The Best and Worst Advice for the 20-Somethings of the World

I cringe when people tell me, you’re young, you still have more time. In fact, when I announced I was quitting my job and moving to Europe with my boyfriend, most people responded with, now’s the perfect time, because you’re young! But I didn’t decide to move half way around the world because I’m young.

However, more often than not, this was the form of advice given to me while struggling in my 20s. Don’t know what you want to do? No worries, you’re still young. Don’t know what you’re passionate about? No worries, you’ve got time. Friendships that only circle around binge drinking and lack any real depth? No worries though, because you’re young and you’ve still got time to figure it out! Now, I know these sentiments come from good intentions and opportune thinking, a way to make you feel like the world is your oyster. I’m sorry, but I call bullshit. Sure, on the clock, you (hopefully) have more days when you’re young, but this cultural thought pattern that procrastination and tolerance for lack of direction and self-improvement are doing a disservice to our 20-something selves, and for that matter, our 30-something selves.

I traversed my 20s between 2009 and 2019, alongside the influx of social media that increasingly normalized a chaotic, and sometimes painful, decade of life when realities like having only $7 to your name is masquerading in the form of YOLO-ing and #sorrynotsorry. A global financial crises paired with the high cost of tuition and topped with an aging paradigm in our cultural mindset primes the way for situations like this, especially early on in our 20s when we’re making shit money and even more shit at managing it. And I am no stranger to this. I once over-drafted my checking account at a baseball game for a beer. Yeah, that beer, pictured above. A frivolous purchase to perpetuate my already drunken state.

But there are memes and tweets about this being okay because I’m a 20-something and this is what 20-somethings do. But it wasn’t okay. Getting that text alert from my bank letting me know I over-drafted was worse than the time my dad found a bottle of alcohol in my room when I was 16. Much worse. My stomach dropped. I couldn’t shrug and say, “that’s not mine” or play the naive-stupid teenage role. This was very much, in fact, mine. This was my money, or lack there of. My responsibility. My fuck-up. However, I’m grateful that I over-drafted my account because of a budgeting error on my end and not because I “gave zero fucks”. And I am beyond grateful that at 20-something I could understand and accept accountability for my actions. I’m grateful that instead of hash-tagging my way through it, I faced reality and decided to own it. After that I significantly turned my financial life around by paying down nearly $60,000 in debt and building up a net worth well beyond the national median* for my age.

Make no mistake, I’m not trying to toot my own horn. Believe me. I certainly took the the long way to get to a place where I drive my own decisions and take responsibility for what happens. At 22 I graduated from college with a bachelors in psychology. As a hail mary I applied, and was accepted, to grad school in Chicago for my masters in psychology. Not because I was passionate about psychology but because I had no idea what I wanted to do and this seemed like the next step everyone was taking. The summer before school started I drove out to California with my then boyfriend and ended up staying there for a year. I blew off grad school and worked in a field that didn’t bring much career value to my life.

A breakup and a year later I moved back to the east coast where I went to college, romanticizing that it would be just like old times. It wasn’t. Everyone moved on, took jobs in other cities, moved back home to be closer with family. I ended up taking a job in another state, a few hours from my college town. Another job that I found little interest in with no room for growth. A year went by and the anxiety began to creep in.

I was approaching my 25th birthday with what felt like nothing real to show for. No career path. Certainly no money. No passions or hobbies. No close friends around me. No family. Nothing really keeping me tethered to the east coast either. I know what you might be thinking – everyone moves at their own pace and we all get there at different times. And the advice I was given during this desolate time in my life echoed those sentiments, you’ve got time – you’re still young. Don’t worry about figuring it out!

But I should have been. At least enough to be the architect of my own life. Enough to build something that meant something to me. I could have made a home for myself somewhere, even if I was still figuring out my interests and passions. I could have become more conscious of my finances and how to manage and save money, even if I was unsure of my career. I could have been more intentional with my social circle and maybe the east or west coast would have felt more like home despite the other unknowns. But I didn’t do that. I drifted from place to place. I didn’t take the time to reflect on what I wanted, needed or believe in. My mental, emotional, social, and spiritual components were stunted. No growth.

My path took a long time because I didn’t even leave the starting blocks until almost 25 when I decided to move back home so I could begin living my life. The long way there isn’t always a bad thing if you’re moving. If you’re growing. If you’re developing and recalibrating. But I wasn’t doing any of those things. Maybe my early 20s didn’t exactly come with the mindset that I could fuck up and it didn’t matter because YOLO, because the board was wiped clean when I hit 30 – in other words – the mindset that I’m young, and I’ve still got time. But not having a mindset at all is just as dangerous. I didn’t drive my decisions or take ownership in them and I might as well have been YOLO-ing my way through life.

Without intention and deliberation your life will start to mold and build around other people. Other’s wants. Other’s beliefs. Other’s opinions. Nobody coerced me to do either but yet, somehow, I went from southern California working at a veterinary hospital to North Carolina working for a civil engineering firm. I couldn’t come up with more opposite life directions, yet both happened to me in the span of two years because I let it and didn’t think twice about what I really wanted.

