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9 things I learned from surviving my 20s

On my 20th birthday, I got drunk and peed on an old lady's front lawn. A cop saw me and stopped me. Fortunately, I talked my way out of going to jail that night. I already had an arrest record, but he didn't bother to check (probably because I'm white).

At the time, I was aimless. I had just dropped out of music school and cut my long, tangly hair. I wanted to move out of Texas but didn't know how or where. I would sometimes lecture people about the spiritual aspect of consciousness and had a number of half-baked ideas about the theory of relativity and whether the universe actually existed.

I was smart and audacious and arrogant and really annoying.

A year ago, I turned 30. I also spent my birthday drunk and out of my mind. But I'm happy to report that I'm far more responsible and far less pretentious these days. I've changed a lot in these 10 years. I don't get arrested anymore, and I don't pee on people's lawns. I've built businesses, been around the world multiple times, and managed to create a career for myself as a writer — something I never could have predicted.

It's easy to forget that most personal change does not occur as a single, static event in time, but rather as a long, gradual evolution that we're hardly aware of as it's happening. We rarely wake up one day and suddenly notice wild, life-altering changes in ourselves. No, our identities slowly shift, like sea sand getting pushed around by the ocean, slowly accumulating into new contours and forms over the passage of time.

It's only when we stop years or decades later and look back that we can notice all of the dramatic changes that have taken place. My 20s certainly were dramatic. Here are some of the things I learned:

1) Time is your best asset

When you are young, your greatest asset is not your talent, your ideas, or your experience, but your time. Time grants you the opportunity to take big risks and make big mistakes. Dropping everything and traveling the world for six years or starting some company to build this crazy app you and your friends came up with when you got high one night, or randomly packing up all (four) of your belongings and moving to another city on a whim to work and live with your cousin: you can only get away with these things when you're young, when you have nothing to lose. The difference between an unemployed 22-year-old with debt and no serious work experience and an unemployed 25-year-old with debt and no work experience is basically negligible in the long run.

Chances are you aren't strapped by all of the financial responsibilities that come with later adulthood: mortgage payments, car payments, day care for your kids, life insurance, and so on. This is the time in your life when you have the least amount to lose by taking some long-shot risks, so you should take them.

2) You can't force friendships

There are two types of friends in life: the kind that when you go away for a long time and come back, it feels like nothing's changed, and the kind that when you go away for a long time and come back, it feels like everything's changed.

I've spent the majority of the past five years living in a number of different countries. Unfortunately, that means I've left a lot of friends behind in various places. What I've discovered over this time is that you can't force a friendship with someone. Either it's there or it's not, and whatever "it" is, is so ephemeral and magical that neither one of you could even name it if you tried to. You both just know.

What I've also found is that you can rarely predict which friends will stick with you and which ones won't. I left Boston in the fall of 2009 and came back eight months later to spend the summer of 2010 there. Many of the people I was closest to when I left could hardly even be bothered to call me back when I returned. Yet some of my more casual acquaintances slowly became the closest friends in my life. It's not that those other people were bad people or bad friends. It's nobody fault. It's just life.

3) You're not supposed to accomplish all of your goals

Spending the first two decades of our life in school conditions us to have an intense results-oriented focus about everything. You set out to do X, Y, or Z and either you accomplish your goals or you don't. If you do, you're great. If you don't, you fail.

But in my 20s I've learned that life doesn't actually work that way all the time. Sure, it's nice to always have goals and have something to work towards, but I've found that actually attaining all of those goals is beside the point.

Most personal change does not occur as a single, static event, but rather as a long, gradual evolution

When I was 24, I wrote down a list of goals I wanted to accomplish by my 30th birthday. The goals were ambitious, and I took this list very seriously, at least for the first few years. Today, I've accomplished about a third of those goals. I've made significant progress on another third. And I've basically done nothing about the last third.

But I'm actually really happy about them. As I've grown, I've discovered that some of the life goals I set for myself were not things I actually wanted, and setting those goals taught me what was not important to me in my life. With some other goals, while I didn't attain them, the act of working toward them for the past six years has taught me so much that I'm still pleased with the outcome anyway.

I'm firmly convinced that the whole point of goals is 80 percent to get us off our asses and 20 percent to hit some arbitrary benchmark. The value in any endeavor almost always comes from the process of failing and trying, not in achieving.

4) No one actually knows what the hell they're doing

There's a lot of pressure on kids in high school and college to know exactly what they're doing with their lives. It starts with choosing and getting into a university. Then it becomes choosing a career and landing that first job. Then it becomes having a clear path to climb up the career ladder, getting as close to the top as possible. Then it's getting married and having kids. If at any point you don't know what you're doing or you get distracted or fail a few times, you're made to feel as if you're screwing up your entire life and you're destined for a life of panhandling and drinking vodka on park benches at 8 am.

But the truth is, almost nobody has any idea what they're doing in their 20s, and I'm fairly certain that continues further into adulthood. Everyone is just working off of their current best guess.

