15 Things I Wish I Knew in My Early 20s to Become Even Happier
Or: What Advice Would I Give my 20-Year-Old Self?
It took me so long to do so many important things. It’s just hard to accept that I spent so many years being less happy than I could’ve been. — Pam Beesly, The Office US
Note: This is probably my most personal post ever.
If you ever listened to Tim Ferriss’s podcast, you’ve probably heard him ask many of his guests “What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?”. Or, if his guests were older, their 30 or 40-year-old selves. The answers are always fascinating and full of life lessons. Better yet: they are lessons taken from mistakes or misjudgments.
What advice would YOU give YOUR 20-year-old self?
Recently, my friend Joren van Schaik wrote an article about the 16 prime life investments one should make in their 20s.
This got me thinking about the Tim Ferriss question, and now, with 10 months to go until the big 3–0, I’d like to talk to 20-year-old Nick. (That’s what the “N” in N.A. stands for 😉).
So, what would I tell my 20-year-old self?
I would visit me in 2009 when I am moving into my student apartment in Amsterdam. At that time with four girls. Four!
I imagine myself looking startled to see my older self sitting on an uncomfortable beanbag shoved in the corner of the room with no space for my legs. It’s time for a little heart to heart.
I’d tell my younger self not to worry about those girls, it will be fine! And I learn a lot from the opposite sex along the way. Besides, my male friends would join soon. (We had a complete canal house with the nine of us, all from the same high school.)
Here we go:
#1: Girls Aren’t Scary (Well, Not Really)
I’ve always been somewhat afraid of girls. Especially in approaching them. In the end, I now know it all has to do with the fear of being rejected. Therefore, I didn’t go for it!
I saw many of my friends caring less and “scoring” more. Not to say I wanted to be with every girl in town. That’s really not my thing. I just wanted to be able to talk to a girl I liked.
If you knew how many opportunities and crushes I just let pass… I still feel for my younger self.
I was a late bloomer. I first had sex when I was 20. The pressure in those days! I literally was the last one out of all my friends. At the time it’s all you think about. In hindsight, I couldn’t care less. I know I lied about it to everyone, saying I was 17… In the end, I did honestly tell my friends, guess what? They didn’t think less of me.
Also, I had my first proper long-term relationship at 24. So what? However, I know that if I would be more ballsy, I wouldn’t be such a late bloomer. Especially with this girl, apparently we both liked each other for two years already and neither of us said anything.
Don’t rob yourself from happiness by not trying!
Lesson: Try more. Get rejected instead of thinking about the possibility of being rejected. It hurts the first few times, but soon, you care less about it. After all, you want to find the right girl and you won’t by waiting, wishing and playing out fake fantasies of rejection in your mind.
#2: Change is Inevitable
I hated leaving my primary school friends behind to go to High School. Then the same thing happened when I went to University.
I hated it when my parents dropped a bomb on me at 24 saying they would separate. (Side note: they didn’t in the end. Luckily. For one it brought the family closer together and ever since they’re like young teenagers in love — it could be worse).
Your body slowly becomes weaker. You’ll lose some hair. People move in and out of your life. You switch studies, jobs, careers.
Why is it every time something changes, it sucks balls? Only in hindsight to be “not such a big deal”?
Is it because when something changes, our mind is finally taken from the past or the future to actively participate in the present?
With ever-advancing technology (today marks the first time I paid a bill with my face. MY FACE!), climate change, political changes, etc., we can’t hide anymore. It’s there every day. So deal with it. Learn to swallow the bitter pill and know that in a few days, weeks or months something new happens to you, making the previous change turn to oblivion.
Know also, that you have to power to change yourself. Be it your weight, your career, moving to another country or talking to that girl. The mind is very powerful once it takes action.
Lesson: Change is inevitable but fades as well. It makes room for another startling moment in your life in which you find an obstacle on your path. It’s ok. Deal with it, time will guide you to the next step and makes you forget about all those previous worries. If you can, embrace it. You’ll learn, you grow and you will come out stronger.
