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The 4 Most Powerful Lessons Learned in my 20s

February 9, 2016

I’ve been fortunate enough to have some pretty exciting experiences throughout my 20s thus far. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have foreseen myself being where I am today, and I attribute that to the following lessons I’ve learned through the past several years.

Leave home

When Ashlee and I got married, we were given this advice by a trusted mentor.

“The very best thing you can do when you first get married is to move away from home and forge your own path.”

It stuck with us. Within a year of receiving this advice, we headed out on our way to a new home several hours from where we grew up. We put a good bit of distance between ourselves and our family and childhood friends. Though it was a scary step in our lives, we soon discovered why this advice was so important.

A few months after settling into our new home, we met a wonderful group of friends, several of whom hadn’t taken the chance to move away from home beyond going away to college. We noticed something hanging over these people – pressure. Pressure to keep up with the example set by nearby family members. Pressure to keep up with friendships that should’ve faded a long time ago. Pressure to accomplish the goals they set out to accomplish in the eyes of the peers they grew up with.

In my view, it’s incredibly important for all of us to see how we handle life without any of these pressures or influences.

You need to see how you react to your car breaking down 400 miles from the nearest friend or family member (it sucks).

You need to experience building relationships without those initial connections to assist in the process (it’s hard).

You need to know what it’s like to be missed by those you love.

You need to have the opportunity to let failing friendships die gracefully.

By never moving away, we lose the chance to learn more about ourselves in these scenarios.

All of this is especially true if you’re married. For Ashlee and me, moving away has given us the opportunity to maintain strong relationships with our families while also providing the distance necessary to form our own married life and build our own experiences.

When we fight, we resolve it head on. When faced with a tough choices, we make those together. When it comes to big decisions like having children, we’ve been fortunate to make those judgments without influence or pressure from 3rd parties. After all, being 2000 miles away from family means that at the end of the day, the only people we can lean on are each other, and for us, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Move away. It’s ok to come back, but you need the time to discover who you really are away from the influences that built you.

Get out of debt

This is a personal finance site, so this one’s been talked to death. However, it remains a crucial step early in your adult life. By getting out of debt in those young adult years, we accomplish two major things:

  1. We learn the value of our work, our time, and our money. Most of us in our early 20s can’t truly process how much a debt balance of greater than $10,000 really is. That was certainly the case for me, and paying it off and seeing the work needed to whittle that number down is what gave it weight in my life.
  2. We learn how money really works. Nothing provides a better financial education than paying off debt. It requires consistent budgeting, intense saving habits, and an overall reevaluation of the role money plays in your life. Take it from us, paying off your debt is a massive, formative achievement in your financial life.

Since we’ve discussed the hard truths about debt and the benefits of debt freedom in a previous article, along with the many reasons why it’s not actually a “tool”, we’ll defer to those articles for further discussion on this piece of advice.

Plant your flag in every job

Early in my 20s, I learned a very important and surprising lesson. There have been dozens of books written on the topic of professional success and optimizing your goals and career path, but I’ve realized that there’s actually only two steps that are universally necessary to developing a successful career:

  1. Show up when you’re supposed to show up
  2. Finish work when it’s supposed to be finished

If you follow these two steps, I can guarantee you that you’ll be praised and rewarded for your efforts in almost any job.

In college, I saw this play out firsthand when it came time to turn in a major project as a final portion of a course. We were given months to prepare, and the due date was well established very early on. Strangely, on the due date, many students failed to show up to the class. They didn’t even pass along their project with a fellow student. And of course, they failed. Later, the teacher shared with us the fact that if these students had simply shown up to class with something, they would’ve easily passed the course.

So much of career success boils down to these two steps. Just show up and get your shit done. Naturally, it pays to go beyond these simple two steps and go the extra mile when the opportunity presents itself, but imagine being an employee who’s known for never being late and always gets their work done on time. Not a bad goal, in my opinion.

We do need to face reality, though – sometimes, jobs kind of suck, and hitting those two goals can be a chore, right?

Even still, we should always strive to “plant our flag” in every job, every project, every task we take on (even the crappy ones). Strive for quality in everything you do, regardless how small. And if you must leave a job, strive to leave it in a better state that you found it.

Master empathy

I’m going to say something that you might not like, but you need to hear it. Are you ready?

Most people don’t give a shit about your life.

Now that I’ve crossed that line and gotten your attention, let me explain why I say that. With the rise of social media, we’ve become increasingly self-centered. Look at your Twitter timeline, and you’ll regularly see dozens of “look at me and what I’m doing and what I like!” tweets. If you too join in on this trend of constant self-promotion, you’ll often be greeted with the same amount of attention you give the majority of those other self-promoting folks – silence.

It’s not just a social media problem. Look at most of the conversations we have with one another, and you’ll see how often we instantly jump into talk about ourselves. Most of us don’t know any other way of carrying a conversation. When you continuously attempt to build connections and friendships this way – totally devoid of empathy and interest in others – you’re doomed to start making enemies out of people over time.

There is actually a very simple solution to this problem, however. At it’s core, it begins with developing your sense of empathy. In the most practical sense, it takes the form of becoming truly interested in other people, and showing this in our behaviors and conversations.

Dale Carnegie describes this in his famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People:

So if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. As Mrs. Charles Northam Lee puts it: “To be interesting, be interested.” Ask questions that the other man will enjoy answering. Encourage him to talk about himself and his accomplishments.

Remember that the man you are talking to is a hundred times more interested in himself and his wants and his problems than he is in you and your problems. His toothache means more to him than a famine in China that kills a million people. A boil on his neck interests him more than forty earthquakes in Africa. Think of that next time you start a conversation.

So if you want people to like you, be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

Taking interest in others is one of the healthiest social behaviors that you can develop in your own life. When we train ourselves to truly look at things from other peoples’ point of view, work towards understanding these views, and take a genuine interest in them, you will learn more about yourself and the world around you.

What are your thoughts? What are some of the major lessons you learned in your 20s?

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  • moneygroweruk

    Some great tips here Brian. Being in my mid twenties, I can certainly relate to what you are saying and will take this advice on board. Equally as important as getting out of debt is planting some seeds of wealth as this age. I know most of us twenty-somethings find it hard to save and invest but by just tucking some money away, you can let it compound over the long term and your future self will be grateful you ever did so!