zen habits : breathe

Advice for People in Their Early 20s

By Leo Babauta

A young woman wrote to me recently about fears about the future:

‘I’m in my 20s and I’m trying to figure my future out. I’m just wondering how to stop worrying and letting the fear of the unknown totally consume my daily thoughts (I’m moving from Sweden to American and have no idea how to find a job, a place to live, etc.). I’m very much scared of the future, but even though I have overcome obstacles before.’

The first thing I would say to her is: You are not alone. Lots of people, young and old, are afraid of the unknown, especially when things are not settle, everything’s up in the air.

I have a daughter in her early 20s, a son who is 18 … they have no idea what the future holds for them. Neither did I when I was young, and to be honest, I still don’t! Things are a little less scary for me these days, but I know what it’s like to be afraid of a wide open, scary future.

The second thing I would say is this: No one has the answers. No one knows the best path you should take. No one has figured out the ultimate answer to your problem of fearing the future. The best of us just fake it and make it look like we know what we’re doing. We don’t. We’re still trying to figure it out too, and the honest truth is, most of us are either scared shitless or faking it, even to ourselves.

But you want some practical advice, I’m sure. So let me do my best here … but always remember that 1) you’re not alone, and 2) no one really has any answers, if we’re being honest.

Get Good at Something

You don’t have a job, no fixed things to do, things are wide open … and that’s scary, but also an advantage. Your schedule is open, and you have immense possibilities.

The way to take advantage of that is to find something to get good at, and then get good at it. As good as you can.

And here’s more good news: it doesn’t really matter what you choose. If you choose to get good at design, and work for two years on that, and then discover you hate it … you can switch! You might then get good at making hand-crafted goods, and then switch when you decide that’s not for you. You might then learn programming and get good at that. Or learn blogging, and get good at that. It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because time spent getting good at something is never wasted. You learn about how to get good at something. You meet others who are passionate. You make connections, with people and with ideas and with yourself. You learn about yourself in the process.

How do you get good at something? First, go offline, so you get away from distractions. Then:

  1. Pick something, anything, that interests you.
  2. Find the easiest next step, and get moving on it.
  3. Find joy in that step.
  4. Find someone to share it with. Better yet, find someone you have to turn it in to, like a boss or colleague or client or friend who will hold you accountable.
  5. Find the next easy step, and enjoy that as well.

You’ll suck. You’ll doubt yourself. You’ll wish you were better, faster. We all do that, but the good news is, you’re young and it’s good to suck for awhile. By the time you’re in your 30s, you’ll suck a lot less.

You’ll build some momentum. You’ll start to love it because you start to get good at it. You’ll start to think you know what you’re doing, then realize there’s a lot more to learn, and then find that scary, then find that exciting.

Connect With Interesting People

Find people online doing interesting things, meet up with them in real life. Find people who are passionate, who are building things, who are pushing themselves, who dream big, who are mindful and joyful and healthy and friendly and shy and gregarious and adventurous and curious.

Befriend them. Be there for them. Be helpful. Make them laugh. These are your people.

They will lift you up, excite you, fill your life with meaning. They’ll make sincerity and joy your new normal.

These people will help your future career in some way, but that’s not the important thing: what really matters is that friends matter. Having ones that dump on you sucks. Having ones that support and inspire you, who love and value you … that makes life meaningful.

But don’t worry so much about what other people are doing. Shut off the social media sometimes, and just focus on what you’re doing. When you get together with friends, find out what they’re doing, and be happy for them, but don’t worry that you’re not doing those things. That’s their life, and it’s awesome, but your life will be uniquely what you decide to do.

On Finances

You don’t have a job yet. That’s OK, but you need to find a way to make money. You can freelance, wash cars, drive for Uber, get a temp job, be an intern, it doesn’t matter. Find a way to pay rent, and ideally, learn some great skills while you’re making rent.

If your job isn’t a dream job, just do it for now to pay rent, and spend your spare time building a skill, getting good at something. But don’t let yourself get stuck in that job — keep your eyes open for something better. Start your own business on the side if you can.

Spend less than you earn. Everyone says it, then most people ignore it. The secret is to want very little. Be satisfied with few possessions, simple food, not needing the newest everything or the coolest restaurants or entertainment. Find a library, read some free books, work on some skills, eat simple vegan food. Save as much as you can. Yes, you’re young and not worried about retirement, but having money when you’re old isn’t the point — the point is to build an emergency fund so you aren’t scared about making rent.

Worrying About the Future

It’s normal to worry about the future, but probably the best antidote is to learn to shift your focus to what’s right in front of you, right now.

Are you doing some work? Focus on the physical act of doing that. Are you eating? What are the physical sensations of the food like. Are you riding a train? How does your butt feel on the seat, your feet feel on the ground? What are the sounds like? What can you see around you?

This might seem like trite advice, but what happens is that you learn to turn from your anxiety about the future to noticing what’s around you in the present moment. And you realize that while the unknown future might seem scary, the present moment is just fine.

You’ll find, from one moment to the next, that each moment is fine. You’ll start to develop a trust in the present moment. And that’s the antidote to fears about the future: learning to trust that you’ll be OK, because as each moment passes, you keep being OK.


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