Your 20s Aren’t “the Time of Your Life” — They’re the Opening Act

Wearing a party hat I fashioned using flashcards and a shoelace, a glass of cava in hand, a cupcake supporting a disproportionately large candle, and truth be told, in my pajamas, I jumped on (yet another) Zoom call. Six friends and I wanted to celebrate our friend Maia’s 30th birthday!

Having taken a couple of gap years before going to university, Maia is the first in the group to reach the big 3.0. So, this was a big moment for all of us, who seem to think we exist as a collective as opposed to seven independent individuals. Needless to say, this supposed-celebration turned into an emotional ride down memory lane.

It’ll be seven years this summer since we graduated, and it’s alarming how quickly these years have flown by; how much we’ve all done, and yet how little we feel we’ve achieved. Whatever happened to our “big plans”? — What even were our big plans back then? Unanimously, we all felt every expectation we had for our 20s was completely misguided.

As much as they’re often painted as “the best years of your life,” they’ve turned out to be the most unsettling and stressful years of ours. I mean we’ve had some great moments; we’ve celebrated engagements and promotions, gone traveling, volunteered abroad, and enjoyed many a great after-work-drinks event. But we’ve also each started and left multiple jobs, relocated to a different city or country, experienced heartbreak, felt lonely, and lost.

We’ve ticked fewer things off the bucket list than we had hoped. Honestly, we all just feel a bit “meh.”

Afraid to discover where this cava-induced melancholy rant might lead, Lea suggested we play a game.

We each wrote five random questions on a tear of paper and folded them into a bowl. We then took it in turns to pull out a note and each of us gave an answer to each question. In hindsight, this is probably not how poor Maia had envisioned her 30th birthday. Her first AA meeting? Maybe. We’ll make it up to her once we’re legally allowed to be in the same room again.

As mindful-retreat-worthy as this celebration may have been, it was also exactly what we needed. A moment to reflect on the last seven years. For a bunch of arts-and-crafts-wearing, tipsy young women, we’re a pretty wise bunch. Here are a few lessons we learned in our 20s.

1. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.

A lot of our disappointments simply reflect our deluded expectations. For our entire lives, before we graduate, whether it’s from high-school or college, there’s always an obvious next step. We finish each grade only to move on to the next one. And we’ve seen what it’s like to be in a higher grade, so we can at least make a rough, calculated guess as to what the next year will look like.

We become wired to think ahead; assuming our expectations for the next few years are rational. But the world isn’t an insular microcosm inhabited by people who are roughly your age.

The world is largely unpredictable. Opportunities can come and go at a much quicker pace. There’s no linear path you can follow to pass a yearly exam and move your way onto the next phase.

You have to carve that path yourself. Whether you do so on the way or you’ve planned it in advance, be ready to make turns. In fact, this is possibly the only rational expectation you could have; you’re going to have to adapt to change. So don’t view these turns as failures. You can’t control the world. It’s not an environment exclusively designed to accommodate your course.

So expect nothing and appreciate everything. Be grateful for everything that’s going well, however small those things may seem, and learn from every experience.

2. Your strength is in your vulnerability.

All seven of us could relate to this. We’re sick of being perceived as ‘weak’ just because we’re emotional. No, I don’t remember the last time I made it through the week without crying. But I’m also not sure why this is something to be ashamed of?

Sometimes there’s not even a reason. In the same way my body falls asleep against my will when I’m halfway through a book, sometimes it just cries against my will when I’m halfway through a shower. There’s no specific reason, it just needs to. I don’t see how this would make me any less competent for anything other than a ‘driest-face competition’. It’s over in a minute and then I’m fresh and ready to go.

In fact, to correct my point above, this is another thing you can rationally expect in life; you’re going to feel emotions babe, lap them up, you’re a human.

A few years ago we went through a phase (again I say this as though we experience life as a collective), during which Soph was unhappy at work. She was working for a consulting firm that was working her to breaking point.

She told us about a meeting during which various people asked her to complete several tasks. She ended up with a long to-do list which would realistically take days. She asked what the deadlines were for each of these so she could prioritize her tasks and was told by the Partner that “everything was a priority”. She stayed in the office all night, only to find that none of those things were in fact urgent.

