Recently, after a show, I spoke to a young woman in her early 20s. She was in school, working, and on a forward trajectory in life...she was also lonely, depressed, and feeling completely hopeless about everything.
"I'm sorry you're going through that," I said. "But just so you know, it does get much better. I don't know if this is encouraging or not, but what you're going through is totally normal for your age."
"It is?" she said. "I feel like I'm the only one."
"Not at all," I assured her. "I went through it, and almost everyone I talk to in their 20s seems to be dealing with some sort of quarter-life crisis."
"How come nobody talks about it?" she asked. "Everyone just acts like they have it all together and I feel like I'm the only one who can't figure life out."
So, in case there are other 20-somethings out there struggling to get their footing, please allow me to lay before you what is "normal" at this stage of life and share some survival tips. I'm not sure how helpful it will be, but at the very least perhaps you'll feel a little less alone as you figure things out.
First, it's normal for life to be hard.
Surviving this norm: I'm not sure the particulars of your childhood, but many of us grew up in homes where a lot was done for us. Things like making appointments, bringing cars in for repairs, arranging insurance, paying bills, etc. were all done through our teenage (and even sometimes through college) years by adults who loved us and had our best interest at heart. However, at a certain point we have to take over the daily operation of our own lives, and in our culture this seems to be happening in our early-to-mid 20s. It feels overwhelming to suddenly "adult" and figure out insurance plans, find honest car mechanics, dentists, jobs, loan payment schedules, and whatever else comes with being a fully-fledged grown up.
So, you need to recognize that this is a normal, good, and healthy transition to independence. To put it simply, you're now living in the "real" world. You learn by trial and error, and sometimes you lose money by making a poor choice on where to get your car tuned up. You're toughening up and wising up, and learning how to live with the consequences of your decisions and actions. The alternative to this transition is living a sugarcoated existence where your parents continue doing everything for you. So, while it may be a hard thing, keep in mind that it is a good thing and a normal thing. "Hard" does not necessarily mean "bad."
Second, it's normal to feel like you made all the wrong decisions.
Surviving this norm: Everyone second guesses whether they made the right choices. Roads look smoother from a distance; it's only when you get up close that you see the potholes. If you'd gone down a different path you'd be second guessing that one because you'd see the potholes. You may need to do some course-correcting if you made a really bad decision, but don't waste time and energy wishing you could undo the past. Focus forward and know that every class, menial job, and decision played a role in getting you where you are now, even if it was teaching you how to be a kinder or giving you a better idea of what you're good at.
Third, it's normal to feel lonely and depressed.
Surviving this norm: I'm so sad this has become the norm, but most people I've spoken with experience this on some level. Many of us experienced depression and loneliness in high school and had high hopes of this changing in college and beyond. Or, perhaps you were fortunate to have had wonderful community in high school and college, but now marriage, parenthood, work, relocation, or all of the above have made you feel isolated.
Making good friends and feeling like you're a valued part of a community can be difficult in our constantly changing, online-driven society. Friends are a gift we often don't appreciate until we don't have them. So, be proactive about making new face-to-face friends. Try new meet up groups or a new small group at church. Introduce yourself. Say hello to your neighbors. Bring them cookies. Look for ways to serve those around you. Keep your eyes open for others who may be lonely and without community. Think of friendship as something to give rather than something to get. By giving, you will automatically get, but this mindset will keep you from a place where you constantly feel slighted by other people. Also, keep in mind that you don't have to "click" with everyone you meet in order to be their friend. Lastly, pray that God will bring you some good friends. I'm not sure why we go through seasons where the friendship well runs dry, but keep praying and seeking, and you'll find some!
Finally, if you find yourself struggling with depression and anxiety, try to establish some good habits to help you with life. Exercise, eat well, get outside, volunteer somewhere, read new books, join a recreational whiffle ball league, etc. All these things will help your mind cope with the the stresses of life. It takes some action to get moving in the right direction, and the hardest thing is to take the first step out of a rut. However, if depression is a chronic problem that these things don't significantly help fix, or your thoughts turn very dark all the time, there is absolutely no shame in seeing a counselor or professional to help you heal your mind.
