The Three Stages of Your 20s
The Blindly Follow stage, the WHY stage, and Everything is AND isn’t — not is OR isn’t stage
I was recently listening to a particular episode of the Joe Rogan Experience with stand up comedian, Andrew Schulz. After about 30 minutes of slightly crude jokes and menial conversation, Andrew began to reflect upon and outline the major stages of his maturation of becoming an adult. I have to admit the description proceeded to produce an audible, ‘huh’ from my mouth. In his unrefined manner, he recounted three stages young adults experience after college and into their 30s.
He called the first stage the vegetable stage — we go to work, come home, work out, and all the while don’t really objectively think about what we’re doing. Many follow the path that has been carved before us and end up basically moving our bodies through the motions, but leaving our brains and intuitions out of it.
Next comes the “why” stage. As you’d imagine, this is the stage where you question everything — because now you can. Truly, deeply, and terrifyingly, you now feel the palpable autonomy of life, which inevitably leads to questioning everything. Things as benign and commonplace as,
Why do we eat breakfast in the morning? or
Why do I have to go to the gym? to the truly perplexing like,
Why do people choose one mate FOR LIFE…? or
Why do I live in one place when the whole world is out there to be explored?
Lastly Andrew reflects that he is in the latter stage of understanding young adult life. He has now come to realize that in life, ‘everything is AND isn’t — not everything is OR isn’t’. I was stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t have defined the stages of my 20s more clearly than this random, brutish comedian had just done.
I want to share how these stages manifested in my own life in the hopes that someone reading and struggling through a particular stage might think about their own maturation differently. Here we go…
At the ripe age of 27 I’m fortunate enough to feel like I’ve explored fairly extensively in my 20s. From my sexuality to where I’ve lived to what I’ve cared about. Whether objectively on purpose or just the way life pulled me based on the opportunities at hand, I’ve cast a fairly wide net in my experiences. Starting at the beginning, I had just graduated college at 22 and moved to Washington, D.C. I spent my first three years of post-graduate life at a medium-sized research company where its career pathing for entry level employees was a well oiled machine. Every new hire for my role was fresh to the workforce (pretty much exclusively under 30 years old, maybe even under 28) and was set up with a perfectly manicured, social and professional ecosystem for us to churn our wheels in. My transition felt seamless…probably because it wasn’t actually a transition forward, but simply the college environment in a different place. There were cut and dry ways to get promoted through the system. That career path was as carved and worn through as an old dirt road. I didn’t have to think.
Until I did….
After those first two years I started to hit my first real rut of adult life. For those who are older I’m sure you’ll scoff while reading my naive revelation, but at the time it was dramatic. It lasted over a year. It was something like existential depression. Everything I did seemed to make things worse. I had a supportive and caring boyfriend, lots of friends at work, a great job that paid well for my age with a difficult, yet simple trajectory forward. And yet, I couldn’t make sense of it all, or shake the feeling I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. What was wrong? At the risk of sounding esoteric, my soul was trapped. My blind following of others wasn’t serving me anymore and I simply wasn’t getting what I needed to stay in the game that is life. The metaphorical training wheels my company put on it’s entry-level employees fit everyone into a box, that I was quickly realizing was not going to work for me. The way I climbed out of that contrived box was to question everything, and I mean everything. I probably went a bit overboard in the degree to which I felt I needed to blow the confines open, but that took me to the WHY stage of my twenties. (This is a strange aside, but worth mentioning, it occurred to me that this “why” stage parallels what happens when babies turn 2 years old through maybe 4. They ask why of everything as they are trying to understand the world. I think that same thing happens again in your 20s. You’re finally in this open land of unknown and so you go through a second stage of pushing every boundary possible to understand the world as quickly as possible.)
Anyways, the WHY stage took me to New Zealand for a year by myself. I dropped everything. Broke up with my boyfriend, quit my job, broke my lease, the works. I applied for a visa online, received approval five days later and on my 25th birthday I decided I was going to go. No plan. No job. I felt adamant that I needed to forge my own way to make sense of these things I couldn’t seem get my head around.
