10 Essential Life Lessons Every 20-Something Needs to Know

 by Vivian Manning-Schaffel

Your 20s are full of important life lessons and responsibilities that will teach you what you need to know for the remainder of your existence. Here are 10!


When you turn 20, it can feel as if someone somewhere fired a starting gun. Boom, you're grown — and you can suddenly do whatever you want. But nothing will be further from the truth. In fact, your 20s are full of important life lessons and responsibilities that will teach you what you need to know for the remainder of your existence. Here are 10 of them.

1. You are meant to make mistakes.

Know this: As hard as you try, you very likely won't do whatever you set out to do perfectly. You can try. You can even try really hard. Hopefully, you will learn to be kind and courteous to everyone on your journey. Hopefully, you will learn how important it is to prepare. Hopefully, you will learn how important it is to work hard. You might even succeed. You might not. If you don't, don't be hard on yourself. The mistakes you are supposed to make now will shape who you eventually become — and that's a good thing.

2. Be sure that settling down isn’t merely settling.

Whether you have no interest in leaving your hometown or have backpacked across Europe, the world remains a very big place, with tons of people you've yet to meet. As you detach from your blood family ties to figure out life on your own, friendships and romantic relationships become surrogate families that provide the daily emotional support you need to suit your more independent lifestyle. Boy, is it fun to play house! But there's a big difference between making a commitment out of love and making a commitment because you crave security. Plus, marriages among people in their early 20s have high divorce statistics. The Institute for Family Studies cited this one: Someone who marries at 25 is more than 50 percent less likely to get divorced than is someone who weds at age 20. So one way to avoid divorce is to have your fun. Be in love. Be committed to each other. But be honest with yourself and don't mistake "settling" for "settling down." There's a big difference.

3. Save money — now.

Once you get a "real" job and start making "real" money, it feels like the world is your oyster. Concert tickets? Sure! Drinks? On you! But if you want to get — and stay — ahead of the game financially, you'd do well to sock away some of that "disposable" income for a time when it may not be so disposable. In your 20s, you will likely discover that, professionally, everyone is expendable. Besides, if you start saving for your retirement now, you'll only have to save 8.8 percent of your income a year (with employer matching) to retire "well," as opposed to 16 percent of your income at 35, according to Money.

4. No one really has it figured out.

There's a Type A, self-directed, self-realized individual in every crowd. You know, that friend who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up since they were 5 years old, then worked hard, went to the right school and did all the right things to make it happen. There are also those who start out wanting to do one thing and later realize it wasn't really what they wanted to do at all. Don't feel lame: Your generation — and every generation — is divided into Sprinters, Wanderers and Stragglers, according to the New York Times. The thing is, as you progress through your 20s you will notice that even the most focused Sprinter will change course, and even the least certain Straggler will find a path to follow and do so with unparalleled commitment.

5. By the time you’re 30, you won’t have all the same friends.

Let's get back to that surrogate family of friends you've created. By the time you're 30, you may realize the only thing you have in common with some of them is the shared experience of being the same age. Just like with romantic relationships, some people grow together as time and experiences change them, while others grow apart. Though friendship breakups can hurt even more than those of the romantic variety, they're sometimes necessary for your personal growth. For example, there's a scene in the final season of "Girls" when Shoshanna announces she's "calling it" to end her friendships with the other three, because it dawned on her they had become "dysfunctional" and "toxic." They were edging toward 30, and the scene resonated with so many viewers because this rite of passage is totally familiar.

6. There’s more than one way to approach things.

You think you have it all ironed out: You'll go to X school, move to Y town and accomplish Z. It feels like an inarguable math equation. But soon enough the ups and downs of life will teach you that you aren't as in charge of your destiny as you may have thought. According to an article in the New York Times Magazine, "One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch." The cool thing to come from this pattern of upheaval is the realization that there is more than one way to reach your goals and more than one way to look at things. Just because things didn't work out in town A doesn't mean they won't work out in town B. If you can't afford X university to study Y, you'll just study Y at Z university and bartend at night. There's more than one way to get things done.

7. Your goals can, and will, change.

No matter what happens in your life, you will not be the same person at 20 that you are at 30. Whether you live in a completely different place with completely different people or stay in the same job in the same town during those 10 years, your thoughts, feelings and processing skills will transform, and so will your priorities. That same New York Times Magazine article about people in their 20s mentions a study that proved a time lag exists between the growth of the limbic system, where emotions originate, and of the prefrontal cortex, which manages those emotions. The limbic system matures rapidly during the teen years, but the prefrontal cortex matures through your 20s. During this period, as the rational part of your brain catches up to the emotional part of your brain, the neuroscientists interviewed said the "weighing of the future keeps changing into the 20s and 30s." That said, you may go into your 20s vehemently insisting you'll never get married, only to walk down the aisle when you're 28. You may begin your 20s as a party girl and emerge from your 20s a business success. Change is inevitable. Go with the flow.

8. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint.

As we've already established how 20-somethings change jobs an average of seven times before turning 30, it's more important and empowering than ever to embrace the fact that careers are long-term trajectories that can sometimes take 20 years to build. Take Gen Xers, for example: They weren't given the benefit of learning to navigate the digital age in college because there was no such thing. They had no choice but to continuously adapt to emerging technologies and reinvent themselves time and time and time again. A 2013 Ernst & Young survey of generations in management says 49 percent of Gen Xers are considered "adaptable," while only 41 percent of Gen Yers were. So, young millennials, to make it in the long haul, embrace the fact you'll have a lot of learning to do — and the most important part of it will occur long after you graduate.

9. Treat your body like a temple. Most of the time.

Your 20s is the part of your life when your (assumingely healthy) bod takes the most abuse — and many people really like to heap it on. All-nighters are all too common. Experimentation with drugs and booze kicks into full swing for some. But what no one tells you is how the choices you make now can — and will — be felt and seen in your 30s, 40s and 50s. One study linked youthful binge drinking with heart disease later in life. Go ahead and have your fun, but practice moderation and wear metaphorical sunscreen, if you catch the drift.

10. You have your whole life to do whatever it is you want to do.

Once firmly ensconced in your 30s, you will realize that each decision you made in your 20s had a ripple effect that influences what you ultimately achieve in the scope of your life. Each job afforded you a skill that led to the next, and each relationship showed you who you were in a way that led to an opportunity for a happier relationship choice the next time. Enjoy the ride, and realize that making the best of the journey is the ultimate destination.

What Do YOU Think?

What's the most important lesson you learned in your 20s? Have you started financially planning for the future? Let us know in the comments!


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