Turning 20

Mar 26, 2024

“I’ll be twenty tomorrow. I know, I’m growing up. But I’m just wondering when it is I’ll feel I am old enough.”

It’s a line from this song written nearly twenty years ago by Ben Rector—a guy from my neck of the woods—but I think it rings true across the states and the decades.

But at the same time, twenty isn’t what it used to be. 

On the one hand, people in their twenties are less mature than ever. One article, “Should a 24-Year-Old Still Qualify as a Teenager? New Science Says Yes,” argues that twentysomethings are increasingly putting off what used to be “adult” activities—getting a driver’s license, moving out of their parents’ house, etc.

On the other hand, people in their twenties are better educated and much more multicultural than their parents and especially their grandparents were as twentysomethings. In that sense, people in their twenties may be more mature than ever.

The thing about turning twenty these days is recognizing that there are pieces of that transition season that are timeless and pieces that are unique to being a twentysomething in the 2020s.

What’s timeless is that it feels like a shift in life. What’s unique is the hope and the fear of turning twenty these days. I’ll offer some suggestions for that season that are a mix of both—a bit of time-honored wisdom and something aimed at right now. 

The Hope of Twenty

Victor Wembanyama, the next great thing in the NBA, entered the league this year at twenty. He was the most sure-thing rookie since LeBron James entered the league as a nineteen-year-old in 2003. The thought rolling around the head of NBA scouts and fans alike for both of these players was some version of, “If he’s this good now, just imagine what the future holds!”

For the most hopeful, the most optimistic among us, this is what it feels like to be twenty. Not 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds like LeBron, perhaps, but carrying this sense of, “I’m only at the beginning of my bell curve, and everything is trending up.” My best relationships are ahead of me. My best experiences are ahead of me. My best work is ahead of me. My best physical health is ahead of me. My best wisdom is ahead of me. My best days are ahead of me.

If you’ve made mistakes, you feel like you still have time to recover from them. Most twentysomethings haven’t settled on a career (or a spouse) yet, so doors seem open. And if you are doing well at work, you’re a pleasant surprise at worst and a prodigy at best.

I’m on my way, and I’m ahead of the curve. That’s the hope of twenty.

The Fear of Twenty

But for every twentysomething who feels as if he is on his way, there is one (and statistically, maybe more) who feels paralyzed by the rushing onslaught of life decisions.

If the pressure of thirty is, “I’m not young anymore, and I haven’t done anything yet!,” the pressure of twenty is, “I’m about to get a lot of responsibility, and I’m not ready for it!” Thirty starts to regret the past; twenty starts to fear the future.

Articles like this one from the Wall Street Journal mean well but can also lead to immense pressure on twentysomethings. Nail it now! You never get this decade back! You don’t want to look back with regret! And so, we end up asking ourselves, “Am I already behind?”

Twentysomethings often try to find solace in community and friendships, which, again, comes from a good desire. Still, the idolatry of community often pushes an inability to be alone—physically or ideologically. Many can’t be by themselves or think for themselves. The French playwright Molière saw this way back in the seventeenth century when he said, “Solitude terrifies the soul at twenty.”

I’m alone, I’m behind, and I won’t be able to catch up. That’s the fear of twenty.

The Key to Twenty

The hope and the fear of twenty aren’t going away, but they seem uniquely powerful here in the 2020s. But it’s also as true as ever: Twentysomethings have a lot to offer and a lot to learn.

How do you do it well in your twenties? On some level, my answer is the same as for every decade: Embrace the season you’re in.

I think in terms of “stewardship” a lot, and I think you can steward a decade of life just as you can steward anything. Stewarding your twenties just looks a bit different than it does to steward other decades of life.

I’d boil it down to thinking of twenty as base camp for your Everest climb. Base camp is something of an arrival moment, a time to take stock of how you got here and what you’ve learned along the way. It’s become a massive gathering space where mountain climbers stop to acclimate, swap stories, build community, and prep for the road ahead. It can look like an ending, but it’s really a starting point. Turning twenty can feel like that.

So, how do you do base camp well? All of this applies both to climbing Everest and to turning twenty:

  • Maintain a sense of wonder. Don’t be a premature cynic.
  • Don’t expect things to come easily. Determine not to be a one-hit wonder.
  • Bring some energy. Your perspective and ideas matter.
  • Expect that you’ve got more learning to do. (Muhammed Ali said, “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
  • Be productive. Become known as someone who gets the small stuff done.

Relevant magazine had an article a few years back entitled “Four Steps to Surviving Your Early Twenties.” These four steps were to set priorities, stay humble, seek truth, step on (that is, do the next thing).

I think those are great tips. And I’d actually suggest that, done well, these touchstones can help you do far more than survive your early twenties. You can turn twenty and thrive, loving base camp and its community, and start on the adventure ahead.





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