On Sunday I celebrate my 28th birthday and I have finally come to accept that I am officially in my late 20s and nearing the big 3-0 in a couple of years. Yikes! Every year right before my birthday I have a small anxiety attack and start freaking out about where I am in life and why I haven’t achieved my pie-in-the-sky 10-year plan. Back in college I created a 10-year plan in a 3-ring binder. Everything was color-coded, alphabetized and in Excel spreadsheets because I may be a little OCD and a bit of an overachiever. My binder contained all the information for the medical schools I was going to apply to, the residency programs I was interested in, and even a timelines of when I should get married and have children. Cue the crazy train! I recently found my 10-year plan in a random bookshelf at my father’s house and had a good laugh over it while drinking a glass a wine.
I don’t think I have achieved one item in my 10-year plan and I think I’m okay with it. My life has taken a much different road than I ever would have predicted at 20 years old. I would have never thought that my life would change forever at 22 when my mother passed away. Since then my life has been through a series of ups and downs that I would not take back as I learned valuable life lessons that have made me a stronger, smarter, and more confident woman as I start to transition into the next stages of my life.
Your 20s are a time to experiment and follow your passions and dreams in life. You can fail miserably and come back stronger than ever before. Your 20s are a time to experience heartache and eat ramen noodles because you’re so poor you can’t afford anything else. Your 20s are a time to learn important life lessons that will stay with you and carry you throughout the rest of your life.
10 Lessons I Learned in My 20s
1. Spend time with your loved ones as you never know how much time you will have with them
Like many people I know, I thought my parents would live forever. No one, no matter how old you are, wants to think about putting your parents six feet under. I never for once thought that would happen to me just a few weeks shy of my 22nd birthday. As cliché as it sounds, my mother was one of my best friends and her lost left a huge hole in my heart for many years. I’m not a super emotional person and I will run the other way if you ask me how I’m feeling, but after all these years I’ve become more open about talking about it with close friends. It’s been almost 6 years since my mother passed from a rare and horrific disease, but it feels like yesterday. I still feel her loss everyday and some days I still think I’ll walk through the front door and see her washing dishes in the kitchen sink complaining about something my father promised to do but hadn’t yet. If I close my eyes I can still hear the hum of her sewing machine working at all hours of the day. I am lucky that my mother instilled some of her best qualities in me, such as her strong work ethic and her kindness. I can look in the mirror and see her face in mine. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but I still sense her presence around me at times giving me the strength in my decisions and guiding me in the right direction. What hurts me the most is the loss of the future. I want her to be there to see me earn my doctorate degree. I want her there when I try on my wedding dress someday. I want her there to hold her future grandchildren (or maybe just grand-furbabies). There are so many things that I wish I could ask my mother, but it’s too late. Losing a parent makes you realize that life is in fact short and that within an instant, a loved one could be gone from this planet. Cherish your time with your loved ones. Ask questions. Make memories. Most of all tell them that you love them every chance that you get.
2. Your parents are usually right and you should listen to their advice
Like any typical teenager growing up, I thought my parents were annoying and didn’t know the struggles I was going through as I went through puberty and approached adulthood. Their advice was generally unwarranted and I only half-listened when my father lectured me about this and that. How could he know what was going on in the life of a 15-year-old girl!? You know what? They were right. My parents were right about a lot of things in life and I wished I listened more. Sure, maybe my father doesn’t know what it is like being a 15-year-old, but he was once a 15-year-old boy. Everything I was going through during year 1 through year 18, my parents went through similar experiences. If I had listened more to them while growing up, I would have made fewer mistakes and better decisions. Now when my father decides to lecture me about whatever he deems I need to hear, I listen. Okay, maybe I half-listen sometimes, but I know if I listen to his advice then I will be better off when making educated decisions in my future.