When I moved back home I decided I needed to ignore the you’ve got time advice, and instead, focus on getting off the starting blocks. I made an effort to figure out what I wanted to do in life and what I wanted from life. I circled back to a previous passion of mine – interior design. I decided to immerse myself in the industry and go back to school. Working full time and attending grad school at night, I finally felt like I regained control of a direction. It was intentional. I had ownership and conviction in my decisions. I made friends. Discovered interests and side passions that I had never considered before. I focused on honing skillsets that I found value in. I made conscious efforts to be present in the moment. I realized the value of deeper relationships, beyond partying. I learned how to listen and engage in meaningful interactions. I spent much of my mid-20s cultivating an identity with a set of defined values.

The decision to move half way around the world, while almost six months in planning, unfolded out of four years in my twenties figuring out what was important to me, what my values are, how I wanted to live my life and with whom I wanted to live my life. This wasn’t about age and it certainly wasn’t a third-life crisis. It was conscious decision making and good timing. It was unearthing all of the complicated and messy things in my 20s, fine-tuning them, and re-defining. It was about getting off the starting blocks.

Timo and I started dating when I was 28. Shortly into our relationship he broached the topic of moving abroad as his visa was good for only two years. It was all hypothetical at this point, but nonetheless, a valuable and responsible discussion worth having at the start of our relationship. Sure, it’s easy to romanticize about moving abroad with your S.O. while you’re still in the honeymoon phase. However, I knew long before I even met him that I wanted to live abroad at some point in my life. This was important to me. I knew that a career driven life was not in the cards for me. While I wanted to continue my development and contribute to society, I soon realized after entering the workforce that my personal success and growth could not be measured outwardly with job promotions and raises. Thus, having a career would not be the reason I didn’t take on an amazing adventure.

I also knew well before having met Timo that I wanted a partner where it was exactly that – a partnership. Someone who valued continued learning, self-improvement and development, well-being, and adventure. This became clear to me through the last few years of dating with intention and deliberation, regardless of how casual or serious they were. I sought relationships that would bring value to my life and, hopefully, I, in turn, to theirs. I took time to reflect and evaluate what some of these relationships lacked and, more importantly, what I needed to work on before going into the next. So when the time came to move half way around the world with my partner many of the doubts, fears, and insecurities were worked out in advance because I spent the last four years figuring it out.

I know I make the analogy of getting of the starting blocks like we’re in a race. But please don’t misunderstand. Life isn’t a race with others and you should find ways to harness the pressures of societal timelines. Marrying someone at 25 years old out of social influences to settle down is no better than waiting until your 40 because you never took the time to date or figure out what you value in a partnership and more importantly in yourself. Maybe marrying at 25 is the right thing for you or maybe it is at 40, but make sure it’s just that – right for you.

Cultivate your own life with your own path and be intentional with it. Avoid urgency, but don’t be complacent either.

When you search “turning 30” or “the difference between your 20s and 30s” you’ll get a kickback of hundreds of blog posts and articles claiming that your 30s are way better than you 20s with snippets of advice for those still meandering their 20-something lives. While often funny, and albeit sometimes poignantly true like the increasing difficulty of dealing with hangovers, these bullet points falsely idealize your 30s. As though entering the 30th decade is a right of passage and once you cross the threshold a more meaningful life can begin. Moreover, your 20s is the practice round and you can now, at 30-something, start living with more purpose, more intention, better financial decisions, stronger career focus, deeper relationships, more time for your interests, more attention for self-care and well-being; more of the good stuff and less of the bad. Yes, some of it’s true and inevitable. With age comes experience. And with more experience comes wisdom. Yet these blog posts and articles only perpetuate the cultural aging paradigm that your 20s don’t matter, or that you don’t have to worry about figuring it out because you’ll get it in your 30s, but that isn’t guaranteed.

It takes work, continual self-reflection, awareness and willingness to keep pushing towards a direction no matter how misguided our 20s might feel. It’s ignoring the you’re young and there’s still time to figure it out mindset. Because if you don’t figure it out, someone else will – whether it’s malicious or symptomatic. Stop treating your 20s like the scratch paper everybody thinks it is. You’re not given a fresh canvas when you turn 30. You already have the canvas and everything you do today is making up that picture. The longer you wait to figure out what you want in life, what your values are and the type of person you want to be the more that canvas gets covered up and the less time you have to repaint it.

Your 20s are just as important as your 30s, 40s and so forth. Be purposeful with your decisions even if you can’t see the big picture. Do something because it brings value to your life. If you have a side passion for photography, pursue it. Photography could become your creative outlet, a career opportunity or a way to remember the past. Be purposeful with your relationships. Even if you have no intention of marrying at the moment but want to date, intentionally choose someone that brings value and joy to your life. Someone you can learn from. Someone that doesn’t waste your time. In return, be respectful with theirs. Spend and save money consciously. Instant gratification is just that. Instant. And then it’s gone. Don’t spend money on things you don’t need or can’t afford. Be in control of your finances so you can afford the opportunities that come your way at any age.

Now is not the perfect time do anything because your young. Now is the perfect time to do something because it’s right for you. You don’t have time to figure it out because, in some form or another, you will always be figuring it and if you don’t start now someone else is going to do it for you. And that’s when you’ll look back with a quarter-life, third-life, mid-life, whatever-life crisis and wonder where your life went. Don’t let that happen. Cultivate your own life. Get off the starting blocks.

*median is used instead of average because the average is skewed by the few very wealthy individuals.