Setting Yourself Up for the Life You Want

Turning twenty is a milestone. It’s the point at which real adulthood is beginning and you’re standing on a mountaintop looking out over a landscape at sunrise. The view from the top is spectacular. There is excitement about where the road is leading, just out of sight around a sharp bend, snatches of it become visible before the golden band disappears over the horizon. You can’t wait to get going, and so you begin to run.

Want to travel in your twenties?
Want to travel in your twenties?

You’re hard into your schooling, and then your career path. Your supporters on the sidelines cheer. You’re off to such a great start; you’re making fabulous progress. You buy a car, meet a partner, and buy a house at the top of a low rise. It feels good. You’re getting there. Lowering your head you push onward with purpose: pay off school debt, have a kid or four, work on your master’s degree – run, run, run!

And then you stop at the bottom of the steep hill where you turn thirty, or thirty-five, or maybe even forty, panting for breath. You stop to stretch, have some water and take a look around, thinking, “Huh, I don’t remember seeing this from the top of the mountain? How did I get here? How the heck am I going to climb that hill? No one warned me about this hill.”

You’re angry. Because no one told you. All of those people cheering, they knew about the hill. Why didn’t they warn you?

And in that moment, you’re disappointed: the road didn’t lead where you thought it did, where it promised from the high place you stood at the beginning. You’re angry. Because no one told you. All of those people cheering, they knew about the hill. Why didn’t they warn you? You’re completely demoralized. You’ve done your best, all of the “right” things, and they lead here? To the bottom of a hill you can’t possibly climb, instead of to the sunny horizon? You feel lost.

“Where was the wrong turn? Why didn’t the map show this? How will I ever get out?”

This year I turn forty, twenty twice over, and I’m here to warn you.

I’m here to tell you an important truth while you are still standing at the top of the hill, while you’re still optimistically surveying the sunny landscape. I know you’re dying to dive in and run, your calves are itching, your heart is pounding, you just want to GO because you know that life is going to be awesome and you’re going to rock it like no one every has. Will you stay here with me for just five more minutes? You can stretch, I’ll talk fast, then I’ll cheer you as you run.

The twenties might just be the most important decade of your life

Running on the beach

The possibilities are almost endless. You have more time, more energy, and more enthusiasm than you are likely to have at any other point in your life. You’re younger and healthier than you’re ever likely to be again. You have few responsibilities weighing you down. Time is on your side. You are in the unique position of being able to build a life from the ground up, a gift we’re only given once.

They do the next thing. They do the expected thing. They work, partner up, have kids, buy houses, accumulate school debt, car debt, credit card debt and write Facebook posts that highlight their awesomeness.

Most people roll, full steam ahead, into their twenties on the path their parents have set for them (or in direct opposition to it!) They do the next thing. They do the expected thing. They work, partner up, have kids, buy houses, accumulate school debt, car debt, credit card debt and write Facebook posts that highlight their awesomeness. They start out drinking, partying and celebrating freedom and quickly join the ranks of the responsible.

Before I go any further, let me say two things:

  • There is nothing wrong with any of that. If that is your dream.
  • Your choices in your twenties will determine where you’re standing at my age, and later.

Let’s talk about some of those choices, shall we?

the road forks

 

In your twenties you’re handed a whole life that you can’t even imagine yet and are asked to set yourself up for it, sight unseen. If you want something different than what you’re seeing in your parents’ generation, then you’re going to have to make different choices. You’re going to need to think about where you’re going and the cause and effect between choice A and result B. You might even need to ignore the shouting from the sidelines and do something entirely different with the race you’re running. While it’s true that the road is laid out before you and we all must run, it’s also true that you’re creating your own road and every fork is a decision point, a point at which you decide the future of your world.

While it’s true that the road is laid out before you and we all must run, it’s also true that you’re creating your own road and every fork is a decision point, a point at which you decide the future of your world.

If you’re twenty-something and running, you’re coming to these forks. Instead of following the well heeled throng, why not stop, accept a glass of water from a fellow runner who is taking her time, and think for a minute about which way you’re going?

On debt

If you graduate with $100,000 in school debt, buy a car for $20,000, buy a house for another $200,000 and put your “necessities” on your credit card, you are mortgaging your freedom. You are limiting your potential to do the things you want. You are promising, on paper, to do whatever it takes to serve those lenders before you serve yourself. You might not even have a “job” yet, but you’re a slave before you ever get started. Avoiding debt is the number one thing you can do in your twenties to make sure you remain a free person.

