Finding Yourself in Your 20s Is the Best Investment You Can Make

The soul-searching endeavour of young adults is often mocked these days.

So you’re trying to find yourself? Isn’t it just a fancy term for postponing grown-up decisions, so that you can spend a few more carefree months backpacking?

When I entered my odyssey years (the period which started with graduating from college) I ran into such accusations regularly. My search for life purpose — which was an absolutely serious endeavor to me — seemed like fooling around to the people closest to my heart.

My family worried that I would never settle and would make “searching for purpose” my full-time job. They projected their fears onto me, saying that if I continued to live like that, I would wake up to a wasted life in a few years.

Most of my childhood friends didn’t understand either. They repeatedly pointed out that I worked below my qualifications and talents, cleaning rooms in a hotel or supporting disabled people in their daily activities. They couldn’t see the value I saw in doing those jobs: breaking out of my lifelong social bubble.

The opinions of others made me feel anxious. What if they were right? What if what appeared as a meaningful search to me was really just a waste of time? What if I was walking a dead-end street which was bound to end with an insurmountable wall?

What if everything I was doing was leading me to a wasted life? That thought seemed both scary and feasible at the time.

But just beneath the anxiety, I felt that allowing myself to feel lost for a while was the only way to determine my life path. In hindsight, I can see that I did the right thing. The odyssey I embarked on just after college was a necessity, not a fad.

I am infinitely grateful for affording myself these few years of soul-searching. This period allowed me to get to know myself so much better — and, as a result, brought unprecedented clarity about my life path


Allowing Yourself to Feel Lost Is Not a Waste of Time

The lack of understanding from those who used to support you all your life can be a serious bummer. It can make your whole world crash because, all of a sudden, you see that your innermost values start diverging from those of your loved ones.

This happens especially with parents. It often feels impossible to explain what you’re going through to them — people of another generation. While you’re looking for purpose, all that they mention is stability. While you’re trying your best to figure out what you want from life, they claim you should know it already.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks writes in his essay about the odyssey years:

“During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.

Their parents grow increasingly anxious. These parents understand that there’s bound to be a transition phase between student life and adult life. But when they look at their own grown children, they see the transition stretching five years, seven and beyond. The parents don’t even detect a clear sense of direction in their children’s lives. They look at them and see the things that are being delayed.”

The peculiar thing about the odyssey years — aka the “getting-to-know-yourself” period — is that it looks very different from the outside than it feels on the inside.

When you are in it, you know that what you’re doing — trying out and ditching things one after the other — is the only reasonable response to your current state of not knowing.

But for the people who grew up with a different mindset and entered adulthood focusing on “getting ahead,” settling for one career and starting a family as soon as possible? Your choices simply appear insane.

David Brooks again:

“[T]his period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions.… Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods … but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering.Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.”

A personal odyssey is a necessary phase of life in the 21st century. This is when you discover the ways in which you can fit into the established reality — but at the same time, how you can stand out and make the kind of impact you want to make.

For the people who observe you from the outside, it seems like you’re just constantly trying new things. But this is not what is happening on the deeper level.

On the inside, the most important process taking place is you getting to know yourself. And it is only possible to uncover all aspects of your personality (which you need to do if you are to keep up with the contemporary world’s demands) by putting yourself into new situations and challenges. Foreign environments expose your habitual reactions, thought patterns, and dispositions way better than familiar setupsYou can realize what you actually do and don’t enjoy — as opposed to what you were taught to enjoy.

The most important thing you can do in your odyssey years is to grow your self-awareness. You should look at it as an investment that will keep paying out dividends in the decades to come.

The psychology of goal selection explains why.


Pursuing Goals Isn’t Productive When You’re Chasing the Wrong Thing

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” — Thomas Merton

To start pursuing a meaningful long-term goal (also known as a life path), you first need to be clear about what is important to you. Otherwise, you’re just picking a random ladder leaning against a random wall.

That’s a risk nobody wants to take. No wonder so many people spend so much time before they choose their ladder and commit to climbing it. But even so, it is still common for them to realize halfway up that this is not what they wanted.

That’s because few people understand the connection between being able to pick the right ladder and self-awareness.

Kennon M. Sheldon, a professor of psychological sciences, explores the correlation between pursuing personally meaningful goals and knowing oneself in his paper “Becoming Oneself: The Central Role of Self-Concordant Goal Selection.” By self-concordant, he means the endeavors that people “feel whole-hearted about pursuing.” This happens when a goal stems from deeply internalized, personally important values.

The fundamental problem Sheldon points to is that most people don’t know what these values are.

“Bos and Dijksterhuis (2012) argued that people may not know what they actually think is important, even though they typically rely on conscious (deliberative) processes in their decision-making. This view depicts people as making conscious decisions without having the information needed to make the best decisions. Hofree and Winkielman (2012) reviewed research suggesting that people are often unaware of the core processes that underlie their feelings, desires, and choices, and showed that core liking and conscious wanting can be manipulated at a subconscious level, causing situations such as ‘wanting something one doesn’t like.’” — Kennon M. Sheldon

In other words, people don’t know what they want because they don’t know themselves well enough.

What’s more, we are all prone to external, unconscious priming when selecting goals. It is likely that you pick goals that aren’t based on intrinsic motivation, but on external influences, such as authority. You may still view those goals as personally meaningful though, as long as they align with the societal norms or the values of people who are close to you.

However, the self-concordance of your goals becomes verified over time. For some, this may manifest as a midlife crisis when, all of a sudden, they wake up to a life they never actually wanted. They realize that the goals they have been pursuing were never based on their personal motivation — although it appeared to them otherwise all along.

