I was a pretentious jackass when I was 20 years old. For example, I thought that lip-syncing to Mark Ronson’s “Ooh Wee” (complete with rap hand gestures) in Phuture made me look really cool. I still cringe when I think about it.
Fast forward 10 years: I’m a little more mature, a little more stable and I no longer go clubbing. I still lip sync to songs but I do it while driving because no one can see me. I have some work experience, a bank balance, and an investment portfolio.
Looking back, my twenties were filled with tremendous change: I served in the Army, studied in the US and the UK, and had 4 job postings in a large MNC. I’ve been on everything from $10-a-day backpacking trips to flying First Class. I choreographed and danced for 4 dance crews. I built products, wrote books, and sold them both. I started this blog and grew it to what it is today.
I just celebrated by 30th birthday yesterday, so I wanted to distill 10 lessons I learnt from my twenties. If you’re in this incredible period of your life (or if you’re just feeling a little reminiscent), I hope you find this insightful. Here goes:
1. Do Stuff That’s A Complete Waste Of Time
We’re always in a rush in our twenties. We want to become CEOs or cure cancer or earn “passive income” by some arbitrary deadline like “by the time we’re 30″. If an activity wasn’t productive and wasn’t bringing me closer to my goal, it felt like a waste of time.
“Productive” activities like studying and recruiting are important, but no one in the history of the world has looked back with fond memories about how they had project meetings late into the night. Don’t fall into the same trap as some of my friends who went through college with the sole purpose of landing a job – and missing out on great life experiences in the process.
The thing is, when I look back, my happiest moments were spent on things that supposedly added nothing to my material wealth: Rehearsing late into the night for a dance performance, climbing the Incan trail to see Macchu Picchu, getting into an epic snowball war, watching Office Space with new friends, and rebuilding houses in New Orleans.
Your twenties are the only period where you’ll have the time and energy to pursue crazy things just because you want to. Don’t let the opportunity slip away – you have the rest of your life to be “productive”.
2. Opportunity cost is B.S
I studied Economics in college. The first thing they teach you is the concept of “opportunity cost”: the cost of the choices you gave up. The idea is that when you make a decision, you should choose the path with the lowest opportunity cost.
But you know what? Opportunity cost is B.S., because you can never apply it in real life.
When I was in my third year in college in the US, I was faced with a choice:
- Graduate early and do a Masters in London
- Study in the US for one more year, continue dancing, and graduate with my friends
I loved being in the US, but I chose to do my Masters, because, well, it’s London.
2 months in and I was already regretting my decision. My Masters program was stressful and I was missing my friends in the US. The thing is, I could never have predicted this in advance. Even if I had stayed in the US, I might have regretted NOT going to London.
Opportunity cost is B.S because you will never really know which is the “best” choice, even on hindsight. So make a decision based on what information you had at that time, and go with it with no regrets.
3. Everyone Is Pretending
On the surface, everyone looks like they know what they’re doing. But the truth is, they’re all pretending. In college, I really wanted to get involved in Finance (for the superficial reason of “so I can get rich”), and I envied how my friends could dress up in suits, go for professional “networking” events, and talk about Finance – stuff that I didn’t know how to do.
But as I learnt more, I realised that most of it was just an act. No one really knows what they’re doing and everyone is just putting on a show and praying they won’t be exposed as a fraud.
This doesn’t just apply to college students. You’ll see it in the office, on the negotiation table, when you consult your financial planner or your real estate agent. People may sound confident, but deep down, everyone is just winging it and hoping for the best. So don’t be afraid to do the same.
4. Nobody Cares About Your Achievements
In my twenties, I placed a disproportionate amount of emphasis on my achievements. I fought hard to earn top scores at school, to win competitions, to secure an overseas scholarship, to get into the best hip-hop crew, to appear in publications and magazines and other accolades I don’t remember.
I did all of it thinking that I would be loved and admired and respected.
But I was wrong. No one cares about my achievements. Save for a couple of congratulatory Facebook messages, people tend to forget whatever achievements you earned yesterday. After all, it’s just a piece of paper. Life moves on.
What do people care about? They care about what you can do for them.
At first, this seems like a scary thought: Wait, I spent 5 years to achieve this thing that no one cares about?. But the more I thought about it, the more liberating it felt. Because:
- I don’t have to prove anything to (true) friends
- I have the choice to pursue the achievements that matter to me, not to someone else
- I can choose to help people and not be bound by a piece of paper
5. You Are Probably Not As Smart As You Think You Are – And That’s Good
In 2009 my friends and I had the incredibly dumb idea to start an e-commerce business selling T-shirts. We thought there was no way we could fail. Of course, we failed spectacularly. I think my buddy Nolan still has about 400 American Apparel T-shirts in his storeroom (anyone wanna buy them from us?).
