Reflections on 40


I spent the first half of my twenties as a starving student, reading all the time and scraping by on poor food and the cheapest no name coffee that comes in a giant tin. I didn’t start traveling until after I graduated, and I felt like I had to make up for lost time. I spent the second half of that decade working horrible temp jobs for very little pay, and saving it all for trips.

When I was 28, I took a 3 month solo journey through Central America. It changed the way I saw myself and the world. I spent most of my thirties trying to figure out what it meant. I wrote and rewrote those experiences, and I travelled to the worlds marginal places and desert regions in an effort to find more of the same. I never really did. Nothing equalled the insights of that first trip. Everything after that was different somehow. Less pivotal. But there were some pretty fucking good adventures along the way.

As my twenties drew to a close, I quit my job in Japan and bought a one way ticket to Mongolia. I didn’t want to turn 30 while teaching ESL in the Tokyo suburbs. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that occupation, of course. It just felt miles away from my hopes and dreams.

I turned 30 in Mongolia while traveling with two 21-year old Swedish girls. It was a pretty good way to mark a new decade. Those 6 months on the road—through Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang and Southeast Asia—turned out to be the high point. It provided the memories that would keep me going during the years to come.

I spent most of my 30’s frustrated and poor. I worked mind-numbing office jobs for minimum wage (and less), and I was down to the last $15 in my wallet on more than one occasion. That grind went on and on for years, punctuated by a couple small trips to keep the dream alive, paid for by cashing in a life insurance policy. I started publishing my writing in travel magazines, but it didn’t pay much. And it was still a long way from the books I wanted to write.

Things broke open for me only very gradually, and with much effort and struggle. Ironically enough, it started right when my dad died of cancer. He supported my goals for so many years, but he never had a chance to see even the earliest modest success. My first big magazine feature was in layouts the day he died. I made my first DVD later that year. By then I was 32.

It was only around age 38 that my work finally started bringing in enough of an income to live. I got married that year as well. We’d been together for 14 years, which I’m pretty sure makes me the longest holdout among any of my friends.

It’s been a couple years since then, but it seems like a lifetime ago. I built an online business that provides a portable income, and I’m working to automate as much of it as possible so the results are no longer tied to the hours I put in. I also moved to a small island in the Mediterranean, fulfilling a decade-long goal of living in the same type of landscape that inspired Lawrence Durrell. I still have a long way to go before I’m outsourcing the necessary to spend the majority of my time on the things I love. But at least it feels like I’m finally making progress.

And that brings me to this year. And to today in particular. The border I’m about to cross from one decade to the next.

I’m not big on birthdays, but 40 seems different somehow. It’s introspective in a way that turning 30 wasn’t. It’s a little shocking—halfway to 80, and halfway done? It comes with a sense of mortality. A sense of time running out with so much still left to do. And a sense of sadness for lost innocence, and for all those things you will never have again.

By 40 you realize that people drift in and out of your life.

It’s strange to think of the world going on without me. I remember all those people I went to elementary school with. People I grew up with. We shared our childhood and our formative years. We came from the same small place and shared the same past. And because those childhood and teenage years seemed so long, so thick with experience, it felt like I would always know them. At forty you realize life doesn’t work that way. People drift. And the thought that I might go through the rest of my life never knowing what happened to those people, how their lives played out, is difficult to accept. There are too many loose ends. Stories don’t wrap up like that.

By 40 you realize that your goals can no longer be open-ended.

“Someday” doesn’t apply anymore, because you face the cold realization that you only have so many days left. It’s a time to abandon some goals and focus with renewed energy on the rest. If you’re going to get clear about your life, better do it now. I know I have.

By 40 you have less patience for fuckery.

I have less tolerance for people who waste my time. For bad service. For things that break or don’t perform as they’re supposed to. I’m much less willing to put up with things, out of politeness or anything else. At the same time, I have a deeper appreciation for good service—because I know from experience what it takes to achieve it. I have tremendous respect for someone who’s skilled at their job. And I appreciate things that are well made and well designed.