Avoiding debt is the number one thing you can do in your twenties to make sure you remain a free person.

What seems normal, expected and “easy,” isn’t; I promise you.

There are ways to do college cheaper – much, much cheaper. Go in a foreign country, it’s often less expensive than in the USA, and you’ll gain important international experience as well. The creative people in this world always find ways to hack the system. Apply this to your education. Apply this to every aspect of anything that might cause you to go into debt.

If you rack up debt in your twenties, expect to spend all of your thirties sold out to The Man.

Live on less

Penny

When we got married (at 19 and 21), the best piece of advice we were given was to live on one income. Newsflash: earning potential at 19 and 21 isn’t livable. And yet, we did it. Our first apartment had a bullet hole in the front window. We lived in that neighborhood. We put duct tape over it. The neighbour kids thought it was big fun to push start our car every morning so we could get to school and work. We ate a lot of pasta. When we graduated and got “real jobs,” and eventually bought a house, we did it on one income.

Whether you’re single or working together, living on less is key to freedom. Spend less. Consume less.

What did we do with the other income? Lots of things. Most importantly, didn’t depend on it.

Whether you’re single or working together, living on less is key to freedom. Spend less. Consume less. Live at a lower standard than everyone you know. Bank the money. Spend the money on your real passion. Set yourself up to be able to open the door when opportunity knocks. You do not have to keep up with the Joneses. In fact, the Joneses are going to be shocked to find themselves wishing they could keep up with you.

On partners

Elderly couple

Who you link arms with, romantically and in business, is going to affect every other area of your life. Most people “follow their hearts” and go with what is comfortable and easy in both arenas. Over half those people also get divorced and fail at their many business exploits before they figure it out.

There are no guarantees, but there are a few guidelines that don’t always occur to us on the first go-round:

Lead with your head, not your heart. Passion is great, in love and business, but run the numbers, think it through, and consider the factors that are going to affect the outcome. My husband intentionally checked out my Mom before marrying me. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? I give him a hard time about it, but he was right to do it. He was thinking long term, about our family culture and who I had learned my unconscious patterns from.

Punch above your weight. Don’t settle. Want an epic life? Partner with someone who also wants it so bad he can taste it. Partner with someone who isn’t afraid to do with less to have more and to work her ass of to get it. Partner with someone who is already head and shoulders above the crowd.

You’re going to have to dig in and do the work to have something beautiful.

Work at it. Newsflash: real life is not like the movies. There are no happy endings, neatly tied up with a bow. The princesses are sometimes going to puke. Your knight in shining armor is going to fall off of that horse. Sometimes, life and marriage are not as advertised. There are days, weeks, months, even years sometimes, that are just hard. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’re going to have to dig in and do the work to have something beautiful. You’ve heard the expression, “It has to get worse before it gets better?” That doesn’t just apply to cleaning up after a Friday night party at your frat house, it applies to everything. If you partner up, then determine to saddle up for the long haul and do the work. Don’t be the guy who doesn’t carry his weight.

Not planning on partnering in the romantic sense? Everything I said applies equally to business partnerships, primary friendships and the tribe you are building for yourself.

On career paths

blog business 511

If you want the status quo, then fine, follow the prescribed path laid out by your high school guidance counselor, and be happy. If you want something else, then guess what? You’re going to have to do something different. In your twenties you have time, creativity, flexibility, and enthusiasm to work with.

Do something different if you want. Forge your own path. Work your own way. In the modern era, the only limits to how you find a way to support yourself are your creativity and determination. Don’t be afraid to “do your time” building your skill set and your contact base. (The seven years my husband worked for a subset of Apple is what allows him to do what he does now.) Ignore anyone who is peddling instant gratification. Think long term, about the kind of career and work you want to be doing five, ten, or even fifteen years from now. The game is going to change, you won’t end up where you think you will, but forethought and intentional forward motion will always improve your odds.

The game is going to change, you won’t end up where you think you will, but forethought and intentional forward motion will always improve your odds.