3. Education and knowledge can change the world. Never stop learning.
I love school. Seriously! It’s my happy place. If I could be anything in the world, I would be a professional student. However, I think SallieMae would cut me off at some point. Education is extremely important to humankind and it is often taken for granted in developed countries. Research has shown that education can change the world and I strongly believe that it can. Learning comes in many forms. College is not for everyone and that’s okay. Schooling can come in the forms of books, experiences, and travel. No matter how you choose to learn, always keep an open mind. An open mind is an incredible thing. Personally, I believe that travel is one of the best methods of learning. You can explore ancient ruins and learn about early human civilization. You can walk through a pigeon-covered piazza in Italy and learn about the famous art and architecture of the Renaissance. You can snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and learn about the precious aquatic life that makes the reef their home. Travel is the best way to experience new cultures and see firsthand the kindness of strangers. Find something you’re passionate about and learn it. And don’t stop.
4. Learn to manage your money and make it work for you
I grew up listening to my father lecture me about money and how I should always be saving. I was never a huge spender, but I definitely made a few rather large purchases over the recent years. I didn’t need an expensive top-of-the-line triathlon and road bicycle, but I wanted them. And I could afford them. So I bought them. If I had listened to my father, I would have purchased a middle-of-the-road bike and used the remaining money to pay off student loans and start my emergency fund. It wasn’t until last Fall when my grad school loans kicked into place and I was facing a $500 a month student loan bill that reality bitch slapped me hard in the face. It was time to get my financial life straight so I could stop stressing about money. Over the past 18 months I have learned more about money then I have in my entire life and I did it all on my own. I spent countless hours reading blogs, websites, and books about money and money management. One of my reasons for starting this blog is to help others step up their money knowledge game and get their shit together. I wished that I forced myself to learn about money when I was 18 years old and started saving during college. But I didn’t, so I started now. It’s never too late to start being smarter with your money and make it work for you.
5. Trying to “keep up with the Joneses” is pointless
We live in a society that is constantly striving to “keep up with the Joneses.” We all want the perfect white picket fence house, the designer purse, and the fancy cars. The fact is most people are just putting on an act. Too many people flash their giant engagement rings in your face thinking that their fancy jewels make them a better person. Chances are they are head over heels in debt. So many Americans are and it’s a scary thing. I went to an all-girls Catholic school and I loved my education, but it was the first time I was exposed to girls trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” I caught myself trying to do the same. I just wanted to fit in. I needed that Coach purse so I wouldn’t be the loser. I felt this as well when I was heavily training for triathlons. I needed the fancy bike and power meter. Over the recent months I realized it’s not worth it. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is hard work and stressful. As I travel more, I have realized that things are just things. Certainly they are nice to have, but money can’t buy you happiness. It can, however, buy you a lot of bad debt and stress. I’d much rather pick a world of experiences over a house full of fancy expensive things.
6. Relationships are about timing and being open-minded and accepting to love
I haven’t been in a serious long-term relationship in a few years. I’ve dated guys here and there, but none turned into a serious relationship. I was busy with grad school, training for an Ironman, and working multiple jobs. I never prioritized love in my life. Now that I’m in my (gulp) late 20’s I’ve been thinking more about the future and feeling the desire for a long-term relationship. Over the past couple of years I have met two guys that I thought had potential for something more than friendship. They are both guys that I connected with instantly and shared many common interests and goals. Unfortunately, in both instances, the timing was off. One took a job overseas and the other lives in another state. I’m not sure the feelings were ever mutual, but our timing just wasn’t meant to be. Personally I don’t believe in love at first sight or soul mates. I believe that relationships are all about being open to love and timing. Both partners need to be ready for a relationship as relationships are hard work. I’m not sure what my future holds, but I’ve become more open to meeting a long-term partner and see where the world will take us. Or I just might be the next crazy cat lady (and I don’t even like cats).
