What Each Decade Of My Life Has Taught Me

Greyscale photo of children in classroom

Photo: Museums Victoria

Let me take you back to when I was eight, where for some reason, my schoolteacher decided that a bunch of Primary Two students needed to learn about the meaning of time.

“It’ll pass by in the blink of an eye,” she said. “Oh stop laughing! You don’t believe me? One day you’ll see.”

I wasn’t the only one laughing. And neither was I the only one doing old-people impressions every time I blinked. “Oops, I’m old now,” I said. Then I’d blink again. “Oh no, there goes more time!”

Maybe I remember that incident because it was one of the first times I’d ever received life advice. And now that I’m approaching my forties, I find myself wondering if I’d actually learned anything since then.

To be frank, I’m really not so sure myself, but I do have events that mark each decade, so why not follow me through decades of my life so that you can decide for yourself?

The cringe years (10-20)

Ah, the years of angst. The time of discovery, fuelled by hormones and low self-esteem. What a time this was.

As a particularly average kid, I learned that I wasn’t—and wouldn’t be—very successful with the ladies. I also learned that I didn’t like school, despite being top of the class till I was twelve, and I’d eventually drop out during my final year.

This would be the time of perpetual pleasure seeking, where I’d hold onto odd jobs just to fund my nights at the clubs. My foray into the working world would begin at the age of fifteen, and from then on, I went on to become a retail assistant, a waiter, a roadie, and a cybercafe cashier. The average pay was USD 1 per hour.

Looking back, I guess the most important thing I’d learned from that era was that for people to accept me, I had to first accept myself. And that meant working on my life instead of just doing what felt good for that day.

Back then, I always wanted to be different. I dyed my hair purple when I was sixteen (a big no-no in secondary schools here in Malaysia). I wore the baggiest pants I could. I smoked. I drank. I wore fake gold chains and grew my nails out, all before I left school. I just wanted to be ‘cool’, but none of it was really me.

That’s because I didn’t want to be me. I thought that if I did all these things to become someone else, that I could feel less of a loser. Spoiler alert: it didn’t help.

When I thought I was an adult but actually wasn’t (20-30)

This was when things got serious. I’d consider this the most volatile time in my life.

I couldn’t man the cybercafe counters forever, and folding clothes at retail stores was sucking away at my soul. So I chose a career that didn’t involve studying. I signed up for hairdressing school and went down that path for six years.

If my teenage years were fuelled by hormones and low self-esteem, then my young adulthood was powered by drugs and alcohol.

It’s also during this time that I’d make some very questionable relationship choices, such as moving to Singapore with a girl I’d just met, or staying with someone who’d spend more time with her ex than with me.

It highlighted my codependency issues though, so at least I knew what to work on. It also showed me that I couldn’t go on doing sixty-hour workweeks for USD 900 per month.

So I went back to school, learned something I wasn’t interested in (I thought accounting could help me land them big-money jobs), and ended up becoming an auditor. I quit after six months.

I’d finally stumble across writing at the tail end of this decade, and I’d one again get my weekends to myself while not having to earn a three-digit salary anymore.

My biggest lesson from this era? That it’s okay to make mistakes, and that it’s never too late to start over. Even after making the decision to change, I still had to flounder about before I would finally find what I was meant to do in life.

I thought that my path was set, that I had spent too much time in hairdressing to start over. Had I stuck with those fearful thoughts, I’d never have become a travel writer, an author, and a much, much happier person.

Teenager with emo haircut and

When your older self realises just what a turd you really were. Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

When I actually grow up (30-40)

This is where I really began discovering myself. It’d be a time when I’d start listening to myself, trusting my instincts, and just try to become the man I should’ve been one decade ago.

I’m in the best physical shape of my life, I can see my abs for the first time, and I can run much further that teenage me ever could. Life only seems to get better the more I age.

And if there’s a lesson I’d assign to this decade, it’d be that age is just a number. You’d be surprised how quickly people give in to the expectations of age. Most of my friends are already succumbing to their close proximity to the big four-oh.

“We’re old now,” they’d say. “You should stop doing crazy stuff like jiu-jitsu.”

Even worse, they’d discount things like learning a new language or a musical instrument, because those are things you only do during your developing years.

I beg to differ. If anything, being older allows me to see the bigger picture, to learn new things without losing out to tunnel vision. Besides, what’s the point of leaving a scarless body behind if staying safe meant losing out on all these cool experiences?

The real lesson

I’m now about the same age as my schoolteacher was when she gave us that speech in Primary Two. And what I’m feeling now is probably what she’d felt during those days of yesteryear: the urgency to make the most out of life.

Because for what it’s worth, the past three decades really did pass in a blink of an eye, and if this trend holds up, then it’s going to take just a couple more blinks before I’m on my deathbed, taking stock of all my what-ifs and why-didn’t-Is.

