With many of us taking much longer than our parents or grandparents to finish our education and settle into a career (thanks, crappy economy), it can feel that these days, your 20s is one decade-long stint in the waiting room of life.
Sure, it's generally a time of experimentation, parties, and freedom, but as anyone who's been there recently can tell you, it's also hugely stressful. And it matters. A lot.
As clinical psychologist Meg Jay explains in her book, The Defining Decade, though your 20s can feel both responsibility- and consequence-free, the choices you make in this decade of life have an outsize impact on how your life progresses down the road. So how do you enjoy the good aspects of this period of self-exploration while still setting yourself up for the best shot at success and happiness?
That's what a thoughtful young questions asked on question-and-answer site Quora lately, eliciting wise responses from several entrepreneurs and post-20s business minds. Here are some of the highlights of their advice:
This was one of the most common pieces of advice. "You are mature enough to go on your own and immature enough to learn from others," explains Shikhar Agarwal, a young computer engineer living in Silicon Valley. "You don't have family obligations and are carefree. Use this time to meet different people, live with them, and understand their thoughts and culture; go backpacking and learn how to survive independently in a new place."
"Travel is a great provider of knowledge," agrees financial investigator Burke Files. "Not from Hilton to Hilton, but from city to city and country to country, staying, where possible, with local families. We learn through struggling. Push yourself to struggle with language, customs, foods, and arts."
Think of money as a result, not a goal...
It's natural to want to live comfortably later on, but according to several of the Quora responders, the best way to attain this goal isn't to focus on money itself. "Don't stress about money. It will come," summarizes copywriter Patrick Gant.
So what should you focus on instead? Finding what you like to do and getting good at it. "You don't have many responsibilities during your 20s and can take risks," writes Agarwal. "So follow your passion--don't get tempted by short-term gains. If you want to do a Ph.D., don't get attracted toward the huge job package. First, find your passion." (Though, don't think you have to absolutely adore your job--"Only 0.1% of people have a dream job," cautions another responder.)
Money shouldn't be your primary motivator, but nearly everyone who responded agreed that you should still focus on sensible financial planning, especially setting away a rainy-day fund to cushion you when you hit inevitable bumps in the road. "Start saving," advises Drew Eckhardt, a systems software engineer. "Set aside six to 12 months of living expenses. You don't want to panic or change your lifestyle if something bad happens like injury, sickness, or job loss."
Start taking care of your body
It's much easier to get in the habit before you've done much damage to yourself physically or developed long-standing bad habits. "By my late 20s, I had ignored and jeopardized my health through a lot of partying and burying my head in the sand," confesses advertising creative director Christian Cipriani. "I turned, but it was very hard. I'd picked up a lot of speed over the years, so it was much more like redirecting a ship than a motorcycle."
The solution? "Take care of your body," suggests researcher Bill Welsh. "Minimally, 30 to 45 minutes of aerobics five to six times a week and some weight training alternate days. Your body will thank you forever." This isn't just about health; it's also about enjoyment. "You're at your athletic peak," writes Eckhardt. "It's great to bicycle 420 miles across a state, climbing 30,000 feet worth of mountains, and feel good doing it. Enjoy it."
Tame your tech
Twenty something's are notorious for being tied to their smart phones 24/7. Use tech for all it's worth, sure, but also learn to set reasonable limits to your usage so you can use that time for other things. "Everywhere--a bus, meeting, restaurant, friends, and so on--your eyes are always down, staring at the Smartphone. Maybe someone has liked your photo on Facebook, up voted your answer--common on---get some air!" urges Agarwal.
"Swap TV watching or Internet surfing for practice on something that you enjoy and that's also useful," writes Linda Lonnqvist. "And if there are a couple of other people in the room you're in, talk to them, don't text someone else," adds Welsh.
Forgive yourself and others for mistakes
If you're the type who sailed through school and university raking in accolades, your 20s is probably when you'll discover that everyone--even A students and superachievers--makes mistakes. That might sting a bit, but it's an essential part of growing up. "Learn to accept your mistakes," urges Advait Kamat.
You probably spent your teenage years being cocky and trying to seem in control. Things are different now, he continues: "You're going to be facing a lot of rejection when you go out hunting for a job. You're going to be making a lot of amateurish mistakes. That's when you'll have to say, 'I made a mistake, and I'm sorry for it.' And mean it."
Welsh agrees and takes the "accept mistakes" argument a step further: "Don't react poorly to mistakes. Mistakes are a great education and probably the quickest way we have to finally getting things right. If you understand this, it will make you patient with other people who make mistakes, and you will learn forgiveness. It's a very short hop from there to kindness, the greatest virtue a human being can have."
Distance yourself from drama
You really don't need problematic, energy-sucking people in your life. "Learn to tell the difference between people who value you for who you are as you are versus those who just want a piece of you," advises Gant. "Avoid toxic and clingy people," adds Roger Austen. "These people are time wasters."
Invest in self-knowledge
"Your 20s is the best time to start understanding yourself," writes Agarwal. "You should know what upsets you and what makes you happy. Realize what is the thing that would motivate you in times of greatest failure. Find the answers to these questions: What is your fear? Who loves you? What do you want to achieve? And so on."
"Learn something about yourself," writes Andrew Gumperz. "Our biggest learning task in life is learning who we are."
Between struggling to get your career off the ground, sort our your romantic life, and enjoy the social opportunities surrounding you, it's easy to feel frantic in your 20s. That's natural, but don't forget to pause, breathe, and take stock from time to time. "Slow down long enough each day to listen to your intuition," suggests author and Coach Jessica Manca. "All good things come when your mind is still," agrees entrepreneur Paul Doran. "Find ways to get the snow globe of your mind to settle."
The little things count, too--at least two responders were adamant that you will deeply regret it later on if you don't take care of your teeth now. Ken Meltsner, a solutions architect, recalls that he "had too many friends neglect good dental care because it costs money that they didn't have, or they didn't think dentistry was important enough. It is--trust me. You're stuck with the same teeth for the rest of your life, and crappy care when you're young will end up costing you many times more as you get older."
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer
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