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20 Something Manifesto
Quarter-Lifers Speak Out About Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Get It
By Christine Hassler
New World Library Copyright © 2008 Christine Hassler
All rights reserved.
YOUR TWENTY-SOMETHING JOURNEY
"Being a twenty something is a time when everything in life is uncertain. I feel like the rug is constantly being pulled out from under me. The overwhelming guilt for not being happy for what I have in my life combined with constantly feeling like there is more to achieve and not enough time is exhausting. I wonder, is this as good as it gets?"
Executive administrator, 24, single, Minnesota
Remember puberty? Would you rather not? For many, those memories aren't exactly fond ones — acne, voice cracking, mood swings, and uncomfortable awkwardness. Yet we all expected it and made our way through it. How come we don't call adolescence a "crisis"? Because it's a normal part of our development. A twenty-something crisis is just as normal as our puberty "crisis," but that's not how most people treat it. Twenty somethings can get caught up in a tremendous amount of judgment — thinking they are alone, that there is something wrong with them, or that they should have it all figured out by now.
In this chapter we'll canvas the main reasons that twenty-something transitions come to feel like crises and the "syndromes" that result. Many times it boils down to expectations. Where do you find yourself in the kaleidoscope of experiences and stories below? Where are you in your journey? I can guarantee that for every story here, there are thousands of other twenty somethings who can relate.
"As a twenty something, I feel like I have the world at my fingertips, but I don't know what to do with it all or any part of it."
Consumer analyst, 23, dating, North Dakota
CHECKLISTERS AND PLANNERS
Do you live your life by a checklist? Have you developed a master plan that you pressure yourself to stick to? First high school, then college, then job, maybe grad school, then promotion, then relationship, then marriage, then buy a house, then have kids, then make X dollars by twenty-eight, and so on? A life goals checklist seems to come with an iPod these days — everyone has one. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why these checklists exist: expectations and uncertainty. Checklists and plans help us feel more secure and in control. But as a failed checklister, believe me, a checklist is not the recipe for success. In fact, it is more likely to whip up doubt and worry.
"CONFUSION AND ANXIOUSNESS" by Kaitlin, 21
DECLARATION: By trying to convince myself that my hard work will result in a successful life in the future, I'm afraid that I am truly missing out on my life right now.
I will be graduating from college this fall, and I am doing everything that was on my checklist to prepare me for a career. I have worked relentlessly to maintain my high GPA, take a full load of courses every semester, learn the necessary professional skills at my twenty-hour-a-week public relations internship, and work at a restaurant on the weekends. The word "exhaustion" might come to mind, but I continue to tell myself that it will all pay off in the years to come — this is what I am "supposed" to do. But what if it doesn't? What if after graduation, I get the job that I think I want, yet face the disappointment of feeling unhappy with my career choice when I thought I had it all figured out in college? I have these great expectations to be a successful public relations executive in a big city, with the corner office and spectacular view, have great friends, and maybe even a boyfriend. But how do I know what I really want?
I cannot help but feel like by putting all of my focus on my professional goals, I will one day regret not experiencing other aspects of life. I could reflect on my college experience as a time of fleeting independence, or I could choose to see the reality of my situation and look back on four years without a solid relationship, very few nights out with my girlfriends, and all-nighters spent studying for a morning exam.
My stress is perpetuated by my checklist of long-term goals and aspirations, and the pressure I exert upon myself to achieve them all. In what seems like a pretty early start for a twenty-something crisis, I can only hope to persevere by holding on to my ambition and being confident that my life will be all that I hope it will be.
Take Anxiety and Regret and Shove It ... into the Present!
Anxiety (anticipation about something yet to happen) lives in the future; depression (sadness over things that you did or didn't do) signs a lease in the past. That is why, if you are a checklister, you probably suffer from a mixed bag of anxiety and depression. Checklisters and planners are consumed with worry about achieving everything on their list and then heavy with regret as they think about things they are missing out on.
"Having it all" is a common desire for checklisters. We grow up hearing that if we apply ourselves, we can get anything we want. So we put everything we want into our life goals list. I believe having it all at once is a myth — but you can have it all at different times in your life. The problem is, twenty somethings get so obsessed about the future that they overextend themselves and burn out by trying to accomplish all their goals right now.
