The years in your 20s are often a very confusing time in one’s life. Once out of school, you’re now expected to act like a fully capable adult. From holding down a consistent job, to paying a multitude of bills, and even maybe *gulp* contributing to your retirement account - all things we consider “grown-up” activities, because whether we like it or not that’s what we are at this point. However, our carefree adolescence and college memories are still fresh in our minds, and that memory of absolute freedom and infinite possibility still weighs heavily on us. Many of us want a defined direction for our lives, but freedom and flexibility at the same time. We want to make these important, life-changing decisions that will set us on a path towards happiness and prosperity, but we’d also like a mulligan if we choose poorly
As one writer famously put it, our 20s is “The Defining Decade” (a great book, btw) in our lives. A decade that can set us up on a pathway of success and separate us from our peers, or lose us in the shuffle with thirty breathing down our directionless necks. For some, their 20s are just a series of stepping stones in a carefully laid path towards what they view as success - working tirelessly to make partner in a prestigious firm, finishing medical school, or maybe even starting a family. Some people just know EXACTLY what they want, and they have created a path towards achieving that outcome, and that outcome only.
I’m not like that. I have an idea of what I want, but I’m open to other possibilities. Life is unpredictable, and I’m at the stage of my life where I’m okay with the serendipity that life offers. I also feel that many other 20-somethings are in the same frame of mind with me. That thought, true or not, is comforting.
In our 20s we shouldn’t be satisfied with our lives, or content with what we’ve accomplished to this point. That may sound extremely dispiriting, but I firmly believe that statement. Unless you’re a professional athlete no one's prime is found in their 20s, and this should absolutely include you. You can be proud of what you’ve accomplished up to this point, as you should be. Whatever the accomplishment might be, you’ve worked for and earned it, and you absolutely deserve the feeling of accomplishment that comes with it. However, the bigger understanding is that you can be perfectly happy with your life at that moment, but happiness and contentedness don’t have to go hand in hand.
What we still have to our advantage is time.
We’re young, so young, in the grand scheme of things. Whether you want to face the harsh reality of this or not, the vast majority of us will be having to work the next 30-40 years before retirement. Some may look at that amount of time and slowly shake their head and begin to visualize the perceived dreadfulness of those years. However, I challenge you to not look at those years in such a negative light, but rather as an opportunity. An opportunity for growth. And the single best thing you can do for yourself, and to set yourself up for long-term success, is to view your 20s as the optimal opportunity for growth in life’s long journey. Personal, professional, physical, spiritual - whatever type of growth you desire to achieve, your 20s is the time to cultivate it. Creating these habits now will have the the greatest influence on your life going forward.
So, what exactly is growth? How does one know when growth occurs? Or, exactly how am I supposed to find that time to grow with the million other things I have going on in my life?
All legitimate questions, and sorry, there are no conclusive answers. Through research, observation, and personal experience I think there are some common traits and habits from those who’ve experienced the exponential growth that the 20s offer. These include:
- Making yourself uncomfortable. A lot.
Being uncomfortable is a feeling that we’ve tried to avoid since birth. Many of us create a comfort zone that we’re reluctant to leave. As adults in the working world we go through the same routines daily, hang with the same people in the same places, and experience the same experiences repeatedly. It takes effort to leave your comfort zone, but from my experience many people lock themselves into their own GeoFence, refusing to leave their preferred boundaries of comfort.
However, growth occurs from leaving your comfort zone. You’re never going to grow professionally if you’re too scared to share your ideas, ask for a raise, or apply for that job you’re perfect for. You’re never going to grow personally by refusing to try new experiences, being chicken to ask that person you’ve been crushing on out, or by doing the same things you’ve been doing since college (like getting pointlessly fucked up on your couch every weekend). Not doing the things we’ve grown accustomed to will feel foreign at first and uncomfortable, but this is exactly the behavior that drives growth. You want to be comfortable when you're 80 and sitting on a rocking chair with the love of your life watching your grandchildren play in the yard. That’s comfort, and that's great then. But your 20s should be about making your life as uncomfortable as possible. Comfort feels good, and it's easy and routine to allow yourself to settle into the complacency that this comfort provides. But this comfort also stifles ambition and drive, which is fine when you're 80 and you've achieved what you've wanted to, but should be the last thing you want when you’re in your 20s and the world is still your oyster. Be uncomfortable by forcing yourself to get out of your comfort zone. Take that job in that unfamiliar city. Ask out that girl you think is out of your league. Do something you’ve always wanted to do but you’ve been putting off because “the time just isn’t right.” The first step out of your comfort zone will be the most difficult, but growth will commence immediately upon leaving.
