I graduated college early and started working full-time when I was 20. At the time, I had two co-workers who were both 10 years my senior separately offer me the same advice: It gets better. It gets easier.
That’s what they wish they could have told themselves, had they the ability to go back in time: that the expectation that your early 20s are the most freeing and exciting times of your life only adds insult to the fact that they are in fact some of the scariest, hardest and most uncertain… and you shouldn’t feel like a complete failure when that’s the case.
The only people who romanticize their early 20s are the ones who made poor decisions and wish they could go back to a semblance of feeling unattached. For everyone else, your early 20s are some of the hardest years of your life, because they are the most defining. In her book, Meg Jay makes a case for rethinking the way we perceive our 20s, explaining that not only are they not the new 30s, but that so much of how the rest of your life unfolds depends on what you do in those formative years.
“Our 20s are the defining decade of adulthood. 80% of life’s most defining moments take place by about age 35. 2/3 of lifetime wage growth happens during the first ten years of a career. More than half of Americans are married or are dating or living with their future partner by age 30. Personality can change more during our 20s than at any other decade in life. Female fertility peaks at 28. The brain caps off its last major growth spurt. When it comes to adult development, 30 is not the new 20. Even if you do nothing, not making choices is a choice all the same. Don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do.”
This is not an opinion, it’s the summary of years of data and analysis. When you really sit with it all, it should overwhelm you. You should take this seriously. Your 20s are not the decade to goof off and try to figure out the rest later. It’s not that you can’t recover, it’s that it’s more difficult to.
What compounds the pressure of how formative these years are is the fact that you don’t really know what you’re doing to begin with. Everything is still an unknown. You’re not sure where you will live, what career you will pursue, whether or not that will work out. You’re in between a series of breakups. You’re going through your last and most transformative bit of brain and self-development. You’re becoming the person you’re going to be, and you’re trying to find a way to like that person at the same time.
Part of what makes your early 20s (and the whole decade, for that matter) so infuriatingly depressing is that you think you should be happier than ever. The world almost wants you to believe that these are the years in which you are the most young, wild, and free. But it should be the opposite way around.
The truth is that life doesn’t get easier, you get smarter.
You eventually find someone with whom you couldn’t imagine parting, and those years of on-again-off-again romances and devastating rejections melt into the steadiness and comfort of someone with whom you are building a life. The imposter syndrome fades, and in its place comes a calm knowing that you have experience – you can do this. The years go on, and you’re not the entry-level rookie anymore. You go through weeks and months of having to feed yourself, pay the bills, keep up with friends, get your taxes done, navigate your LinkedIn, stay healthy. And the more you do it, the more you learn how to do it. The better you become.
As your 20s go on, you learn that the world will not end when you are disappointed in someone. You get enough perspective to be grateful that some relationships didn’t work out the way you once wanted them to. You go through the hard stuff, the not knowing, the loss… and then you keep going. You realize that these big, scary things aren’t so big and scary once you’ve gone through them. You lose friends and you make new ones. You fail in some ways and you learn. You find some success and realize it isn’t everything. You meet the love of your life and realize they were never going to save you. You do the hard things, and you mend the wounds of your earliest years. You meet the people who will shape you for decades to come. You read, you travel, you find parts of yourself you never knew existed, and get closer to others that have been with you all along.
But mostly, what your 20s teach you is that life gets easier when you get better. People become more friendly when you know how to relate to them kindly. Work becomes easier when you can relax into it a little. Competition is less threatening when your ego isn’t pining after superiority and success.
Life gets a little more enjoyable when you realize you aren’t going to die (yet), you aren’t going to fail (always), you are going to find love (in many ways) and you’re okay (you always have been). Growing up is often just a matter of realizing what’s already true.