What I’d Do Differently If I Were 21 Again
Yesterday my eldest daughter turned 21 years of age.
It’s a proud moment as a parent to feel like you’ve delivered your offspring from cradle to adulthood — one child down, three more to go!
In real terms, it felt like she became an adult at 18, and as I’m paying towards her university education, I guess she’s not fully independent as yet. That said, she’s in her final year now before graduating this summer and then she’ll be on her own.
Her birthday prompted me to reflect on a few things I’d do differently (and some of which I’d do the same) if I were 21 again, embarking on the world as a fully-fledged adult.
1. Keep Learning
I recall feeling a certain arrogance about finishing education and starting out in my career. I believed I was a fully-rounded individual who had done all the learning I needed to. I saw my childhood as the education phase and was convinced that adulthood was simply about putting it all into practice.
How wrong I was.
It took at least 10 years of adulthood before I opened my mind to reading anything other than fiction. Even longer before I contemplated doing anything to learn, grow and stretch myself besides training at work. I look back on a lot of wasted time when I could have accelerated my progress through life and learned new skills.
Adulthood is an ideal opportunity to put some of that purchasing power, time and autonomy towards personal development and self-improvement. Learn skills, new languages and develop new hobbies. Explore, experiment and indulge your curiosity.
Learning is a lifelong habit that we should all practice.
2. Buy Less Stuff
I was lucky to graduate at the height of the dot-com era when well-paid jobs were plentiful. I’d got a job lined up with Oracle Corporation at least 6 months before I even finished university. When I graduated, it was exciting to suddenly have a plentiful supply of money.
I wasted no time spending my disposable income on consumer garbage and accumulated many material possessions that had little lasting utility and brought only fleeting joy to my life.
I understand the temptation to indulge yourself when you’ve had little spare cash for years, and suddenly you have lots. But I know from experience that it brings little in the way of meaningful happiness to spend, spend, spend. If anything, you run the risk of building up a reliance on it, which ultimately leads to debt and emptiness.
Far better to start with balance — spend a little and save a little (as my grandparents used to say)
3. Invest in Bitcoin (or other innovations of the age)
If I were a newly-minted adult right now, I’d be starting off making a small investment in Bitcoin and cryptocurrency as a speculative investment for the future. Not staking the farm on it, but certainly ensuring I had a small stake in potential future gains.
When you’ve got cash to spare and little in the way of commitments to fund, it makes sense to make the most of the opportunity.
When I started working for Oracle, I opted into a company share scheme that offered discounted shares via a small deduction from payroll. The dot-com bubble helped out, but those few shares generated the down-payment for my first home. Only by taking the opportunity that was somewhat unique to the era was I able to get on the housing ladder.
Bitcoin may be a route to riches in the medium or long term, or it may be too late now. It seems, though, that there will always be investment opportunities for each new generation that are unique to the age — why not use some of your new income to get involved?
4. Don’t hold out for a ‘career for life’
When I graduated, I believed that I’d enjoy a career for life and that whatever I started doing would be what I did for years. Instead, I got laid off from Oracle after 9 months thanks to a downturn in demand for consultancy. I got laid off twice more in subsequent years, and in 20 years of working, I’ve had numerous different jobs and spent 8+ years as a freelance contractor too.
I recognize the labor market is a far more daunting place than it was when I graduated. For those entering it now, I’d urge them to take a long term view and explore, experiment, gain experiences and sample jobs they think might be interesting or rewarding. Don’t get too hung up on having to pick the right job or the right employer from day one — a career is a long time.
What you do at 21 is unlikely to remain what you do for the entirety of adulthood, and that’s a good thing. This is the time to explore and experiment to find out what you really want to do.
5. Don’t stress about getting into a relationship and having kids
My daughter was born just before my 24th birthday — early in my life compared to many of my friends. I don’t regret it at all and am 45 now and still feel (relatively) youthful. I have a great relationship with my daughter as a result. That said, it did make my early adulthood a lot harder than it might have been if I were older and more established in my career and in life generally.
I’d felt a self-imposed pressure to ‘find a girl and settle down’ once I started work, and for a variety of reasons, it seemed to happen quicker than I imagined it might. I’m conscious that different pressures may exist for men and women and that if you want to have kids, you may feel excited by the prospect of doing it sooner rather than later. My advice in almost all cases, though, would be to wait.
Early adulthood is a great time to be selfish and focus on doing and being exactly who and what you want to be, without having to consider your kids or a partner. Based on my own experience, even a couple of extra years to do what I wanted and figure out who I really was guilt-free would have made me a far more capable adult when I did have kids and would likely have eased the path of my life in the process.
Who can say?
6. Buy a house as soon as possible
Property seems like an asset class that most do really well out of — it’s certainly been the one consistent positive in my financial life. No matter how poorly I’ve managed the rest of my money over time, it’s always been beneficial to own property.
If you save cash for one purpose in your twenties, it should be for a down-payment on a home. You may choose to rent it out rather than live in it initially. It may be that it remains forever rented to others, or you might sell it to buy somewhere that you call home.
Either way, having some money tied up in the property market will ensure that you benefit from the gains that it typically yields over the long term.
Having something to focus on when you put aside cash is also a useful motivator — accumulating a down-payment for your first home is a good thing to aim at.
7. Take risks early on
As you get older, life inevitably gets more complex and demanding. You’ll have relationships and maybe settle down. You may have kids, climb a career ladder and gain extra responsibilities. At some point, you may experience health issues, and elderly relatives start to pass away.
Life gets more complicated as the years pass. I don’t say this to be morbid or to spread doom and gloom — it’s just a fact.
The time to take risks in life is when you’re relatively free of obligations and commitments. I guess this is the guiding principle that underpins most of the other points above.
Your twenties are a time to make speculative investments and kick off the longer-term ones. To try different jobs, to start businesses, to experiment and sample new hobbies. To learn new skills and to explore other cultures and countries.
Not all these activities have to be risky, I should add — but a career change when you only have to meet your own living costs is far less risky than when you have a family that relies on you.
In many ways, I still think of myself as a child. I’m blessed that my parents are alive and in good health, and I suppose that on some level, that keeps me in the child-mode. I still look up to them as examples of what I want to be when I grow up.
In reality, I became an adult when I had autonomy for making my own decisions and choices in life and responsibility for dealing with the consequences of my own actions.
With responsibility and accountability comes great opportunity — the freedom and the chance to make your life what you want it to be.
It’s an exciting time, and even in the face of all the challenges that exist in the modern world, I’m excited for my daughter as she enters adulthood within it.
Note: This article is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered Financial or Legal Advice. Consult a financial professional before making any major financial decisions.
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