Advice To My 20 Year-Old Self: Do Everything Wrong

Your twenties isn’t the time to get everything perfect.

I’m extremely lucky. By the time I was 12, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

I wanted to be a lawyer. Not for the money, but because I genuinely enjoyed the idea of using my ability to construct creative arguments, wiggle through loopholes, and hold my own in an adversarial situation for the good of other people. I’d actually planned on going to a cheaper law school knowing I wasn’t going to be making the kind of money I’d need to pay off big school loans.

I was going to graduate from college at 21, give myself three years for law school, and enter the workforce between 24 and 25. My partner and I would be living together by then, and we’d figure out where we wanted to build our future together. It’d give me plenty of years to build up towards the kind of career I wanted. I even planned for flexibility, knowing that I’d never be able to predict the curves my life might take, or the kinds of legal paths I might want to explore once I’d sunk my teeth in.

Then life happened: I started college. My partner died. And suddenly my well-scheduled future was a shred of its former self.

The cliché is true. People react to grief differently, and it really impacts parts of your life that you never would’ve expected it to. Over a decade after my girlfriend’s death, I’m still reeling from the emotional and psychological consequences. Each time I examine and peel back one layer, there’s a fresh new one beneath it, ready to punch me in the face.

A major life change like this understandably skews your life goals. Why ignorantly forge ahead building a future with someone who isn’t there anymore?

I really wish this was the path my emotions and brain decided to take.

Suddenly at a crossroads in my twenties, I was forced to reassess my entire future.

Suddenly at a crossroads in my twenties, I was forced to reassess my entire future.

Instead, my psyche decided what I needed to do was adhere to everything else in my life as strictly as possible. I needed to do all of these ‘normal’ pre-grief things and to maintain them perfectly. In my own way, I was creating my own firmer reality. It would be easier to deal with this one major change if nothing else changed, I reasoned. If I could just continue to go to school, continue to work, continue to maintain friendships and interests that I had before, everything would be alright. Eventually.

My coping mechanism failed spectacularly, of course. I failed an entire semester of courses, stayed in jobs that were bad for me longer than I deserved, lost friends and interests alike.

Before she died, I remember my partner telling me during the worst waves of her depression, everything tasted like sand. That’s what my life felt like. My mouth was endless dunes of swirling sand, punctuated by mirages that promised if I just crossed this one hill I’d see some semblance of the life I’d worked so hard for. I’d see the person who died. Because it wasn’t just my partner who was gone, it was a large portion of myself. Another cliché that’s true is that a part of you dies when someone close to you does. I’d wasted nearly a decade clinging to a life that was long dead before I understood what I’d done.

If I could go back and talk to myself in my twenties, I’d give myself the permission to screw up.

“Screw up as often as possible, Natalie,” I’d say to my younger self.

“You’re going to do it anyway, and at least you’re going to learn something besides the false feeling of failure that comes from neglecting to meet some impossible standard for yourself. Screw up. You’ll regret not taking risks when you’re older and look back at this ‘safe’ life you spent so much time building for absolutely no reason.”

Which isn’t to say I didn’t learn anything from my twenties – I did. I learned plenty, from bad relationships to bad bosses, to a little bit more about what makes me comfortable in my own skin. But I wish so much that I’d had someone sitting there telling me I didn’t have to be perfect. That it was okay to fall apart, to take risks that might shatter every idea I had about the direction my future was headed, to disassemble every cubic inch of me and examine it. I wish I’d known at a much younger age it’s alright to question everything about yourself, that it’s alright to figure out you’re a very different person than the one 12 year-old you constructed. Because it’s never too late to get rid of who you are when it doesn’t fit you anymore.

Comment: What risks or experiences do you regret not taking on in your twenties?