WORK. Don’t be afraid to work. There is this idea that’s become popular suggesting that if we have to work we’ve somehow failed. We all aspire to the Four Hour Work Week, and we envy anyone who works less than we do. Nonsense. The benefits enjoyed by the location independent, reduced hours lifestyle that so many aspire to is the direct result of working your ass off; perhaps not in the conventional sense, and certainly by your own set of rules, but work is a good thing. If you are intentional in your twenties it can even be something you love and get excited about, but don’t be afraid to work, to get dirty, to do things you don’t enjoy. They’re a means to an end. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Develop vision

Finish line

Most twenty year olds have no idea where they’re going. They’ve barely gotten their shoes tied for the marathon, and the warm up is overwhelming, never mind imagining the finish line. Stop right there. The shoes don’t matter; you’re going to wear through three pairs anyway.

The finish line. That matters. Think about that for a second, or a week, or a year if it takes that long. Get a clear image of your finish line in your head. Where are you going? I promise you the road will be gnarly, and you’re going to run in a few circles, but if you have a clear vision of what you want from this life, you’re going to get a whole lot more of it than people who are living by default.

If you have a clear vision of what you want from this life, you’re going to get a whole lot more of it than people who are living by default.

Don’t be afraid to let the vision change. Who you are is going to change. That’s not only okay, it’s good. Let it happen. Change yourself intentionally. Become the person you want to run with. At some point you’re going to look up from the race and realize that you don’t love your finish line, and you want to change the direction you’re running. Do it. Instantly. Change direction and correct your course.

The finish line is defined by your dreams and your passions, or at least it should be. Think carefully about what you’re running toward, so that when you get there it is worth the race.

How did the decisions you made in your twenties impact your life? What would you do differently? Comment below to tell your story.