#3: Calm The F*ck Down
My mind is always anxiously racing. Thinking, worrying, planning, anticipating, dreaming. I remember one of my former roommates saying that she loves riding on the train, she could stare out of the window and think of nothing. How? I’ve never experienced that, I’m always ON.
I’m always frantically hopping from one thing to the next. Always in a hurry, worried to be late, to miss out. It’s exhausting.
So, younger self, learn to calm the fuck down. Excusez le mot. Breathe. Do nothing. Care less. Ditch your to-do list. Play. Meditate. Exercise. Calm your mind. Miss something? Are you too late at an appointment? God forbid, are you bored? Chill. The world won’t collapse and neither will you.
Lesson: Calm yourself. Break the frantic patterns of your thoughts. It’s all in your head (this will bite me in the ass on multiple occasions). Learn to meditate, do yoga, watch your breathing. Relax.
#4: Trust Your Instinct
Ever had that feeling to tell yourself “I told you so!”? I have. It usually happens when my instinct tells me to do A and my irrational heart or inconclusive mind does B. Or worse, C.
Listen for god sakes! One’s instinct, or “gut”, is a powerful tool not meant to be ignored. Ever felt that particular friend would betray you, or confiding in that colleague would be your worst mistake? Perhaps you feel unsafe going out at night in a foreign country but your newly made friends dare you anyway. Listen to your inner voice, it may not always be right, but it’s saved me out of many situations. And of course, it proved me right when I made the wrong decisions.
One time in Bali I got up at 2 a.m. to climb a volcano. The bus that was supposed to pick me up didn’t arrive. My fellow travelers, who just returned from a bar, shitfaced, decided to go by themselves. Drunk, on a scooter, in the dark, with uneven roads and steep hills. No thanks. I tried to talk them out of it, but two of them went anyway. One returned lucky to be alive. The left side of his body was covered in blood, scratches, and bruises. His scooter total-loss.
Lesson: Listen to your instinct, intuitively it’s often more right than wrong. Perhaps our brains make super fast unconscious decisions for us, maybe that’s the “gut”. But hey, if I would have listened to it more often, I would have made better decisions.
#5: Ignore the Negative Self-talk
Every time you speak badly about yourself, you bring yourself down. You knock down your self-worth. Us humans have about 50,000–70,000 thoughts a day, depending on your mindset, 12,000 to 60,000 of them could be negative. That’s INSANE. Stop it. NOW.
It’s not easy turning negative self-talk into positive self-talk, but the first thing you can do (as with many things) is to become aware of the behavior. Where do these thoughts stem from? If you think about them, could you back them up with evidence? Is every negative thing you think about true? There you go. This insight has helped me a lot.
Most of the time we make up our negative thoughts.
Lesson: Be aware of your unjustified negative thoughts. Most aren’t real and can’t be proven! Then try to replace them with counter thoughts and turn them into something positive.
#6: It’s OK to be Vulnerable — Yes, Also as a Guy
A man doesn’t cry and doesn’t show his true feelings. Emotions? Get out of here!
Express yourself in any way you’d like. I know you “care” about what others think, but the truer you stay to yourself, the happier you’ll be.
Especially when you grow older, it becomes easier to let go. If you’re lucky, you have your group of loved ones and they like you for who you are, not for a projection of your idealized self.
Lesson: Talk with your loved ones about what bothers you, why you’re sad, why life sucks sometimes. We’re all in the same boat. The more you open up yourself to others, the better a connection you can make with people. You’re human, there’s no need to hide.
#7: Deal With Your Anxiety Sooner
It took me 8 years to finally arrive at the doorstep of a psychologist. What a waste of happiness. In the end, I’m a believer of the fact that just a couple of months ago was the “right” time. Everything went downhill, if you wonder what happened, read it here:
How to Worry Less and Finally Find Ways to Deal with Anxiety
How Finally Going to Therapy Has Helped Me Deal with My Anxiety
However, finding ways of dealing with my anxiety sooner would have saved me a lot of unnecessary worry and heartache. It’s such a liberating feeling when you are learning to understand yourself and your thoughts better.
