On One Hand

July 1, 2014

Things I learned in my 20s

Filed under: opinion — ononehand @ 1:45 pm

Your 20s are your first decade as an “adult,” and most people in the U.S. are truly gaining financial and emotional independence somewhere around age 25. I still have close to a year to go before I’m 30, but it’s already amazing to think about how much I’ve changed in 9 years since I turned 20.

I started as an idealistic, ambitious college student working through hangups I developed in high school and earlier. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be or do, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let the world — or even my own personality — make choices for me. Most of the time my energy was geared towards doing and being the opposite of what I thought people had judged me for. I wanted to prove those things were wrong.

Some of my self-perceptions were accurate and some were way off; I was trying especially hard to be extroverted and conversational (not something I lacked in, but I thought I did) — I compensated with a lot of partying and drinking. It meant trying to be more masculine (definitely unnecessary), trying to be more involved in the community (a good thing) and trying to bring drama into my life because I hoped it disrupted the risk-averse way I had grown up (obviously not a healthy goal).

No matter what your teenage years or upbringing was like, I think we all pass through these struggles. By no means are any of us set for life by the time we turn 30 — but when hiccups do happen, we’ve become a lot better at dealing with them.

Here’s what I learned in my 20s:


People aren’t judging you as much as you worry they are. 

In your early 20s you still probably worry whether people “like” you — not just friends, coworkers and family members but also strangers who don’t play a significant role in your life. It’s your imaginary audience: you’ll think about being attractive or about avoiding anything goofy or embarrassing that you think a person might reject you for. In your 20s you learn that people aren’t paying such close attention. The truth is, most people are just worrying about how you’re perceiving them.

I can’t count how many times I kept my distance from someone assuming that she or he was “out of my league” or didn’t like me, only to run into that person in a more relaxed setting and find out that they only kept their distance because they thought the same about me! In other words, we were both being standoffish out of fear of what the other thought.

At the same time, this means that some words of welcome, encouragement or compliments go an incredibly long way with anybody.

You are more judgmental than you think you are. 

If you’re like I was in my early 20s, you probably think you’re very tolerant and accepting, only forming negative opinions about people through fair and thoughtful criteria. My way of doing it was judging everyone for how compassionate and forgiving I thought they were; I judged people who I considered judgmental.

Young adults can be very idealistic, which for most people means working out a self-consistent moral philosophy and applying it to everything. You probably think your own system of shoulds and should-nots is worthy of being a universal moral standard. You probably think that you have great reasons for only wanting a certain kind of person in your life or evaluating people according to your own code.

It’s only when you realize that everybody has a unique personal moral system they use to judge themselves and others that you realize you are in fact as judgmental as anyone else. People can and will violate your expectations, but that’s not a deal-breaker. When you accept yourself as being judgmental and even sometimes capricious, your steep expectations start to go away and you discover more authentic connections.

Rejection is just information. 

A therapist taught me this one when I was 21 because I was especially in need of it — but it might be one of the most universal human struggles. As a social species, rejections can be our most painful and challenging experiences.

There’s probably not a single person on Earth who hasn’t been turned down, dumped, fired, avoided or ignored before. Yet when it happens, we somehow end up feeling like we’re the only one.

Even if we weren’t that interested in that job and know we slacked off on the application, being skipped over still stings. We might be fully aware that a relationship isn’t working — even fantasize about being single again — but when the other person is the first to end it, the sense of unworthiness sends ripples through our lives and suddenly we’re desperate to have the relationship back.

Whether or not a break was a long time coming or it caught us by surprise, facing rejection is just finding out that we’ve gone in a particular direction as far as we’re going to get, and our next opportunity is somewhere else.

Your greatest strengths are also your weaknesses. 

Our greatest strengths don’t come from pure brilliance; they come from a drive or disposition that focuses our energy to that subject (and away from others). Every great strength is a weakness at something else, and the most brilliant, charismatic and competent people in the world will struggle with a lot of ordinary jobs and tasks.

What that means for your life is two things. One: just because you struggle with something (and even if it’s something that seems simple to most people), it doesn’t mean you’re deficient as a whole — one failure or even several big failures are not a final judgment against you. Two: just because you’re brilliant at something doesn’t mean you are more valuable to a group, team or society as a whole than anybody else is. Everybody needs help from others to achieve something, and everybody has a contribution that should be recognized.

Your innate abilities are less important than your willingness to learn. 

Being exceptionally good at something may mean you learned it very quickly, but it doesn’t mean you were born knowing it and that you’re finished refining it. Everyone benefits from a teacher or mentor who has done it all before. Everyone benefits from peer feedback, and everyone benefits from seeing how she or he is perceived by outsiders or audiences who don’t have the same expertise.

