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Why It’s Okay Not To Have Your Life Together In Your 20s

It’s August 2018 and I’m sat in my bedroom surrounded by my suitcase, hand luggage and a duffle bag still covered in tape with the FedEx customs label wrapped around the handles. What I’m supposed to be doing is unpacking and settling in back at home after landing in the UK 48 hours ago from New York. What I’ve actually been doing for the last hour is scrolling through my phone, revisiting the endless photos and videos that I’ll end up viewing multiple times again and again, over the following year.

I’ve spent the last 12 weeks at a summer camp in America, photographing camp activities 5 days a week before spending the weekend visiting the Lake, our favourite diners, or during one memorable weekend - zip lining over Niagara Falls. When camp finished, I spent the next 4 weeks travelling across America. Feeding crocodiles in the swamps of Louisiana, spending Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and road tripping up the coast of California. I learnt how to line dance at Honky Tonks in Nashville and lived my Elle Woods fantasy in Boston. I’d had the best experience of my life, but all it took was a 9-hour flight to bring me crashing back down to reality.

I was 22, freshly graduated from university and not a clue what I wanted to do with my career. All I knew was that I missed the care-free days of camp life. In fact, I’d had such a great experience that I pressed ‘pause’ on my life and knew that I had to go back for a second summer 10 months later.

It was an easy decision to make because it came from the heart. It was simple; I was choosing what made me happy. But then my brain caught up with the idea and all of a sudden, I was filled with a sense of panic, guilt and all-round helplessness. Why was I spending 10 months of my life working in a supermarket, just to save enough money to go back for 3 months to something I’d already done? How was any of this contributing towards a career? Why wasn’t I doing anything with the degree that took me 4 years to get? Surely, I should be saving for a house? That’s what everyone else was doing, right?

In the lead up to my second summer in the States, these were constant worries. Comparison is a killer, and I was questioning everything, feeling completely out of the loop with my friends who had gone straight from uni into graduate jobs. But I knew that I’d probably never get the opportunity again to travel for this length of time without any attachments.

Fast forward to present day, and I’m so grateful that I made that decision to return for a second summer. Without sounding cliché, it changed my whole perspective on life. I met people who were older than me and just starting uni, people who were in their early 30’s and had taken a career break, and people who - like me, just simply weren’t ready to settle. By the time I got home, all of my friends seemed to have stepped into the ‘real’ world. The world of careers, and serious relationships and finally moving out of your parent’s house.

But this time round, it didn’t bother me. I was creating my own timeline and choosing my own path. I was nearly 24, with no idea what was next, but I was happy with the unknown because I knew that whatever was meant to be, would be. By choosing to change my expected path, I’d opened up a whole new chapter of my life where I was content with doing things at my own pace. After camp, I’d planned to go travelling around Asia with some of the friends I’d made over the last two summers. We didn’t have a plan, just a rough idea of locations and the idea that we’d stay out there until we only had enough money left to buy a plane ticket home. Of course, due to the pandemic hitting, this never happened. Instead, I used lockdown as a chance to think about what I really wanted from the next few years. I realised that travelling and having a career don’t need to be independent books but can be part of multiple chapters in my life. So, I brushed up my CV and got excited about beginning a career in the creative industry, because this time round I felt ready for it.

Society has conditioned us to believe that we have to be constantly hitting these specific milestones at certain ages, and if not then we’re somehow failing at life. We should be going to university, or getting on the property ladder, having children by 30 and choosing one career to stick to until retirement at 60.

But guess what? There is no time limit on any of these things! Only a socially constructed ‘ideal’. And there is more to life than ticking boxes.

It starts when we’re little and we get asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and then it’s “What A-Level options are you picking?” How are we supposed to know at 15, what’s going to make us happy at 25? At 50? I’m not even the same person I was a year ago, let alone 10. Even more so as women, we get told that our lives won’t be ‘fulfilled’ until we have children (which, by the way, has to be by a certain time because you don’t want to be an old Mum right?), or that the only reason we’re single is because we ‘just haven’t met the right person yet’ rather than by actual choice.

People talk about using your 20’s to ‘find yourself’, but that’s not really how it works. You’re not lost, you don’t need finding. Your true self is right there, it’s just buried under pressure from society, what you’ve been told is the right thing to do, and other people’s opinions of what you should be doing.

This isn’t to belittle those people who have taken the expected path, because for those people that might be their dream. Some people want to settle down with a family by the time they’re 30, or go straight from university into a job; the same way that I knew it was exactly what I didn't want to do. For them, that’s their own happiness. No one else but you is responsible for your own happiness and deciding what your definition of that is. Your timeline is yours to create, it doesn’t matter what other people your age are doing, focus on building your own happiness and everything else will come in time.

Creating your own path in life isn’t easy. Especially if it feels like you’re somehow not at the same point in life as all of your friends are, it’s hard to break away from the flow and realise that you can do something different. Breaking the ‘rules’ and doing your own thing can feel scary but deciding to live life on your own terms is ultimately the best reward.

A close friend of mine said to me recently “What is meant for you won’t pass you by and what passes you by wasn’t meant for you”.

Trust yourself and trust the universe. You never know where life will take you, and that can be a wonderful thing.

Evan Merner


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