Exhausted, she began to cry. Right there, at her desk. At that moment she lost all aspirations to follow in her seniors’ footsteps and decided she’d be prepared to quit and thus had nothing to lose. So, she went to HR, and it’s thanks to her these issues began to be taken seriously.

Members of the leadership teams went through trainings covering employee wellbeing and project management, the firm introduced a mental-health plan and a counseling service; not bad for a girl who took a moment to weep at her desk.

3. Your truth is the only one that matters.

How many times have you said yes to an event you didn’t want to go to? I consider myself an extrovert in the sense that I love to be with people. But frankly, sometimes I’m just tired.

  • No, I don’t want to go for an after-work-drink after a week packed with extra hours;
  • No, I don’t want to go for dinner at 9:00 pm because it’s 6:00 pm and guess what? I’m already hungry;
  • No, I don’t want to go to her baby shower this weekend because we haven’t spoken since high-school (sorry not sorry, tell her I send my love).

Again, we all agreed we often felt as though we were “missing out.” We forced ourselves into skinny jeans and heels when all we wanted to do was curl up with a bowl of popcorn and watch Bridesmaids again.

What can I say, que sera sera. Maybe the love of my life was going to be attending that bar, and good for him, but I’m so over this FOMO phase I can’t wait to turn 40. Let’s just meet in Tesco when I’m choosing whether I want salted or sweet, and bond over our love for chocolate-coated ginger.

4. When life feels hard, it just means you’re doing it right.

A lot of us go through life with the impression that life is just harder for us than it is for other people. Other people seem to have it together. They seem happy; they’re just getting on with it. We can’t imagine them failing to get to sleep; their minds hosting a ping-pong tournament of thoughts and worries.Over the past five years at least, I’ve felt stuck. I still feel like I haven’t achieved many of the things I wanted to. And what’s worse is, I’m still not even sure how to get from A to B. And honestly, I feel frustrated. Like all the time.

But one of the main reasons I’m grateful to have a close group of confidants is, I now realize it’s not just me. We all have problems, and even when we don’t, we create them.

At the moment, none of our problems are ‘real’ problems. Our family and friends are in good health, and for as long as that continues to be the case, every other problem is one we chose to have.

Now, this doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate. It may well make sense. It’s normal to feel angry if you’re behind your plan for writing a book, or you didn’t get that promotion, or you’ve lost your job or $60,000 of savings. Those things suck. And for as long as you’re human, some things will continue to suck.

Because life’s hard. Life is so messy and unpredictable, and annoying and often complicated and unfair.

But that’s not because you’re doing ‘life’ wrong. It’s like exercise. If you’re not struggling, you’re not doing it right.

5. Commit, even if it’s not forever.

Whether it’s to a job, a relationship, a hobby, or anything else — commit. It’s just a better way to live.

Whilst there probably will be more heartbreak, more disappointment, and perhaps more struggle, it also makes the experience all the more worthwhile.

One of our friends is always in a relationship. In the past seven years, she’s had three relationships and is blissfully in her fourth. Sure, we’ve watched her suffer when they ended. Breakups are seldom pleasant. But she’s probably also been the happiest in the group.

She falls in love like a baby duck impressions on its mother. Quickly, naturally, and with whoever happens to be in front of her. For months she’ll walk down the street with a smile on her face, and come out with lines like “Oh my god, I now truly understand what John Legend was saying in All of Me.” It’s true, she looks like she’s in her own world most of the time, but she’s just so happy. Isn’t that nice?

It’s the same with a job. No job has to be forever, but the more you commit to it, the more you’ll get out of it. It doesn’t matter where you want to be next year or the year after that. The more you commit to the experience, the more you’ll learn.

Final Thoughts

From me and my friends to you and yours. These are five of the precious lessons we learned in our 20s. We hope they’ll serve you just as well as they have us. In summary:

1. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.

2. Your strength is in your vulnerability.

3. Your truth is the only one that matters.

4. When life feels hard, it just means you’re doing it right.

5. Commit, even if it’s not forever.

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