So I turned 24 yesterday and the biggest question on my mind (as it seems to have incepted all of my friends’ minds) is: does 24 count as “mid-twenties”? “Welcome to your mid-twenties” my friends quip. Others take the less subtle approach: “you’re an old man”. For some reason, people in their early twenties have an obsessive fear of the mid and late-twenties. Perhaps, it’s because young professionals in their early twenties still want to pretend that they’re in school and that things don’t have real consequences and there is an opportunity for do-overs. We crave the spontaneity of campus, the non-commitment of parties, the safety of a bubble. At Rice we used to call this phenomenon going “beyond the hedges.” It was a big issue that the school and the student association tried to solve for by naming the problem and devising solutions to encourage students to leave the campus they paid good money to go to school at. The effort was designed to help introduce students to the world outside the magical village that the school campus consisted. For most students, you got glimpses in your weekly off-campus food adventures or the occasional concert-festival-artsy gathering, but none of these really brought students face-to-face to the real dangers of the real world. We were afforded a safety that people scarcely recognized and appreciated. The few real encounters with danger that we were privy to were the occasional campus police reports of armed robberies, stalking, or petty thievery.
The mid twenties mark a related reckoning. It’s when we’re pushed to stop pretending that we’re “just recent grads” who don’t know what we’re doing. We’re not clueless about the things that adults have to care about on a normal basis. The messy, awful, annoying, frustrating, insane, pointless, necessary dues to being a functional adult in society. Things like doing your taxes on time while making the proper benefits enrollment choice and dealing with that hospital bill that just so happened to miss your inbox until it was too late to submit it to the insurance. Perhaps it involves dealing with that harbinger of misery coworker or playing “the game” to climb the ladder, maybe it even involves keeping a plant or two alive while trying not to starve yourself in between all the emails and the calendar invites and the meetings scheduled through the emails and earmarked through the calendar invites. The precious slots of your early twenties just perfect little canvases for stuffing more and more frustration into. Our excuse of being only recently indoctrinated into the game of society is wearing thinner and people are expecting us to get with the program.
Maybe it’s a reckoning precisely because we’re getting close to the point of no return: the precipice where we must make a decision between getting with the program and forging our own path. It comes to a binary choice between playing the Game of Life as society expects you to do and following your heart for what you want. Unfortunately, if it was as simple as that sounded it’d probably be a no-brainer to everyone to choose the latter. While everyone most likely wants to pursue the latter, it’s very hard in practice to commit to it. Everything in the world conspires to make you choose the latter. It’s the easy path. The expected path. The optimized path. The problem is that we can’t go live in a vacuum in the latter—the real world and the vast majority of people around us are playing the Game and so for us to be understood, simply to interact in this environment, we have to play the Game too. This means that should you want to pick the latter, you have to constantly context switch. You have to know when to play the Game and when to forge your own path and make your own illegal rules. You have to understand that there are contexts where you must operate by the rules of the game, and the one time you have to truly be free is in your own private space, whether it’s just you or you and your community of partners-in-thought-crime. The other part you need to understand is that everything that happens in your mini-world must be connected back down to the Game that everyone understands if you want to have any hope of others beyond your inner circle understanding.
In college, I was always focused on the “right” path for success. I obsessed over getting the right look, the right steps, the right itemized list of experience, the right passions and the right introductions and the right overall impression of a “professional” up-and-coming engineer. Life was one big plan for me, and I planned the hell out of being in the right places at the right times to get what I wanted. When I started my full-time job, I noticed that I felt surprisingly lighter. I no longer had a rigid plan telling me what to do at every moment. It was as if I was suddenly adrift, where before I had been anchored to an area for “proper” behavior. The depth of the world I was perceiving suddenly seemed to multiply, as if I had an improper prescription before and everything now was dramatically sharper, clearer. It was too much detail—too much choice for me too soon. I was used to knowing what the “right” thing was for any given moment and now I had to start deciding that for myself anew. A blank slate to start over a completely new plan from, but I stopped myself from falling into old habits. Before I was always chasing something new and far off. As soon as I achieved anything, it was on to the next. A never-ending race to climb the never-ending ladder. I decided to ditch chasing in favor of feeling—following the energy in the given moment, having a constant pulse on what got me excited and having it be enough to just feel passionate for my current situation.
I’m grateful for where I’ve landed after this internal turmoil. Every day, I’m learning and remixing ideas and following the energy to new pastures and cultivating old gardens. I’m tuning my nose for what makes me really go off and the kinds of people where it feels as natural as breathing to riff off each other and build each other up. These are probably the closest things we have to a perpetual motion machine, a phenomenon where putting more energy in only produce more energy for you to go off. I want to intimately understand the things that I can work endlessly on, the kinds of things that make you giddy with excitement and anxious to get cracking. I’m okay making the leap to forge my own path and taking the trail off the beaten path. Especially given that I’m in a position to do so with the tech industry’s abundant offering of a good lifestyle, it almost feels like it would be a waste for me not to when so many people are otherwise constrained from making this choice themselves by the harshness of reality.
I think the main reason we dread the mid-twenties is we fear the loss of our youth. But when I’m tuning into this energy and acting as the vehicle for its release, I feel like I’m on cloud nine, a state of flow beyond the trite conceptions of who gets to act excited and youthful. Even as I go into my mid-twenties and late twenties, through the roaring 20s to the bustling 30s and the partying 60s and beyond, I want to keep finding this energy in old passions and new curiosities. I want to keep channeling that energy, letting it drive me into adventures and communities, and of course having fun with it all the way. If we are mindful of it, we can bring a little bit of our child selves, the crazy, reckless, foolish, silly pieces of our youth, with us til the very end. And I think he’s a pretty fun guy to keep around for a while.
For my official transition into the mid-twenties, I’m asking for recommendations. Would love to hear what’s on your mind and anything you’d like to share.
I’m also starting a new experiment of writing mini-essays every day. Mini-essays meaning they concisely demonstrate a single principle and are lightly edited (if at all).
My goal for them is to be a forcing function for me to distill the ideas with some substance that I think about each day into a publicly digestible form, but not edited or polished enough to become a full-blown blog post to retain some of that rawness and decrease the barrier to releasing it into the digital ether. I was also inspired by visakanv’s“do 100 things” principle and the #30for30 movement to continually produce and make things. I’ve been doing this in private with my habit tracker but decided that creating a public artifact is better for creating learning exhaust. I want to be fairly regimented about getting 100 of these things out but don’t want to force myself to the point that it feels like a chore and I lose the joy of creating them. With that perspective in mind, I’d like to have 100 artifacts by the end of August.
This may feel like spam sometimes since it’s everyday so would love feedback on how the cadence feels (feel free to tell me it’s too frequent) and any other thoughts on the material. Thanks again for reading and liking enough to subscribe! Perhaps I’ll add a separate section to my website dedicated to these rawer pieces.
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