Everyone is confused in their 20s — and beyond. (Dean Hochman)

Out of the dozens of people I've kept in touch with from high school and college (and by "keep in touch," I mean "stalked on Facebook"), I can't think of more than a couple who have not changed jobs, careers, industries, families, sexual orientations, or who their favorite Power Ranger is at least once in their 20s. For example, when he was 23, a good friend of mine was dead-set on climbing the corporate hierarchy in his industry. He had a big head start and was already kicking ass and making good money. Last year, at age 28, he just up and bailed. Another friend went from the Navy to selling surf equipment to getting a master's in education. Another friend just picked up and took her career to Hong Kong. Another friend stopped working as an environmental scientist and is now a deejay.

5) Most people in the world want basically the same things

I had a pretty rollicking 20s. I started a business in a bizarre industry that took me to some interesting places and allowed me to meet interesting people. I've been all over the world, having spent time in over 50 countries. I've learned a few languages, and rubbed elbows with some of the rich and famous and the poor and downtrodden.

And what I've discovered is that from a broad perspective, people are basically the same. Everyone spends most of their time worrying about food, money, their job, and their family — even people who are rich and well-fed. Everyone wants to look cool and feel important — even people who are already cool and important.

Almost nobody knows what they're doing in their 20s. Everyone is working off of their current best guess.

Everyone is proud of where they come from. Everyone has insecurities and anxieties that plague them, regardless of how successful they are. Everybody is afraid of failure and looking stupid. Everyone loves their friends and family yet also gets the most irritated by them.

I've learned to judge people not by who they are, but by how they act. Some of the kindest and most gracious people I've met were people who did not have to be kind or gracious to me. Some of the most obnoxious asshats have been people who had no business being obnoxious asshats to me. The world makes all kinds. And you don't know who you're dealing with until you spend enough time with them to see how they act — not what they look like, or where they're from, what gender they are, or whatever.

6) The world doesn't care about you

The thought that is so frightening at first glance — "No one cares about me?!" — becomes so liberating when you actually process its true meaning. As David Foster Wallace put it, "You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do."

You and I and everything we do will one day be forgotten. It will be as if we never existed, even though we did. Nobody will care. Just like right now, almost nobody cares what you actually say or do with your life.

And this is actually really good news: it means you can get away with a lot of stupid shit, and people will forget and forgive you for it. It means there's absolutely no reason to not be the person you want to be. The pain of uninhibiting yourself will be fleeting, and the reward will last a lifetime.

7) Pop culture is full of extremes — practice moderation

My life immediately got about 542 percent better when I realized that the information you consume online is made up of the 5 percent of each extreme view and that 90 percent of life actually occurs in the silent middle ground where most of the population actually lives.

Most people aren't as extreme as the internet makes them out to be. (Shutterstock)

If you read the internet enough, you're liable to start thinking that World War III is imminent, that corporations rule the world through some conspiracy, that white people are victims of reverse racism, that there's a war on Christmas, that all poor people are lazy and destroying the government, and on and on.

It's important to sometimes retreat to that quiet 90 percent and remind yourself: most people are good, and the chasms that appear to separate us are often just cracks.

8) The sum of the little things matters much more than the big things

I remember reading an interview with Dustin Moskovitz, the co-founder of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg's college roommate. The interviewer asked Dustin what it felt like to be part of Facebook's "overnight success." His answer was something like, "If by ‘overnight success' you mean staying up and coding all night, every night for six years straight, then it felt really tiring and stressful."

As outside observers, we tend to see only the result of things and not the arduous process (and all of the failures) that went into producing the result. I think when we're young, we have this idea that we have to do just this one big thing that is going to completely change the world, top to bottom. We dream so big because we don't yet realize — we're too young to realize — that those "one big things" are actually composed of hundreds and thousands of daily small things that must be silently and unceremoniously maintained over long periods of time with little fanfare. Welcome to life.

9) Your parents are people, too

And finally, perhaps the most disillusioning realization of your 20s: seeing Mom and Dad not as all-knowing protectors like you did as a child, and not as obnoxious and totally uncool authoritarians like you did as a teenager, but as peers, as two flawed, vulnerable, struggling people doing their best despite often not knowing what the hell they're doing (see number 5).

Chances are your parents screwed some things up during your childhood. Pretty much all of them do (as my mom always likes to say, "Kids aren't born with instruction manuals"). And chances are you will start to notice all of these screwups while you are in your 20s. Growing up and maturing to the extent that you can recognize this is always a painful process. It can kick up a lot of bitterness and regret.

But perhaps the first duty of adulthood — true adulthood, not just "I have to pay taxes now" adulthood — is the acknowledgment, acceptance, and (perhaps) forgiveness of your parent's flaws. They're people, too. They're doing their best, even though they don't always know what the best is.

Mark Manson is an author, blogger, and entrepreneur. He writes about psychology and culture at MarkManson.net. You can also follow his ramblings on Twitter or Facebook.
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