Your Twenties Are Your Boom Years — Don’t Miss the Market

Last week I was on the phone to wish a friend a happy 28th birthday. We were chatting and, in the strange way I sometimes bring everything back to self-improvement and pseudo-therapy, I asked, if you had to define what you want the year ahead to be about in just one word, what would it be? “28, the year of…”

She thought about it for a moment, commented on the peculiarity of the question, and reluctantly said “progression”.

Having recently finished the seven or so years of study it requires to become a lawyer, followed by the first year of interning at a firm, it seemed like a terrific answer. But without missing a beat, she retracted it to say, “well, every year should have progression, so that doesn’t mean anything”.

The comment triggered an off-the-cuff opposing dispute that I enjoyed giving so much I’m recollecting it here to the best of my ability.

Progression is Not the Norm: Your Twenties Are Your Boom Years

The kind of acceleration we have the opportunity to experience in our twenties — our pay doubling, tripling, perhaps quadrupling in a decade; having our reality shattered by books that shake us to our core; being able to eat just about whatever we want and still make progress in the gym — doesn’t come around again.

I’ve written before that as young people, we think everything will last forever. In the same way we convince ourselves that any state of purposelessness will last forever, when things are on the up-and-up, we’re still too immature to realise that the ascending spiral won’t last forever either.

In economics, for the second half of the twentieth century, the US experienced an average growth rate of somewhere between 3–4% year on year. Looking back on a millennia-wide time-frame, this is clearly an anomaly. Listening to a Freaknomics Radio episode a few weeks ago, I learned that studies of England between 1300–1700 show that growth averaged just 0.2% per year, which required 350 years to double, compared with just 30 years after 1870.

Today’s leaders have a “history-deficit” according to Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. The anomalous 4% rate of growth that has covered much of their lifetimes seems like the norm, and politicians assume such levels of growth should continue forever — thus promising their electorate, in a state of ignorant conviction, that they have the key to reclaiming it.

Having only ever had it good, we make this same false assumption in view of the progress of our lives. Instead of learning from our elders, and from history, we consider that the boom-times of our twenties will ride on out for eternity. They won’t. Just as the twentieth century gave us a period of major economic progress, our twenties have the potential to be the decade of major personal progress — one that will end, and that we likely won’t get the chance to experience again. I don’t wish to say that in 2016 we’ve run out of possible innovations that could lead to an economic resurgence, and I don’t want to say life is over after 30. But neither are likely to lead to a shake-up on quite the same scale.

Andy Grove, the late founder of Intel, once wrote, “Your career is your business, and you are its CEO”. In your twenties, you can lie to the board and delude yourself that the potential for progression will last forever, or you can see it for the limited time it is, and reap it for all you are able to.

We can’t relive the twentieth century. But, if you’re fortunate enough to still be in your twenties, you can go at the rest of your decade with a renewed and rekindled vigour. It’s often said that “youth is wasted on the young”. It doesn’t have to be. If you can gain an appreciation for where you are and the exceptionalism of the decade, you can make good use of it.

In our twenties we can:

– take risks without any real repercussions;
– skimp on sleep and get by just fine;
– travel just about anywhere and have it be a new place we know nothing about.

It is the boom decade — the summer of our lives — so precious yet so easily squandered.

Don’t get lazy. Don’t be apathetic. Don’t tell yourself that the economy has stopped growing and there’s nothing you can do to make something of yourself.

Make the years ahead of you years of massive progress!

***

When I was done, my friend was just about fed up with me. Not the light and cheery birthday message that might have been appropriate. But, I made my point, and it’s one I’m willing to argue for with phone-call-ending enthusiasm.

I’m a fervent believer that to make best use of our twenties, those with the temperament to do so should embrace their work ethic and do as much as they possibly can in their careers.

Further to getting ahead, I’m convinced that attacking one’s career is the path of least regrets.

I’m so convinced of this because last year I had a near-death experience. At least I thought I did…

What Thinking You’re About to Die Can Do to Your Work Ethic

I had had a light chest pain for a few days. Though the positioning was certainly precarious, the intensity didn’t suggest anything more than a prolonged bout of heartburn. As the week went by however, it got progressively worse, such that by 10PM on Friday night, when trying to get to sleep, I was in such pain that I couldn’t.

I decided to call the National Health Service (NHS) hotline and got through to someone who wanted to run me through their emergency checklist of questions. At 16 years’ old, I once spent a few weeks working on a swine-flu hotline, and so am familiar with the urgent-sounding life-threatening absurdity of most of the questions upon it: “are you alive?”, “are you conscious?”, “have you suddenly gone blind?”. But, when it came to “are you experiencing pain on the left side of your chest with tension in your arm?”, I had to admit that yes, I was.

The voice came back, “Sir, I’d like to send an ambulance”.

Hearing those words sent a flood of adrenaline through me, and if my chest had been hurting before making the call, it was suddenly hurting a whole lot more.

I took a deep breath in an attempt to compose myself, and responded that I didn’t consider it necessary — feeling more and more uncertain with every syllable of it uttered. I was told to head down to the nearest after-hours emergency room (which felt more appropriate) and proceeded to do so right away.

As I was heading out, odd as it is now to write, I decided that whether or not I was about to have a heart-attack, I was going to be cheerful and good-humoured.

Not wanting to freak-out my Uber driver, I told him I was going to visit a friend. The fact it was 10PM on a Friday and I was rubbing my chest frantically didn’t alert any suspicion.

We got to the hospital and I greeted the receptionists with gusto (true heroes working those hours). On hearing the severity of my issue, they bumped me right to the top of the line. The stagnant waiting room cried out with wonder, why is a man with such a deluded smile on his face getting seen before me?

I cracked a few jokes to the tortured soul sat next to me, and beamed at the nurse who took me through to the examination room. An ecstatic idiot about to have a heart attack — she’d seen it all before.

She hooked me up to an ECG, all wires and electrodes, and let it do its thing. It took a minute or so to complete, and, as soon as it had, now returning my smile, she turned and casually walked out of the room without saying a word. It was clear she had more important patients to worry about, and the moment she did, the pain in my chest disappeared completely. It had all been in my head. Well, mostly.

It turned out I had something called costochondritis — a swelling of the rib cage brought on from excessive exertion in the gym. “Stop lifting weights for a while” was my only prescription.

I walked out happy, a smile on my face, and a new lease on life.

***

What amazed me about the event, trivial though it ultimately ended up being, was my eerie contentedness at the prospect of facing possible death.

The entire time I was cheerful. I wasn’t chastising myself about some mountain of regrets, or all of the things I wished I had done. I didn’t promise myself any great overhaul of my life. It simply reaffirmed my conviction that the way I’m living — working very hard and being very disciplined — is the way I want to live.

Want a similarly intense reflection of your life? Easy, just convince yourself you’re about to die for an hour!

Of course, that’s not so straightforward, and so I’m incredibly grateful for the experience. I can’t tell you how to recreate it, but I can remind you of the conclusion I came away from it with.

Your twenties are your boom years. Work hard and invest as much as you can into them. The danger you have is regretting not going for it — whatever that might mean for you — not pretending to be something you’re not in half-hearted attempts at partying or letting loose.

Don’t miss the market and end up chasing progress in a slump.