The silence in the flat was deafening. Having lost almost everything in my divorce, it was now just me in a basement studio flat with black mould. I had no TV, no sofa and the wifi wasn’t set up. I sat at a cheap folding table and made a list. Since my life was no longer going to be the way I had planned – marriage, kids, a dog, a late-Victorian terrace in a country town – I was going to try something else. I was going to do all the things on my “try before you’re 30” bucket list.

It was early 2014 and, having recently turned 32, I had already missed the boat, but I was determined not to let that stop me. I’d spent the past four years living in suburbia and felt as though I was prematurely middle-aged, going to garden centres at weekends and spending most of my time watching TV, tired from a long commute to my job as a communications officer. I had become set in my ways. Now I was back in London – albeit extremely broke – I was ready to try new things.

Over the following year, I threw myself into all manner of challenges. First, I enrolled on a standup comedy course – hands down the most terrifying experience of my life. Then there was laser tag, paintball, and trampolining. I studied Spanish. I travelled to Brazil on a week’s notice. I started wild swimming and ran a 10k. At a self-development course, I let a tarantula walk over my hand, which was maybe even more terrifying than the standup. Paddleboarding. Zorbing. Sailing. Riding. I tried it all.

Ten years on, life is very different. I am engaged and living in a non-mouldy house in central London. I credit that year of trying new things with turning my life around. I am willing to walk away from situations and relationships that aren’t right.

In order to maintain my new mindset, I still try several new things each year. In 2023, I started singing lessons, which bring me so much joy. I also took a Cordon Bleu cookery course, which was fantastic, even if I did give myself pretty severe burns while taking a lamb rack out of the oven. For someone who hates crafts, I was quite chuffed with the pots I made in a pottery class, too.

Recently, I took a ballet class, which I enjoyed a lot, although mistakenly attending an exotic-dance class where I was the oldest by some 20 years was less fun, if amusing. By contrast, I’ve given myself permission to stop trying to get into swing dancing.

As a child I had always been physically timid, coming last in the school 600m, hiding on the sidelines during PE, and feeling terribly ashamed if I wasn’t good at a new activity (which I almost never was). I had internalised the idea that it’s only worth doing things if you can excel at them, and that it is embarrassing to be a beginner. I even remember once bringing home another child’s drawing to give to my parents, since it was better than mine.

I still experience this shame as an adult. At a recent boxing class, on finding myself the only woman in a class of experienced, very large men, I almost cried because I felt so out of my depth. I also just went skiing for the third time in my life, a humbling experience because I’m terrified. However, my divorce taught me that good things lie on the other side of fear. Hitting rock bottom showed me I had nothing left to lose.

I now believe that the trick is to ride out the fear, or just admit to being way out of your comfort zone. Even in my work as a writer, I try to keep pushing boundaries – last year I took a playwriting course, for example. I think that we miss out by only doing things we are good at. I’ve taken tennis lessons for years with no sign of improvement, but I really like it and it’s great exercise.

If we only do things we can monetise or are already skilled at, we lose a whole world of joy. Maintaining an adventurous attitude feels key to staying young at heart, as is a willingness to fail. Next up, I’m going to try to nail a yoga handstand, which has eluded me for years.

• This Could Be Us by Claire McGowan is published by Corsair (£9.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com

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