A woman walks into a bar. As she reaches for her ID, the bouncer waves her through. “Don’t you want to see my ID?” she asks. The bouncer sees he’s offended her and takes her ID. “Can you believe this place?” she says to her friend. “I’ve been coming here for fifteen years, and they still don’t card me.”I’m shocked and amazed every day that I wake up and I’m an adult. I really have no idea how this happened. Even weirder is that I’ve been an adult long enough now that I have friends who are also adults and way younger than me. Here in my late thirties I have two cohorts of friends: one cohort who are all about my age, and one cohort who are about a decade younger.
So, I’m offering this list for two reasons: that my chronological cohort can relate, and that my social cohort can ignore this because everyone in their twenties pretty much has their shit together, except that they secretly don’t. I am on to you, social cohort.
Things I Wish I Knew In My Twenties
1. It’s okay not to love your job.
College graduation speeches are full of lofty, inspirational ideals about chasing your dreams and doing what you really love. That is all very useful if there is something concrete about which you are passionate, something that will launch you on a very specific artistic, academic, or vocational track. But, for most people, that passion isn’t present in your early twenties. Or your mid-twenties. Or your thirties. Or, there might be many passions that haven’t established a hierarchy yet.
Your first job or three does not serve the same purpose as the deeply engrossing, fulfilling work that made your commencement speaker qualified to give an inspirational address. This is why twenty-five year olds rarely give commencement speeches. For the majority of people, the purpose of your job for at least the first five years out of college is to establish who you are as an employed, independent adult. Even if you are doing work closely related to your degree, all of your training does not predict what kind of worker you will be, nor does it predict what it is about being employed that will feel the most rewarding, keeping you so interested that you can’t help but be wildly successful. It might be something that leads you into another field entirely, or several other fields, but you don’t know that yet. Let yourself off the hook for not being completely wowed by your job and love it for what it is – a way to pay the bills, live your life, and figure out who you are (and who you’re not).
2. Don’t get married.
Unless you are absolutely certain that you want children, you want them soon, and you want them with the person you are dating, do not get married in your twenties. You are only a few years into this whole being an adult business, which can last a solid seven decades. Do some math. Consider how different you were a third of your life ago, in high school or early college. In your thirties you will be that different from how you are now. So will the people you’re dating.
3. Take risks.
Change jobs, change careers, move to another state or country on a lark. The prevailing logic is that one day you’ll “settle down” and won’t have the time or flexibility to do all this stuff. That’s partly true. But even if you never marry and never have children, the very passage of time makes it a little harder to pick up and go, physically and emotionally. Not only is it harder once you’ve put down roots in a community, but other people settle down. Finding friends in a new place gets harder the older you are because other people in your cohort with jobs and families barely have time for established friendships, much less new ones.
4. Let go of people who make you work hard to be loved.
People who make you feel like you’re not cool enough, smart enough, attractive enough, or whatever enough to be their friend or partner aren’t worth your effort. The issue might be theirs or it might be yours, but whatever the reason, they’re not bringing out your best if you find yourself perpetually parsing your words and twisting yourself up to do the right thing. The same goes for people who make you feel like you’re on a pedestal and make you work to stay there. No matter how wonderful they are, this is unhealthy emotional chemistry. Invest elsewhere. Pro-tip: if this keeps happening the issue is YOURS. Deal with it immediately.
5. Figure out the difference between your issues and your parents’ issues.
Those first big adult relationships are often the first ones in which we find ourselves acting like our parents, for better or worse. It’s usually after some conflict that you realize your snippy response, sulking, or temper was just like one of your parents. Or maybe your very nice, keen partner pointed it out. It’s time to address that. That reflexive behavior is actually a choice. You can retrain yourself. This takes time, but parsing out whether the behavior is an adequate representation of how you feel and who you want to be, or just something you inherited is the beginning. The advanced version of this practice is realizing that your partner is doing the same thing.
6. No one else knows what they’re doing.
The big secret about adulthood is that we’re all faking it most of the time. You strap on the adult suit in your twenties and it might feel like you’re just playing a part for a while. If you’re lucky, you figure out everyone else is, too. We’re playing at it, and it’s a performance that just keeps going and that’s life. The people in their forties have never been in their forties before, the people in their eighties have never been in their eighties. The older ones have a hell of a lot more material to work with, but no one really knows what they’re doing and no one else can tell you what to do or how to do it. There’s just you, in whatever costume you’ve chosen to put on, writing the play as you act it. And you have to figure it out for yourself. Because you’re a grownup.
7. It gets better!
Everything gets better. Life gets better. Deeper, more fulfilling, freer, and more fun. More playful. I wonder about people who want to go back to being a teenager or something like that. Hell no, although there are some concert t-shirts I would like back.
So that’s it. Hold on to your favorite t-shirts, and let go of the rest. Take it easy and enjoy the show.