how I was spending my days.
  23. When you want to make it work, you’ll find a way to do it. Back in April on the one-year anniversary of my funemployment five months into my travels, I was torn between my desire to continue travelling and the going home to work again. I only budgetted a year off, but in following my passion to keep travelling, I’ve found ways to make it work, like partnering with Eurail.com for rail passes or using my blog to fund my travels.
  24. Gratitude puts everything perspective. When travelling, just like regular life, sometimes things just don’t go your away. Trains don’t show up, there’s no hot water or the food portions are too small. Every time I’m cranky, I remind myself how lucky I am – to have the opportunity to miss the train in Italy, to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or to be in Turkey drinking their (too) small shots of tea.
  25. Web 2.0 is my friend, but nothing compares to face-to-face contact. I spend a lot of time learning online, blogging and connecting with people on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn; but the strongest connections and friendships have been from meeting in person. This realization a big take-away for future relationship-building activities, in travel or otherwise.
  26. Alone doesn’t mean lonely. I thought I’d get sad from travelling alone, but I have yet to feel lonely these past 10 months. It’s been great to know I can enjoy my own company, because it means I can be even better company if I’m with others.
  27. It is possible to make a living doing what you love. Doing what you love and making money don’t have to be mutual exclusive, a great example is my traveller friend James Clark who I met back in Thailand who’s been travelling since 2003 by working in web design and travel marketing.
  28. Travelling doesn’t cost as much as I thought. I thought the LonelyPlanet guide was joking when they recommended budget of $20-$40/day for Southeast Asia. They weren’t. And as other experienced travellers commented in my reccent blog post about How much does it cost to travel?, it’s possible to travel for under $1,200/month in other parts of the world too.
  29. You can be anything, but you must give yourself permission first. When I was breaking out of my corporate identity this year, I experimented with telling people I was anything from a travel writer, photographer, web designer, social media manager, among other things. I expected people to frown with disapproval, but no one ever has. Turns out it’s been me who’s been frowning on myself.
  30. The grass is greener on this side. I used to compare myself to classmates and friends and found myself wishing for a better job, bigger salary or more money in the bank. This year, instead of pursuing what would make me more “comparable” to someone else, I’ve started following my heart and doing what makes me happy.

It’s been a privilege to share my journey with you this past year, and to be part of yours. I can’t think of anything else I could ask for more on my birthday.

To the friends who have asked if there’s more they can do, you can:

>> What interesting or new life lessons have you learned these past 12 months?

Subscribe to Explore for a Year email updates, follow me on twitter.com/lilyleung, or join me on Facebook.com/ExploreforaYear.

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  • Frances Ylnah

    hi! i’m celebrating my birthday tomorrow… I just thought about it i really like #29 in your list really hit me hard… tc!

  • Happy 29th Birthday! I am so happy for you! What you are doing has always been a dream of mine. You are truly an inspiration to me! Great list! Lisa

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for the birthday wishes and your kind words. I’ve been really lucky this year to be surrounded by such amazing people and to be on the journey I’m on :)

      Thanks for stopping by!
      – Lily

  • LC

    #9 is easily my favourite lesson. Nobody – woman or man – should feel anything less than whole, when alone. Thrilled to hear you feel that now. :)

  • Hey Lily! Have been terrible at keeping up with blogs so am just reading this now – happy birthday! Loved each and every one of your learnings – all the best for the year in the lead up to 30! ;-)

    • Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for the birthday wishes. It was a great year – I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to experience so much this past year.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      – Lily

  • Andrea Mueller

    I love this post! I feel like I can relate to each and every one of the 29 lessons that you wrote about. I look forward to all of your future posts! Happy traveling!

    • Hi Andrea,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the blog post and thanks for the good travel wishes. I just hit my 1 year travel anniversary yesterday :)

      – Lily

  • Oh no, I missed your Birthday. Sorry girl I haven’t been on the blog and twitter often lately. Those are some great list of things you learned and I’m sure it will get longer too. Happy belated bday. :)

    • Hi Sarah,

      I love your new profile photo and thanks for the belated birthday wishes. It’s nice hearing from you again!

