Your 20s are a powerful decade of your life. During this time you sculpt many of the habits and practices you’ll probably maintain throughout your 30s, 40s, and beyond. However, many 20-somethings don’t give much thought to how their decisions and actions during this decade will ultimately create their future identity. They expect they’ll be able to make changes later, but that assumption usually turns out to be wrong.
During your 20s you may think of your career path as having many options. You believe you could do many different types of work. That’s technically true.
Later in life, however, people have a tendency to wrap their career paths into their identities. They don’t just do a job. They are that job. People in their 40s don’t just sell real estate; they’re realtors. People don’t just do customer service; they’re customer service representatives. People don’t just program; they’re programmers.
On multiple occasions I’ve seen people in their 20s fall into a temporary line of work, knowing that it wasn’t something they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. They just took a job to cover their expenses for a while, expecting to get into something more inspired a bit later. Fast forward 20 years though, and they’re still doing that same type of work, except now it’s not just a job. It’s part of their identity. They don’t say, “I’m doing some accounting work.” They say, “I’m an accountant.”
They never wanted that temporary job to become their long-term career. It just sort of happened. Somewhere between one year and ten years after the initial decision, they lost the ability to keep the job separate from their identity. At some point they had to admit (perhaps only subconsciously), “I’ve been doing this for so many years that I guess I must be an accountant.” And when they have to say this aloud, you’ll see a glimmer of sadness in their eyes. Boy, did I see a lot of that at my last high school reunion!
When you’re in your 20s, be extra careful about the risk of getting sucked into a long-term career path by doing some temporary work to cover expenses. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you’d still like to be doing that job in 10 years. If your answer is something like “hell no!” or cynical laughter, maybe you should pass and wait for a better spot. If you’re desperate for money, fine, but do be careful about the possibility of short-term decisions becoming long-term patterns. If you don’t have a clear exit strategy, you may find that the exit is decades away.
Think about the media consumption habits you’re establishing during your 20s (including social media). Will you still want to maintain those same habits during your 40s?
Some habits may feel good to you, such as reading good books or indulging in a good movie or video series now and then. Other practices may give you a feeling of dread if you think about continuing them for decades.
Which media consumption practices are you establishing today that you wouldn’t want to drag into your 30s, 40s, and beyond? Pay attention to those dread-inducing practices, and drop or replace them while you still can.
When I ask people who are avid social media users if they still want to be Tweeting and Facebooking 10 years from now, almost everyone says something like, “Hell no! That would be too sad to even think about!” Even the people who use those services for marketing don’t like the thought of still using them in 10 years. People clearly have a love-hate relationship with these services. They like the social benefits but dislike the twitchy, addictive habits those service install in them. People like being socially connected, but they don’t like being social media addicts.
Lots of people in their 40s are stuck with addictive social media habits today because they started in their 20s or 30s (with whatever form of social media was available back then). If you’d asked them five years ago if they’d still be Facebooking every day at this age, many of them would have said, “No way!” Will these same people still be stuck with these patterns in their 50s? Probably.
Many of the 20-somethings who are checking social media every day will someday be 40-somethings who are checking social media every day. The media may change form, but the habit will still be there. The behavioral patterns will probably stick.
Whatever media habits you have now, if I were to ask you if you’ll still be maintaining them 30 days from now, what would you say? Most people would probably admit that they’ll have the same habits a month from now. Now if I wait 30 days and ask you the same question about your expectations for day 60, what would you say then? You’d probably give the same answer. And that’s how it goes for decades.
Expecting a personal transition to happen later is often equivalent to delaying it indefinitely. In the future you’ll still be projecting the change into the future. So if you expect to make a change within the next five years, then five years from now, you’ll still be expecting your future self to make that change within another five years. The change will always be someday, never now.
This is why it’s so important to establish quality habits early in life. Yes, you can still change later, but it will be more difficult. If you become a media addict during your 20s, you’ll probably still be one in your 40s, 50s, and beyond.
Same goes for consuming lots of TV shows, movies, news, porn, etc. The earlier you install those habits, the harder it will be to shake them.
Don’t fall for the ruse of telling yourself that you’ll correct these problems later. If you can see that you’re drifting off course, the time for a course correction is now. If you’re not willing to change course now, are you willing to sentence yourself to maintain these habits for the next 20 years minimum? That’s really your choice in the here and now.
I attend a lot of health conferences, and usually the majority of attendees are in their 40s or older. It’s unusual to see many 20-somethings at such events, unless the event is about fitness (as opposed to holistic health and disease prevention). People in their 20s often feel that they can work on their health habits when they’re older or if they happen to get sick. They figure there’s plenty of time to make improvements if and when it becomes necessary.
The problem with that mindset is that we establish health habits during our 20s (and younger) that we’ll very likely carry forward into future decades, and the longer we maintain those habits, the harder it is to change.
