10 things that got me through my 20s (Part One)

Ana Vargas Santos
7 min readOct 7, 2016

Psychologists say that the 20s are the most important decade of our lives. According to Dr. Megan Jay, “Personality can change more during our 20s than at any other decade in life”. Research by Jeffrey Arnett, PhD, who interviewed 300 young people ages 18 to 29 in cities around the US over five years, showed that most were still pondering their personal identity. As I am turning 30 this month, I decided to look back at the last decade to reflect on the key experiences and learnings that got me through my 20s. More than listing them and reflecting on why they were important to me, I went a little further to find support for their relevance. So whether you’re still on your 20s or way ahead on your 30s, these 10 things might help you get through the most challenging ages of adulthood.

#1. Living abroad

Research by Professor William Maddux at INSEAD has shown that people who have international experience and make an effort to adapt to their host countries perform better at problem solving and creative tasks. In my early twenties I had the opportunity to live, study and work in three different countries. In France, I learned how to be on my own and adapt to a different culture for the very first time. I realized I had the resources to do it. So I decided to take a step further and I moved to the US. That was when I learned what it really meant to be on my own. Being in a different continent and timezone from everyone that matters to you and having to come up with solutions for problems — that, by the way, would not have arisen if you stayed home in the first place — while your trusted advisors on the other side of the world are still sleeping kind of accelerates that learning process. Having mastered what I thought was this whole new level, I decided I was ready for yet another experience, this time in Belgium. But then, I was confronted with my own physical and emotional limits. I got sick (doctors not being able to come up with a diagnosis kind of sick) and realized that I was not this super independent kind of person I had come to think I was. I had learned how to be on my own and solve problems by myself but this time I needed to learn how to reach out to people and collaborate to find solutions.

#2. Moving out

As counterintuitive as this might sound, I realized that if I wanted to learn how to reach out to people I needed to move out of my parents’ home. Self-Determination Theory explains that conditions supporting the experience of autonomy, competence and relatedness foster performance, persistence, and creativity. I had just mastered the “being on my own” skill, so I felt competent and autonomous, but I had to put myself in a context where people didn’t have to help me, as parents are biologically bound to do. A setting where I would have to ask for help. This was not easy, of course. I moved to a new city, and for quite a long time I was not able to settle in. Having spent the previous years moving around, I developed a very detached lifestyle. I had to be able to pack light, so I didn’t accumulate things that couldn’t be easily carried around. This somehow forged the minimalist philosophy that I still live by today, but it also made me take some time to realize that a home needs emotion, even if it’s contained in a few items that carry memories with them. Can you imagine your life without books, photos, or even small handwritten notes? That’s how Spartan my life was. Also, I might have been set to a travelling mode, because I was going back to my parents’ almost every weekend, and that was not doing wonders for my social life either. Obviously these conclusions didn’t come to me as naturally as I am reflecting on them now, years later, but it was important to go through the entire process to finally realize that I had to create roots.

#3. Finding my passions

I wanted to create conditions to support relatedness, so first I needed to know what mattered to me. Seems that a 20-something should already have reached that stage, but now that I’m turning 30 I still come across people who haven’t found (looked for?) their passions. We are just not trained to do so. Luckily, this is changing. At Harvard, a small group of faculty members created a noncredit seminar called Reflecting on Your Life to help students think about what matters to them and how well their commitments reflect their interests. At the time I didn’t know any specific method to do this, so I just went to a public garden with a notebook and registered every single thing that interested me. I thought about the activities I enjoyed doing in my spare time; the topics I liked to discuss; the areas I was curious about (even if I didn’t know much about them); the kind of books I liked to read… I listed the interests I had stopped investing on and tried to identify the main causes that were preventing me from committing to them: time, not having the space to do it, not having the company to do it with…Then, I designed an action plan for the ones I wanted to make sure to pursue, focused on addressing their impeding factors. I was ready to start connecting to what mattered to me.

#4. Learning to cook

One of the interests I realized I had was cooking. I had learned the basics with my mother before moving abroad, but I was nowhere close to understanding the whole process behind it. Apart from the regular rice-or-pasta-with-chicken-or-beef, there was not much I could do to find my way around the kitchen. Somehow things converged at that point in my life (they always do, don’t they?) and I happened to watch Cowspiracy and Food, Inc. I didn’t decide to become a vegetarian, as most people do after watching these documentaries, but I got even more interested in understanding how I could cook in a more healthy and varied way. I started reading about it, going to workshops, looking for alternative ingredients in the supermarket, experimenting a lot and talking to people to ask for advice and share ideas. I believe cooking is one of the main markers of adulthood. Research with adolescents has shown that making food choices involves a certain ability to act in your long-term best interest and in line with your deepest values, and that this does not come naturally. So when you are aware of what you eat and capable of cooking it, you are able to make more informed choices. As the philosopher Alain de Botton puts it, “No longer are we merely fed by the world, and passively ingest whatever it serves up, we learn to define what we need and ensure we know ourselves how to secure it”.

#5. Walking

When I moved out of my parents’ home, I left my car behind. As a consequence, I started walking a lot more and I realized that there was more to it than I used to think. Sure, we’ve all heard about the health benefits of walking. But more than that, I realized that every time I had a difficult problem to tackle, walking would help me get my ideas straight and come up with new solutions. A recent study by Stanford University researchers has shown that walking boosts creativity in real time and shortly after. Also, walking can help you reduce anxiety. At some point when I was already walking a lot on a daily basis, I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s’ book “Wherever you go, there you are” and I decided to give walking meditation a shot. I had never, up to that point, been able to meditate, so I thought that doing it while walking might help me get familiar with the process. Even using his guide as reference to prepare, I found it extremely difficult. My mind seemed to be wandering all the time, I just couldn’t focus. So when I was finally able to do it, it was extremely rewarding. I realized I had an outlet for stress. Today, when nothing else works, I still do it. But I also realized that there was a hidden advantage in not focusing on the walking itself — letting my mind wander was sometimes how I reached difficult decisions. Today, research demonstrates that spontaneous thoughts that occur during mind-wandering states help clarify future goals.

These 5 experiences, as profound and meaningful as they were, would not alone have gotten me through my 20s. To learn more about the other 5 that got me here, continue reading Part Two here.

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Ana Vargas Santos

HR Research Partner. I write about learning and career management.