by Margareth Wheeler Johnson
My 25th birthday was one of the most magical nights of my life. It was at the sort of restaurant that isn’t supposed to exist in New York City, with a nondescript storefront on an especially barren block of 14th Street and a walled courtyard in the back that feels like France. Almost all of the people important to me came. I wore the blue and lavender party dress I wore to everything, but it seemed to fit me better that night. The whole thing was one of those occasions so perfect you think you must be dead, or bound to die in your sleep that night. What could there be after this? That’s a wrap, you think. Scene.
That night was precious to me in part because it in no way reflected what was going on the day before or after, which was that I was a total mess, and knew it. I was making mostly wrong choices and couldn’t seem to stop myself and didn’t understand why. On an almost primal level, I was certain that this was going to end very, very badly, or, even worse, it would not end. It would go on forever.
Five years later, I’m relieved to say it hasn’t. In fact, it’s ending tomorrow. Given my extensive catalog of missteps (read on), I expected my strongest emotion the day before my 30th birthday to be deep remorse for the ways in which I stalled and backtracked, for the things left undone. But very strangely, that isn’t how I feel. Instead I’m mostly astonished. Not only have I emerged from a decade that often felt like some dark, elaborate joke, with a code name like “Sisyphus” or perhaps just “New York,” but I feel like I learned some things along the way, and that they might actually be useful to someone else. Here they are, seven things I’ve learned since I turned 25:
1. You are already Real.
One of my biggest problems in my 20s, as far as I can tell, was that I had what I’ll call Velveteen Rabbit Syndrome (editors of the DSM-V, take note).
“Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you,” the Skin Horse tells the stuffed hare. And just like that sawdust-filled bunny, I was waiting in my party dress, expecting someone or something outside myself to declare me real, started, begun, on my way.
But not yet. When I was ready. Which would apparently be never.
I was already real, of course — just denying it. As the Skin Horse also informs the rabbit, correctly this time, being real hurts. Accepting that you’re real means accepting that you’re going to disappoint people, and yourself, and it might go on your Permanent Record. (I am still afraid of things going on my Permanent Record, not the kind kept by law-enforcement entities or academic institutions but in the minds of others, the running tab of things that might make them ultimately decide I am not worth their time.)
It means allowing that you’re going to spill things on yourself and break someone’s heart and get yours stomped on and treat a friend or two very, very badly and accidentally reply all and be unforgivably late and have terrible sex. Things are going to be unmemorable and unphotogenic, and you won’t be able to delete or edit them, and some of it could even end up on the Internet, which is the ultimate Permanent Record.
You can pretend you’re still in the nursery, nurturing some vision of what your life will be when you decide to participate, but in the meantime you’re paying rent and bills and taxes for and on the life you’re missing, all the while knowing that no one gets away with not getting on with it, and feeling constant paranoia about that. It’s easier just to get on with it.
2. It’s not all your fault.
I believe that your 20s are supposed to be hard. But it is not helpful to have to tackle the hard stuff while being told repeatedly that you belong to a unique generation of wastrels.
Throughout the last 10 years, journalists and psychologists have raised the alarm about that mutant creature in our midst, the stalled, entitled, myopic 20-something Millennial. See: “The Narcissism Epidemic,” “Emerging Adulthood” and “Not Quite Adults,” “Meet The Twixters,” “What Is It About 20-Somethings?“
My favorite part of this obsession with the 20-somethings is the insistence that despite our laziness and navel-gazing, we are, as Jeffrey Arnett, author of “Emerging Adulthood” told the New York Times in 2010, “extraordinarily optimistic that life will work out.” Really?
I can’t recall a single time between 20 and 28 when I had a sense that it would work out, and I evidently wasn’t alone. In “The Kids Are Actually Sort Of All Right,” a piece that looked at Millennials through their own eyes, New York magazine’s Noreen Malone quoted a 24-year-old college dropout, “Definitely, if you don’t do something, it’s not going to happen. But if you do do something, it’s still probably not going to happen.”
When you take the one of the most funded, doted-on generations of Americans ever and find them saying things like that, you have problems as a society that extend far beyond a tendency toward self-absorption. You have a recession, downward mobility, a disappearing middle class. None of this is the fault of people in their 20s, but reading such extensive coverage of your shortcomings is enough to make anyone feel hopeless, and, in my case, guilty for not being more “extraordinarily optimistic.”
I want back the time in my 20s that I spent feeling bad about feeling bad.
3. You’re going to do it the way you’re going to do it.
The latest addition to all of the concerned Millennial watching is clinical psychologist Meg Jay’s book “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now,” which informs 20-somethings that, supposedly contrary to all they have been told, now is the time to get a career, an apartment, a significant other, a spouse, a baby (or at least a fertility plan), and above all, a grip.