Fourth, it's normal not to feel fulfilled one hundred percent of the time.
Surviving this norm: We're fed this idea that our work and life are only worth something if we feel fulfilled, but that's simply not reality. No one can feel fulfilled 100% of the time. I've certainly never felt overwhelmed with fulfillment while teaching students scales and making sure their technique is correct, but I do it because it's how you create great musicians and singers. However, I do feel fulfillment when my students perform, land parts, and grow as artists and humans. The knowledge that I'm laying the foundation for this keeps me going when the fulfillment isn't there.
Fulfillment is something that is earned through commitment and hard work. It will come, but right now you're laying the foundation for a fulfilling life. No one likes watching cement dry, but it's needed in order to create a strong foundation for the rest of the home. Ultimately, sometimes the fulfillment of a job or task is in knowing you're being a responsible adult.
Fifth, it's normal to have your expectations challenged.
Surviving this norm: I've often joked that adulthood is 80 percent managing expectations, 20 percent looking for a pen, and 100 percent finding a pen and realizing it's out of ink and having to search all over again. Life isn't going to go as expected. Sometimes it will be better than you expect, sometimes it will be worse. You're learning how to "go with the flow" and appreciate today for what it is, not what it might lead to tomorrow. No matter how many inspirational memes you may read each day on Instagram, these are lessons that can only be learned by living.
Some final thoughts...
First, don't compare your life with others. You've probably heard this one before, but it's worth mentioning again because it's such an easy trap to fall into. Life will be hard for different people in different ways and it will be easy for people in different ways. Some people will be born with the ability to sing four octaves, some will barely be able to hold a tune. Some people can handle huge amounts of stress, while others need a significant amount of calm to function. Remember, social media only shows you one part of the story. You're not in a competition with the rest of the world to see who can have the best life. It's not a race, there is no prize. Take a breath. Put down the phone. (After you finish reading this blog, of course.) Eat a cookie. Carry on.
Second, train yourself to focus on eternal things, not immediate things. It's so easy to lose sight of why we're doing what we're doing. I don't care if you're parenting, working, or just pursuing hobbies, you need to remember why any of it matters. Ultimately, what you're doing brings glory to God. You are made in His image, and you were created to love and serve Him. One way you do that is by cultivating the earth and make it an organized, functional, and beautiful place. We serve a God of order and creativity and by doing anything that contributes to those two things we're reflecting His image. Unloading the dishwasher? Order. Writing a novel? Creativity. Changing a diaper? Order. (And sometimes creativity if you're on a plane.)
Third, it will not always be this hard. Sometimes it will be, but not always. Right now you're setting a track record. You're plowing the field and planting the seeds for your life. You're figuring out an education, job, relationships, friendships, marriage, babies, and whatever else comes with being a new adult. Things will be difficult, but you'll pull through and then the next time you go through something difficult you'll remember that you've done it before, and that'll give you the confidence that you can do it again. (Even if you really don't want to.)
I'm 33 now. I have no debt, too many wonderful friendships to count, and I not only love my job teaching music, but I'm good at it, it pays fairly, and it's work I find meaningful. On top of that, I frequently get to travel the country telling jokes and speaking. I couldn't have planned this life in my 20s when I was , but everything I did in my 20s prepared me for it without my knowing what it was going toward. Life isn't perfect, but it's nowhere near the anxiety and pressure I felt in my 20s. I wouldn't trade the wisdom I gained in my 20s for any amount of youth, no matter how much our society worships it.
If I have to leave you with one final piece of encouragement, it's this: God is already in the future, and things will be much less scarier when you're actually there. You is smart, you is kind, you is important. Now, get out there and live.