If you are an anxious and confused checklister, get into the present! Be proud of your accomplishments and also have some fun. Go out with friends, have a social life, and take some pressure off. Consider this statement from a twenty-one-year-old about to graduate from college, "College should be a time of self-discovery; the years that shape who you are and who you want to be in life." Do you agree? I do, but I would add that self-discovery is a curriculum for life, not just college. It's true that college shapes you, but it provides just some of the clay you will mold into your life. Don't worry if college does not answer "who I am and what I want to be"; it probably won't, not completely and forever. Take college for what it is, a piece of the ongoing puzzle of who you are.
"The most difficult thing about being a twenty something is that even with all your plans, there are no guarantees. You are not guaranteed a job after college, you are not guaranteed friends if you move to a new place, you are not guaranteed a passionate career, you are not guaranteed a loving partner. You have to go out and create all this or at least hold the thought that it will all happen."
Program developer, 28, engaged, California
Living by a checklist and planning is actually a lot easier in college when the goal line is clearer and the timeline is shorter — graduate, get a job, find a place to live, and so on. But after college, and as your twenties continue, not only do the goals get bigger and more complicated, but you may find you don't even know what to plan for. A twenty-one-year-old confesses, "Being a planner and one who has always 'known' what I would do with my life, the deep sense of not knowing what is ahead for me is so hard to deal with. It's not that I don't think I could accomplish my goals; it's that I am not sure if I am willing to work toward something I'm not sure is even what I really want." This quandary is incredibly difficult for planners. We love to plan, but we don't know what to plan for. The solution? Less planning and more investigation of the questions of the Twenties Triangle (which we'll cover in part 2).
THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY PARALYSIS
Welcome to my first and perhaps most infamous analogy: "Life is like the Cheesecake Factory." If you have ever been to the Cheese-cake Factory, you'll get this analogy. If you have not had the delectable dining privilege of this chain restaurant, let me explain: you sit down and the host hands you the menu, which is like a book — it has a spiral. There are 167 items to choose from and that is not including drinks, sides, and more than 20 types of cheesecake. Upon my first visit, I was immediately stressed out. First of all, the menu was heavy. Second, I felt like I needed an hour to read through all my options — there were too many things to decide among: from pizzas to salads to fish to pasta to burgers, every type of food seemed to be somehow represented (and I hadn't even gotten to the cheesecakes yet). How was I supposed to pick just one dish? What was the best thing? As everyone else around me ordered, I became even more anxious — should I get what someone else was having? Would it be better than what I thought I wanted?
"There are so many options open to one at this time of life. With the way the world is today, we are encouraged to be all we can be, and more. There is pressure to make decisions that will form the foundation for the rest of your life in your twenties. It's almost as if having a range of limited options would be easier."
Human resources employee, 24, recovering from a breakup, Virginia
Finally, I did choose something — after asking the waiter an incessant series of questions about menu options (how in the world do they memorize it?). As soon as the waiter walked away with my order, I immediately felt buyer's remorse. Did I pick right? As the food was delivered to the table, I looked at everyone else's choices with envy. Their decisions looked better, I wanted their entrées. What was in front of me, now that it was mine, did not seem appetizing anymore. I was lost in comparison land. What happened to my nice evening out?
The twenty-something experience is full of limitless options and choices with no guarantees. Growing up, today's young adults are exposed to an expansive world: they can leap nations and cultures in a single bound, and new forms of entertainment and technology multiply career possibilities almost infinitely. Yet as possibilities expand, contentment and a sense of direction among the twenty-something generation contracts. Being told "You can do and be anything you want" has become more of a pressure cooker of expectations than a motivational quote. And when you do make a choice about any aspect of your life, how do you know it will be both appetizing and satisfying? You don't. And living in this Cheesecake Factory world makes that reality harder to swallow.
"I feel like the window to my future is all fogged up. Every time I wipe it in order to see it, it fogs up within seconds. I feel like I have all the options in the world — like life is one big multiple choice and I want to pick (d), all of the above."
