10 life lessons of adulthood that my 20-year-old self would never have understood

Steven JohnThe author and his daughter.
  • There is no guidebook to life; life lessons are gained only through time and experience, and many of our beliefs and perceptions will change over the years.
  • Often the picture of a life we imagine for ourselves and the life we end up living are quite different, and in most cases that’s just fine.
  • Here are 10 life lessons my 20-year-old self might not have wanted to hear, but that my actual adult self can confirm as fact.

At the time of this writing, I’m 36 years old. I have two cute kids, a wonderful wife, a yard that needs raking, a fair amount of grey hair on the sides, and almost no free time.

Does my life look exactly like I pictured it would when I was 20? Actually, in some ways, yes. But over the course of the last decade and a half, I’ve learned that much of what I expected from life would either never come, or would come in different ways than I thought.

My first career, the thing for which I’d gone to school to prepare, never panned out. (Filmmaking, in case you’re wondering.) I figured that as an adult I’d spend time with friends weekly if not daily, just like I always had, yet I’ve not seen some of my closest friends in months, and a few in years.

I thought there would be more free time to try new things, travel, have hobbies, and just to relax, yet with each passing year I have to pass on more opportunities, give up on personal projects, and go to bed instead of reading that book or watching that show.

In short, my 20-year-old self thought life would be easier. Here are 10 hard truths I’ve learned that have proven that life can be pretty tough stuff.


1. You will fail. Many times.

I came out of college a cockeyed optimist, ready to dive in with both feet and sure to succeed. And quickly, at that. Flash forward a year and a half and I’m signing a severance letter after losing a job. Three years after that, I’m shopping a script all over LA, a script that still sits in a drawer today. It wasn’t until I was nearly 30 that my writing finally started to pay the bills, and by then I had long since given up my youthful dream of making movies. And frankly, I’m glad I did, as I love writing. But my 20 year old film student self would be mortified to hear me say that.


2. The money will probably come slowly.

Jean Sebastien Evrard/Getty Images

Unless you land a job with Google, on Wall Street, or you’re lucky enough to make it on screen or pen a best-seller, you will gain wealth incrementally, and you probably won’t save much for many years. The cost of living alone, especially if you have debts to pay off, is hard to cover with most salaries offered to junior level employees. Your 20s will likely be spent building up a career that will later be profitable, but don’t count on a ballooning bank account any time soon.


3. You will lose touch with friends.

Friendships have always been important to me, and I was fortunate enough to have met a great group of people in high school, college, and in my early years of work. There was a time, though, that I could not have counted the people I thought of as genuinely close friends on my fingers and toes and then some. Now, I’d say it’s down to fingers and maybe a foot. Which is still a good crew, to be sure, but I’m shocked to realise it has been more than five years since I’ve had any contact with some people I once saw all the time. And never through a falling out; it just happens.


4. Hard work is not always rewarded.

Sometimes, you will try your best to no avail, your hard work overlooked, taken for granted, or in the worst cases, taken away from you when someone else claims the credit. I’ve had bosses put their proverbial stamp on projects over which I toiled, and I’ve had work of which I was proud met with a perfunctory nod. And in many cases, the reward for your hardest work is merely that level of commitment and effort establishing a new baseline.


5. The party has to come to an end (most of the time).

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In college, I could stay up late boozing with friends and still make it to class in the morning. In my early 20s, I could leave work, hit the bars or a buddy’s house, and still be at my desk on time every day of the week. But as responsibilities mounted, and as my body changed, the party lifestyle had to take a major step (or ten) back.

As you get older, your body becomes less efficient at processing alcohol, you need more sleep to recuperate from late nights (both the booze and simply the activity), and you will likely have more reasons to play it cool instead of going hard (AKA kids and a home to manage and a commute, and all the rest of it).


6. There is never enough free time.

Prioritise things in your life carefully, because you will not have time for everything. If you have a beloved hobby, set aside time for that instead of Netflix. If you love to travel, plan your trips well in advance, because spur of the moment adventures are a young person’s privilege. Each new phase of life, from work to marriage to family, means less free time. And time is the one thing you can never get back, so use it well.


7. Fitness gets harder and harder.

Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock.com

For years, my metabolism was so fast I paid basically no attention to what I ate, calorie-wise. I’d try to have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and avoid fried foods, too much salt, and too much red meat, but if I was getting a sandwich, there was never a question as to foot-long vs. six-inch, as to the bowl of soup or the cup, or whether or not I’d have another slice.

Now, despite still running a few miles several days a week as I have for a decade, if I eat a few extra snacks here or there or indulge in an extra large dinner for a few nights, the weight shows up. To maintain more or less the same body I’ve had for years, I have to take concrete steps I never considered when I was 20.


8. Relationships take hard work.

At first, a new relationship is fun and exciting and feels effortless and light. But most of that fades. Not the fun, that should always be there, and there will always be exciting moments even when you know someone through and through, but for a relationship to be successful in the long term, it takes real work, patience, and sacrifice. And if you never experience those sensations in your relationship, you are probably not properly committed to it, or else you have a strangely pliant, selfless partner likely lacking much character.


9. Life speeds up every year. You will be 30 before you know it. Then 40. Then 70.

Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

You will be amazed by how quickly you turn 30. Then 35. And then beyond, but I can’t speak to that yet. What I can say is that I clearly remember conversations I had when in my mid 20s in which I talked about someone who was over 30 as seeming notably older. And those conversations feel like they happened last week, not last decade.


10. You will disappoint people.

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No matter what you do, you will disappoint people in your life, and often those you love the most. This is partly true because we all make mistakes – we break a promise, tell a lie, say something hurtful, forget something important, and so on. From these mistakes come the opportunity for growth and improvement, so own them and move on.

In other cases, you are entirely in the right to disappoint people because you’ll do so by following a path they wouldn’t have chosen for you. If doing what you believe to be right lets someone else down, let them down gently and follow your course. You can’t be all things to all people, after all. You can’t even be all things to yourself.

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