But all is not decrepitude, gloom and grouchiness on the grizzled fringes of middle age…

By 40 you also realize that you’re just coming into your decade of power and opportunity.

Sure, I have to watch what I eat a lot more than I used to, despite always having been naturally thin. That little roll of fat accumulates a lot faster on my waist, and it takes more work to melt it off. But I’m stronger and fitter than I ever was before, simply because I know so much more about training and nutrition and I’m able to apply it.

By 40 the uncertainty of your 20’s is far behind you.

And so is that mid-30’s worry that things are never going to change. I’m absolutely confident in my knowledge and abilities. I’m satisfied with the decisions I’ve made. And I’m comfortable with my place in the world and the path I’ve chosen through life.

Hopefully by 40 you’ve got your finances under control, and you have the opportunity to fund some of the dreams you couldn’t afford earlier on.

I’m just entering that period now, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. If you’ve worked hard over the past twenty years, then you’ve also begun demonstrating mastery of your craft. And that brings new opportunities and new challenges. This is the decade of your greatest successes. I don’t just dream up cool projects and exciting travel schemes and add them to a list. Now I can actually finance them. In your 40’s it’s a matter of deciding which to do first.

I have to admit it’s a pretty exciting time, despite the sobering reflections and despite it’s melancholy moments. And—for the next decade at least—it looks like it’ll only get better.

I don’t remember where I was when I turned 20. Thirty was Mongolia. And 40…? I’m spending this week in Spain with my wife. Disconnecting from the electronic world to hike in the Pyrenees and explore deserted coves along the Costa Brava. Unplugging for a while and thinking about where to go next.

That’s not a bad way to mark the decade. Not bad at all.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Happy Birthday!!! Wow. Although what is achieved at age 40 and the sense of accomplishment felt is relative to each another. However, I am so so humbled by both your determination through the years and achievements. Ipray the next decade will be even better with so much more achivements going by what you’ve achived these past coupld of years alone. Welldone!!!!!

    • Thank you Kay, that’s very kind of you. I often feel that I’m a late starter, and I have to make up for lost ground. Next step is to get my book out. That will begin an entirely new phase.

  • Happy Birthday, Ryan! And many more. Nice post/reflections, too. If you think you see mortality at 40, just wait until you’re in your 50s like I am! 🙂

  • Wishing u a stunningly joyful day, year, and decade Ryan! Ur reflections on time passing and life were wonderful to read. Mostly what I read here was how ALIVE u have been and continue to be in ur life. What better gift can we give ourselves at any age – than adventure, an active body, and not getting ‘stuck’ in routines that lead to contracting comfort zones?? I am over 40, and have experienced such a huge benefit that comes with that somewhat disturbing sense of mortality: it creates such an intensity of love and appreciation for the people in my life and the opportunities that come my way simply becuz I know nothing lasts. Anyway, thanks for the musings, and Happy Birthday!

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to write Barbara. I’m glad you liked it. You nailed it exactly – never taking anything for granted, living fully, and appreciating what you have.

  • A Happy 40th Birthday to you from someone now 52 approaching 53. Reflecting back I regret not taking the opportunities to travel and learn from experiencing different parts of the world. Today a combination of a medical condition and economic conditions make that less likely. There was a time when I was sinking until I discovered the Shapeshifter program which helped me get back into shape. My waist dropped fro a 36 to a 33 and I walk two miles a day. Still praying my liver will repair itself over time and I can get as active as I oncw was.