Sheldon explains how this fallacy happens by referring to what psychologists call the dual system approach. This approach distinguishes between two operating systems (or layers of personality) through which your mind processes information and makes decisions.


The Crucial Conversation of Your Two Personalities

Illustration by the author, adapted from Kennon M. Sheldon

The implicit personality is described by Sheldon as “non-conscious, parallel, intuitive/automatic, and evolutionarily prior.” This is what people refer to when they speak of their true self. This part of you includes your deeply encoded dispositions, preferences, as well as encapsulates the raw experiences you are having before your mind conceptualizes them. Implicit personality changes very little throughout your life, comparing to the explicit one. Daniel Kahneman calls it (the former) “the experiencing self.”

The explicit personality is characterized by Sheldon as “conscious, sequential, deliberate/controlled, and evolutionarily more recent. You can think of it as your self-identity— the way you position yourself in relation to the external world. This operating system serves as a mediator between your implicit personality and environment. As a consequence, it is relatively agile and adjusts to your life circumstances. Kahneman calls it “the remembering self.

The two personalities are thought to be largely independent — but they can have a conversation with each other. However, this conversation is virtually non-existent for most people. If you want it to take place, you need to deliberately initiate it.

“Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” — Daniel Kahneman

Most psychologists agree that your long-term goals — the ladder you climb — are selected by your explicit personality. But for the goals to be self-concordant and therefore meaningful to you, they need to align with your experiencing self (the implicit personality). Without the awareness of how the experiencing self is wired, you are likely to pick goals that won’t be in tune with your deeper values, dispositions, likes and dislikes.

You can better understand how this plays out in real life if you imagine Anna, who is pursuing a career as an attorney. She has entered law school because her parents were lawyers and valued that life path. Since Anna’s explicit personality largely identified with her parents, she embraced their values as her own. In so doing, however, she ignored the characteristics of her implicit personality, which dislikes entering discussions and arguments, and prefers to engage in introspection instead.

This makes Anna better predisposed for being a writer than an attorney. The path of a writer might have been much more pleasurable and personally satisfying to her — but she never took it into consideration, since she got fixated on the vision of becoming a lawyer early in her life.

Had Anna initiated a bit more dialogue between her implicit and explicit personalities, she might have realized that to live true to herself, she would have done better picking a different career.

But she never afforded herself the time to really get to know herself. She never had the opportunity to embark on a personal odyssey. She didn’t give herself permission to feel lost in order to find herself.

The question is: Will you give yourself this permission?


What ‘Getting to Know Yourself’ Actually Looks Like

“It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.” — Lucille Ball

In the environment where I grew up, nobody would see blogging or online writing as a viable career. Consequently, even though I loved writing and had the intrinsic qualities to develop a solo business based on it — such as stubbornness, enjoying my own company, and patience — I never saw it as a real possibility.

I never allowed myself to think that writing could be anything more than a hobby. That’s because my explicit personality remained in tune with what my environment dictated. At the same time, I felt huge resistance to the traditional 9-to-5 employment which was the norm for most of my peers.

It took a good deal of soul-searching, traveling and trying different jobs to define authentic goals that also seemed realistic to pursue. This happened on two levels.

First, my explicit personality operating system needed an update. I couldn’t pursue a dream goal if I didn’t see it as viable for me to attain. By embarking on my post-college odyssey, I got acquainted with people, books, and lifestyles that made me expand my outlook on what was possible.

Second, as I left my familiar environment, I had a much easier time discovering my implicit personality. As Sheldon notes, the implicit personality — or our true self — remains relatively stable throughout our lives. Meanwhile, the explicit personality adjusts itself to the changing external circumstances.

To ‘be true to oneself’ is to consciously refer to one’s stable values, motives, and beliefs as one makes decisions, which can be difficult when momentary social influences are insensitive or contradictory to these values and beliefs.” — Kennon M. Sheldon

As I was changing my external circumstances often and radically — and my explicit personality followed suit — it started becoming clear which traits and preferences of mine belong to which operating system. There was an easily observable contrast between what I stuck to — no matter where I went and what job I worked — and what was in flux depending on the external conditions.

I realized that writing was something I did regardless of almost everything else. No matter the circumstances, I could always find pleasure, relief, satisfaction, and healing in the simple act of putting words on paper. As I reconfirmed this over and over, I embraced as a fact that my implicit personality predisposed me for writing.

I also noticed that what I ultimately looked for at any stage of my odyssey (and prior) was a sense of community. This didn’t change, no matter whether this need for togetherness was being fulfilled or not. Additionally, I remembered some ancient childhood memories that reconfirmed that I had always been looking for the experience of being a host and providing safe space for others.

These are just two examples of the many things that I pinpointed as parts of my true self — rather than the constantly changing explicit personality. And since I started basing my goals on these realizations, I can simply feel that I’m climbing the right ladder.

How do I know? Because the fear of missing out I used to experience on a regular basis is going away. I no longer feel anxious that by choosing one ladder, I’m not choosing all the other ones.


This Is What I Want You to Take Away

It’s all easy for me to say when I look at my experience in hindsight. But I still remember how hard and confusing it can feel when you’re in the middle of your odyssey.

You can’t see where the process leads — and that’s natural. That’s because you are in the middle of the process.

So what I really want to leave you with is this:

  • Don’t be afraid to admit that you are in the state of “not knowing.”
  • If this is what you are experiencing, the best thing you can do is to accept this experience as valid.
  • This doesn’t have to mean that you are wasting time.
  • You can make great use of this time by deliberately getting to know yourself.
  • And if you do, remember that this is a great investment.
  • This is how you ensure that you pick the right ladder when you finally do.

Now go and learn from every moment of your odyssey. And remember:

Not all those who wander are lost.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

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