Things that happened in my twenties: I wrote a thesis. I graduated from college. I took year off from school. I had my first real relationship. I moved across the country. I started grad school. I made amazing friends. I got a master’s degree. I fell in love. I got married. I got another master’s degree. I lost the 40 pounds I gained in college. I got a PhD. I changed careers.
So really, everything happened in my twenties. So much happened that it’s hard for me to remember what life was like before all of this — or what I was like before all of this, even. When I think about myself at 20 — a junior in college, living in an attic apartment with two lovely roommates — the person I vaguely remember is completely familiar to me in some ways and maddeningly different in others. She’s got the same social-butterfly tendencies, the same strong opinions, but she’s much more rigid and naive, much less self-aware and comfortable in her skin.
A while back, I was reflecting on the differences between then and now, and just for funzies, I wondered what I would tell my 20-year-old self if I had the chance. I think it would go like this:
– First, the things you’re most interested in knowing: You will marry the best man you’ve ever known. No one would ever think to put the two of you together, but it works infinitely better than you ever thought a relationship could. He is kind and present and calm and brilliant and hilarious and handsome and amazing. So you don’t need to waste your time obsessing over guys who aren’t right for you simply because you don’t see any better options. There are a million other, better ways to invest your mental and emotional energy. Tutor a kid. Learn how to cook. Heck, stare out the window. Even that would probably be more productive.
Knowing you, you’ll probably disregard this advice and obsess anyway. But I’m just putting that out there.
– You will lose all the weight you gained in college. Paradoxically, you won’t be able to lose it until you realize that you’re fine the way you are. I know. Life is funny like that.
It may not bring much comfort to you now, but for what it’s worth, you’ll be a nicer, funnier, more empathetic person because of this experience. And really… you don’t want to peak in college. I know that it feels virtually impossible to imagine your life afterward, and the people around you seem like the most important people on earth and their perceptions of you matter a lot right now. But the best is yet to come. Seriously. You’ve barely even scratched the surface of how good it will be.
And besides — after graduation, you won’t see 90% of these people ever again anyway.
– Now, the more practical things: The fact that you’re good at school doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be successful in real life. I know, right? Mom and Dad lied. Your GPA is an asset to you in that it shows that you’re hard-working and it reinforces your own belief in your abilities. However, your biggest assets in the real world will not be your grades but the fact that you’re personable and you know a lot of people.
So really, the most valuable investment you’re making in college might be all the time that you’re not studying.
– Speaking of knowing a lot of people: You pride yourself in the fact that you do, and that’ll be an asset to you down the line, as I mentioned before. But there’s a lot to be said for having one group of people who really know you. That will change your life.
– You don’t need to have your life figured out after college. Or grad school. Or ever, really. Being open to new possibilities will make your life and career more interesting than you ever could’ve planned for yourself.
– In the next 10 years, you will become aware of all of your flaws — including ones you don’t know about yet — and you will learn how to accept them and be gracious with yourself. One way that you’ll learn about them is that other people will tell you; you’ll get used to having them called out and addressed, because if you have a job or a healthy relationship, that’s part of the deal. You get feedback. The thought of this is mortifying to you now, I’m sure. But you will get feedback, it will not kill you, and you will eventually come to appreciate it. The other way you’ll find out about your flaws is that you’ll make mistakes — lots of them — and some of them will shatter the idealistic beliefs that you have about yourself. This is normal. The point is not to try to stop making mistakes, because that’s impossible. The point is to recognize that you’re as susceptible to them as anyone else is.
– You think you know everything, because you know more now than you ever have. But in the next 10 years, you will realize that you actually know nothing, because the amount you know is microscopic compared to the amount you don’t know. Very few things in life are black and white, and very few things have only one right answer. Everything is more complicated than it appears on the surface.
– You’ll learn a lot in college, but you won’t really grow up until afterward.
– There’s a lot to be said for slowing down and taking care of yourself.
– A wise man will tell you in about 4 years that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. He is right. Remember that with everyone you meet, but most of all, remember it with yourself.
So if I had to summarize what my twenties were about, I would say that they were about…
… learning about and coming to terms with myself, my family, the world, and God.
… accepting my flaws and being gracious with myself.
… learning how to be in community, to love people in their entirety, and to be loved in mine.
Not too shabby. So a few months ago, with these hard-won lessons in mind, I turned 30. And it has been awesome. I may not be able to stay up as late as I used to, but life is a lot better with these lessons learned than without.
In spite of everything that happened in my twenties and all the things I learned, I’m sure that in 10 years I’ll be able to write a letter to my 30-year-old self that’s not terribly different from the one I’ve written here. At 40, I’ll probably look back on myself at 30 and be amazed at how naive I was and how little I knew. But that’s okay. Now that I have a sense of who I am and how much I have yet to learn, hopefully the lessons will be a little easier to swallow.