At the end of 2015, I started to take stock of everything that was going on in my life. On the surface, it all looked very together — the twenty-something equivalent of having it all. I was doing well in my career, I had a boatload of friends, I knew just about everyone in town and I liked the feeling of hominess I’d created. Dating wasn’t stressing me out (like it usually does), and I was seeing my family more often than I’d been able to in the past. It all sounds as fabulous as a blowout birthday party.
But, eh, it did not feel fabulous. My life felt really off-kilter. How did I know? I was not happy most of the time. Stress made me snap. It was sort of like carrying a weighted backpack around with me everywhere, which I was never allowed to take off. The tiny seeds of a festering problem were so imperceptible, I couldn’t put my finger on ‘em for months. But as the new year rolled around, I started making a color-coded list of things I wanted to accomplish in 2016 in various avenues of my life — health, personal, social, career, so on and so forth. This isn’t entirely unusual. But this time, the sheer length of the list was.
I discovered just how much I’d been leaving undone. BIG THINGS. It’s easy to put things off in your 20s, right? You feel like you have LOADS of time. You pull into Procrastination Station, kick your shoes off and decide stay for a while. You’ve been to college. You spent years buried in your textbooks. You pounded the pavement and found your career. You deserve a rest!
The problem is when you’re taking the wrong kind of break — the type that means you’re stagnating. This year, at 24, I’m keenly aware of the movement of time. It happened suddenly, just as I realized how much I was leaving undone and unaccomplished. I also decided that 2016 would be my year to really grow and get my life in order (not just seem like Ms. Pulled Together). To get myself on the proper path, I enlisted a couple of great psychologists to guide me in goal-setting, pointing me in the direction of what we should all actually be focusing on now and throughout the rest of our 20s. Here’s what we came up with.
Do you have a doctor who’s watching your back? Now that you’re an adult, it’s time to zero in on a primary-care physician who will be your adult care provider, says Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield, and a co-host of “Life and Love” on iHeartRadio. Ask your slightly older friends if they like their docs, or if you’re still seeing a pediatrician for your sinus infections (happens), you can ask for a referral. You don’t want to blindly trust a stranger if something devastating happens. Ivankovich says you should make annual or regular appointments with your healthcare providers to begin developing those long-term relationships.
Start with your PCP, a dentist and an eye doctor, but don’t limit yourself. I just made a list of personal health goals for the year and imagined who could help me achieve those goals, like a dermatologist to finally nix the adult acne, a cognitive behavioral therapist to help me avoid eating traps that lead to digestive symptoms and a dietician to help me plan healthier meals.
It’s easy to mindlessly date in your 20s. In fact, some people even enjoy it! Enjoy, yes, but while you’re doing so, take advantage of your single time to define your dealbreakers, says Ivankovich. “Even as young as you are, you already have preferences in the characteristics you want in a partner,” she says. “Make a list of dealbreakers, but then ask yourself, why is this a red flag for me?”
Ivankovich says that some preferences are passed on from parents or even friends. It’s time to meditate on what you want in an eventual life-long partner, not what someone else wants. Then, date accordingly — which is also not a one-and-done endeavor. What I wanted two years ago (handsome, charming emotional rollercoaster) is not what I want today (emotionally stable, mature pragmatist). If it’s not working with a string of guys with common personality traits, take stock. Maybe what you need is not as flashy as what you want.
Ah, two “com” words will make this one easy to remember, right? According to Ivankovich, there should be two central goals of your early adult relationships: Communicate your needs, and compromise so you’re both as happy as possible. “People tire quite easily of the person who will only adhere to the ‘my way or the highway’ attitude,” she insists. “The ability to compromise allows you to understand that someone has needs that are just as important as yours.” Relationships are about fulfilling needs — but not just yours. If you focus on making the other person happy, too, your probability of personal happiness skyrockets.
We all want our careers to be our passions, right? You may not know exactly what you’re doing in your early 20s, but you should not stop trying things while you’re sorting yourself out mentally, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. “Waiting to find a passion assumes that you have to find a passion first and then develop skills,” he says. “However, many people learn to love the things they spend time doing. So, it can often be worth diving into projects, and then discovering what you like about them.” Write the novel idea down. Sign up for the ethics class. Join the soccer league. Volunteer at the animal shelter. Your passion might be buried in something you’ve never even tried. Find it, so you can start dreaming up ways to leverage all your skills and build a career around it.
You might not know where you’re headed, but you can start assembling a roadmap for success by focusing on one simple thing, says Markman. “I think the most important thing to remember is that most of success is about knowledge,” he explains.