  • Hello, Ryan:
    Thank you for sharing so much in your 40th birthday post. My son turned 28 yesterday and lives in Canada, fairly far-flung from us here in the Caribbean. I hope that, like you, he has many wonderful, teaching experiences that serve to enhance his appreciation for life and cue his ears, eyes and mind to the many lessons given us as we go through each day. You have, from the viewpoint of 40, taken the time and opportunity to go back and sift through the memories, both good and ill, and determine which have had the more lasting value.
    At the ripe age of mid-50s and still wondering what the hell I am doing with my own life, regrets are a luxury which I cannot afford because I hear the winged chariot of death in the not-too-distant ether! That, as you state in your post, is not dramatic licence but a reality which we must face and, if courageous enough, meet with memories of a life well-lived. For some philosophers, life is each and every day and not just the baggage of time gone by. I try to deal with each day as it arrives and as it is presented to me, with no expectations other than that problems will arise, beauty will reveal itself, and life will have yet another lesson to give. I must admit, however, that it becomes f…ing difficult to bear with it at times.
    I am grateful that you continue to teach me with your posts and I hope that, as the years flow past, you will continue to grow into the great writer that you desire (and which, in comparison to most of what I read on a daily basis, you already are).
    Gambatte kudasai!

    • Thanks very much for such a kind, thoughtful reply Brad. I think you pointed out the key: having a carefully thought out philosophy of life allows you to live deliberately, to seek out the experiences you need in order to grow, and to get through the tough times while understanding the lessons they teach. I try to sit back at least once a year and take stock of my personal philosophy – and remind myself of where I’ve been letting things slide. I’ve also tried to remind myself each day of the goals I’m working towards, so I can make the best use of my time. I’m getting better in that regard, but there’s so much room for improvement. All the best to you and your son. Be sure to keep me posted on your adventures.

  • Nice post, Ryan. Really resonated with me: our paths have been remarkably similar, except I stayed based in Japan, and got married three years later than you did, just last year! (I’ll be 43 this year.) Forty actually didn’t strike me as that much of a big deal, but a lot of the points you note, which I would basically call “maturing” are spot on. Happy birthday, and don’t sweat the number. Being in your forties rocks, as far as I’m concerned. As the Confucian saying goes: 四十而不惑. “At forty, do not lose your way.”
    All the best.

    • Hey Dave, congrats on the marriage. What part of Japan are you in? Yeah, I agree, 40’s just a number. But those decade birthdays always seem like a good time to reflect on the path so far, and check the map to see if you’re still headed in the right direction for the next 10. Also, the more decades I accumulate, the more it motivates me to kick my goals into higher gear.

  • Happy birthday, Ryan. Great post.
    I am from Spain, and I am so glad you have like Pyrenees and Costa Brava. I love especially Pyrenees, so I understand you liked. Have you gone to a place named “San Juan de la Peña”? Is a very magic place, so if you haven´t gone, I hope you go other time. And one question, which is the Mediterranean islad in which you live?

    • Thanks very much Jose Luis. No, we didn’t make it to San Juan de la Peña – but we’ll definitely be back. I loved Spain and want to explore many more regions. We really liked Barcelona too. Such a vibrant city, great art museums, great food. I live in Malta.

      • Barcelona is a very beautiful city, and very interesting. And if you don´t know Toledo, I´m sure you´d like: the ancient part of the city is as it was 5 or 6 centuries ago, the buildings, the streets… everything (except the people, of course hehe). I don´t know Malta, but I think is a very beautiful places, with a lot of historical places… good choice to live, I think.

  • Thank you for reposting this. To see that it wasn’t always smooth, certain, or easy is reassuring for the rest of us! Your life, like all of ours, is being written as you live it. Continue having fun and enjoying all of your days. Rebecca

    • Thanks Rebecca, glad you enjoyed it. Life is indeed a work in progress. I like to think of mine as a book that I’m still in the middle of writing.

  • Great reflection piece Ryan. I am coming up on 30 and this gives me some valuable perspective. Thanks for sharing and continuing to inspire.

  • Great piece of writing and introspection, Ryan! It resonated with me. It also made me realize that I need to follow your lead and put up with less “fuckery”. That’s a new goal for me. That and learning the word NO.

    • Thanks Jen. Yeah, learning to say no was a tough one for me. I’m one of those people who hates to see work sitting there left undone, and so I always said yes to more projects or more tasks. I got a lot of things done for other people, but long periods of time passed where I got little if anything done on my own goals. I finally figured out that to push my dreams forward I had to focus on them single-mindedly (again), and say no to nearly everything else.


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