I saw her point. In many cases, I tried to make myself make the choices she recommends. And in almost every case, I walked straight into the opposite, bad decision. I, in chronological order,
-Quit my first job out of college because I knew I was bad at it (Chapter 12)
–Wrote about that job after the fact (Jay doesn’t warn against this, but I do.)
-Spent large swaths of time “underemployed” (very-part-time copy editor, real estate assistant, interior design shop girl; Chapter 1)
-Moved back in with my parents
-Felt like every error I made at work would result in immediate firing (Chapter 12)
-Dated people with whom I saw absolutely no future (Chapter 9)
-Cohabited with someone I didn’t plan to marry (Chapter 8)
For whatever reason I insisted on living most of the last decade against my better judgment, and apparently I’m not alone. (Wasn’t this at one time referred to as “being young”?) As much sense as the path Jay outlines makes, if you don’t take it, if you take the hand-to-the-flame approach instead, you will still, for better or worse, make it to 30.
4. You (probably) know what you want to do.
I spent at least three of the last nine years resisting what I wanted to do professionally, not because I didn’t know I wanted to do it but because it seemed impossible. Where did I get off thinking I could do the hard, notoriously un-lucrative thing (write, in some fashion) that I had always wanted to do? Who did I think I was?
So I pretended I didn’t know, and tried for a while to do other things, and all that did was make me feel displaced and paralyzed and like I was somehow cheating on myself.
I’m not saying to quit your day job. For god’s sake, do not quit your day job. But once you admit what you know you want, it’s easier to go after it. In fact, you no longer have any excuse not to.
5. Don’t settle.
This is a tricky one. The under-30 set is notorious for the opposite urge, to constantly scan the horizon for something better than where you are and what you have. Many of us openly admit to an all-consuming FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). But I think safety is equally alluring in a decade when virtually nothing seems stable, especially when it comes to relationships. It’s tempting to latch on to the person who seems right enough with the thought that you will finally have an anchor in the chaos and will never again have to date or worry that you’re never going to have babies. Some people even encourage this option. I don’t.
If you’re even remotely considering moving in with or marrying someone because you’re afraid you can’t do better, find and talk to a friend who’s had a near miss. Corner someone who got out of a relationship that had everything going for it except the most important things. Have coffee with a runaway bride. While that person is telling you the story, inhale. That’s the scent of pure relief.
Then wait to meet the person you’re sure about — not because they’re there but because they’re them.
6. It is all about the semipermeable membrane.
This is the hardest thing I know the day before 30. Life, my ninth-grade biology teacher instructed me, can be defined as genetic code surrounded by a semipermeable membrane. For a long time I did my best to ignore this fact, or at least its broader application. I didn’t have a membrane, I had a wall. When I was a teenager it was academics. School-related, in. Everything else, out. Later it was an eating disorder. Food, sex, adulthood, assorted other scary things, out. Inside, as little as possible.
But when you accept that you’re real, that your life cannot ever be this fixed, finished, perfect thing because that’s not what lives are, when you start to be intrigued by the messiness and actually want to let a little of it in, semipermeability becomes inevitable.
Here is what being semipermeable means: It means you’re your own gatekeeper. It means no one else is guarding your moat.
I’m not saying this isn’t terrifying. It is, especially if at some point earlier in your life someone whose job it was to protect you or listen when you said what you needed didn’t protect you and didn’t listen. It’s even more frightening if you were a girl raised to be nice and likeable, and watched women who spoke up for themselves get called difficult, selfish, needy in a tone that indicated their Permanent Record had become just a lit-tle too full.
If you don’t actively say no to some things and yes to others, though, you end up so overwhelmed that you make an even bigger scene, either outwardly or in your head (neither one’s a party). You can prevent all of that by simply owning that you are semipermeable, and not everybody and everything gets to come in, at least not all at once. Deciding what does and doesn’t is the most important thing you can do for yourself every day.
7. It will be okay.
Most prosaic four words ever, right? And what do I know? I could be hit by a bus tomorrow, and that would decidedly not be okay.
I can say, though, that as I worried through my later 20s, convinced that I had many times over Ruined Everything, something bizarre began to happen. The disillusionment lifted enough to let a little bit of ambition back in, and a sense of possibility. I started to have the strange sense that I could fail without being a failure. Maybe this was my irrational Millennial optimism finally kicking in, but for the first time in my life — literally, the first time — I found myself imagining the person I might be at 35 and 40 and 60.
I didn’t arrive at that in a way Meg Jay, Ph.D. or I, for that matter, approved of in the moment, and yet here I am, 30, with a sense of a future. So I can tell you: It will be okay. It will be okay. It will be. Okay.