“The longer you delay developing bases of expertise, the longer it will take you to acquire the kind of expertise you need to succeed in your career — so waiting until you find something you are passionate about before developing expertise delays the time when you can be effective in your career.” Take opportunities as they arise in your career or current field. Attend the conferences for your job and go on the business trips with an attitude of stockpiling knowledge. You’re there, so learn! Don’t just show up. Immerse yourself in ideas; you never know when you might need the information you consume now down the road.
If you’re not totally happy in your career in your 20s, you may have chosen the wrong one. But it’s not too late. “Far too many millennials are choosing careers that their parents are encouraging,” Ivankovich says. “While parents have good intentions, children end up in jobs that are less than appealing to them. In these scenarios, many will end up seeking a different path or a passion later on.” Taking risks or going back to school is easier to do before you have a family, and you’ll have more years of happiness as a result of making a change sooner rather than later. So, evaluate — at the end of every year, or sooner if it makes sense.
Have you ever felt like you must always put a smile on, be down for every adventure and act like life’s a giant party at all times? It’s being captured on Instagram, after all, and you want to seem pleasing. “It seems that millennials are always encouraged to put their best face forward, which often encourages deceit,” Ivankovich says.
“Not everyone is smiling and elated at all moments of the day, like social media would have us believe.” Life is not play-acting. Try to respect the truth of your life, your moods, your activities, says Ivankovich. “Friends and family are looking for the true you, not the one you want society to see in hopes of getting liked, favorited or retweeted,” she says. Drop the front.
And that means earning it, Ivankovich insists. “Believe in yourself, but understand that commanding respect is very different than demanding respect,” she explains. “Hard work should earn recognition, but develop a sense of humility, rather than expecting others will applaud you because you walked into the door.” Go above and beyond, knowing your self-worth and respecting others’. Plan the party for your mom’s 50th out of appreciation — don’t just attend. Lead the project without expectation of a reward, and allow your boss to notice your efforts. People will start admiring who you are, not tossing compliments at what you do — which is better by far, and will reap long-term benefits.
According to Markman, your brain is at its best right now, so take advantage of it. “People in their early 20s are at their cognitive peak, which means that it is easier to learn new skills at that age than it will be later. As you get older, your success is based on what you know, so developing a base of knowledge in your 20s is a great way to maximize your chances at success later.” Read novels. Find mentors. Ask questions. Attend events that will broaden you. I recently went to an astronomy lecture and a business talk on success. I’m headed to a mental health conference this spring. Although everything is not immediately relevant to me, the more I explore, the more I am able to see the world a little differently.
Honestly, there’s no time like your 20s to take off on a travel adventure. Even if you can’t afford to jetset right now, Ivankovich says you should make that trip to Thailand a goal, which you can prepare for immediately. “Make a list of five places you want to see in your lifetime, and then explore what each one of those cultures has to offer,” she says. “Ask yourself what you’ll have to do to enjoy a vacation to that destination, and begin working on that.”
You can start saving the dough while researching what you’d like to see while there. It’s a process. The goal is to keep exploring throughout your lifetime, and discover global destinations that might become second homes. Ivankovich suggests trying to travel, even if you’re a bit of a homebody and you feel unsure. “Your favorite pizza place is your favorite pizza place because, one time, you tried it,” she insists. “Consider what may be your next favorite place.”
Our 20-something decade is both beautiful and tough. We’re gaining all this newfound freedom — and let’s be honest, sometimes it can go to our heads. Ivankovich tells me that our attitude should reflect three things: humility, gratefulness and accountability. Respect those who have gone before you; make your own choices, but soak in their wisdom. Never expect handouts, work hard and take ownership of your decisions. “No one is right all of the time,” Ivankovich says. “Bad decisions are made, but realize that few things can’t be undone.” Work to correct those mistakes with your boss, your friends, yourself, she explains. When you cop to it, you learn from errors and you make fewer of them in the future. Drop the facade of perfection. Be awesomely, humbly human.
As for me, I’m a few months into Project 2016: The Year of Exploration and Personal Development. Verdict: It is the most freeing gift I’ve ever given myself. All my life, I’ve been the girl who has it together. I never asked for that title, but I felt compelled to keep it up nonetheless. It’s exhausting, and I’m here to admit that I am not that girl. None of us are. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be awesome — and I much prefer being the girl who’s simply figuring out how to be the best version of herself.
Got any more life lessons for us? Tweet us @BritandCo and let us know!
(Photos via Getty)