20 Things I Wish I’d Known in my 20s
Something interesting has been happening lately. As I’ve amped up guest posting on other blogs, I’ve gained a few new readers. A few of my recent posts (this one, this one, and this one), have apparently stirred up some feelings for a few people, and I’ve been getting more emails than usual.
The majority of the letters have come from young women in their 20s, most of whom say they’re at some type of crossroad professionally, socially or romantically. They have written me letters looking for advice as a 30-something who’s made it through those formative 20s relatively unscathed, or at least without any considerable trauma. Or maybe they saw on the sidebar that my day job is a therapist, and hope I have some real pearls of wisdom to share.
To admit that I’ve found these queries surprising is an understatement; to say that I feel flattered is too. To suggest that I’ve got all the answers for them would be a bold-faced lie. There’s still a lot I’m working through myself. Get ready…the 30s offer curveballs too!
None of this is groundbreaking advice, and I write this knowing full well that there are a whole lot of 20-somethings out there who have their stuff together a hell of a lot better than I do. Still, I can see the value in hearing a few thoughts from an elder member of the female tribe.
Here are 20 things I wish someone told me in my 20s:
1. Forget the deadlines. You might not get married by 27 and you might not have your first baby by 29. I promise life continues after 30, and it’s okay if these don’t happen before then. You might be able to meet these benchmarks on your pre-determined timeline, but you also might end up doing them with the wrong person. What sounds worse to you?
2. Stop comparing yourself. It’s hard, I know. I do it all the time, and I end up feeling awful every time I do. But seriously, no good can come of it so stop it (I’m saying this for me just as much as I am for you). Everyone has different choices to make and everyone does things on their own time. Don’t judge people for their choices, because you wouldn’t want to be judged for yours. If we all did everything the same way or at the same time, what a boring world it would be.
3. Learn how to say no. If you say “yes” to everyone else all the time, you’re probably robbing yourself of time to pursue your own goals and address your own needs.
4. You don’t have to commit to one career right now. To pick a career at 20 and marry yourself to it for the rest of your life is a little daunting to say the least. Your interests and situations might change down the line. People switch gears all the time.
5. Stuff might not happen in the order you think it will. Whenever I felt like my life wasn’t on the right track, I always thought of my aunt Renee. She got married out of college and was expected to settle down, buy a house and start a family. Instead, she and her husband sold everything they had and backpacked around the world for several years. In her 30s she got a PhD and began her “real” career, in her 40s she became a mother for the first time, and in her 50s she became a kick-ass company vice-president. She didn’t do anything according to a conventional social plan–she did it her way–and she is one of the most successful women I know (she’s also one of the most genuinely happy and well-balanced people I know, which is even more important).
6. Learn to trust your own instincts. Getting advice from others is great and all, but no one knows what’s right for you better than you.
7. It’s really okay if you don’t know what you want. Most of the time there’s no thunderbolt, a-ha moment where we figure it all out. A lot of stuff happens simply by process of elimination. Prepare to hit a few bumps, and plan for an exit strategy. Start backwards: What do you definitely not want? This might help you narrow things down a bit. This applies to jobs as well as dating.
8. If you do know what you want, BE BOLD. I have a 21-year-old client who wants to be a fashion photographer. He doesn’t attend a prestigious Manhattan university, nor is he trained professionally in photography, but he has scored interviews with the absolute top photographers, modeling agencies and magazines in New York City just by picking up the phone. He has found a way to shadow industry pros at every NY fashion week since he was 16. Opportunities will not come looking for you. Do the legwork, and get crackin’!
9. Don’t invest too much energy worrying about what other people think about you. They are spending a lot less time thinking about you than you think. People are pretty self-involved by nature, and there’s a high likelihood they’re worrying about their own issues, not yours.
10. You might suck at some things. Most of the time, you won’t know you suck until you try something new. If you suck really bad, you’ll get feedback from others that will be painful to hear. But if you really listen to it, you will have an opportunity for growth that would have never existed if you’d just kept doing things you already knew you were good at.
11. Travel as much as possible. Live somewhere different if you’re interested and able. Seeing different parts of the world has an amazing way of opening your eyes to things you never noticed before.
12. Don’t dream about being successful. Work at being successful. To steal from my dad (who stole from somebody else): “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
13. You and your friends will start moving in different directions. Some of you will be married or have kids, some of you may be single and interested in different things. Your friends might make a lot more money than you. You might end up making a lot more money than your friends. With really good friends, none of this will matter. With other friends, it might gradually pull you apart. It happens. And it’s okay.
14. Don’t strive to be perfect. Not only is it an impossible goal, it’s also kind of a silly one. People who are considered “perfect” are often also described as inaccessible, annoying and difficult to relate to.
15. Do you. Don’t do things simply to please or impress others, and that includes your parents.
16. Create some good habits now. It’ll be easier to maintain them later when you really need to. This includes getting enough sleep, eating properly and moving that hot, sexy, 20-something body of yours.
17. Be honest with yourself about how much money you have. Don’t spend more than you earn. Don’t live beyond your means. Don’t buy a bunch of unnecessary crap trying to keep up with everyone else.
18. Be nice to your body. It’s the only one you have. Treat it with respect, not just with the things you put inside of it, but with your thoughts too.
19. Don’t avoid doing something (like graduate or medical school, for example) because it will take 2, 3, 4 years to complete it. That time will pass regardless. Make the most of it. Don’t say “it’s too late to do that.” It probably isn’t.
20. Don’t enter your 30s expecting to have everything figured out. The next decade will present a whole new set of challenges, questions and expectations. But calm down. Don’t worry so much. You’re gonna be just fine.