The One Piece Of Advice That Makes All The Difference In Your 20s

The day after I graduated from college, I moved to New York City. Many of my classmates did the same — New York was the main destination for our class, followed by places like Boston and Washington, D.C. I thought that this would make things easy, and I made the journey to New York with rosy expectations. My friends were coming along, so the real world would be just like college! Except we’d get paid for our work, so it would be even better!

I wish that someone had pulled me aside, in those days before graduation, and told me the truth about what awaited. I arrived in New York totally unprepared for how big the change was. Maybe this is obvious, but it didn’t feel that way at the time: the real world is nothing like college. In fact, if you have been lucky enough to spend your life in a structured educational environment, with clear goals and signposts along the way, the real world is nothing like anything that has come before.

I hadn’t really considered what I was leaving behind when I left school. For years and years, there were so many external motivations in place: parents, teachers, report cards, final exams. There was some freedom within the structure, but there was still a structure. The school year had a satisfying rhythm to it, with a clear sense of progress. In high school and college, for all my occasional moments of dissatisfaction, I never had the feeling: am I doing the right thing? What if I’m supposed to be doing something else?

In my first months in New York, I was troubled to find myself asking those questions. There were no more signposts, no checklist to follow. I felt occasional flashes of panic as I was furnishing my first apartment and navigating my first job. Each passing day felt like a commitment to a plan I wasn’t sure about.

That was over six years ago now. An advantage of six years may not seem like enough to justify offering advice, but you’d be surprised by how different 28 feels from 22. (Or maybe you wouldn’t, if you’ve lived through it.) So if I could go back in time, I would tell my 22-year-old self to be patient. I would tell my 22-year-old-self not to obsess about finding the answers right away. Mostly, I would tell her to stop worrying about the short term, and instead start playing the long game.

Each passing day felt like a commitment to a plan I wasn’t sure about.

I left my first job after about nine months, staying in the same industry but switching tracks. It was the right decision for my career, and I have been in that same job ever since, happily so. Sticking with my current job has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But there were so many moments when I watched friends departing for grad school, changing jobs or changing cities, and felt that question return: am I doing the right thing? There were so many moments when I thought, this isn’t happening fast enough. I sometimes felt like I was standing still, and perpetual motion looks so much better, doesn’t it?

Instead, what I needed to give myself — what any 22-year-old needs to give him or herself — was time. Much of being an adult is learning to become comfortable with yourself. And that self needs time and space to emerge. It’s a new thing, getting to generate your own priorities, getting to decide what matters to you in the long-term. That is the crucial phrase: the long-term. I had to learn to think on a new timescale.

Here is what I would tell any 22-year-old: Your first job probably won’t be the right job, and if you know that, you should move on.

But once you find a place that feels right, there is a virtue to sticking with it. Every job will have its frustrations. The point is not to bail on that job as soon as things become difficult—because, I promise you, whatever job comes next will also be difficult at some point. It takes a long time to get good at something, to start recognizing patterns and developing instincts. It takes so much longer than you think it should. But as that time accumulates, so does your pride and investment in your work.

So how do you know when you’ve landed on the right thing? That’s the question I asked myself (and still ask myself, sometimes). It takes a while to find your North Star. It also takes a certain amount of stability and quiet. This is why I would also tell any 22-year-old the following: max out your 401(k) contribution if you have it, go to the dentist, exercise regularly, stick to a budget, learn to cook some basic meals, buy fewer and better items of clothing. Organize your life so the daily routine is under control, and so you have room to ask yourself the big question, which is: what really matters to you, in the long term?

Maybe it is creative work; maybe it is financial security; maybe it is challenging societal norms; maybe it is a job that makes the world a better place. Maybe you haven’t figured it out yet, and you need more time. That’s okay, because your life is not divided into slim eras, with definitive beginnings and endings. The scale of your accomplishment is no longer visible in months, or even years. The measure won’t be taken for a long, long time. Instead you are laying a foundation that will need to endure. So take your time to get it right, because this is your life—this is the whole thing.

Anna Pitoniak is the author of The Futures, out January 17.
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