There’s a lot written about what people ought to do in their twenties, and it seems to be that most people seem divided into two camps: those who use this glorious decade to explore themselves and the world, like a prolonged transition into fully fledged adulthood; and those who use them to buckle down and establish themselves in the world, creating solid foundations for their later years.
I, like many of my friends, belong to the former category. It’s strange, because where I am from, there’s a standard: you go to university until you’re 21, you land your first job, get promoted within two years, and by 26 you’re married, possibly with a kid on the way. That’s just the way things seem to be, and when I was a teenager, I thought that’s how my life would pan out too. We’re influenced into thinking twentysomething is the time to start settling down. Sure, you can take a few months to get everything out of your system, but people do start looking at you differently once you’re on the wrong side of twenty-five with no relationship and no serious plans to start a family.
When I was twenty-two, I began to settle down. By twenty-four, I was taking flight. Twenty-five was make or break: pretty much half the girls I went to school with were married or engaged by then. The other half? Well, we got restless and we moved away. Some of us moved to a new country; some of us started a new university course; some of us went travelling for a while.
I moved to Dublin, and the perspective I gained was stunning. Suddenly, there were women fast approaching thirty who were single, who were working on their careers, who were going out on the weekend, and who didn’t really seem to mind. And suddenly, thirty stopped looking like some sort of foreboding threshold and started to look more like a continuation.
And I say whatever works for you is grand, and there’s not one guaranteed way to ensure a successful happy life, but I also tend to want to urge people to enjoy their life, and not to try to grow up too quickly. Yes, by all means, aim for a good job, and be diligent, and try to excel. Yes, if you find love and if it’s good love, then nurture it. Yes, if you’ve found the place you want to build your nest, then nest away and good luck to you.
But if you haven’t, you’re fine. If you’re lost, you’re okay. If the sight of yet another “So-and-so is now married!” notification on Facebook sends you into panic mode, just take a step back and breathe, and realise you’re learning, always, learning and moving forward, and people just so happen to move in different directions at different speeds.
And you’ve been granted this gorgeous decade of neither here nor there to really, and I mean really, do what you want to do. To see the world, or to start your big project, or to fall in love, or to have your heart broken so many times it seems impossible you’ll ever love again… until you do.
And here’s five things you ought to remember, because you’ll look back on this decade and you’ll always think “what if?”, and those need to change into “I did…”, while we still can change them.
1. Staying in dead-end relationships for years when you’re younger
…just because your friends were in relationships, or because you were afraid of being lonely, or because you thought you’d been in them too long to give up now. There’s one thing worse than a terrible relationship lasting a year, and that’s a terrible relationship lasting two years. Or three. Or a lifetime. If it’s wrong, you have no commitments, no children, get out. Get out now. For the love of everything good, don’t settle for somebody who makes your heart hurt and your head heavy. Learn it’s okay to be alone, there’s no shame in it, and it leaves you open to the right person, when they finally turn up, if they turn up.
2. Not living abroad
…it’s never going to be as easy to live abroad as it is in your twenties. No kids, no mortgage, and enough money saved up to pay for a few months of rent. And perhaps this isn’t everyone’s priority, but if you can get that life experience somehow… even just six months of being the new person in the new city; of being afraid and feeling small; that warm, beautiful feeling that comes with curating a new social life, with meeting so many new people, with being alone and yet so not alone, and learning to think through the mindset of a foreigner, then you grab hold of it with both hands and you run with it. You can always come back home if it doesn’t work, and you’ll be so much the richer for it. And your concept of ‘home’ will become so broad that you’ll learn – truly learn – that home is not a place, but a state of mind.
3. Worrying too much about the way you look
…because I promise you’ll look at photos of yourself when you were younger and you’ll wonder why you ever thought you weren’t good enough, or why you spent SO much precious time worrying about perfecting your clothes and your makeup when a smile would have been worth so much more.
4. Not spending more time with your family and friends
…they’re there, and they’ll be there till they aren’t, and the hardest thing is thinking “I wish I had got to know them when I still had the time”, when all it takes is to sit down and share a cup of tea with them and tell them they make you happy.
5. Not reading enough
…You’ll have so much free time and you’ll spend most of it neurotically refreshing Facebook when you could be curled up in bed devouring words and ideas by great people. All those stories, all that information, and it’s all available to you. You know that list of books you’ve always wanted to read? War and Peace? The Odyssey? The Great Gatsby? Those books gathering dust? Read them! Love them. Educate yourself. Read in bed, read on the bus, read whenever you can. It makes me SO sad to hear people say “I don’t really read”, because you are being given a doorway to infinity and you are slamming it shut and swallowing the key. That’s a tragedy.