There is something so glamorous about our 20s. Supposedly, that’s when we’re in the best shape. Our 20s are some of the best years of our life. They’re when we find out what we like professionally, academically, romantically… 20s are for “figuring it out.”
But doesn’t that yield some sort of pressure? If all of this is the case, why are we so unhappy during our 20s? Why are we so terrified to graduate and be working 20-something-year-olds?
Our 20s are daunting. We’re scared of making real decisions because we feel like this is the beginning of a larger chain of events. Besides picking a university, maybe even a major, for the most part, we haven’t made any extremely consequential decisions.
Up until this point, we have been students our entire lives. Most of us have not had full-time professions. Whether consciously or not, we define ourselves by our university. Even within this structure, we attempt to define ourselves further as students. In high school and at Yale, we have a plethora of social structures — sports teams, improv groups, study groups, dorms, societies — the list never ends. If we don’t like our first-year suitemates, we move on to the next social structure until we click with someone. When social structures are in place for us, we don’t realize how much we relied on them — until they’re gone.
But this transition stage, our 20s, is more complicated. We wonder if the relationships we made can exist outside Yale — outside problem sets and rushed meals. Am I actually compatible with my significant other, or did I just meet them at my residential college screw? Will I actually stay in touch with my suitemates after college, or will they fade into the background like so many high school friends? These questions are indeed scary and overwhelming, and many of us don’t want to find out the answer for fear of discovering difficult truths.
In the real world, we don’t have clear identity markers. We have to create a life outside of work. Sure, we may say, “I work here” or “I’m a consultant,” but we are more than our career choices. We’d all be quite boring people if we were defined solely by our consulting jobs at Bain or internships on Capitol Hill. Sure, we have social circles at work, but who will we complain to about our coworker or boss? What hobbies will we sustain, and which ones were just for our resume? That’s up to us.
The nice thing about your 20s is that, usually, making a decision will not have that much of a consequence. It’s only the start. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be somewhere. You find out you hate New York City? At least now you know before all of a sudden you’re sharing a two-bedroom with your former coworker turned fiancé. Turns out you hate office work? Well, at least you’re not a 40-year-old accountant who feels like he can’t get out of his job. There’s still time.
But what does “finding yourself” really mean? It does not mean doing nothing and attempting to find your purpose. It does mean trying different things. We shy away from making a decision because we’re scared of making the wrong one, but few things in our 20s are permanent. Learning what we don’t like is just as valuable as learning what we do like. Finding ourselves also means coping with rejection of all sorts. With every rejection, we learn a little bit more about ourselves — about our tenacity, about what we really want.
This does not mean that we should abandon the people, the hobbies, the projects that currently make us happy. Instead, pursue them more fervently. Just make space for new things, as well. Or find new experiences within them. Learn what it’s like to love beyond inviting someone to a formal. Learn to use that creative writing talent to write a blog. Learn to carve time out of your day for unstructured learning instead of relying on a classroom.
Hurl yourself into this new phase. We will not learn anything new about ourselves if we approach these next few years with timidity. Use it as a time to reinvent yourself, or not. Let yourself make decisions that are riskier, pursue dreams that are farther out of reach and give yourself a good cry when you need it.
The way to build your 20-something-year-old identity is to live in constant exploration.
HALA EL SOLH is a senior in Berkeley College. Her articles run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .