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5 Things I Thought I'd Have Figured Out by the End of My 20s

by Matt Hershberger Apr 21, 2016

MY TWENTIES WERE EASILY MY BEST DECADE. None of the squirming discomfort of my teens, none of the “will I be able to hold in this pee?” uncertainty that so colored my first decade. My twenties were filled with travel, partying, thinking about life, wasting time with my friends, and (finally) getting serious about dating.

When I turned 20, I barely thought about turning 30, but I did assume that I’d have some things figured out by the time I got to that point. Now, I’m a little under three months away from my thirtieth birthday, and I’m starting to look back on my third decade, and a common theme seems to be, “Holy shit, I didn’t know anything when I turned 20.” I know slightly more now, but there are still a lot of things I don’t have figured out. Here are just a few:

1. How to be a healthy, functioning human being.

When you’re poor and are trying to save all of your money for traveling, calories are precious. If you order a pizza, you don’t just throw away that pizza. You eat all of it, even if you’re not hungry, because you may need those calories when you begin to starve to death, goddammit.

Exercise? That’s something adults do in place of fun. Cultivating a healthy, well-rounded social and emotional life that ensures a greater degree of mental stability in the rough times? Who has time for it?

This was my attitude for probably two-thirds of my 20s, and I’m still trying to construct a healthier life. And I still can’t throw away pizza.

2. The science of being in a relationship.

Things have gone well for me in my 20s. I had never had a girlfriend at age 20, and now, at age 29, I’m happily married. But that doesn’t mean I have anything “figured out.” I’d thought, up until I got into one, that there was a science to relationships, that there were certain rules that could be applied to all of them.

But relationships aren’t a science. They’re a conversation. And my relationship with my wife is an ongoing conversation that I can’t say I’ve totally “figured out,” because conversations aren’t something that you resolve. You might put them on pause, they might occasionally break down, and they may reach a general agreement for a little while, but they inevitably continue on.

3. The work-life balance.

My dad had the job he has now by the time he was 25. My parents generation had a lot less puttering around and “figuring things out” than ours has. And I’m still trying to pin down what a career looks like for me. I thought, by this age, I’d be settled into a job I’d hold for thirty years, but now that my 20s are ending, I’m realizing that hitting a balance between money, family, doing something that’s valuable for the world, and having fun is an incredibly difficult balance that’s going to take me at least another decade to figure out.

4. That whole religion thing.

At the end of my teens, I was a devout atheist, having left the Catholic church I’d been raised in. I was the insufferable guy quoting Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins on Facebook. This certainty, I assumed, would only strengthen as I got older.

Nope. If there’s one thing my 20’s have taught me, it’s that certainty rarely strengthens, and that when I sit down and talk to religious people about what they believe, they usually have something pretty thoughtful and nuanced that I could get on board with. I still wouldn’t say I believe in most definitions of god at the end of my 20’s, but I no longer see the religious as deserving of ridicule. Which is probably a change for the better. For me personally, I’ve accepted that deciding what I should believe is going to be a lifelong journey.

5. How to hang out with my family without turning back into my childhood self.

We haven’t lived together as a full family for 13 years, when my older sister left for college. Individually, we’re completely different people now, and on a one-to-one level, we all have great relationships. But Jesus Christ, that 2003 family dynamic is rough. Whenever I return home for the holidays, I turn into a thin-skinned, insecure, argumentative hothead. It is not a good look on me.

When my wife saw me get into a fight with my mom for the first time — it was, I believe, at first a discussion of what we were doing at work that devolved into a shouting match about the nature of good and evil that clearly had nothing to do with what we were really feeling — she asked afterwards, “Where the hell did that come from?”

Oh, sweetheart. You just witnessed the resurfacing of 500 unfinished arguments and 27 years of family history coming to a head. There’s no rhyme or reason in this battle. Just bloodletting.

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