I guess that’s the real lesson here. That you should treasure the time you have in this world, no matter how much of it you think you might have. Because it won’t be long before you’ll regret pissing it all away.

Don’t believe me? That’s okay, because one day you will.

38 thoughts on “What Each Decade Of My Life Has Taught Me

  1. Hi Stuart, Your title is intriguing. I enjoy these types of topics. The concept of time is very interesting. Approaching a decade always puts me in an evaluating and reevaluating mode. As you are aware, we learn a great deal from each job/career in our lives. Hairdressing, accounting to name a few. I love the big lesson from your 20 to 30 era. This is an excellent post! I love how you wrapped the story around and brought it full circle. “…really did pass in a blink of an eye.”

    My two bits: The best is yet to come! Speaking from an older person.🙂

    • This is very comforting to know! It can often seem like where you’re at as the end of the road (since you’re always the oldest you’ve ever been), but it’s a good reminder to know your greatest years are always ahead of you no matter how old you are. Thanks for stopping by Erica!

  2. Brilliant post Stuart – and timeless advice! As you say the end is decided for us anyway – death – which makes enjoying the journey all the more important. That’s the whole point – to be present for today and this moment! None of us know when our number is up – the important thing is to be grateful that you have a number. Wishing many more enlightened years ahead. All the best, AP2

    • I just tore a muscle today, and it’s real hard to appreciate the moment in times like these, but your comment made me rethink that. Thanks so much for stopping by and dropping this wonderful message! Here’s to more enlightened years ahead!

      • I’m sorry to hear that Stuart – I’ve been struggling with a back injury this year. Your right it can be very tough to accept the moment as it is when these things happen. That’s why I’m always reminding myself that acceptance is something we need to practise – as hard as that is! Wishing you a speedy recovery! All the best, AP2 🙏

  3. This was fantastic – thanks for being so vulnerable and open about a struggle that is real for so many of us around the globe. Agree with your life lessons, and isn’t it interesting that they came for me at around these same ages. Very cool to read this and feel validated.

    • Loved your thoughtful take on this. It is interesting for sure, that despite our different upbringing and environment that we could come to a somewhat similar conclusion when it comes to life’s lessons. That’s so cool to know. Thanks!

    • It’s great that you can relate! I guess the coolest thing about sharing my experiences is learning that I’m actually not alone, that people from the other end of the world actually have more in common with me than otherwise.

  4. I loved this so much and can’t wait till I’ve lived another decade so I can write one like this too lol

    I’m in the phase where I think I’m an adult. This post made me realise I’m on the wrong side of things because I’m in my early 20’s and I have been trying to convince myself it’s too late for me to pick up on the guitar lessons because I’m old lol

    Such a good post! I’ll make sure I get back to the guitar because “what’s the point of leaving a scarless body behind if staying safe meant losing out on all these cool experiences?”

    • It’s interesting that you chose this quote, because I just tore my lower abs all the way to my groin yesterday (jiu-jitsu), and am now on a depressing prescription of full rest.

      But I still regret nothing. Yes, you should definitely pick up the guitar! You know that cliched saying of the best time for planting a tree? Well today’s a good time as any. Wishing you all the best and thanks for stopping by!

  5. Interesting and reassuring post. Being in my late teens, I feel there is quite a bit of fear amongst people my age. Thinking that things may become far worse as we get older, but from reading your experiences it seems like you grow and learn.

  6. Hi Stuart, thank you for sharing the lessons you have learned. This was a very insightful read for me as I enter a new decade myself. The last lesson has resonated with me the most. It certainly is never too late to start something new/learn a new skill!

  7. Oh gosh, I feel as though I could have written so much of this myself. So much rings true of my own experiences of each decade! I can truly relate, and I feel as though your advice is spot on. It’s too bad that (I fear) most of us only ever appreciate the wisdom of any such advice after the best and most applicable moment has already passed!

    • That’s still a great thing, because it allows us to not take the next moments for granted. We have to first realise that any moment could be great teaching points, and that it might be a year from now before we learn from it. But as long as we do, all’s not wasted!

  8. Great post, wonderful insights. I definitely agree with the fact that the more experience one gets, the stronger their tunnel vision becomes. It’s like gathering enough dots to connect them to a bigger picture, like puzzle pieces. Yeah, age is definitely a number. I believe so too. If we are willing enough to achieve something, it is possible.

    • My hairdressing manager once told me: “The more senior a person gets, the harder it is to teach them new things, not because of skill, but because of their refusal to listen.”

      It’s true in life as well. There’s a very real danger of thinking you know it all once you reach a certain level, and I hope I never get there. Thanks for dropping this great observation!

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