When I turned 30 I was in the midst of a career switch and a season of transition that felt unstable and uncertain. I wondered what I’d done with all of those years between college and graduation. How did I end up here?
I hadn’t accomplished enough. In fact, I felt more lost than certain about the direction of my life.
Career changes, unemployment, moving, wasted money, unused degrees, disappointment, and fear about the future marked my twenties and my clunky transition into my 30’s. Looking over my career, I felt like I’d done nothing but make bad decisions and screw up anything positive about the good decisions.
Life hadn’t been hard, per se. I’d just invested a ton of time and money into a degree that I wasn’t using all that much and then worked a dead end job in a sector where I had no interest in advancing before blowing it all up to stumble around as a freelance writer and author.
I wondered if I was lazy. Why did I feel so uninspired each day at work? And why couldn’t I figure out my next step? I couldn’t see very far into the future. It was this murky mass of chaos and tragedy ready to swallow me up.
Most of us start to grasp our own mortality throughout our 20’s as well. We realize that there will be a moment when we will close our eyes and everything changes forever. Suddenly the days feel shorter and we attach greater weight to everything we do. We don’t want to waste our time on some dead end career.
But how do you take a step forward when every step feels wrong?
Where do you go when you feel perpetually lost and you can’t think straight because you can only hear the clock ticking?
* * *
It’s hard to find the light in your 20’s. So many things are dark, confusing, and end up being “not as advertised.”
I thought I was on course to become a pastor. That crashed and burned.
I thought I could reinvent myself in the nonprofit sector. That didn’t work out.
I thought I was on the path to becoming a full time author. I had an image of that kind of success, and I just fell flat on my face—over and over and over again. I turned 35 this past August, and I think I’m just now getting over all of that.
I spent the first few years of my 30’s lamenting all of my failures, facing all that I’d done wrong, wondering if I’d missed out on everything in life. I thought I was a lost cause. I’d burned up, burned out, and didn’t have any light left to give.
If you’re looking for a guy who had his act together in his 20’s, I’m not your guy. If you’re looking for someone who was plagued by self-doubt, anxiety, career-missteps, failure, wastes of time, and miscalculations, then I’m totally your guy.
I can’t speak definitively about “being in one’s 20’s,” and I’m pretty sure my 20’s weren’t as bad as some of the stuff others folks have gone through or are going through, but we’ve all had our share of crap to sort through. And hey, I ended up in the emergency room thanks to an anxiety attack in my mid-twenties, so I’m most likely a little crazier than some of you.
I see lots of really talented, smart, kind, funny 20-somethings taking wild stabs in the dark and fearing the worst. I see lots of self-doubt and therapy, and it breaks my heart. If I could say just one thing to these 20-somethings, it would be this:
You can be a total screw up and still be really great.
Not a little screwing up here and there… I mean epic fail, mom calls asking if everything’s alright kind of screw up.
I know that it’s hard to seek the light when everything is dark and confusing and hostile. I know you want to have your act together. I know there are hundreds of thousands of people who have their acts more together than you and are buying homes, starting families, and getting promoted in their careers. I could post links to their profiles on LinkedIn if you like. I know who they are. I get it. But some of us need to fight it out, and I don’t know why that is, but it’s ok to fight and thrash and fear and worry.
You are more than your past failures or your ambitions. If I made a mistake in my 20’s, it’s that I longed for a title, a series of accomplishments that would help me identify myself.
Whether you’re in your 20’s right now, you’re struggling through your 30’s or 40’s, or you’re wondering what the heck you’ll do when you hit retirement age or beyond, I wanted to offer a few words of encouragement and shifts in perspective:
1 Find a Mentor
It’s really OK to ask someone for help. It’s OK to admit you feel lost. It may actually be the most liberating thing you can do.
I know you may think YOU are the exception. You just need more time or luck or whatever. If you’re thinking that, then you really, really need a mentor. You need someone who has walked a bit further down the road to help you gain some perspective. And honestly, the truth is that older folks need younger folks to remind them just how valuable and helpful they are. Self-doubt doesn’t go “poof” at the age of 40, 50, or 60.
If you’re young, you have encouragement to offer and wisdom to gain from a mentor. If you’re receiving AARP catalogues, younger folks need you and can offer exactly what you need during this season of life.
If anything, our culture has been captivated with the latest shiny, beautiful people who Instagram cute life-quotes on images of sunsets and flowers. If you rely on people with huge Facebook or Twitter followings to guide you through career change or a demanding season of life, you’re pretty much screwed. Tragically, older folks rarely know just how badly the younger generations need them.
To make matter worse… Older folks can’t fit their wisdom on a picture of a sunset.
