Being in the 20s was much like the first time I paddled the full shallow breadth of a swimming pool without assistance. Blurred vision, water in the trachea, anxiety, exhaustion, and then euphoria, not so much for being alive as for not dying shamefully in 3-ft-deep water.
If I could go back in time and do my 20s again, I probably would. Just to have another go at all the things I failed to notice, but that are clearer now that I'm older. I'd like to believe that at 30, a gong was sounded in the heavens and the spell of self-destructive idiocy was lifted. And then I took one more year to collect my thoughts, and at 31 I feel ready to time travel to save my 20-year-old self from a decade of headless chicken dance.
Now, if my 20-something self could just spare a minute to look at me from the centre of the universe where she thinks she's parked, here are a few things I would tell her.
1) Talking wins you acquaintances, listening wins you friends.
In my tumultuous early 20s, I believed I had to be a smooth talker to be popular. I wasn't a smooth talker. I was mostly a shy girl who kept to herself. Big groups made me anxious. I would be so consumed with the thought of what to say next, that I'd rarely hear what anyone was saying. Eventually, I must have given up trying to impress, or I got curious, or realized that others had better things to say, but somewhere along the way, I stopped talking and started listening, and it changed my world.
2) Don't be afraid of criticism or failure.
This is the single biggest career advice I would have for my 20-something self: put yourself in the line of fire, push the envelope until it can't be pushed anymore. I'd like to rewind and go back a decade just so I could do the things that needed doing without worrying about criticism. The first time my article was trashed by an editor, it took me two years before I wrote another byline piece. Today, I understand that brilliance is an island several nautical miles away that calls for tireless and persistent rowing, often against the current.
3) Don't be in a hurry to pledge your heart, but be generous with it.
I want to tell my 20-something self to fall in love a lot, in different degrees, and to not worry about heartbreak. Love courageously. Know when to say it's over and move on, or when to keep trying to make it work. Know what you can live with or what is a deal-breaker. The more you understand people and relationships, the lesser you leave to chance. I believe when you finally do pledge your heart, let it be an informed decision drawn from your own unique needs.
4) Travel every chance you get.
I've always loved it, but missed too many opportunities. There's something profoundly primeval and evolutionary about travel. It exposes us to new ideas and people, and opens the mind if we let it. It is both humbling and uplifting at the same time. The 20s are a great time to travel because it is when we're at the peak of our physical fitness, highly receptive to new influences, and not yet set in our ways.
5) Between passion and curiosity, pick curiosity.
I don't know how many actually get lucky enough to know what they're passionate about, but almost all of us are curious about something. Cal Newport says in his book So Good They Can't Ignore You that 'follow your passion' is bad advice. I know there's truth in it because all through my 20s I had no clue what my passion was. I'm not sure I know even today what that is. What I do know is when I follow my curiosity as Elizabeth Gilbert says, I'm not only happier, but also on the way to getting good at something that I enjoy. That was an epiphany I should have had on graduation day.
6) If you're young and not into partying, you're not a loser.
I spent a lot of my time wondering how to be a party girl. I never succeeded and it always made me guilty. If I could go back in time, I would grab that 20-something idiot by the shoulders and shake her. "Introversion is not a flaw, you naive little girl!" I'd tell her. And then I would have made her listen to Susan Cain's TED video on why the world needs its introverts. That would have saved my 20s. At 31, I love, love my solitary evenings as much as I love hanging out with a dear friend or two over a pint of beer and good food. And now I do go out for occasional parties, but only because I want to, and I can head back home whenever I want, guilt-free.
I'm sure I'll have my list of late epiphanies at 40 for this decade, but that's alright, at least I'm in the deeper part of the pool now.