They may not be over for another eight months, but my twenties have proved to be a transformative decade full of life lessons. Some of them were fun, others less so, but all helped deepen my understanding of myself and how to successfully navigate this minefield we call life.
- Your twenties are only marginally less angsty than your teens. I may no longer be a desperately insecure attention-seeker with a black and white view of the world, but I am still a chronic overthinker with the capacity to be a huge drama queen. And while I’m definitely less insecure now, it is the nature of the insecurities that has changed more than anything. As a teen, they stemmed from uncertainty about the future, whereas nowadays they are born of past experience.
2) Just how wonderful my parents are. As a teen, I found life under my parents’ roof restrictive and frustrating. But with time, distance, and an adult perspective, I have come to realise that they are both incredible people who were always doing their best, even when I didn’t agree with them. Nowadays, I love nothing more than going over to my parents’ house-the very place I was hellbent on escaping from just a decade ago. It is a place of safety and security, of warmth and comfort and love. It is, quite simply, home, and it always will be.
3) Those grades I worked so hard for don’t matter half as much as I thought they would. At school, those of us who were academically gifted were told that exam success would naturally lead to professional success. Then we got out into the real world where, it turns out, no one cares about your high-flying school days. I know people who spent more time truanting than studying, and have since fallen into high-powered, well-paid careers by sheer chance. Meanwhile, many of my fellow high-flyers have been plagued by bad luck, financial instability and mental health issues. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret having worked so hard, nor do I think the universe owes me anything for having done so. It’s just difficult to reconcile at times, that’s all.
4) Your life does not magically work itself out in your twenties. I used to think it did, largely because my parents’ generation seemed to have everything sorted by the time they were twenty-five. Job. Tick. House. Tick. Marriage. Tick. Kids. Tick. I thought it would be the same for me, and yet here I am at twenty-nine with only one of those things ticked off. And while I am fully aware that a great deal has changed since my parents were young, I cannot shake the feeling that I am running behind schedule.
5) Don’t relinquish the things that make you happy for fear of how people will perceive you. I let go of so many things when I was growing up, having persuaded myself that they were childish or nerdy or uncool, and I regretted every single one of them. The latter half of my twenties has been spent reclaiming these lost fragments. Now I fully embrace the things I love, however strange, and I am much happier for it.
6) The people you end up being closest to are not always the ones you expect. If you had told me five years ago which of my uni friends I would speak to the most, I would never have believed you. Four years at the same institution, and we are closer now than we ever were back then. Meanwhile, some friendships I thought would last a lifetime have all but fizzled out, and I am OK with that.
7) Lack of contact doesn’t mean lack of caring. Just because you haven’t heard from someone in a while, doesn’t mean they have forgotten you. It’s easy to think so when you haven’t spoken in months, sometimes even years. But when you do eventually reopen those channels, you realise that nothing has changed. Your friendship is as solid as ever, you are just busy adults now. My best example of this is my friend Martina. We met back in my second year of university and were incredibly close. She could read me like a book, and could often figure out what was wrong with me long before I could. We messaged each other in January of 2014, after which I didn’t hear from her for almost four years. I convinced myself that she had stopped caring. Then one day in December of 2017, I woke to find a really long message from her, in which she said she really missed me and thought about me all the time. It was a beautiful reminder that just because someone is busy and far away, does not mean they have forgotten you.
8) I am just as prone to mental health issues as everyone else. There was a time when I believed myself to be above such things. One breakdown and a prolonged bout of depression later, I know that none of us are immune.
9) There are very few situations that cannot be improved by playing Beyoncé at full volume. Been through a bad break up? Play Beyoncé. Hard day at work? Whack Beyoncé on. Didn’t get that job you wanted? Beyoncé can help with that. It’s impossible to feel down when Queen Bey is playing. It doesn’t matter how sad I am or how lousy I feel, her music is guaranteed to get me up and dancing every time.
10) How to party. This is the decade when I discovered my love of cocktails, sparkly dresses and dancing. Apparently I can “always be relied on to go for it,” at parties, as one of my friends affectionately put it. I’ll take that as a compliment.
11) I cannot handle rum. At all. The end.
12) Similarly, vodka is not my friend. It should be avoided at all costs, especially when I have Man Trouble.
13) Just how good I can look in dresses, and how good dresses can look on me.
14) It’s OK to have mixed feelings about things. In recent years I have often found myself wondering why I can’t just be happy for people. When their lives are moving ahead faster than mine, or they reach a milestone I myself have yet to reach, it triggers a whole range of conflicting emotions, and leaves me feeling like a terrible person as a result. But recently I realised that this is a) fine and b) perfectly natural. It isn’t that I’m not happy for those people, it’s that I’m not just happy for them. Emotions never come in ones. My reactions to things will be complex and they will require unpacking, and that is fine.
15) Don’t allow Plan B to become Plan A. Have a backup, sure. Be open to other ideas, but do not set aside your dream because other people tell you to. Writing is the only thing I ever really wanted to do, so why then did I listen to the doubters and the naysayers? Following their advice, I put writing on the back-burner and instead chose a sensible career in teaching. Four years in, I was stressed up to the eyeballs and unhappier than I’d ever been in my life. So I left. I now work part time for an agency, and the rest of my time is devoted to writing. For years I neglected the thing I love most out of a sense of duty, and in doing so I engineered my own unhappiness.
16) Do not tell people something is OK when it’s not. Nowadays, if someone has upset me or is behaving in a way I don’t think is acceptable, I tell them. Gone are the days when I would silently tolerate ill treatment like a doormat. I may not tell people straight away. Usually I need some time to think and straighten out exactly what I want to say. Whether it’s a guy I’ve been involved with or my best friend in the world, if I have a problem, I say something. Those conversations are not comfortable, but it’s incredibly important to have them.
17) Don’t compromise on things that are integral to your happiness. Of course you should compromise on some things. Successful relationships require that you do so. But they should be the things you can live without-things you would ideally like, but are prepared to forego for the sake of the other person. The things you should never sacrifice are those that are essential-the ones you need in order to feel happy, fulfilled and secure. I know, I’ve done it, and it did not end well.
18) I am 50% of my relationship-no more, no less. This one I learned the hard way. There are people out there who will let you sacrifice all of your own needs because it suits them. Those people are best left behind. Now, whenever my boyfriend jokingly says, ‘It’s not all about you, you know,’ I always reply, ‘It’s 50% about me.’ In the past I have lost sight of that in my attempts to keep people happy. Nowadays I am very secure in the knowledge that my wants, needs, hopes and desires are every bit as valid and important as my partner’s.
19) There is no such thing as a unique thought. Everything we think, everything we feel, other people have experienced too. The problem is we just don’t talk about it enough. I often worry that my writing is too honest, too open, that by laying my feelings bare I am identifying myself as an overly emotional weirdo. So it is reassuring when readers tell me, ‘Everyone thinks this, they just don’t admit it,’ or, ‘I thought I was strange for feeling this way.’ It’s good for me to know that I am not the only one, and good for them to know that they are not either.
20) My standards have changed hugely over the course of the decade in all sorts of ways. Things I thought were near perfect in my early twenties simply wouldn’t cut it now. From early drafts of my novel to the behaviour of certain exes, I am much more exacting nowadays, and that can only be a good thing.