My twenties are coming to a close in a few days. Like many people in my position, I got to thinking: “What do I really wish I had known when I was twenty?”
I suppose I could recapitulate professional and business lessons in easily digestible form, but does the tech entrepreneur self-help genre really need my help to survive? I could write about the evolution of my politico-philosophical positions, but I do that already. When I think about the kinds of insights I most wish I had when I was twenty, I think about the harder pills to swallow–the ones in the world of life, love and people. So, I’m going to talk about those.
It’s not that age thirty is a snow-capped summit of shareable wisdom–no, indeed, one of the lessons from my twenties is how little I truly know. But another thing I’ve learned acutely in my twenties is that the road can end abruptly at any time, so if you want to write down some thoughts, don’t wait until you’re seventy and retired to write memoirs. It’s a cruel trade-off, because at seventy you’ll have a lot more credibility. But you may not get the chance to employ it.
Not all these thoughts originate in my direct experience. Some do, and I’ll own that. Some I’d rather disavow so as to not look like an idiot; you know, “asking for a friend” here. Some others are from observing the lives and fates of those close by, particularly where their experiences are more diverse. The ambiguity I’ve created here lets me steal a bit of their thunder and make my twenties potentially seem more interesting and original–or catastrophic–than they were.
1. The biggest advantage of youth is youth.
You only get:
- Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed excitement
- Huge amounts of physical and mental energy
- Low maintenance and high risk tolerance
once, and if you don’t use them, they’re gone forever. You’re never getting them back.
I’m going to frame this in tech entrepreneurship terms because that’s close to home, but it applies equally well to any hard endeavours: launching a substantive career, getting a doctorate, doing significant research, writing a book, opening a shop, becoming an expert.
We often talk about “working smarter” versus “working harder”, and surely, working smarter is an important evolution. But to attach to the value chain in the first place, there’s a lot to be said for working harder. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for raw hustle. The cruel reality is that not everything can run on “vision” and “management”; someone’s got to be down in the boiler room, and some problems can only be tackled with huge inputs of raw energy, high motivation and brute force.
When I was twenty, I could write code for twelve hours in a dark room without a care in the world. Nowadays, I’d say two to three hours is a banner day, and I might need a mental break tomorrow. If nothing else, my eyes and limbs can’t take it; I’ve got all sorts of little aches and pains I didn’t used to have.
Much is made of “a lifetime of learning”, and that’s good and fine, but the reality is that most of us do become more sclerotic with age and our habits become more ingrained. We get intellectually fatigued from seeing the same patterns over and over. We get physically tired.
From a competitive standpoint, it’s really hard to kill a “Ramen-profitable” 23 year-old rooming cheaply with some buddies. At that age and life situation, one needs almost nothing to survive. What’s the worst that could happen? He could fail completely and move back in with his parents for a while? A businessman like that is like a cockroach; you could drop an atomic bomb on him and he’d still be kicking. In contrast, a guy with two kids, a mortgage, daycare, medical bills and wifely lifestyle expectations is a sitting duck with a massive burn rate. If his income stalls below six figures, he’s going to have to quit and do something else.
Now that it’s become sociologically normal to view one’s twenties as an extension of high school, many folks let their twenties go to waste. I pissed away my twenties, too. I started my company at age 22, but by that point I managed to buy a downtown condo, incurring two mortgages and a car payment. That high minimal personal expense base doomed me to spinning my wheels for years on consulting in order to stay afloat when I should have been building product–effectively, the same kind of funding constraints as the 40 year-old guy with a family. And I didn’t hustle nearly as hard as I should have; I wasted a lot of time and money with stupid distractions.
Yeah, I’ve got some kind of “work smarter” play in motion, but the point is that I’m not getting my 22 year-old self back. If you’re lucky enough to still be in your early twenties, recognise that your time is now, and the world is your oyster. You may not have the wisdom and experience of older folk, but you’ve got 200,000 lbs of thrust and tiny gross tonnage; that’ll get you to space, if you really want to go. Stop watching Celebrity Apprentice and go do something real. You’ll never have the same opportunity again.
