For so many of us, our 20s are the years of staying out too late, drinking too many cocktails, eating too much fried food, and just generally indulging too much for our own good. But your 20s can also be a key time to learn as much as you can about yourself.
I encountered enough sticky situations and made enough mistakes throughout my 20s to teach me what I believe are valuable lessons. While there are some lessons I wish I’d learned sooner (like the importance of wearing sunscreen even when it’s cloudy and the value of a full night’s sleep), I’m glad I had the chance to learn the following seven lessons on my own. Some are superficial, and some are more significant than others, but I’m glad I learned each and every one. And as I approach my 30th birthday, they have me feeling ready to enter a new decade.
I don’t have to say “yes” to everything.
Your 20s are filled with endless party invitations and happy hours and sports leagues and dinner parties, and saying yes to everything can become physically and emotionally draining. I used to say “yes” to so many different events that I wasn’t giving my all to anything I attended. If I’d realized this sooner, though, my experiences and self-growth would have been limited. Your 20s are all about figuring out who and what are most important to you, and now, I feel like I can (somewhat) confidently say “no” to things that aren’t.
2. Professional growth doesn’t happen overnight.
While many of the lessons on this list are personal, there were plenty of professional lessons learned too. The biggest one? Learning patience in the workplace. I often found myself aggravated by the lack of immediate recognition. Promotions seemed incredibly delayed, and compliments were few and far between. But your career isn’t college; your boss won’t give you grades or let you advance after each semester. There’s no curve, there are no office hours. I realized I had to patiently pave my own path, with a bit of guidance from bosses and mentors along the way.
3. Not all friendships will last through my 20s.
My closest girlfriends are basically family, some relationships spanning 10, 20, even 25 years. I assumed all of these friendships would stand the test of time, but time isn’t the only obstacle you face in your 20s. Changing careers, romantic relationships, geographic locations, and health issues are just a few speed bumps that can cause a relationship to change — or fizzle out completely. But those few friendships that did come to an end reminded me just how special the rest of my girlfriends are to me. I’ve found that a handful of long-lasting friendships are so much more valuable than dozens of acquaintances.
4. Other people’s (social media) successes are not my failures.
Your 20s can feel like a full decade of Keeping Up With the Joneses (or Kardashians, in this case). Scrolling through my Instagram feed or clicking through Snapchat stories often left me feeling inadequate or unfulfilled. A recent study even suggests lurking on Facebook can negatively affect your emotional well-being. It took most of my 20s to recognize that people (myself included) only showcase what they want you to see. An Instagram feed rarely includes a rough breakup or job demotion or any other personal struggles. Now, I take every post (and Snap and status update) with a grain of salt.
5. Careless spending won’t (always) bring long-term joy.
There’s something to be said for immediate gratification. Buying a new dress or a beautiful pair of shoes always seemed worthwhile at the time, because leaving the store, shopping bag in hand, I felt happy. But how long did that happiness last? Sometimes it lasted long after my credit card was swiped, but usually, it was short lived. Frivolous spending helped me learn the importance of budgeting, so that I can prioritize spending in areas that bring me the most long-term happiness.
6. Not everyone is going to like me.
At first, this was an especially hard pill to swallow. But I eventually asked myself: “Do you like everyone you’ve ever met?” If I couldn’t answer “yes” to that question, then how could anyone else? I’m glad it took me most of my 20s to realize this one, though; my naivety allowed me to meet, talk to, network with, and approach certain people who I wouldn’t necessarily spend time with today. Those experiences showed me how important it is to align myself with like-minded people.
7. I am my own best advocate.
I’ve found this to be the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far: no one will work as hard as I will for something that I want. And whether it’s personally or professionally, how you advocate for yourself can make or break the outcome. I learned that tone matters, the importance of body language, how to be direct but not disrespectful. I’m glad to have come to this conclusion, but it took all of my 20s relying too heavily on other people to get here.
But the most important thing my 20s have taught me about life? That I don’t have all the answers — and I never will. I may feel comfortable with these few realizations, but personal and professional growth doesn’t stop at age 30. But I do feel ready to take on my next decade — and another 10 years filled with valuable lessons to be learned.