Lesson: Go to a therapist. Try meditation. Journal. Analyze your thoughts. Examine your worries. How much of them are “real”? Let someone else “pick” your brain and help you understand YOU. I hate why it’s still somewhat of a taboo to see a therapist to heal your mind when it’s ok to visit your doctor for a migraine.
Still with me? I hope so 😃. If you click away I don’t blame ya, life awaits outside of your screen.
#8: Ignore Your Perception of What Other’s Might Think
In line with all of the above, but especially #5 & #7, stop making up stories for what other people might think of you. Or worse: stop playing out scenarios of conflict or worry in your mind that have NEVER happened. It causes unnecessary suffering.
EVERYONE worries. Most of all about what others think. So if everyone else is worried about others, they’re most likely not worrying about you. The mind can take only so much!
And IF they are judging you, so what? Do you have any control over that? No. I know, it’s easier said than done. Trust me it took me all my life to even remotely doubt the imaginative perceptions other’s might have. But once you see this and become aware of it a weight is being lifted.
Lesson: Set yourself free by accepting that not everyone is constantly thinking about you, judging you. There’s about a 99% chance they are worrying about the same thing. Plus, if they do, act like a Stoic. The Stoics are famous for acknowledging that the only thing you can control is your own thoughts and attitude. Not those of others or external situations.
#9: Watch Your Numbers
This one is the odd one out here on this list, but I still think it’s important. Being financially “healthy” contributes to your feeling of happiness as well.
In an earlier post, I described the lessons I learned from a failed business. The biggest reason was that I didn’t truly and diligently watch my numbers. It was because of a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to do so. I know, stupid, but mistakes are made. Luckily you can learn from them.
Lesson: Be it your business or personal financial situation, watch your numbers. Avoid debt at all cost. Avoid owing someone. Make sure you financially thrive and if you’re on the wrong path, to do something about it. Most importantly: act in time. The longer you wait, the worse the damage.
#10: Let Go More Often
In almost every post I talk about the fact that I love planning. I’m quite good at it, but it comes at a price. That price is spontaneity, flexibility, and play.
LET GO. Play. Say yes to something fun or out of your comfort zone at the expense of your plans or to do list. It could be anything, your career plan, your relationship plans, your travel plans, whatever.
For example, five years ago I went backpacking in China and Vietnam. Me and my travel buddy planned out everything. Our itinerary was mental. We covered a lot. So, we’ve seen a lot of sights, but we’ve spent virtually no time to “see what happens”. Luckily, on another trip to Bali, I was able to let go. Against my own plans, I traveled with a group of friends I met on the road and found new and exciting places to see. Plus, I made friends for life.
Lesson: Don’t plan everything. Make room for spontaneity. Find a healthy balance between planning and being spontaneous. You could surprise yourself.
#11: Ignore the Negative People or the Ones Who Suck Your Energy
This is going to save you so many headaches. It’s brutal. It sucks. But it’s necessary to cut ties with friends or family members that suck out your life energy.
I’ve come across a lot of those vampire types. Sometimes it sucks to let a good friend go, but the negative energy is just draining, it hinders your growth as a person.
It’s even worse when they’re family members. I’ve had experience with manipulating relatives, they played all sorts of mind games. AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT. Sorry, but I have to move on.
Lesson: Cut ties with the vultures, as difficult as it is. It allows for more positivity in your life.
#12: Spend Less on Things and More on Experiences
I spent a good portion of my student loans and income from studentwork on the newest gadgets, clothes and a fair amount of beer.