2. It’s important to build a real identity.
It’s relatively commonplace nowadays to see people in their twenties wile away some of their most socially formative and interactively significant years on an exterior of “ironic” or sarcastic hipsterism, or veil themselves in thick shrouds of pop culture inside jokes, movie references, or Internet memes. That’s about the only kind of conversation you can have with them.
The appeal is easy to understand; it’s lazy as can be, requiring little personal ethos and cultural literacy (of the non-pop culture sort), and only moderate brain candlepower. More importantly, it’s risk-free, since anything one says in this insincere mode of social operation is easily disavowed or denied. As Christy Wampole said in the excellent article Living Without Irony:
… irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.
Social capital is a game where one must pay to play. If you bring nothing to the table, you get nothing. Despite their occasional short-lived hit singles, the full-time “ironic” and “absurdist” are utterly discardable, forgettable people. When their black day arrives, nobody will come to their funeral, because they impressed nothing upon anyone worth remembering. Hopefully relieved of the naive invincibility of late teenage years, it’s time to give some thought to what would be said at your eulogy and written on your tombstone if you died tomorrow. Do you want your immortal contribution to the world to be that you had a kitschy hat, a snarky one-liner, or a Lolcat for every occasion?
To build real relationships, to learn and to grow, you’ve got to do the hard work of growing intellectual and moral backbone, and you’ve got to learn to defend it while negotiating bridges of understanding with others. It requires putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable. It requires applying yourself toward a directed purpose, an ongoing project of who you want to be when you grow up.
3. The pervasive current of truth about most of humanity is a conservative one — and that’s okay.
You can pick up on this most easily by observing the habits and lifestyles of white middle-class liberals in the US. You’ll notice they mostly have rather conventional and morally upright marriages, and aim to raise rather morally upright and conventionally successful children. Officially, they’ll pay much lip service to morally relativistic fashions and postmodern eclecticism, but that mostly concerns other people’s rights, not their own lives. Consider where they choose to live, which schools they send their children to, and the positions they take in zoning forums. Sure, they’re all for recognition of non-cisgendered non-binary pansexual genderbenderqueer whatever, but watch their reaction when their son comes home in drag and says he’s screwing a black guy.
In general, even these people tend toward those who are sociologically similar. They can be notionally against the death penalty, but not when it’s their sister’s murderer. They’re against militaristic foreign policy until someone flies a plane into their office tower. They’re against militarisation of police and martial authority until their neighbourhood is overrun by vagrant looters. They’re enthusiastically for affirmative action and equal opportunity policies to rectify historical racial inequity until a busload of Hispanic gangbangers is unloaded into their kids’ AP Calculus class.
They’re not hypocrites. They’re just trying harder than most to keep the politically correct cat in the bag, because that’s their shtick. But occasionally, fissures form in this elaborate fiction, and if you peek in and look around, you’ll see that they’re normal people, after all. There are some earnest progressives among the progressive–mostly unreconstructed flower children and their confused descendants. But when it comes to things like family morality, sexual mores and sociocultural dilution, most liberals agitate for rainbow causes on the implicit theory that other people can “live and let live”. While other people deal with the consequences, liberals trumpet their progressive, tolerant values without their own skin in the game, and everyone walks away happy. This is great news for people living at the margins who used to be actively persecuted and just want to be left alone, but it can give a very wrong idea about what people think privately.
Still, in our highly individualistic and politically correct age, it’s comme il faut in all but the most parochial circles to belch out at least a nominal paean to social liberalism–that is, unless you want to taint yourself with some kind of retrograde Republicanism and its populist dog whistle, conservative Christianity. This leads to the misapprehension that most of people are quite liberal, but it’s a siren song. Taking it at face value in one’s twenties means ignoring the realities of people’s private judgement, and it can lead to some harsh consequences.
One area is friendship and reputation. I’ve lost good friends over some unhealthy lifestyle choices in my mid-twenties which telegraphed flimsy constitution and poor impulse control. It’s one of those things where everyone is superficially very tolerant and accepting–democratic live-and-let-live and all this–but one day I woke up and realised that, while they do speak to me, they’re not really my friends anymore.
