In our early 20s, many of us are introduced to the post-grad world, which is apparently full of possibilities. The sky’s the limit! Anything we can put our mind to we can accomplish! Live your dreams!
Or so we’ve been told. Bombarded by messages of endless opportunity, it’s not insane to expect things to just sort of work out as they’re supposed to—just like they did while you plodded through high school and (if you're lucky) college, from class to class and grade to grade.
Once you accept that being 'grown up' isn’t exactly what you thought it would be, it can be pretty freeing.
But as you’ve probably realized by now, life isn’t always linear. Things don’t always turn out the way you pictured in elementary school, doodling your dreams in your favorite Lisa Frank notebook. While it’s sort of terrifying, once you accept that being “grown up” isn’t exactly what you thought it would be, it can be pretty freeing.
I’m not saying setting goals isn’t worthwhile (it is)—but when your goals take a little longer to reach or you end up shifting your priorities, that’s OK too. From settling down to paying off all your loans, here are 12 things you don’t have to have figured out quite yet.
1. How to Travel the World
I don’t think I have to tell you that traveling is awesome: It opens your eyes to new cultures, beautiful sights, and different types of people. But it’s also stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. And when you follow the adventures of travel bloggers on Instagram, days spent in a cubicle don’t quite compare.
However, putting off a career (and real life) to bounce from Yacht Week to music festival to 10-day yoga retreat isn’t 1) all that realistic and 2) all it’s cracked up to be. Science even confirms it: One study found that social media does a great job of highlighting all the glamorous upsides of a jet-setting lifestyle—without portraying the potential drawbacks. As this writer puts it, a picture might be worth a thousand words, but it also leaves out two thousand others.
2. The Person You’ll Marry
As if relationships weren’t tough enough, we now have Tinder and every other app thrown into the mix, making dating in your 20s a whole new game. All that swiping makes it seem like there are a ton of fish in the sea, so when you don’t find the Nemo to your Dory, it kind of sucks.
If you haven’t met the love of your life—the person you want to wake up next to every day for the rest of your life—it’s OK. That’s a huge decision. Don’t let other people’s expectations (or nosy questions) make you rush into something that isn’t right. That’ll just lead to way more heartache down the road. And if you’re putting pressure on yourself because you must. Settle. Down. By. Age. 30, maybe it’s time to rethink your time frame.
3. Your Dream Job
While it's awesome to be ambitious, the reality is that most of us start in entry-level jobs with mind-numbing tasks like checking email and fetching coffee (been there, done that). But no matter where you start, even on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, there's ample opportunity to grow, network, and learn from the people around you. Getting the career you want involves busting your ass—and being humble in the process.
Also: If you find out your so-called dream job is a dud (or even if you get let go of said dream job), there’s a silver lining. As this article points out, that kind of “career reality check can inspire soul-searching—and ultimately lead you in an unexpected, more satisfying direction.” And your 20s are meant to be a time for finding that out.
4. Where You Want to Live for the Rest of Your Life
...let alone owning a home in that city. If you’re still renting your place, own it—er, be proud of it. This is probably the only time in your life you’re not going to be tied down by mortgage payments, a car, a partner, and/or kids. Move once (or twice). Check out new cities you may want to live in. Spend more time outside your apartment than you do in it. Unless you’re deeply in love with where you live (more power to you if so!), isn’t it more fun NOT to know where you’ll be in five, 10, or 20 years?
5. Running a Marathon
Or a triathlon or even a half-marathon. This is not a prerequisite you have to check off your life to-do list. Of course, if running, biking, or swimming is your thing, go for it. But there are plenty of other ways to work out that don’t involve losing toenails, peeing in a wetsuit, or exhausting yourself, physically and mentally. Move your body in a way that makes you feel good—that’s all that matters.
6. Starting a Side Business
Sometimes it sounds like everyone has a side gig or passion project they work on after their 9-to-5. While there are definitely advantages to pursuing your passion outside of your day job, don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t quite found one yet. If you’d rather leave work, go home, and veg out in front of Netflix most nights, that’s your prerogative. And working hard at your day job—where they’re paying you to be fully present—is your no. 1 priority right now.
7. Your Faith
Maybe you grew up praying before every meal and going to church every Sunday. Maybe your parents couldn’t care less about religion. Either way, it’s now up to you to decide what type of role you want faith—in any higher power—to play in your life. In our 20s, many of us stray away from how our parents approached religion (and I bet your parents did the same thing). Whether you’ve gotten into mindful meditation, you still go to Bible studies, or you’ve stopped thinking about faith altogether, whatever you believe in is your choice. Just keep the faith you’ll figure it all out.
8. Cooking Fancy Meals
While we’re all about learning kitchen basics, if cooking just isn’t your thing, don’t beat yourself up about it. Knowing how to make pasta or the perfect boiled egg are nice skills to have, but don’t feel like you need to throw together four-course dinner parties for your friends every weekend. You’ll have plenty of time later in life to brush up on your knife skills.
9. The Right Balance Between Your Relationships
Your third decade of life may start in college, where you’re surrounded by friends day and night. By the end of it, some people will have settled down with just one person, maybe for life. In between, there will be periods of reveling in your glorious singledom as well as those crazy-in-love times when you can’t leave your S.O.’s side. Both are perfectly fine and normal, but finding the exact ratio of time to give your love interests, your friends, and your family is a giant balancing act that takes time to figure out. True friends will stick with you through it all (and call you out for being MIA when they haven’t seen you in weeks).
10. Allllll of Your Finances
There are a few things you should know about managing money in your 20s, but if you aren’t actively investing in the stock market or are still paying off student loans, it’s OK. (In fact, it’s probably smart to be wary of that app idea your friends think up one night at a bar.) While it’s great to sock some money away in a 401(k) if your company offers one, don’t sweat it if not. Just be sure to save some money, whether it’s in an IRA or a savings account!
11. Designing the ~Perfect~ Home or Apartment
Truth: IKEA furniture rocks. (My couch and coffee table from that magical place still look good after almost six years.) So do picture frames and towels from Target. Whether you’re still in the roommate stage or living solo, you don’t need to have fully decked-out digs with pricey furniture and original artwork. Make your place as cozy and livable and cute as you’d like—there are plenty of ways to do that for almost no money. And be grateful if you don’t have to deal with a mortgage and yard maintenance (yet).
12. Exactly What You Want to Do in Life
Here’s a little secret: No one really knows what they’re doing—especially in their 20s. No, it’s not a throwaway decade, but it’s also not a race. Take the time to figure out what you really, really want in life and work toward it, but don’t freak out if you don’t haven’t achieved all the things you thought you would’ve by some made-up milestone. You only have one life, and it’s way too short to spend beating yourself up.