The terrible twenties

In her TED talk, “Why 20 is not the new 30,” psychologist Meg Jay urges twenty-somethings to make the most of what she calls this defining decade of their lives, instead of treating it as an extension of their adolescence. “Claiming your 20s,” she says, “is one of the simplest, yet most transformative, things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world.”

It’s a rousing talk, in every sense of the word: it can inspire, but it can also raise ire—mostly the ire of twenty-somethings, judging from the comments on the TED talks website. (“The 20’s are the best years of your life for fun and self exploration. LIVE IT UP!”) There was also this word of consolation from a (presumably) older viewer: “The only thing that matters is being true to yourself, loving yourself and loving those around you. I promise you that if you do those things you will figure out what YOU want and your life will fall into place.”

As a thirty-almost-forty-something, I find myself sympathizing with the twenty-somethings—even as I’m nodding my head in complete agreement with Dr. Jay.

I remember my twenties with painful clarity. The sinking feeling as you realize, “Gee, when I was a teenager, I thought that by the time I was this age, I’d already have travelled to Europe/finished college/gotten married”—you fill in the blanks. There’s the feeling that you’ve stepped across an important threshold…and you have no idea where to go next. And to cover up all this uncertainty, there’s that brash bravado you put on, which tricks only yourself into thinking that you’ve got it together, girl.

To make things even more interesting, when I turned twenty I was still a new immigrant to North America. It was as if I had stepped off the boat, not onto dry land, but into an ocean of perplexities, and I was still trying to navigate this new and very different way of life. I was lucky enough to find a retail job almost right away, which was great for my finances but not so good for my shaky ambitions. “Wow,” I thought, “here I can earn money without getting a degree first.” I thought the way before me was clear: work hard, help my parents support the family, and bide my time until “my life fell into place”—which for me meant meeting a guy, getting married, and having children of my own.

After a couple of years in retail I managed to get into office administration. And, at work, eventually I met a nice guy: charming, intelligent, well-educated, cultured, articulate. We shared the same faith and the same deeply-held beliefs about marriage and family. Oh, and he was single, too. The only other thing he needed in his life was me.

But how to convince him? After spending a lot of time, energy, and feminine wiles on the problem, without getting past the friend zone, I decided to enlist the help of another colleague. A sort of unofficial mentor, he critiqued the bits of writing I did for a local newspaper and encouraged me to start using my real name at work instead of my pet name. Now, he listened intently as I explained my problem. Then he nodded, patted my hand, and promised to take the young man out to lunch and to try to find out what he thought about me—using the utmost discretion, of course.

A week later found me back in my mentor’s office, ready for a blow-by-blow account of the lunch they’d had. I learned that the object of my affections had readily revealed he was not particularly keen on settling down with anyone just yet. That’s okay, I thought with some relief. That means he isn’t interested in anyone else. At least I didn’t have to compete with anybody.

But then my mentor fixed me with a piercing gaze. “Alright, that’s enough about him. Let’s talk about you.”

Me? What about me?

“Yes, you. What does Maria have to bring to the table in this relationship—in any relationship?”

I was completely taken aback. Was he implying that I was in some way inadequate, that I wasn’t good enough?

Turns out that’s exactly what he was getting at. What I had done in life so far to make me a desirable partner?

And in a gentle but no-nonsense way, he helped me see the answer: nothing much at all. It didn’t count that I was an autodidact, an avid reader, a hard worker. There I was, in my mid-twenties, with no university degree, no passionate interests, no ambitions. I had a gift for writing that I was only now starting, very hesitantly, to develop. In other words, I had done nothing to increase, to use Meg Jay’s term, my identity capital.

I will always be grateful to that colleague for being not just a mentor, but a friend who wasn’t afraid to tell me the truth. The truth hurt—but it spurred me to action. I decided to go back to school, do more writing, make new friends, acquire more role models, more skills, more good habits. I learned to compete with nobody but myself. I’m still working on it, still trying, still learning all the time. And I’ve ended up on a path that has strayed very far away from my early dreams. It’s a life I never expected, but it makes me happy every day, because I know that I’m doing more than just what I want to do—it’s what I’m meant to do.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story. For now, let me finish by saying this to you twenty-somethings: don’t let the advice of older folks get your backs up. They have the benefit of experience, which is why they’re willing to give you the benefit of the doubt: that you’re smart enough, strong enough, and old enough to set your own course in life. Make their faith in you count.  Make your own decisions count. And don’t be afraid to compete with yourself—you’ll never know where you’ll end up, or how far you’ll go.

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