…like marriage. What an insane proposition. ONE person to be in partnership with for your whole life? ONE person who complements you enough to last a lifetime? Someone who cares, supports, makes you laugh, makes you think, is attractive to you, is attractive TO you, is ambitious, the list goes on. How could one person possibly fit that? (Spoiler alert — they don’t. Even with this knowledge I wanted to know which attributes mattered most to me because that still was not evident.) And yet month after month I saw friends a few years older than me stand before hundreds of people to make this commitment. My confusion went further when I considered my own attributes, values, and interests. To put it bluntly, I change my mind about things a lot. And at that time my views and interests were changing CONSTANTLY. How could I make a decision on one person who satisfied all these things and also how could I be that person for someone else if I was alway flip-flopping?
Another massive “why” I questioned was about work. How could work be all of these things at once: your life’s meaning, your PASSION, how you gain credibility, how you get to exist (given how expensive life is). There are so many different axioms to consider that are associated with ones work (especially in the U.S. as that’s one of the top ways we define our very being). My friend knew exactly how I was feeling at the time and sent me this article, “How To Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You)” by Tim Urban. I may have come out of it with more questions than answers considering I didn’t know who I was then, (nor will I ever exactly I’ve realized). Here is a preview of the way Tim personified all the various complexities encompassed in our work:
There were many, many more ‘why’s’ I was considering, but my thought process was that if I went away to another country with no one I knew, I could be a blank slate. I could look at life objectively with no one knowing who I was or where I came from. So I left.
What I found was that a lot of people felt the exact same way as me. I lived in one hostel for six months during my most consistent stage, so I was interacting with people for months at a time, or days at a time. These people came from every country in the world, but were facing the same complexities that I was. The floating souls of hostel-life. Their friends were starting to get married, they were in focused careers, and we took solace in each other knowing these things didn’t make sense to us, or at least not yet. While we came from every corner of the world, our corresponding societies’ norms felt too tight, ill-fitting and in need of a spruce up.
The WHY stage was a doozy to say the least. Not understanding where you’re going or why can be paralyzing metaphorically (or literally depending on the circumstance), but I was also thrown into the most open and limitless lifestyle I’ll probably ever have. I spent that year chronicling my way through joyous moments of meeting beautiful souls and connection like I’ve never experienced. I pushed myself further to be braver, try new things, let life unfold how it will without a plan, and was rewarded with unparalleled results.
Conversely, I also experienced a level of being alone that I had never, ever felt before. I wasn’t always lonely, but I was certainly alone (And I learned firsthand how those things are different — worth thinking about). For instance I felt lonely a lot towards the end of living in D.C. I couldn’t connect with anyone or share this vulnerable, authentic side of myself. In contrast while traveling alone, I had never been that silent in my own company for so long. I would go on hikes alone or to the beach alone where I was near others (although, not many, as New Zealand has more sheep than humans) seeing fantastic, untouched, natural wonders, but had no one to share it with at first. I wasn’t uncomfortable in my own company and learned how to truly be my own best friend, but over the year after building consistent friends and THEN seeing these wonders with them, it became glaringly obvious the value of sharing something wonderful with someone else. Even if they aren’t perfect, it is in fact better than being alone.
While two months of my time in New Zealand was spent road tripping both islands (camping in tents or sleeping in my car, pulling over randomly to take in the beauty and wonder at the nature world), the majority of my time was in fact spent in one city (Wellington), where I worked in recruitment, went to parties, slept the hangovers away, etc. and I began to realize this felt eerily similar to my life at home….and maybe it wasn’t just the place or surrounding values or company where I work that was causing all my existential distress— it was me.
My visa was up in a month or two and quite frankly I was ready to go home. I felt this overwhelming need to work towards something that I cared about. I again felt this sense that I was wasting time doing something that wasn’t living up to my potential or how I could be helping and affecting others. My goals for expanding my world view and forging my own path felt accomplished. So what next? I had no idea, but I wanted to go back to a place where working towards something meaningful was a priority. And I also wanted to go back to family.
Something I questioned that year was how I fit in amongst my family. Having felt more on the outside than I ever had in my views and values, again my initial response was to run. Little did I know and in such cliche fashion, the support they gave me became something worth reciprocating, so I went home. It was time to focus on someone besides myself.