- Forcing yourself to continue learning.
Fact: No matter where you went to school, or what degree(s) you have (or don’t have), or how much you THINK you may know, you don’t know it all. Not even close.
Even more important fact you need to accept: learning is actually a lifelong process, and you’re just beginning to learn when you graduate from school and enter into the working world. I’m personally a reader, so I learn best through the scope of a book. Some may learn better from a mentor, or from a professional class or webinar, or maybe just from whatever hurdles that life throws at you. Point being, refusing to learn past what you already know right now dooms you going forward. Continuously learning allows you to grow and become a better possible version of yourself. You don’t want to be the same person at 25 as you will be at 45, right? Life is a great teacher, but life teaches you lessons at its own pace (and lessons you don’t always necessarily want to learn). By taking the initiative in your learning and self-development you set the direction in which you want to grow and develop.
- Accepting that not everyone’s growth is the same, and that’s okay.
Growth is a choice, and not everyone chooses it. For those who do choose to grow, growth is a decidedly non-linear concept, and will differ from person to person. This will include your friends. Some will see your growth and be inspired by it. Some may be ambivalent towards your growth. And some may harbor animosity towards you and your growth, not accepting that you’re growing and changing in ways different and separate from them. Quite simply, the fact is that you and your friends might not experience the same type of growth, and that’s okay. You shouldn’t stunt your growth for your friend’s sake, or change the natural progression of your growth to fit his/hers. This isn’t to say that your lifelong friends shouldn't continue to be your friends just because you have different mindsets and goals going forward. But, I feel like the most valuable friends you have going forward will be the ones who match your growth, and who challenge you to grow even further. Personally, that’s who I want to surround myself with.
- Being selfish.
You are the most important person in your 20s. You are your own enterprise, and investing in yourself is the best tool you have for growth. Now, that sounds selfish, and it is. Being selfish has such a negative connotation to it, but that’s not always the case. Being selfish doesn’t mean you’re an asshole, or Kanye-level egotistical, or even completely narcissistic. No, it means you’re self-invested. It means you’re greedy about finding ways to improve yourself. It means not caring for others’ awareness and approval as your not growing for their benefit - you’re growing for your own. CEO’s aren’t considered selfish when they constantly try ways to scheme the most profits and growth for their businesses; they’re hailed as geniuses and progressive visionaries. Why should you be any different as the CEO of yourself and your personal growth?
- Realizing a mistake is only a mistake if you don’t grow from it.
Let’s use Steve Jobs and his career to illustrate this final point. Was he a genius? Absolutely. We’ve all been affected one way or another by his unmatched creativity. But do you know what the most important stretch of time in his life was? It wasn’t when he was first at Apple, or when he was unceremoniously removed from the company he created. It wasn’t when he came back to Apple as a savior, and created the blueprint for so many of the products we use today. No, it was the time he spent away from Apple. Following his ouster from Apple he founded the company NEXT, and it was during this time where he had his most brilliant failures. These failures (and there were more than one) were what prepared him for the great success he had upon his return to Apple. Jobs, one of the smartest men the modern world has seen, made mistakes, and he made a lot of them. However, he showed that it’s okay to make mistakes. He showed us that it’s okay to fail, and fail again and again, because each failure he experienced was not actually a failure but a lesson learned. Failure molded and sculpted his vision going forward, and he never repeated the same mistake twice.
The years in your 20s won’t be perfect. You’ll probably make some decisions you’ll regret. Those decisions - the mistakes you make and failures you experience - are only truly bad decisions if you don’t learn and grow from them. Again, we’re young - so young - in the grand scheme of things. We have time to make mistakes. We have time to fail. What we don’t have time for is to sit there and hope and wish for a different and/or better life while doing nothing. Pull the goddamn trigger and do something - whatever happens happens, but it’s better than nothing happening at all.