It’s astoundingly easy to fling yourself clear out of respectable society if you don’t see past the veneer of tolerance–if you actually allow yourself to believe that people don’t believe in respectable society anymore. I don’t know what’s worse, falling for that scam or never having been taught that there’s such a thing as respectable society. The latter is the stuff of bad education from unreconstructed sixties hippies, who never quite got over their sentimental attachment to the idea of disestablishing the whole thing. It’s poetic, but it sets up your children for failure.
“Don’t judge me!” is a facile bit of sloganeering, a thumb-sucking fantasy. Of course people will judge you! Judgment about others’ character is part of the basic inductive reasoning integral to our species’ survival. We live in a socially and morally interdependent universe, and the painstakingly evolved mechanics of social cohesion and shared morality–the stuff of anthropology–predate the latest fads and nouveau projects in sociology by what, a few millenia?
The consequences of my actions in this area are entirely mine to own and live with. I wish I could go back and give myself a blunt reminder that the world works more like my parents and other elders said it does, and less like the ostensibly freewheeling Bacchanalia of mass-culture would have us believe.
Also, because I’ve seen it happen to others around me: sleeping around for both genders robs them of valuable experience and skills of relationship-building, since sloppy, drunk sex requires none of them. I’ve seen far too many peers come out of a Lost Decade like that with no capacity to relate to another human being. It’s common for twenty-somethings to conflate quantity and quality in talking about the much-prized “life experience”. A decade on heroin is knowledge, but not good or useful knowledge.
4. The quality of the people with whom you surround yourself is of paramount importance.
One of the fallacies of the Anglo-American penchant for individualism is that it is given to paint one’s journey through life as that of a free electron, associating incidentally with various atoms from time to time in a kind of undifferentiated way. This is amplified by the American national mythos of the socially mobile, implicitly classless society, as well as the value of “diverse experiences” to “broaden horizons”.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my twenties, it’s that this is a grand, epic lie. Life experience is good, but not all diverse experiences are worth having, and not all horizons need to be broadened. We are social animals, and we adapt to those around us. It follows from this that if you surround yourself with bad people, they will slowly pull you down to their level, no matter how clever you are. Your choice of friends and partners is a powerful signal to other people whose opinion is important to you, just like anything else. There’s no judgement-free zone.
To advance through life productively, it is important to take a page from the social rules of the Old World and acknowledge the existence of social strata and concepts like “level of cultural development”; your friends and your loved ones must embody the values in which you would like to commune. If you aim to conserve a cultured upbringing, you must be around cultured people. If you would like to live a healthy life, you must do it with healthy people.
I’ve also come to appreciate that shared values are the single most strongly indicated prerequisite for a successful marriage or long-term relationship. When I was younger, I would have said that the most important thing is intellectual parity and intelligence. This is not exactly correct; a couple with disparate intellects but with a wide base of common inner-cultural understandings and unspoken agreements on what’s important, right and wrong will be a lot more durable than two brilliant people who are what you might call “civilisationally incommensurable”. It just happens that common values among intelligent people tend to necessitate common intelligence; if education, literacy, and higher-order self-actualisation are important values for both of you, it will logically come to pass that you will get together only if you’re both smart.
The iceberg to watch out for here for is falling out of the bottom. This is easier to do in a large, highly individualistic society largely bereft of traditional drip pans. You’re free to fall through the cracks, and in the name of official tolerance, everyone will let you. However, as I said in #3, your fellow human beings aren’t actually as fluid, bendable and tolerant as the brochure advertises.
I said above: “It’s astoundingly easy to fling yourself clear out of respectable society if you don’t see past the veneer of tolerance…” The meaning here is that if you lose your connection to the people who are truly important to you and let the aspects of life you most value slip through your fingers, it may be hard to get them back.
Here, too, the folk American sociology tells some lies: people are forever saying it’s easy to make a fresh start. Perhaps. But while the world is large, the parts of it in which you’d want to hold membership are much smaller. They talk. The most important lesson of all in my twenties is that this culture wants for a resurrection of the pedagogical primacy that used to be placed on the concepts of reputation, word, pride and dignity. If someone had informed me that most of the world still believes in these things, I would have made rather different choices, as would–hopefully–many of my peers.