manifesto - defining your values

Photo credits: Peter Magera, gosheshe, jayneandd 

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Leave a Comment

  • Brandon Troy Alleman said at 2014-05-23T17:04:39+0000: This is so helpful, I'm currently deployed in Afghanistan( I'm in the Army). Once I get home I really would like to travel and see the rest of what the world has to offer. I've gained a desire to just see and explore everywhere I can seeing as I'm only 22 going on 23 later this year I have so much time to do it. I was looking around on the net for advice and tips to be able to travel the world. Seeing as once I return home from here I won't have a job right away, this gives really good advice on using least amount of money to achieve more in the end. I love this article. Thanks from Afghanistan, Spc Alleman
  • Colin Guest said at 2014-01-23T15:23:01+0000: Very well put with plenty of advice for all, especially the younger generation. For a man I feel it is important to obtain a trade certificate ASAP. Once you have this, you can always try something else, then if things do not turn out as you expected, you will have a trade to fall back on. In my younger years (I am now retired) I always only spent what I had. In that way I was never in debt. I was fortunate that even while serving a 5 year apprenticeship as a joiner/ shopfitter I was travelling around England. My training later enabled me to travel to 16 countries at no expense to myself. See my website colinguest.com The companies I worked for paid not only my salary but fares and living expenses. In view of that I recommend young people get a job where like me, they are paid to travel abroad. By doing so they will be able to not only have chance see the world, they will be able to save money at the same time. Never spend more than you can afford. Remember, even money spent by using your credit card, has to be repaid. And don't try keeping up with the Jones, you should never have to try and impress others with what you have.
  • Beth Jones said at 2014-01-23T07:23:49+0000: Thanks for these inspiring words Jennifer. We're in our late twenties and work as digital nomads, servicing clients by way of social media marketing and also trying to get our travel blog to a level where it provides us with a small income http://www.enjoythejourney.org.uk/ Sometimes it feels like we should move home and get a 'proper job' so we can earn a bigger income and buy a house, but then I look around and think why do I want to change my life, I love it, traveling, writing, surfing, scuba diving. Your article has boosted my confidence that we have made the right decision, and that working our buts off to create location independent businesses is what we need to achieve to reach our personal finish line.
  • Shelly Hanafiah said at 2014-01-22T16:08:36+0000: I feel so lucky to read this on my early twenty!
  • Amandah T. Blackwell said at 2014-02-05T18:27:32+0000: Great post!I finally realized how the decisions I made in my twenties impacted my life today. For example, I pursued an accounting degree because my dad told me to get a degree that would lead to a secure job. I was close to graduating and wanted to switch my major to marketing. My advisor talked me out of it; I allowed her to talk me out it. She cost the college additional money!I paid for my education and should have switched my major because it's what I wanted. But instead, I pleased my dad. I now make decisions that are best for me and my life.I also would have moved out earlier than 28. I only stayed at home out of guilt, not because I wanted to live at home. I was working full-time and going to school part-time and could have afforded a one bedroom apartment. Lesson learned.My advice to those in their twenties is to pursue what makes you happy, not what you parents, grandparents, friends, etc. want you to do. Want to go to school out of U.S.? Go for it. Want to take a year off and travel? Do it. Do not become people pleaser. You won't please anyone, especially YOU!Be flexible. What you want to do today may not what you want to do tomorrow. Get to know who you are.Want to attract a mate? Make sure you mirror the qualifications you want in a life partner. Be open and honest.Build your finances NOW! Look into multiple streams of income and invest your money. Let it grow. Remember, money is nothing but an exchange. Don't worry about it. Affirm that there's enough for everyone.
  • Paz Chentnik said at 2014-02-07T17:24:02+0000: This is such an amazing article and if I had only heard it 8 yrs ago. I am now 32 and am happy to say that we restarted our life at 29. Picking a partner that is willing to work is so important. That they are willing to work (for a pay check) but at anything alongside you. We have changed drastically in the last 12 yrs however we are always willing to work together and not scared to put in those extra hours together.
  • Nannette Enriquez said at 2014-01-26T20:51:46+0000: I would tell my self not to get caught in the stuff trap. I would tell my self to see the world, see the world and then continue seeing the world. I am a big believer of solo, independent travel; Supporting the small, independent mom and pom businesses puts money directly into the hands of the people . The hotels and service franchises are the same everywhere; Besides, the hotels , for instance, are very strategically placed away from the locals, in very touristy places so that you are actually shield from the everyday common folk. You end up meeting lots of tourists like yourself and miss the value of the people, local food and culture. That is the best way to see how a government treats their people, firsthand.
  • Colin Guest said at 2014-01-23T15:16:34+0000: very well put with plenty of advice for all, especially the younger generation. For a man I feel it is important to obtain a trade certificate ASAP. Once you have this, you can always try something else, then if things do not turn out as you expected, you will have a trade to fall back on. In my younger years (I am now retired) I always only spent what I had. In that way I was never in debt. I was fortunate that even while serving a 5 year apprenticeship as a joiner/ shopfitter I was travelling around England. My training later enabled me to travel to 16 countries at no expense to myself. See my website colinguest.com The companies I worked for paid not only my salary but fares and living expenses. In view of that I recommend young people get a job where like me, they are paid to travel abroad. By doing so they will be able to not only have chance see the world, they will be able to save money at the same time. Never spend more than you can afford. Remember, even money spent by using your credit card, has to be repaid. And don't try keeping up with the Jones, you should never have to try and impress others with what you have.
  • Jeanne Dee said at 2014-01-22T16:08:39+0000: Great advice Jen!! I couldn't agree with most of your points, especially about debt! Here is some related advice I wrote for grads: http://www.soultravelers3.com/2012/05/advice-to-college-grads-from-a-world-traveler.htmlWe retired early and have been traveling the world non-stop as a family for 8 plus years and can do this because we have lived under our means! Freedom and love rock, so one should start thinking about these things well before they even hit 20.Our trilingual daughter started her own business at 12 and is already aware of and working on what is important in life and how to reach her goals like a full scholarship to Harvard and trip around the world afterwards with her best friend!
  • Francisco A Sierra said at 2014-01-22T15:36:02+0000: I liked your article. Advise? Check your personality and your ego at the front door. I thought I had a life partner-no yet I have a great lifetime son. Get the basic education completed as soon as possible, then get career certification. The MS, or CPA or carpenter licenses . Start your travels in some concentric circles and expand with an eye for good deals. Like turkey right now550. Airfare from New York cheaper than a flight to Texas. Stay at apricot hotels 20 a night and see everything Istanbul has to offer. Then travel by bus over night and see the country. You are in and out around 2000. Budget 4000. Real comfort. Then start expanding to an RTW. These real figures not hypos. Surround yourself with like minded and READ as much as you can take in.
  • Colleen Crilley said at 2014-02-05T16:36:31+0000: This was amazing!! As a 22 year old approaching graduation, this article could not pinpoint how I want to live my life any better. It is so assuring to hear it from someone who has 'made it to the top of the mountain'. Thank you!