2 Experience Isn’t a Waste
The most important thing I’ve learned since diving into writing and publishing in 2005 has been the simple truth that nothing in writing or publishing is ever wasted. Sure, you may fall on your face, but you won’t get a bloody nose in vain. Everything I’ve ever written has helped me write better for my next project. That’s why you often hear about authors who have drawers full of novels they can’t get anyone to publish and then they finally write something that wins awards and makes all of the money—and by that I mean a few thousand dollars since this IS publishing I’m talking about.
I could see that with my writing, but I couldn’t see that in my life experiences. It took a trusted friend to point out the value in my life experiences. In other words, I asked a mentor for help, and he truly delivered.
Nothing is wasted because YOU are the investment, and with every thing you try, you gain experience. And experience is really, really valuable. It may be a really painful process, and it may leave you feeling like “the worst,” but every experience you gain represents a piece of the map in your life. You know the lay of the land just a tiny bit better.
You may hate the lay of the land, but at least you’ll know where you’re at. You’ll be able to try something else out that will give you a little more experience, another piece of the map, and may even help you take a step forward.
3 Accomplishments Are OK
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at everything I haven’t accomplished or at least looking at all of the ways I haven’t accomplished enough. I’ve also seen people who have basically lived what I thought my dream would be, and they’re always looking at people who are more successful and hating the downsides of their success that I never could have foreseen.
Some people think that I’m really living the dream because I’ve published a few books. Others have even asked for advice on how to do what I do.
At times it’s really hard to stop myself from laughing and saying, “Oh, you don’t want to do what I do!”
Here’s the thing, lately, I can see how all of my experiences have guided me to where I’m at today. Yes, I’ve made some huge mistakes and had some truly embarrassing failures—not that most people noticed or even remembers what they were. However, I do have a good bit of clarity about my life right now. There was no other way to arrive at this point than to try a bunch of stuff out and see where it got me.
So you can try to do what I do, but it probably won’t take you to where you think it’s going to take and it probably won’t make you feel the way you expect it will make you feel.
The stuff that has been successful has been OK, but it simply can’t be the measure that I use for myself. It’s a battle, but I’m trying to measure my success according to how loved I feel by God, how well I love my family, and whether I can work on a few projects that tie into the gifts God has given me. I have to support our family, at least in part, with my freelancing work, but the goal isn’t to earn the most or to write the most popular books.
Words like success, dreams, or goals have been replaced with the word: faithfulness. Am I faithful to love God first? Am I faithfully loving my wife and son? Am I faithfully using my creative gifts in ways that I feel led?
Success is fleeting and fickle. The triumphs of yesterday quickly give way to fears of tomorrow. There are a thousand things you can’t control.
So we all have a choice.
We can look at the thousand things we can’t control and have constant anxiety attacks… which I’ve done for most of my life… or we can realize that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginations.
Each evening I tuck my son into bed and pray with him. We pray basically the same prayer every time, and as I pray that he’ll know God loves him and is with him, I’m reminded that God loves both of us with a love that surpasses my unshakable love for him.
We always try to think of exceptions for ourselves, but if “God so loved the world” in John 3:16 and you’re currently part of “the world,” then you’re in luck.
* * *
I’m certain that every stage of life offers its fair share of disappointments, uncertainties, and dark moments. I also know that my 20’s felt like this irredeemable pile of crap that would never amount to anything. I didn’t have much hope of ever sorting things out.
We stumble, fall, and take cautious steps forward.
I’m not that much further down the road, but looking back from the vantage point of 35, I can see that things aren’t necessarily always going to be “OK,” since hard stuff always happens, but there always would be hope. There is light. There’s always light.
For all of the things that we can’t control about the future, we can’t change the constant of God’s love for us. And we can control how much we love our family. We can control the things we try out and the new habits we shape for ourselves. We can control finding a mentor to help us process the good and the bad.
And as often as we see our failures and deficiencies, I can tell my friends that I see so much potential in them every day. I see gifted writers, loving parents, and passionate storytellers who have so much to offer their friends, families, and anyone else who crosses their paths.
Perhaps part of the tragedy of our 20’s is that we start our adult lives holding tightly to a picture of the future or fearing there’s no picture at all. When our picture fails to develop or we can’t even find a picture for the future in the first place, we lose sight of every good thing we already have.
It’s hard to believe this, but I see light in every person I know. I see it every single day. For every person who has given a reason why he/she is unworthy or doing everything wrong, I can give three reasons why they’re loved and doing so many things right.
And if you can’t believe that there is a light for you right now, I pray that myself and others will keep holding it up for you so that one day you’ll be able to see it. May we always hold up the light for each other.