In 2010 I was busy formulating a trading strategy that was supposed make me rich. I designed my own algorithm using the principles I learnt in my Masters program, rigorously tested it, and followed all the rules. And then I lost close to $10,000 trading it.
In your twenties, you will have an incredibly confident view of yourself. And you SHOULD be acting on that confidence. However, 90% of the time, you will probably fail. But pick yourself up, and to learn from those failures.
My failed ecommerce business led me to a smarter way to run my blog. My failed trading strategy led me to index investing. Like me, you will probably be overconfident about your abilities and you will likely find out the truth the hard way. But that’s a good thing. Rinse, learn, repeat, and you’ll find yourself getting closer to your goal.
6. Great Results Come From Small Increments
But by socking away just a tiny bit of money at a time, in both my savings and brokerage accounts, I slowly built up my net worth. Compound interest isn’t just a theoretical concept; it’s a frickin’ awesome force that will accelerate your money in ways that you can never imagine.
The greatest asset you have in your twenties is TIME. When you have the benefit of several decades ahead of you, even a small contribution every month adds up to a significant amount. That’s why I wrote my book Small Tweaks – to encourage my readers to start now, with just a tiny – even laughable – amount. Given enough time, that tiny seed will grow to a huge, gigantic-ass tree of money.
The same applies to any skill you’re picking up: Programming, finance, writing, exercising, etc. Do it every day. Keep pressing on. But money isn’t enough to make you rich. You also have to…
7. Take Care Of Your Health
In your twenties, you can get away with neglecting your health. Don’t do it. When I was in college, I’d devour at least 4 packs of Indomie a week. When I started work, I ate McDonald’s and kopi and eggs for breakfast. Then my cholesterol shot through the roof and my CEO said I was “putting on weight”. (Dang, that was embarrassing.)
It pays to be healthy: Healthy people are more successful, more popular and generally kick more ass compared to unhealthy people.
Exercise regularly, eat good food, and get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. That’s really all there is to it.
8. Stay Spiritually-Focused
This was probably the hardest area for me. “Living the life” in my twenties meant that I was pulled in a hundred different directions. Arrogant, cocky ambition gave me a sense of entitlement and made me an overall jackass.
When the world is your oyster, it’s easy to forget what’s important.
Whatever your religion might be, it helps to remember that there’s always a higher Power. As a priest told me recently, “Be ambitious for higher gifts.” Our careers, ambitions and egos may seem like the world to us right now, but God doesn’t really care about those things. Realising that fact alone will make you way happier than any amount of money.
If I was a little more spiritually-focused in my twenties, I would probably have been a lot happier, less frustrated, and more certain of my direction.
Recently, I had a spiritual awakening of sorts, which is a topic of a whole other blogpost. But if you can stay spiritually-focused in your twenties amidst all the craziness around you, that’s probably a good thing.
9. Don’t Take Your Family And Friends For Granted
Being a twenty-something makes you believe you can conquer the world yourself. I know I did. And I’ll be the first to admit that I took for granted the most important people of my life – my family and friends.
Family and friends were my bedrock through the last 10 years. I’m grateful that even though I was such a douche, my family kept on loving me. My girlfriend stood by me. And my friends were always there for me.
It’s ironic how we sometimes treat strangers better than those closest to us. Realise who the most important people are in your life, and accord them the time and energy that they deserve.
10. If You Want To Achieve Great Things, Focus
Your twenties are meant for exploration and adventure – so explore away and try new things. But once you’ve found something you like and want to be truly exceptional, you need to focus. On just one or two areas at any given time. Your brain (and schedule) can’t handle any more than that.
When you find something you love, go all-in. Pour your heart and soul into it. Don’t worry if it seems like a waste of time (see #1).
I focused on dancing hip-hop for 14 years. I even got a little good at it, and it’s opened up some amazing opportunities: Performing on stage in front of thousands, rubbing shoulders with celebrity choreographers in Germany, and making memorable friendships along the way.
“Focus” doesn’t necessarily mean spending the rest of your life on your chosen path. When it feels right, pivot. 3 years ago, I made the conscious decision to stop focusing on dance and pivot to blogging. And what you’re reading now is the product of that.
It’s hard to cram 10 years worth of lessons into a single blogpost, but I hope I managed to capture the gist of it. Unlike other posts, I wrote this one on the fly, in a stream-of-consciousness kinda way. So hopefully it’s as close to what I truly feel.
In 10 years, I’m probably gonna look back at this post and laugh about how stupid/naive/lame I was, but that’s what life is all about, ain’t it?
Hat tip: Mark Manson for the inspiration for this post.