It’s my own fault, but I hadn’t really thought through what would happen after this big adventure, once back at home. Across the subsequent six or so months I was thrust out in the sea of “No Man’s Land” like never before. You’d think after spending a year with no plan (including where I would sleep on a night to night basis at times) that I would be used to this kind of unknown. I had just experienced a year full of exploration, liberation, meaning, maturation and independence and I was now in the exact antithesis: Landlocked at my parent’s house in the suburbs with no car. Of which I’m grateful that was even an option! But it was tough. I went from experiencing the world to being in one place. From spontaneity to literally, physically stuck. As I look back on the 9 months I spent at home, the irony is quite a slap in the face because I think I learned just as much in those months as I did across the entire previous year. The two years were foils of each other. And it brought me into the “everything is AND isn’t, not everything is OR isn’t” phase.
I realize this saying can seem confusing without an example. (That being said, I think it can be used for just about anything) When leaving D.C. I wanted to be in a place that seemed “chill” and outdoorsy, where people didn’t care what they looked like exactly, but were down to earth and exploratory. So I picked New Zealand. And it was exactly that! People were extremely laid-back, kind as can be, and the hiking and natural wonders were impeccable. But it was just that. Nature and a good people, but few of them. There was next to no culture which was a feeling I had never really experienced being from the U.S. In this wildly populated, heated, aggressive place we call home, how could a place just be calm with no “vibe” really? Of course there were pockets of it! But lacking compared to most countries I have been to. It would be easy to go into that situation and say, “I picked the wrong place. There are no people here. Some of the nature isn’t as ground breaking as I thought it would be, etc.” But the realization is that it was both. And it HAS to be both. And it always will be both. You can use it with people too (that tends to be helpful in any relationship), to realize that people are truly not all good things, and they’re not all bad things: they are both. And you have to take the bad with the good. Because if you stick it out, the returns will be exponential.
I neglected to understand what the whole story was when I left D.C. I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate the beauty of juxtaposing forces at once. The beauty of limitation, dedication and quite frankly some discipline to create some meaning in my life. On reflection it occurred to me that anything worth doing in life does not come easy. Why would it be worth doing if it didn’t push you to be better, do better, and continually iterate on your being? For all of those large societal norms that seem absolutely restrictive and constraining and unnatural — they are. But they’re not JUST that. They’re also here for a reason. For instance marriage is ALSO a beautiful commitment that allows two individuals to become better. By committing to one person you have to tell the truth and face the confrontation. You HAVE to work things out or else your life will be hell. But in doing so you both become better. Then again, I’m not married so what do I know. It very well might be a living hell forever. But perhaps it’s ALSO the most meaningful relationship you’ll ever have. Who’s to say?
The beautiful thing about being in this stage now is when something isn’t working out quite right, or makes me want to give up, it makes me stop and think about what those constraints are also doing to benefit to me. Maybe not in the short term — definitely not in the short term — but in the long term. That could be with friendships for instance. While those connections and relations I made abroad were fleeting and therefore wild and fun and passionate, they were gone as soon as they arrived. After coming home and moving to New York I’ve seen my old friends from all walks of life which has been amazing. At this point, I’m aware I don’t mesh on all levels with everyone, but that’s okay. The dynamic bond of supporting and even just living through each other’s lives for 10 years is monumental. I can’t imagine what friendships or relationships will look and feel like in 20 or 30 years! I think we run from what we don’t know, don’t understand, what is hard, and therefore what scares us. We look towards other people to answer them for us sometimes. While taking a year away was fleeting and now feels like it almost didn’t happen, it’s important to observe and experience for yourself. But also more importantly, you must have patience. Patience could come in the form of waiting for 20 minutes, or it could come in the form of years. I’m not insinuating to wait around for the answers to come to you — in fact I’m saying go find them! But also know that time will give you the answers when it’s ready to. And you can’t really force it I’ve found. (A classic example of everything is AND isn’t — go get it, but also realize it will come to you when it’s meant to — what is life?)