Let’s be honest: Your 20s are a weird time. After teenage years spent in angst over the lack of freedom that comes with living under your parents’ roof, you finally have independence. Now what? You have to cook your own meals, clean your apartment (not just your bedroom), and pay those bills. Plus, there’s the whole searching for a job, getting a job, and then existentially questioning if said job is right for you. And on top of that, you could be plopped into a new city and met with the slightly terrifying prospect of making new friends.
When laid out like that, your 20s sound like a fragile and tumultuous time. But if we check out our friends’ perfectly filtered Instagram photos or stalk their amazing job promotions on LinkedIn, your 20s seem like they should be the time of your life. And that's when you start feeling left out and abnormal.
At times like these, we need to remember that we see in other people what they choose to display. And when you truly get to know others, you find out they experience the same type of insecurities and uncertainties that you do—even the ones with the "perfect" job and fun-filled photo feed.
Part of adulthood is understanding the importance of finding peace with your current situation. It took me until I was 40 years old, riding solo across the country on my motorcycle, to really find my inner peace. On that month-long journey through small towns and big cities, I met with scientific experts, spiritual leaders, and people along the side of the road, and came to realize some universal truths that every 20-something needs to hear:
1. Everybody Hurts
Just like the early ‘90s R.E.M. anthem (and yes, I know, if you’re a 20-something, this came out when you were still in diapers) croons, “Everybody hurts—sometimes.” But social norms mandate that we keep these feelings to ourselves. Or if we must, share the pain with only the people who are closest to us. In addition to experiencing joy, laughter, exhilaration, and awe, we all experience sadness, anger, shame, confusion, and guilt.
We could all benefit from taking a page out of Buddhist traditions, which includes dukkha (or suffering) as a central concept. The Buddhist approach acknowledges that by its very nature, life is difficult, flawed, and imperfect. Dukkha is a natural part of life, and can only be eradicated in a lifelong journey toward enlightenment.
Modern science also recognizes that negative emotions are a necessary part of life, and part of their role is to grab our attention and alert us of potential dangers. Just like you, everybody hurts sometimes—even the people who seem the most outgoing, optimistic, and fun.
2. Everybody’s Confused
Life is made of endless choices, and you don't get the chance to live the alternative, so it's near impossible to truly tell whether you’ve made the right decisions. This uncertainty leads to a natural sense of confusion and to a lack of confidence. Yet surprisingly, when you ask others for advice (like which car to buy or how to shed those few extra pounds), they often sound confident and advocate that you follow the same decisions they’ve made.
After a decision is made, you adjust your views (and even your memory) of the facts to support your choices.
The reason they seem so certain is simple: Life’s decisions are perplexing before you make them, but once you decide, you want to feel good about them. After a decision is made, you adjust your views (and even your memory) of the facts to support your choices. If you feel that the outcome was good, you praise yourself for making it. And if it turns out bad, you blame it on others or on circumstance.
I look back at all the major decisions I had to make at the end of my 20s: I left the military service, got married, had my first child, finished graduate school, and moved to a different country with my wife and our two-year-old daughter. On the outside, I seemed confident about these decisions, but it was actually the most confusing time of my life. Just like suffering, confusion is a natural part of life—as is the tendency to cover it up!
3. Everybody Has Regrets
People stick with their decisions and rarely regret making them. But they do regret indecision and inaction, research shows. Lost and found possible selves, subjective well-being, and ego development in divorced women. King LA, Raspin C. Journal of Personality, 2004, Aug.;72(3):0022-3506. (You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take!)
There were so many things that could’ve gone better when I crossed the country on my motorcycle. The first few days it felt like the ride was a bad idea. I dropped the motorcycle, failed to secure my bags safely, and constantly got lost. But I never regretted going on the road, and I am certain that I would have regretted turning back. Just like you, everyone has regrets. Most of the time the reason for the regret isn't failing at things they’ve tried, but rather holding back and refraining from trying in the first place.
4. Everybody Feels Isolated
Even as we seem more interconnected (with our smartphones tethered to us at all times), there’s a growing epidemic of social isolation. As more people move to cities, the sense of community that was once present in small towns gets lost. At the same time, we interact less with others at work—at least when it comes to face time. And that’s if you even work in an office. Many people—from writers to tech support professionals—work from coffee shops or their home.
Outside of business world, personal relationships (from friendships to dating) have also moved online, resulting in fewer casual social interactions in the real world. Even before the advent of social networks, the Internet was known to cause social isolation. Internet paradox. A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? Kraut R, Patterson M, Lundmark V. The American Psychologist, 1998, Nov.;53(9):0003-066X. Today, when so much social interaction among young adults is done digitally, the negative impact of the Internet is far greater, especially for younger generations. With all of these factors, how could you not feel lonely and isolated?
The Good News
By virtue of being human, you will experience suffering, confusion, remorse, and loneliness over your lifetime. This is normal. The really good news? You can easily shift the scale in your favor if you choose to ignore all of the things that are considered normal or rites of passage and instead remain loyal to whatever it is that is meaningful to you. Make it a resolution to go on the ride of your life and never look back (or sideways!). Stop chasing the things you think are the norm for 20-somethings and start achieving the dreams that are actually meaningful to you.
Ran Zilca is the author of the book The Ride of Your Life about his experience riding solo in a motorcycle across the country (and what he learned along the way). Request a free chapter here, or buy a full copy here.
Originally published December 2014. Updated November 2015.