      – Lily

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  • One_like_candy

    Lily! Fist of all, let me tell you, that you have a beautiful name :) Why? Because my wife is Lily, too :) Secondly, I really like your blog. You’re definitely one of these people, who I admire. I myself moved on the other side of the wold, but I have an angel taking care of me. I love to travel, but more on the safe side and very limited (I’m so busy). Sometimes I would hope to trade my life with someone like you, but I might be regretting it later. I guess I’m becoming safer, now that I’m over 30 :)

  • Lily, all of them resonated with me, especially No. 2 about overcoming fear. When you overcome fear .. you dream and then you dream big. When action meets dreams, dreams come true. So you live what you dream. Thanks  for sharing. 

    To a lifetime of fearless exploration. Let us meet when and if time brings us face to face.

  • Lily, all of them resonated with me, especially No. 2 about overcoming fear. When you overcome fear .. you dream and then you dream big. When action meets dreams, dreams come true. So you live what you dream. Thanks  for sharing. 

    To a lifetime of fearless exploration. Let us meet when and if time brings us face to face.

    • Hi Mohit,

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, big cheers to adventure and fearless (or fear-conquering) exploration. I’m following you on Twitter, so looking forward to your updates :)

      – Lily

    • Hi Mohit,

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, big cheers to adventure and fearless (or fear-conquering) exploration. I’m following you on Twitter, so looking forward to your updates :)

      – Lily

  • Anonymous

    happy birthday, lily!! you’ve experienced so much this past year!! what an amazing year it’s been!!

    • Hi Jen,

      It has been a crazy year! It’s so interesting how so many things happened once I learned to go with the flow. Hopefully future birthdays are just as eventful (if not more ;)) Thanks for stopping by and for the birthday wishes!

      – Lily

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like you’ve had a fantastic year and that you’re real birthday gift has been discovering all these gems!  Happy Belated Birthday.

    • Hi L

    • Hi Laurel,

      Thanks for the birthday wishes! I really like how you’ve said that the biggest birthday gift was learning these lessons – I never thought about it that way but you’re right! I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to travel this past year and to connect with so many others in the travel community.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!
      – Lily

  • Your journey has definitely been inspiring, and one that I have really taken to think about my own life. I know I’m thinking in the negative, assuming I can’t do it too, but I’m working on my courage to do it!

  • 29 and already so wise. I enjoyed reading this list Lily. It’s amazing how much personal growth you can achieve through travel. Excited for what the year ahead of you brings. I hope your birthday was a blast!

  • Congratulations and Happy Birthday! I am sort of in the same situation as you are, remotely working from my office in Toronto but I can only dream of having the lifestyle that you have right now. I’m still afraid certain situations will hinder me from working if I give it a shot. Loss of internet connection could be the end of me. I might just die. But you certainly showed us that it is possible so maybe. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Drew,

      Thanks for the birthday wishes :) I don’t think I could live without an internet connection either. I think if my primary goal was to work online, I’d spend more time per city (maybe a few weeks at a time), rather than hopping town to town every few days (which is what I was/still am doing most of the time).

      Surprisingly, a lot of places I expected to have reliable and abundant internet/Wifi did not (like India), while Thailand and Romania have had surprisingly great connections. Here’s an article about internet speeds around the world, if that helps you plan ;)

      – Lily

  • Ed

    belated happy bday Lily, love your lists! next year will be a year of change for me. I’ll try out this nomadic lifestyle (still crossing my fingers) and I know I won’t be earning a lot but I’ve realized to live within my means. I’m scared but I need to do this as this has been holding me back for over 2 years already. At least I can always ‘come back’ if it won’t work but seeing you guys travel and work at the same time has given me hope that it’s doable. Thanks! :D

    • Hi Ed,

      Thanks for your birthday wishes! It’s true, you can always go back to what you were doing before if this doesn’t work out. It’s much easier to find a job, than to find a job you love, so there’s nothing to lose by going for what you want. As you mentioned, money isn’t everything as long as you have enough to live. This actually forces you to focus on what matters the most, and in that respect you gain clarity through decluttering what you don’t need from your life.