In hindsight, I would have used that money and my regular earnings to travel more for instance. Again I was a late bloomer, this time with backpacking. (In the Netherlands many people take a gap year at 18 to travel). I was 24 when I embarked on my first backpacking trip. It was magical. Seeing other ways of living, tasting different food, putting your life in perspective, making new friends, feeling the excitement of new experiences.
So, I would tell 20-year-old Nick to buy fewer things and spend more on experiences. Not only on travel but also experiences with friends and family. Or even on my own. Going to see plays, skydiving, taking guitar lessons, whatever.
Lesson: It’s the experiences you remember when you grow older. The treasured memories of time abroad, of that feeling when you jump out of a plane (done at 25 — insane but magical). On your deathbed, you don’t remember your second iPad or that extra pair of skinny jeans you bought when they were cool.
#13: Follow Your Bliss
Oh, that word. I believe it’s become popular since Joseph Campbell used it. Let the wise man speak:
“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” — Joseph Campbell
Some people now call it your “passion” or your “dream”. I think bliss goes beyond that. I hate that many “self-helpers” out there propagate to drop everything to blindly follow your dream. (I refuse to call them guru’s, well except for the legend that is Tim Ferriss).
Chillax, figure out what you want. Do it on the side. Make it your secret evening project. If it calls you, listen. Be it writing, making music, starting a non-profit, or making jewelry.
For me, it’s writing (duh), and I’m viewing it as a side hustle. I hope Joseph Campbell is right and that the life of a full-time writer is the life I ought to be living.
Lesson: Listen to yourself, what would you do if money was no object? Then, if you want, make time for it. View it as your hobby. See what doors will open and where they lead to.
#14: Take Good Care of Your Body
Wow, you’re still here. I’m so grateful for that 😄.
Ever since I was about seven years old, I’ve had troubles with my weight. When I went to high school I was that fat kid. I’m lucky, I wasn’t bullied and I had many friends. But still, being overweight has caused a lot of insecurities and an exhausting fight with exercise and food.
Most of the time I wasn’t able to stick with a diet or type of exercise. I’ve quit a hundred times. I did all the wrong things and pointed the finger at my “weak” mind.
I drank a lot of alcohol as a student. I still have a love-hate relationship with booze. I love to party, but now that I’m older the hangovers are the WORST and my body complains.
What has helped me after all those years of struggle? Moderation. Slowly changing my routine. Writing down what I eat. Eat more protein, veggies and good fats. Leave as much “empty” sugary carbs as possible. It’s hard, but the change in energy level is striking.
Lesson: A healthy body is a healthy mind, and probably more than that. If you don’t have your health, what do you have really? It requires a lot of willpower and then, with falling down and rising up, you can develop some sort of routine.
#15: Do What Scares You
It’s true what they say, if you go out of your comfort zone, you arrive at a place where the magic happens.
Unfortunately, we can’t have that experience before we take the leap and do it. We must cross all these uncomfortable barriers and fear. I can’t tell you how to do this. I can only tell what I do.
I do it, I crap my pants a little, and then I’m amazed at what I’ve experienced. Fear is an interesting emotion. It protects us, sure, but it holds us back most of the time.
Lesson: The more you try to get on the other side of fear, the easier it becomes. Do what scares you, get out of your safe haven and rock with the gods. It brings you life, it brings you lessons, experiences, and growth.
It all comes down to one thing first: LOVE YOURSELF. Appreciate who you are and who you’re becoming. Make mistakes. Learn from them. Go after what you want. Life doesn’t wait for you. Train your mind. Swap negativity for positivity wherever possible. Take care of yourself. Try new things. Conquer your fears. Life is scary as shit but don’t sit on the bench, play the field.
Thank you so much for reading this 🙏. It was challenging for me to be this open and personal, but in the end, it’s a relief. And I truly think these “lessons” would’ve not only made my 20-year-old’s self’s life easier and happier. They might help others to put things in perspective too.
Call to Action
What would YOU tell your 20-year-old self?
And which of mine can you relate to?
Let me know by responding 🤗
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