7. Follow your passions and dreams even if you fail
Back in 2012 I was miserable at my job. I hated it. I thought about quitting every single day. A gym opened up across the street from my job and I asked for a job there. Originally I just applied for a front desk position, but the owners convinced me that I should consider becoming a personal trainer. So I did. They promised me the world and that I would be successful. I did well as a trainer and my clients all made big changes in their health and fitness. My intentions were to quit my lab job and become a full-time personal trainer. But, then I changed my mind. As much as I love helping people become healthier, I knew it wasn’t my calling in life. I was destined for something greater and I feel that I have finally figured out what that may be. I may have failed at becoming a personal trainer (I still train a couple of clients today and teach a lot of fitness classes around Portland), but I followed my passions and tried it. We all have dreams and it’s okay to follow them. You might fail, but you also may flourish. You never know unless you try. So take that risk. You can do that when you’re young. Live outside your comfort zone.
8. Your dreams and desires in life change as you get older and that’s okay
If you asked me what I wanted to do when I was 20 years old, it would not be what I’m doing now. When I was an undergrad, I was so set on going to medical school to become a doctor. I had set myself up for that. I did countless summer research programs, spent hours shadowing at the local hospital, and spent the hundreds of dollars to take the MCATs. And then the summer I was supposed to apply to medical school, I panicked. I freaked out. This was a huge life decision and I didn’t know if it was right for me. You know what? That was one of the best decisions I made. Occasionally I still get the feelings that I should have gone to medical school, but I know my passions lie elsewhere. Over the years my career goals have shifted back and forth, but they have always settled in the public health realm. I want to prevent the problem from happening instead of just slapping a Band-Aid on it and handing out another pill to swallow. Although I wish that I did my Masters degree differently, it was the right decision for me. I now know which way I want my career to fall. I have my eyes set on working for an NGO or UN Women someday. But who knows. I could change my mind again. I’ve become comfortable with the fact that as I grow older and experience more of life that my goals, dreams, and interests will change. It’s okay. Your life won’t derail in front of you. It’s all part of growing up.
9. Accept yourself as who you are. You are exceptional.
This is the lesson that I struggle with most. I think most people do, especially women. American society is constantly pressuring us to look a certain way and to act a certain way. We must be stick thin. We must be pretty. We must not ask for raises. I’ve always been a relatively shy and quiet girl. Mostly because I never wanted to draw attention to myself. I’d rather stay in the shadows even when I knew the right answer and the rest of the class didn’t. I played dumb. I sat in the shadows because I never thought I was good enough. I went to an all-girls high school. As you can imagine, it was a brutal environment at time. Girls are mean. You’ve seen Mean Girls, right? I’ve struggled with disordered eating most of my life and it’s a hard subject to talk about. After college it got better, but then I got involved with triathlon. The perfectionist in me saw the super skinny athletes and knew that in order to compete with the best, I needed to be super skinny as well. As much as I love the sport of triathlon, I once again put myself in a bad place. And then I hurt my hip. My hip issue has laid me up for a while and I’ve gained a lot of weight because of it. I feel fat and ugly at the moment, but I’ve come to realize this is me. We are all given one body on this planet. We can change our outsides as much as we want, but we can’t change who we are as a human being. The more you love and accept yourself, the more others will too. And it really doesn’t matter what the popular high school cheerleader thinks of you anyway. This is your body. Your life. You are exceptional.
10. Learn to trust your instincts
One unique thing that separates us from animals is our ability to think. We use logic and reason to make decisions. Animals don’t. They act on instinct. I’m a massive overthinker. I will overthink just about any situation possible and drive myself nuts. When a big life decision comes into play, I will spend weeks stressing over it until I feel comfortable with making an educated decision. Then I will spend another week or so stressing about if I made the right decision. This, of course, is all self-induced stress that I put onto myself. Over the years I have gotten better at making decisions using my instincts or “gut feeling.” I’m naturally good at reading people for the most part and can tell when something feels “off” about a person or situation. Instead of stressing and working myself up about nothing, I’ve started to relax more and really try to go with my gut about some things in life. I’m usually good at this when it comes to food. I’m still working on this in other aspects of my life, but I think it is important for people to trust their natural instincts and not overthink the details. Life is too short to get bogged down and stressed out about every little thing. Listen to your gut instinct and go with it. You could be surprised by the result!