Also, for good or for ill, everybody will face gatekeepers in their lives who won’t give you that deal or promotion, or be in a relationship with you, unless you agree to do some things their way instead of your own way. It doesn’t matter if you think your way is best or not. To succeed, you have to value their knowledge and ability to contribute things you don’t know, and you have to be genuinely grateful for it.

Everyone has the same access to knowledge. 

An expert is an expert because she or he invested the time to study and gain experience. It’s important to recognize when trusting the experts is the best thing to do, but anything sold as “secret” knowledge that only an elite group of people understand is probably BS.

I struggled this one a lot — and came to a clearer understanding of it — through my relationship with religion growing up gay in the Roman Catholic Church. There’s a tendency for any religious adherent to believe that priests, ministers or religious authorities get their information through secret archives or direct conversations with God that you can’t have on your own.

The truth, which finally set me free, is that they got all their knowledge and opinions the same way that you got your knowledge and opinions — from ordinary life experiences and from lessons passed down from previous “authorities.” If you’re questioning it, it’s probably questionable. If you ever feel like you might be making it up as you go along, that’s probably because you are and everyone else is too.

One more thought: the reason science has been one of the most successful human endeavors is that it’s based on published data, peer review, experiments that will produce the same results for everyone who tries them and other quality checks that eliminate false theories or fixation on things that are actually unknowable. It’s the process, not the person doing it, that makes something “science.” It’s the most thorough system for working around human bias, and if you’re ever dealing with something where scientific knowledge might apply, science is your most valuable resource.

Your physical and mental health is a foundation for your potential and abilities. 

All your abilities, memories, skills, emotions and ideals take place in your brain — living cells and tissue. Before we are anything else, we are intelligent animals — life forms with physical sensations and instincts that were selected by evolution to support survival. This doesn’t mean our physical bodies are all that matters or that we can’t cope with illness or overcome disability, but in order for you to perform at anything, a functioning brain and body must come first.

So if, for example, your job is making good money but it’s extremely stressful and hurting your health, it’s unsustainable. Your body will eventually end it for you — in the form of a nervous breakdown, depression or illness — if you don’t fix the problems or get out.

So eat as healthy. Get enough sleep. When you have the urge to move and stretch, do it. Avoid addictions because they block your ability to recognize real needs. Spend a few hours every day socializing with people you like, and make time to be alone. Find regular opportunities for physical touch and affection. Have routine in your life, but keep it flexible enough for spontaneity and fun. If you have symptoms of an illness, get them checked. Find the balance between under-stimulated boredom and living with too much stress. If you are constantly sad or unmotivated or don’t understand your own behavior, see a mental health professional.

We live in a culture that treats physical or psychological needs as weaknesses, especially those that have to do with sex or “unproductive” downtime. But forcing yourself to suffer will never get you ahead; we are driven to fulfill needs because they are needs, not optional. It’s OK to prioritize them and you should definitely do so.

The easiest way to change yourself is change your environment. 

Every person, no matter how wise or mature, is influenced by her or his peers and surroundings. By the time you’re in your late 20s you have a good sense of what you can deal with and how you respond to different people or environments. Accept yourself and those truths.

It’s always good to respond to a challenging situation by learning, talking through it, growing or adapting. People will often tell you it’s “just part of life” or that you should “power through it.” But if over time you sense that you’re stagnant, moving backwards, sliding into bad habits or losing confidence, embrace the lessons and wisdom from the experience that will prepare you for future challenges  — but get out. Don’t let yourself become a worse person because you’re trying so hard to be a saint.

People might call it immaturity when we get overwhelmed, and it’s true that we might have weak spots for situations in which another person is more prepared to stay strong and deal. But real maturity is the ability to see when a situation is not helping us grow, and make changes in our lives accordingly.

I could add a hundred other things to this list, but most of them revolve around two core areas: Adjusting to the idea of being an independent adult, and getting rid of unhealthy ideas instilled in me by the surrounding culture about what I needed to do and be.

During my 20s I really had to prove to myself and the world that I was worth being in a romantic relationship with — any time a relationship ended, it was a crushing blow that went far beyond mourning the loss of the relationship and brought me back to questioning who I was and whether my life would turn out OK. I bring up relationships especially because, for me, it was one of my biggest triggers for self-doubt, but it was the same story when it came to careers, grades or friendships — anything that felt like failure would really set me back.

Ultimately, through my 20s I moved back towards being the person I was when I was a little kid — responsible, curious, creative, happy having a few close friends rather than being known by everyone, really fascinated by science and gardening, family-oriented and talkative. It’s the real me who I was all along, but it took a long time to get back to it.


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