      Good luck and keep us updated :) 
      – Lily

  • What a feel good post of substance! Lily, you pwn noobs! Happy birthday:)
    Also, my hometown is just up the street from you in good ol’ Barrie:)

    • Thanks for the birthday wishes Tyler! I know of Barrie, but I’ve never actually been there ;)

      – Lily

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful list and Happy Birthday Lilly! :)

    • Thanks Shannon! It was great crossing paths with you on these travels :)

      – Lily

  • hi. been following your blog for a time now. this is a great list! seriously. it basically alleviates all my fears as i am now just about to start long-term travel freelancing my way while at it. just quit my job, by the way. i especially liked #28. a few years back, i wouldn’t even dream of entertaining long-term travel. now i’ll be doing it. still overwhelmed at times. but you’re right. we can be anything we want to be if we just let ourselves. :)

    • Hi Paul,

      I never dreamed of entertaining long-term travel either. Even when I started my trip 10 months ago, I was only planning to travel for about 4-5 months, so it’s amazing to find myself still on the road. It is overwhelming sometimes, isn’t it? But if it assurance, there’s a have a huge community of travellers/freelancers online for support, if you ever need it :)

      Keep us updated with your travels/freelancing :)

      – Lily

  • Peng Leong1

    Grad you learned many valuable things in travelling, you’re so Brave! I’m proud of you !


    • Thanks Mom, it’s been a wonderful year! :)

      – Lily

  • Happy (belated) birthday, Lily – you’re an inspiration!

    • Thanks for kind words and for the birthday wishes! It’s been great sharing these travel adventures with you and the rest of the travel/photography/online community :)

      – Lily

  • Anonymous

    30. Learned Traveling Ted leaves some hilarious comments :)

    • Hi Ted,

      Oh yes! One of the joys of blogging is the privilege of reading your witty comments ;D I’m going to add your lesson 30.) for my next year – so the pressure is on, you have one year to think of something uber clever to say on my birthday post next year ;)

      – Lily

      • Anonymous

        I think I can manage something in that time frame. BTW Happy birthday.

  • Happy Birthday Lily. Traveling does = life. Every time I would get back from a vacation, the only thing I could think about is the place I left and my next destination. Now that I don’t have to worry about the commitment to the job, I am looking to embrace the unknown with my upcoming travels. 

    • Hi Gerard,

      Thanks for the birthday wishes. I’m excited about your upcoming trip, I hope it’ll be a life changing experience. I love your attitude about embracing uncertainty. It was hard for me to accept uncertainty at first (like, not knowing where I’d be in a week). Now I’ve realized that things will turn out just fine and uncertainty is actually kind of enjoyable, it’s like waiting to see what you’ll get on Christmas morning ;)

      – Lily

  • Kim


    Happy birthday!  You are a very wise woman and it has been a pleasure following you as you learn and grow.  Best wishes to you! 

    • Hi Kim,

      It’s been a privilege connecting with you and all the other travellers in our community. It’s a good reminder that there’s other people on bold journeys and that you’re not alone, even if you feel like you are sometimes! It’s been wonderful following along with you too and can’t wait to hear more :)

      Thanks for the birthday wishes!
      – Lily

  • Jeannie

    What an incredible year! Here’s to many more to come :) Thanks for sharing Lily!

    • Hi Jeannie,

      Yes, yes, here’s to many more years of adventure :) Thanks for stopping by Jeannie!

      – Lily

  • Anonymous

    Love this reflective post. Glad you feel so positively about making the right choices. I too just turned 29, but my post wasn’t quite as rosy. I’m sure in the coming weeks, my head will be in the right place again.

    • Hi Ian,

      Happy belated birthday! I just read your post – I don’t think your post is more or less rosy than mine. It was honest and human. Your head *is* in the right place – you’re embracing how you feel, and that’s beautiful. I’m usually emotional on my birthdays, but strangely enough, this birthday has been the least emotional. It felt like a regular day, but in the most extraordinary way. I’m so happy and proud of both of us for venturing out into the world and for being bold enough to spend our birthday away from the familiarity of home. 

      – Lily
      P.S. Check your email, there might be something there for you ;)