Lessons learned from being 20-something

I turned 30 a few weeks ago.

It doesn’t actually feel any different from being 29. Or 27. Or 25, which I think is where I stopped counting in my head. I felt no fearful anticipation at hitting this milestone, no existential terror, though I know a great many 20-somethings do. If anything, it was welcome: so much of my 20’s was a confusing, cobbled-together mess that 30 seemed like a nice, clean  number at which I might get my proverbial shit together.

I don’t feel significantly wiser now than I did at 25, or more mature, or better at Being An Adult. But when I look back at myself as I was in my early 20’s, I cringe a little at the sort of person I was – the sort of things I held as absolute truths. And if I could go back and teach myself a couple of important things, perhaps my early 20’s might have been a little less messy.

For example:

1.Your plans for your life probably won’t happen the way you think they will. And that’s actually not a bad thing. Making plans in your 20’s, for most people, is a bullshit activity – that’s not to say you can’t do it, and that none of your ideas will come to fruition. But certainly when I was 21-22 I did not yet appreciate life’s capacity for getting in the way and fucking everything up.

  • “I want to get my PGCE after I graduate and teach English!” – er, oops. Turns out you need a C-grade in GCSE maths. Which you don’t have. Not even close. So that degree you just completed? (Well done on that, by the way.) It’s actually largely meaningless in terms of employment. Have fun with that +£30k debt, though!
  • “Okay, well maybe I can go into publishing then?” – Ah, I’ve got bad news. See, you know how you had to work almost full-time during uni, which meant you couldn’t do a work placement? Well, it’s really difficult to get into publishing without experience, and ‘I worked at WHSmith selling books’ doesn’t really count. Also, you should have done that ‘Editing and Publishing’ module instead of the video workshop. Just saying.
  • “I’m going to save up and buy my own place once I leave uni!” – Well, you do get to do this, and it’s great for about a year. Then the economy crashes, and your financial situation goes to shit, as does that of your in-laws, necessitating the sale of your flat & 5 years living with said in-laws so you can all survive financially. (This one works out okay in the end, just about – you get to start again at 29. Not so bad, right?)

The fact is, ‘things not going to plan’ doesn’t equate to ‘my life is utterly ruined’, though the 20-something psyche often interprets it that way. You’re still starting out. It’s okay to have to stop for directions sometimes.

2. Be nicer to people. But also, be nicer to yourself. ‘Taking no shit’ should sometimes be tempered with ‘…but do no harm’. It’s tempting, after all you went through as a teenager, to take no prisoners and push with great force against every negative influence in your life. And sometimes, this is a good and healthy thing. But sometimes, you throw the baby out with the bathwater, and you can’t repair that. Someone you perceive to be attacking you might just be communicating ineffectively. There is a middle ground, and sometimes it’s the best place to be. (That said, some people are just arseholes, and you’ll lose nothing by cutting them out ASAP.)

…but while we’re being kinder to other people, allow yourself the same privilege. Self-care is not selfish.

3. You will fail. It’s not personal. There are jobs you won’t get, chances you’ll miss out on. Here’s a secret: these things are not finite. There are other jobs, and other chances. Nurse your bruise, but only for a little while. Dwelling on the unfairness of it all is a waste of energy, because you can’t change that. Better to get up, dust yourself down and try again. (Spoiler: you will eventually succeed.)

4. Start writing short stories earlier. You’ll like it. A novel is not the only medium.

5. Moisturise. It’ll save you a lot of bad-skin angst in your late 20’s. By the way, you get crow’s feet at 28. Try not to freak out.

6. You are not always right. It’s okay to back down. Sometimes, it’s necessary to save your sanity. Be open to other points of view, and consider that you might be taking yours too far. (But don’t let anyone tell you it’s bad to have strong opinions.)

7. Shave your head. Just do it. It actually looks great.

8. Don’t be afraid of other people. Go to conventions. Talk to other writers, chat with editors. Make contacts. Sometimes, ‘who you know’ will take you further than what you know. But more than that, it’s actually quite reassuring to be a part of a community.

9. The source of your joint pain is still a mystery aged 30. It sucks. But: take less ibruprofen (stomach ulcers are not fun) and USE YOUR STICK MORE. Yes, people will stare. But you’ll spend fewer days gritting your teeth every time you have to stand for more than three minutes on the trot.

10. Reply to texts and emails on time. It’s just polite.

11. All those things you want to do before you’re 30? You won’t get to. It doesn’t matter. The gate doesn’t mysteriously close once your 30th rolls around. (Except for Club 18-30 holidays – but honestly, do you really want to be a part of that?)


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