Several years ago one of our previous workshop attendees died from cancer. He was 28 years old. Even with this threat to his survival that he was aware of for the last 18 months of his life, he found it really tough to get himself to eat healthier foods, at least to give himself that extra advantage. The diagnosis gave him a wake-up call, and of course he got lots of advice about what he might, could, and should change, but this didn’t automatically make him change. I think it probably just added to his stress.
You may think that a cancer diagnosis would give you the motivation to greatly improve your health habits, but you may be surprised at how difficult it is to change directions even when your life is on the line. Imagine trying to make these habit changes while simultaneously facing decisions about chemotherapy, radiation treatment, surgery, detoxification, alternative therapies, etc. So many people crave comfort and security during this time, and that comes from the familiar, not the new.
Even if you want to indulge in less than stellar habits during your 20s (which I completely understand), I recommend blocking off some time during that decade to temporarily establish really positive practices in different areas of your life. Then even if you stray from those practices afterwards, it will be much easier for you to reload them at some point later in life, should you ever want or need to do so.
For this positive practice period, I’d recommend about 6-12 months. You may begin with a 30-day trial, and once you get to day 30, just keep going. Or you can commit to doing 6-12 months up front, knowing how important it will be for your future self.
In 1997 (the year I turned 26), I made a New Year’s resolution to exercise aerobically every day that year for at least 25 minutes. I also did martial arts classes 3-4 times per week, but I didn’t count those classes towards my 25 minutes. I figured that if I kept this up for a full year, it would be much easier to maintain this habit later in life. I succeeded in keeping the resolution, which was pretty easy after the first few weeks, and it established a pattern that’s been difficult to stray from ever since. While I’ve sometimes slacked off and gone for weeks at a time without exercising, I always return to some routine of regular exercise, and it has always been easy for me to get back into it. Each time I need to begin anew, I’m just reloading a well-established practice.
In 2008 I ate 100% raw for six months straight, and afterwards I returned to eating mostly cooked food. Now whenever I want to eat 100% raw again, such as if I want to experience better energy or more mental clarity, I find it easy to reload those habits and go raw for several weeks at a time. The behaviors are already familiar and comfortable because I’m reloading old behaviors, not training new ones.
If you ever ran into serious health issues down the road, you may find it very difficult to improve your health habits at the time, especially if it’s a stressful experience for you. But if you’re merely reloading familiar practices from your past, it’s much easier. Then you could quickly shift over to the most beneficial practices you have in your toolbox, such as raw foods, daily meditation, yoga, your best detoxification protocols, etc. And you wouldn’t have to learn these practices from scratch.
I feel lucky that I established some good long-term habits and temporary practices during my 20s, not knowing how beneficial they’d be later in life. I encourage you to build a lot of this toolbox during your 20s too; later in life you’ll be glad you did.
Your Future Self
Someday your future self will have to deal with the consequences of the habits and practices you established during your 20s. Will this person look back on your decisions with regret and disdain or with gratitude and appreciation? Will s/he be stuck with obnoxious addictions or supported by empowering habits? Will s/he have a well-developed toolbox of positive practices that can be reloaded at will?
My 20-something self made a lot of mistakes. He failed more often than he succeeded. But I’m really grateful that he worked so much on his growth, kept learning, kept experimenting, and didn’t give up. Today I still benefit from the personal development work he did during the 90s. He made me an entrepreneur, a runner, and a vegan. He never smoked. He didn’t become an alcoholic. He began that decade with a criminal record and an expulsion from school — not a good start at all. My teenage self screwed him over, and I deeply appreciate that he turned things around and learned to feel some compassion and caring for his future self. He set me up to really enjoy and appreciate my 40s.
During my 20s I’d often visualize having conversations with my future self, usually 5-10 years into the future. I’d imagine what kind of man I might become at that point in my life if I kept working on conscious growth. I’d ask his advice. I’d listen to his answers. That was a powerful practice. It made me think carefully about how my decisions during that decade would affect my 30-something self, my 40-something self, and beyond.
I remind myself to continue this practice today, to have some compassion for my 50-something and 60-something self. I’d like to set him up for enjoyable and fulfilling years to the extent I can influence that outcome, even if it means taking on some extra challenges during my 40s.
As you work on your personal growth during your current decade of life, do your best to feel some compassion for your future self. See that person as already real, instantly reflecting the results of your decisions today. How much do you care about him/her? Can you send him/her some love? Can you put in some extra effort today that s/he will appreciate?
Focus on a vision of your future self as happy, healthy, loved, abundant, and any other positive qualities that matter to you. Then float back to the present and consider what your future self would think of your current practices. Which ones would elicit a thank you? Which would elicit a please grow past this?
If you see there’s a change to be made, the time to begin it is now. This is your moment.
Written by Steve Pavlina