5 lessons I learned in my 20s
I'm 28 this year and 30 isn't the faraway milestone it used to be. As I get closer to the big 3-0, I find myself reflecting on my 20s and here are the 5 lessons I've learned along the way:
1. Make time for the things you love
It's easy to get caught up in the daily grind. Wake up, go to work, come home, order take-out and binge-watch Netflix. Most of us fall into this routine and as a result, work becomes the dominant aspect of our identity. Our sense of self and worth is tied so much to what we do for a living. And of course, there's nothing wrong with that. We should take great pride in our trade and do our best every day. But as humans, we are complex creatures. We aren't just one thing. We're not just doctors or teachers or employees; we're mothers, daughters, friends, cooks, singers, artists, writers, and so much more. None of us are defined solely by our trade.
It's important to identify our passions outside of work and nurture them. If you love food, allocate time for cafe-hopping or recipe testing at home. If you love photography, go to a picturesque spot over the weekend and click away. If you love writing, write short stories or publish a blog. Reflect on the activities that you enjoy doing and make some time for them.
When I left my job, my self-worth really took a hard blow. I began to realise how much of my worth was tied to having a stable job. I'm also a wife, a daughter, a friend, a cook and a writer, but all these things didn't come with a price tag and so, I didn't believe they made me worth something. As I started to cook and write more, I started to feel a little better about myself. I would write a blog post and send it out into the world and the act of creating something that was my own felt exhilarating. I didn't get a dime out of it, but it certainly enriched my soul (pardon me for being oh so cheesy).
2. Make mental health a priority
There is so much stigma attached to mental health, especially in the Asian community. I can't stress this enough: mental health is just as important as physical health, and there's absolutely no shame in talking about mental health issues you may face. Last year was a difficult one for me. I had crippling bouts of anxiety and I simply wasn't happy. It took leaving my job and talking to a counselor to help improve my mental state.
Admitting that is hard, but for anyone who feels the same way, I want you to know that you're not alone and there's nothing wrong with you. Just as you would for a physical ailment, it's ok to reach out for help. What helped me most was having a great support system: my husband, my dad and my best friend. Where I thought I would find judgment, I instead found understanding and love. We are often convinced that people will think the worst of us. Those who love us want to help, if only we reach out and let them help us.
Nothing is more important than your health, both physical and mental. If you feel unwell, in any way or form, taking steps to get better should always be a priority.
3. Be kind
As kids, we are taught to be kind to others, but rarely are we taught to be kind to ourselves. All my adult life, I have been so self-critical and this can be toxic. If a friend screws up making dinner, I'd probably say, "Hey, that's ok. There are still some positives here. We can try again next time." But if I screw up, I'm not so kind to myself. "God, can't you do anything right? You always screw up!" It's difficult to be at peace with yourself when your mind is constantly waging a war against you. I recently got some good advice from a friend on how to tackle this problem: the next time you make a mistake, take a deep breath and talk to yourself as you would to a dear friend in the same position. It's difficult to change the "You messed up, so typical," to "It's ok. We all make mistakes. Let's learn and do better next time." But we can train our brains to be kinder through practice. Ask a family member for help and the next time you're beating yourself up over something, get them to remind you: if your best friend was going through this, what would you say? When we verbalise our advice to others, we begin to realise what a double-standard we set for ourselves. I'm trying to be less critical of myself; I don't always get it right but I try, try, try.
4. Everyone has their own path This is something I constantly remind myself of because it's easy to forget and fall into the unhealthy habit of comparison. The grass is always greener on the other side, they say. In this day and age, I guess we can adjust this saying a little: the feed is always better on someone else's account. Right after I left my job, I started seeing a lot of people posting about their careers, workplace and colleagues. Scrolling through these posts, I often felt a mix of envy and self-hatred. Why couldn't I be like them? Why can't I stick with a stable job? Thing is, I did have a stable job, but I wasn't happy. Somehow, I forget these details as I compare my life to others. We all have ups and downs, but the downs are rarely featured on social media. It takes a very secure person to be completely unaffected by social media, and I'm definitely not that person. I have insecurities about my career, my looks, my social life, heck, just about everything. I'm not sure if that's normal, but it certainly is human. So every time I am envious, I force myself to think as a writer would. All stories can't be the same; a world of homogenous stories would be incredibly boring. Every story is beautiful; the author simply needs to recognise it. If you had the exact same life as your friends, what would you talk about? Conversations would certainly run dry really quick! Imagine we're all stories. Say I'm Twilight and you're Harry Potter. I dislike Twilight, but I love Harry Potter. In reality, they're both great stories in their own way. And as I fawn over Harry Potter, there are others who really like Twilight. Those around you admire your beauty and good qualities even as you fail to notice them. So, if you ever feel like you dislike Twilight, remind yourself that it is a multi-million dollar franchise and to each his own! Wait, what was my point again?
5. Build a healthy relationship with money I've never been one to obsess over a paycheck. By this, I mean that I often seek purpose and fulfillment through work, with the pay being a delightful bonus. Maybe such is the way of fellow millennials. We tend to seek more than money from our jobs. I guess not obsessing over money is a good thing, but that doesn't mean we should ignore money altogether. In my early 20s, I had a rather bad relationship with money. After I graduated, I landed a job and started earning my own money. I felt a sense of freedom that most young adults feel when they start getting a paycheck. I had my own money to splurge on things that I wanted, yeah! I'm lucky because I have a father who advises me on all things related to personal finance. I was hopeless with money and at the time, I was working in a bank which made it that much easier to apply for a credit card. Yikes! But time and time again, my father would say, "Spend only money that you have. Nothing more," and I stuck to that advice. As much as I would indulge in online shopping, I never swiped my card for any amount more than my bank balance and I always had enough to cover rent and food. The next pearl of wisdom my father shared with me was, "Don't keep all your eggs in one basket." He suggested moving part of my salary to another savings account, preferably held with another bank. So that's what I did. I set a standing instruction to move 30% of my salary to another account. This was almost like saving on auto-pilot and it was exactly what I needed. When I left my job at the bank, I was surprised to see that I had built a decent emergency fund through this one action. Money is a lot like youth; we take it for granted when we're younger. By the time we grow old and realise its value, it's too little, too late. It's never too early to think about retirement. In fact, saving for retirement is probably the single, most important long-term savings goal we all should have. As life expectancy increases, many people find their EPF payouts running dry too soon. We deserve to live a comfortable life in our golden years and building a good relationship with money now is essential to assure this. A few things I have started doing to change my relationship with money for the better include:
drawing up a budget and savings plan with my spouse
learning more about different investment options
starting to invest
cutting down on online shopping
not buying things I'd rarely use
decluttering my house which made me realise how much stuff I have and don't actually need
My relationship with money is not perfect, but I think it's getting better. I used to be terrified at the thought of not having enough money in my old age. The fear is still there, but along with it is contentment that I'm doing something to prepare for the future.
For those of you in your early or mid-20s, I hope these lessons serve you well. For others who may be nearing 30 like me, I know it's daunting but let's take time to reflect on what the past decade has taught us and learn from our past experiences. It's going to be a whole new adventure, but hey, you know what they say, 30 is the new 20 (just with a little more experience). So, how bad could it be?