20 Things to Learn in Your 20s

20 things to learn in your 20s (1)

I have recently noticed the sheer number of lists on the internet explaining the keys to success (or failure) for 20-somethings. So, for our RA training this week, I decided to present my take on this fad. Of course, I did so through the lenses of college student development theory.

The fact that there are so many of these lists floating around and that we are quite attracted to them is no coincidence. Our 20s, and college in particular, is a time of huge growth and development. Psychosocial identity development, cognitive development, moral development, adjusting to changing environments, establishing vocational aspirations…all of these areas are part of the foundations of student development theory. And these are the areas that 20-somethings seek to explore and address in creating these aspirational (or cautionary) lists. We are all trying to figure out who we are, what we care about, who we love, and what we want to do with our lives. It’s incredibly exciting and incredibly terrifying. It’s growing up.

And so, as an educator of 20-somethings and a 20-something myself, I offer up the following list. It is by no means exhaustive. It is hardly specific (intentionally). But it is rooted in the idea that learning and development happens in the spaces where we become uncomfortable, question ourselves, and are appropriately challenged and supported by our environments.

20 Things to Learn in Your 20s

  1. Set financial goals and save money. Yes, student debt is crappy. Bills are crappy. Some of us make more money than others. But managing your finances and trying to think of money in the long-term is an important investment in your future.
  2. Develop friendships with people who support your goals and values (and who you like!) Friends are not Pokemon. You don’t have to catch them all. Pick ones that really have your back, that build you up and make you feel a sense of worth and belonging. You want these people to lean on when times get tough.
  3. Practice a positive attitude. Sometimes things get difficult. Although no one should suffer in silence, choosing your attitude goes a very long way.
  4. Get uncomfortable. You will never learn anything if you are happy and cozy all the time. It’s called cognitive dissonance. It’s good.
  5. You don’t know lots of things. You will sometimes (perhaps often) be wrong. Even when you have a college degree. Even when you have a graduate degree. Even when you sit in the corner office. It’s better to recognize that than to pretend that you know it all (and be lying to yourself).
  6. Seek out the things that you want and make you happy. Please do not choose a career that you hate and then proceed to spend most of your adult life logging 40, 50, or 60 hours a week in a job that’s the equivalent of a barren wasteland devoid of joy and meaning. If you happen to not yet have a family, job, house, dog, etc to pay for, this is a good time to figure out what actually does make you happy and fulfilled without the full pressure of financially supporting others.
  7. Take risks. Please refer to #4. No risk, no reward. In fact, sometimes you take risks and there is still no reward. But what is worth doing even if you fail?
  8. Make mistakes. You will f up. In fact, you probably f up every day. So are you going to beat yourself up about this or are you going to accept it as part of life?
  9. Prioritize your wellness. Newsflash: You’re not getting any younger. Also, you don’t get to trade in your body when you turn 30. So if you spend this decade filling it with Redbull, beer, and chicken wings, never taking it out for exercise, and never giving it rest, that’s what you’re working with for the rest of forever. Stand your ground on aspects of your wellness that are important to you. Is it your mental health? Exercise? Sleep? All of the above? Make those non-negotiables. Achievement or proving yourself is not worth it if you are running yourself into the ground and wrecking your body.
  10. Care about others and express that care. Let down the walls. Say “I love you”. It makes people feel good. It makes you feel good.
  11. Travel and explore other cultures. There is a hell of a lot out there that you don’t even know exists and have no idea about. And you can learn so much and gain so much from exploring.
  12. Keep learning after college. College was great, but I’m certain that we don’t teach you everything in life while you’re here. Hopefully you have more questions than answers when you leave.
  13. Some people just need to be removed from your life. Toxic relationships need to go. Or be minimized. If someone makes you feel like shit on a regular basis and is bringing you down, cut the cord. Your self-worth and value cannot be tied to someone’s harmful and negative behavior.
  14. Love and accept yourself. You are enough. You are a wonderful and imperfect human being. Until you love yourself, you really can’t love others.
  15. Figure out what you believe in and value (it might be different than what your family believes). Also, your beliefs and values might change over time. Speak your truth.
  16. Don’t sweat the small stuff (s**t happens) Getting worked up over small things that can be overcome is simply not worth it. Learning how to deal with and manage these things will go a long way for your peace of mind and stress levels. Sometimes you are running late. Sometimes you forget to send someone a birthday card. Sometimes you accidentally scratch up the whole side of your brand new car and it’s totally your fault (for example). Life goes on. It could be so much worse.
  17. There are a lot of things and people you just can’t control. You may really want to change a person or organization and despite your best efforts, it simply doesn’t happen. Not everything in life is within your scope of control. It’s important to positively effect the things that are, but not everything is.
  18. Don’t be afraid to fall in love. Don’t be afraid to fall out of love. As Kenny Rogers said, “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em”
  19. You are not the center of the universe. But you are part of it. It’s not all about you. It’s really, really not. However, your decisions, actions, and attitudes affect others. In fact, they probably have effects that you are not even aware of. So think about others.
  20. You will change. Your life will change. Embrace it. Things are constantly changing. You can either fight it or ride the wave.