Bartender, 25, recovering from a breakup, Ontario, Canada
My solution, when I go to the Cheesecake Factory now, is that I don't take a menu. That's right — I refuse it. I have found one dish in the encyclopedia of food they call a menu that I like and I always order that. Why stress myself out with more choices? I order what I know I will enjoy and don't fret over what I am missing out on. When, if ever, I get sick of the Herbed Salmon Salad (because I know you are curious), then I may entertain the idea of taking a look at the menu to investigate a little more — but I will never try to sample everything on the menu, it's just impossible.
The same is true in life. Sometimes you just have to decide and be content with your decision, otherwise you will continue to be overwhelmed by possibilities and torn between the reality of what you have and the fantasy in your head that you think would be better. You know what is very interesting about the letters and emails I get from twenty somethings? There is always at least one complaint. Something is always wrong — and I am not being critical here, because believe me, I earned a PhD in complaining in my twenties. To me, the overfocusing on what is wrong is a direct result of the checklists and plans twenty-somethings feel pressured to create, coupled with Cheesecake Factory paralysis. It is challenging for today's twenty somethings to be content in a world of endless choices and expectations.
"FOLLOW THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD" by Jennifer, 25
DECLARATION: My fear is the constant wonder whether or not what I'm doing with my twenty-something years is right.
I think about where I'm going a lot as a twenty something. I wonder, what will my life look like in six months? A year? Five years? I think about the choices I'm making. I feel paralyzed by all the options I have regarding decisions I have to make. I question whether or not I'm "doing enough." I compare my life to those of others, wondering if I might be "missing something" that will help me "get somewhere" quicker or with more meaning. I wonder if I really am making valuable connections and networks that will help shape my future career.
Working for a leadership institute, I hear amazing women tell their career success stories every day. While they're inspiring and full of amazing advice, it's somewhat terrifying to think about all the things I'm supposed to be doing in order to "get somewhere" successful: "Follow your passions, live your dreams, take risks, network with the right people, find mentors, be financially responsible, volunteer, work, think about or go to grad school, fall in love, and maintain personal well-being, mental health, and nutrition." When is there time to just be and enjoy, especially when the cycle is doing, going, sleeping, eating, networking? Then there are fears that are largely irrational, and that I know I can and will overcome, but still stick inside my head. My fears come from constantly wondering whether or not what I'm doing with my twenty-something years, while okay, is really me. Maybe I'm not doing the "right" things that are leading me where I think I might want to or should go. The tricky part is quieting the fear, trusting the process in a competitive world, getting ahead, and being patient.
I liken the twenty-something years to the yellow brick road. Possibility lies ahead. There are twists and turns that can throw you backward, make you think differently, or give you insight and perspective into what it is you might really want and strive for. You never really know where the road is going to lead. You make choices that are hard to make because you never know if they are "right," but you can't turn back. And it's scary.
And so far my twenty-something years have been, well, kind of ordinary. I had some expectation that they would be more exciting, more revealing, or more inspiring. But they haven't been ... so I've learned that I have to laugh at life, no matter how ordinary it is, and constantly look for opportunities to learn.
There Is No "Right" Thing
Unless you are breaking a legal or moral law, purposely hurting someone, or lying — forget about doing the "right" thing. Seriously, there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong" in terms of what you are doing in your twenty-something years. As long as we are committed to learning from our experiences, there are no mistakes! And life is like the yellow brick road — there are many surprises ahead, but eventually we do get home. When? Not when we hit thirty (trust me, I'm there). It happens when we take our last breath on this planet. If we really understand now that our entire life is about learning, we can free ourselves from having to be "right."
Like Jennifer, perhaps you worry about "making valuable connections and networks that will help shape your future career." You know what? As long as we are interacting and engaging with other people in the world, we are making connections. Developing strong interpersonal skills and creating a network of colleagues and friends who support our growth helps us in life. Every interaction or connection does not have to have a "point" or a "result." Just because someone may not be able to help your immediate career advancement does not mean the person is not a valuable connection. Cultivating relationships is just as valuable as "networking"! When we consistently look for opportunities to learn from people and events, an "ordinary" life can indeed become extraordinary.
"Too many options are making me indecisive. I feel that because I have been told 'you can do anything,' I must explore everything and feel pressure to make the right choices every time."
Student, 21, single, Tennessee
Excerpted from 20 Something Manifesto by Christine Hassler. Copyright © 2008 Christine Hassler. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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