There may come a time, in the near future, when you begin to fear that you have accidentally wasted your entire 20s.
This revelation may be arrived at in a dramatic fashion — say, just for fun, that you woke up the day after your 30th birthday with toothpaste in your hair, inside an empty apartment that you don’t recognize, which the note on the front table suggests is owned by someone who calls himself “Waxy Dave.” That could lead to some self-evaluation.
Or it could be simpler — perhaps you’ve just read one of the recent, seemingly endless stream of articles and books about how difficult it is to get a handle on anything in your twenties, and how you are kind of, sort of, irrevocably fucked if you don’t completely figure out your life by age 29 ½.
I feel compelled to note that this is not true.
Maybe you got lucky and had perfects parents and clear-cut goals that were acceptable to society, and you worked really hard in high school so that you could go work hard at a really nice college, so that you could go work hard at some job that everyone respects and pays you well and oh look at you, you’re so great, you have your own office with a door and everything, blah blah blah. That’s one path.
Or: maybe you took a Level 1 improv class, then accidentally got drunk for 10 years straight, and now you’re 30. That’s another path.
Guess what? The path you took doesn’t actually matter!
Because even wasting your twenties is not actually wasting your twenties. To certain people (and my dad), it looks like I wasted my twenties. I don’t have a ton of money and I’m probably going to have to begin my professional life from scratch in the next few years. I have a roommate because I love her, but also because I can’t afford to live on my own. Six months of unemployment, or a major health crisis, could probably financially ruin me.
But really, even when it seemed like I was doing nothing at all (and when I believed I was doing nothing at all), I was actually hard at work on the real labor of your twenties — figuring out who you actually are.
Guess why this is the most important thing you have to do in your twenties? Because you are you forever! Jobs end or change. Spouses die or leave you for girls who used to date Charlie Sheen. But you are always going to be you, and serious time and energy investment into figuring out who you are, what you stand for, and what you believe, is important.
Do I wish that this self-analysis paid me a banker’s salary, instead of costing me in pints of Newcastle and also probably a few years off the end of my life? Certainly. But I think making your choices from a place of knowing who you actually are, instead of choices dictated by how your parents or society (or this nightmare Dr. Meg Jay woman who wrote this awful Defining Decade book) thinks you should conduct your life, is invaluable.
These articles talk about the misery that results from indecision in one’s twenties, and I believe that part is true. Indecision is miserable. But the articles are wrong about the true source of this misery.
How much of your indecision is caused by genuinely not having any idea what decision to make? And how much indecision is caused by knowing the choice your heart wants to make, but then measuring that choice against what choice your mom or your college thesis advisor or Dr. Meg Jay wants you to make, and freaking the fuck out? Yeah, I thought so.
So, at the risk of sounding like a high school guidance counselor: spend your twenties learning how to truly listen to your heart. And also, spend your twenties learning how to mentally block out trend pieces about the importance of reaching specific life milestones in a timely fashion.
The goal posts society sets about what makes you a successful or worthwhile person move all the time, anyway. Trying to please these trend pieces, and society’s expectations of you, is as hopeless as trying to please your my mom. And none of these articles ever seem to account for the random, chance-filled nature of life, the emotions of other human beings (whom you do not get to control just because you married them or squeezed them out of your vagina or whatever), or the howling existential void that still persists in the core of the human soul, even in people who have jobs with 401Ks.
These articles tell you that you’re lazy — that you could have figured out who you were, what you needed, what you wanted most to do in this life, quickly and early in your twenties, but just didn’t, because you got really caught up in a Teen Mom marathon or something. This is the true and deep cruelty of lifestyle journalism.
Don’t believe them.
The work you’ve been doing, that looks like no work at all to society, is some of the most important work that you’ll ever do.
Once you truly get to know yourself, that will be when the panic dies down a bit — not when you have a job that makes your parents feel happy (because their panic is fed by their own psychological torment about how they did a bad job as parents, and instead of dealing with this emotion productively on their own, they yell at you about business school. See how this cycle operates?!)
Once you get to truly know yourself, you’ll stop trying to obsessively analyze whether every relationship you’re in has the potential to be long term. Because you’ll understand that if you have to obsessively analyze it, the answer is “no.” And when you meet someone who has husband/ wife/ life partner/ “guy in a furry wolf suit that I have weird sex with for the rest of my life” potential, you’ll know!
Or: once you get to truly know yourself, you won’t freak out over whether you have missed the window to become a materially-oriented bougie nightmare person, as prescribed by Dr. Meg Jay and co., because you’ll know that if that was who you really wanted to become, you would have become that already.
And the best part about getting to truly know yourself? You’re doing it right now. Whatever you’re feeling — annoyance at the articles I’m talking about, annoyance at this article you are currently reading, headache from drinking all that Newcastle while trying to figure out the meaning of life last night — that’s part of it. It takes some people longer than others, but it is happening to everyone right now.
And all you have to do, to get to know yourself deeply, and make real, informed choices about what will actually make you happy and fulfilled in a life that goes on for about seven more decades that no one ever writes trend pieces about, is: let it happen, and try very hard not to get in your own way.