Book Review: Not Quite Adults

I’m 23 (going on 24), which means that Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Settersten and Ray, 2010), is not just a little pro-devo for someone who works with an 18-24 population. This book pretty much describes my life. 

As I write this, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. My relying on my parents to help cover the gap between my two jobs is pretty emblematic of the new transition to adulthood described in Settersten and Ray’s book, which is based on eight years of research by the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research network that includes twelve researchers in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, economics, sociology, criminology, and public policy. Because of the relevance to both my personal and professional lives, I thought that this book was an excellent choice to provide perspective and provoke thought about the experience of “growing up”. I would certainly recommend this (especially to other young professionals like myself!)

It’s Pretty Legit

The research cited in the book covers a variety of quantitative and qualitative studies conducted across the U.S. and takes an interdisciplinary approach to painting a picture of the experiences of the current 20-something crowd as they come of age in a drastically changed society. The book uses excerpts from interviews throughout, weaving the stories of young people into statistics and observations. As a result, the book is an interesting read that is completely salient to those working in higher education, to students themselves, for parents, and for recent graduates. Although one must keep in mind significant current events that have occurred since the book’s print date of 2010 (especially Occupy Wall Street), this manageable read offers excellent insights into understanding the path that young people in the U.S. are taking to reach adulthood today.

Sink or Swim

One of the central themes in the book is the idea of “swimmers and treaders”, working off of the “sink or swim” metaphor. Clear in the designation between young people who are swimmers (mostly those who successfully attain higher education and who have strong family support) and treaders (those who may lack the credentials and support necessary for long-term economic and personal success) is that the socio-economic and racial divide in this country is alive and well in determining the opportunities of young people. Also clear in exploring this theme is that the “American Dream” in the way it was interpreted by older generations is long gone. In addition to emphasizing education, the authors strongly examine the important role that family and parental support plays in the potential success of young people. It’s not about hard work; it’s about social capital, privilege, and having the ability to take advantage of social, economic, and educational opportunities to leverage success (not quite the American Dream, right?)

Speaking of the American Dream…

If it wasn’t obvious already, the old adage of success through hard work is not really flying anymore these days. Call me a cynic, if you will, but this isn’t your mama’s America anymore. Literally, it’s not. This is one of the points that Not Quite Adults drives home strong and clear: this country has changed. The rules are totally different than they were a couple of generations ago, and as a result, parents may encourage their children to follow the same path they did, with completely different outcomes. Financial success and security is almost inextricably tied to higher education, and the path to higher education includes debt. The authors make a great argument for taking on smart debt (like investing in an education that you can afford long-term, buying a house, etc). Perhaps most important to this book (and to the new experience of young people), is that the path to adulthood has become elongated, and that where families and society can support young people (by letting us live at home, for example) to help us get on our feet, it benefits society at large.

Higher Ed Relevance

I felt that this book fit seamlessly into my inquiry about the experiences and development of college students, especially considering the broad viewpoint that it provides on the benefits of education, the role of higher education in society, and practical, real topics like taking on student debt, moving back in with your parents, and negotiating romantic relationships and marriage. This is a book that has helped me to gain increased perspective on the world around me and society’s attitudes toward my generation and has provided me with worthwhile insights to apply to my work with students.