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.”
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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 neighbor 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?