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n my 20s, I knew little of how the real world works. During this period of confusion, exploration, and growth, I sought answers from books, articles, and my peers. I became so fascinated by the behaviors and psychology behind this decade of development that it became part of my graduate thesis. I held an online survey asking for any participants to share their stories, knowledge, and advice from their 20s. I learned new things about people that are close to me and found solidarity with people I didn’t know. In an age where connection is ubiquitous, but much of it, unfulfilling, this project was my small attempt to connect with others. I’m honored to share these words as they have been shared with me. Thank you. Shirong Gao


Your 20s can be just as formative as your teens and college. It’s the perfect time to figure out what kind of man you want to be as you grow older. Gregory Shin, 29


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

limbo, broke, hectic, disheveled, challenging, upbeat

crossroads, adventurous, fun, overwhelming, confusing

liberating, challenging, responsibility, exciting, formative

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Any number of days in SF....

Traveling in another country with friends.

Living and working in Wash, DC, after having moved from a farm in povertystricken rural PA.

Making solo travel plans in another country. Meeting my favorite manga artist and getting a personal present from her. Going out with my boyfriend.

Participating in the Civil Rights Movement and witnessing much of it firsthand, including the 1968 riots of DC where my brother’s platoon camped out in the rotunda of the Capitol, as I watched the smoke-filled skies from my nearby apartment rooftop, even as rioters broke into the stores beneath my windows. Birth of my son in 1972. Finally getting a college scholarship at the age of 29 thanks to the Upward Mobility Program offered to women and minorities thanks to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

I’m still in my twenties... but, I guess I’d like to tell my younger self that life can always get worse...that it will...but, when it’s over, heaven is on the other side.

Unless you really have a set idea of what you want to do in the future, it doesn’t matter how you get there in school.

I am no longer naive, and I trust my internal instincts and never hesitated to act accordingly.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Same as above. Got to hit rock bottom before making your way towards the top.

Try different things, travel, meet new people, expand your horizons as much as you can. When you get older, it feels like it gets harder to do those same things.

Listen to others so you can learn from their mistakes, but listen most to your internal voice...if something does not “feel right,” think twice!

Jennifer L., 27

Evelyn Banda, 64

Nicole A., 25

Know that the most important things in a relationship, whether personal or business, can be destroyed in an instant by one stupid action resulting in distrust and a lack of respect for either yourself or someone else. Learn to forgive, but never forget...forgetting results in repeating the same mistakes.





List 5 words that describe your 20s.

liberating, confusing, revelatory, accepting, humbling

happy, newly married, growing in new directions, working, traveling

confusing, dramatic, mundane, insecure, hopeful

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Visiting a friend in Chicago for the first time—I mostly grew up in New Jersey, by the way. The friend lived with 6 or 7 other people, and they were all activists, radicals, queers, musicians, performers, writers and/or artists. I was in awe of the way they lived, the places they had traveled, and the things they had accomplished over the years. I remember having a moment of peace the day after the wedding in their backyard. I had gotten up around 8—everyone else was still asleep from the previous night’s festivities—grabbed a beer, James Joyce’s book “The Dubliners,” and went to the back porch. I started rereading the short story “The Dead,” and felt at peace with myself and the world. At that moment, I knew life wasn’t as bad as it’s usually portrayed on TV; I knew I would be okay.

My marriage and life after it.

Traveling around Europe by myself and starting to sketch again.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

That I would find someone who would love me back.

How fast time really goes by.

I wish I enjoyed myself more and was less angsty. Now that I’ve been through it, I realize how little people expect of those in their twenties. Maybe that would have freed me to be more adventurous and take more risks.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

If you’re unhappy or unsatisfied with your job, school, partner, current state in life, then try to change that. Look for a new job, change your major, leave your partner or let him/her know about your unhappiness, move. Do what makes you happy; don’t intentionally hurt someone; don’t hold grudges or burn bridges; talk to people, get to know and understand them; try to forgive. Really, it often is that simple and hackneyed.

Savor the moment.

Pick a few role models (I want to be that person in 20 years) and examine what they did in their 20s and 30s.

Anonymous, 28

Susan Friedman

The first weeks of beginning a romantic relationship that finally felt right. Starting my professional life and earning a steady salary also felt very empowering.

Watch less TV and don’t surf the internet so much. Instead pick a project you care about that you can work on in your spare time. Not everything your parents say is totally wrong.

Peng Wu, 29

party, travel, marriage, career, adventure

sex, drugs, alcohol, sex, sex

learning, growing, love, energy, travel

happy, exciting, growth, exploration, study

Waking up in the Sahara Desert.

I don’t rank my memories.

Marrying my husband.

Flying to Japan to study after having graduated from college.

Farewell party when John and I were leaving Virginia for Ethiopia/Farewell party when we were leaving Ethiopia for Virginia. When John proposed on the side of a mountain, and snow boarding down the rest of the way yelling, ”Woo hoo!!” Jumping off some high rocks into the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. Paragliding in the Swiss Alps.

Falling in love does not necessarily mean you’ve found the right person for you.

Cocaine comes in pumpkin flavor for the holidays.

To relax, it will all work itself out.

Only small things...Getting Things Done system for email. How to avoid stress when driving. Personal daily limit for admin work. Other things I knew better then or have more difficulty resisting now: downplaying value of appearance, being humble, living without many things. Every year has been better than the last. Looking forward to being 37!

Take risks and learn from the mistakes.

Everyone likes and wants sex as much as you.

Work hard at being honest with yourself, considerate to others, and enjoy the ride.

If you’re lucky enough to know what major skill you wish to hone, develop your ability to practice.

Sam Garland, 35

Jiacong Yan, 29

Julia Nalitz Vivalo, 33

Kristofer Bergstrom, 36 7


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

existentialistic, shy, romantic, insecure, studious

angst, beauty, wisdom, confusion, friendship

tumultuous, exciting, exhausting, ever-changing, inquisitive

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Traveling as a student.

Going on road trips, one in college to New Orleans to volunteer on clean up after hurricane Katrina, and one in grad school to North Carolina for volunteering at a free health clinic. It’s fun taking in a new city with a bunch of other people you like being with. There are other good memories like traveling abroad in undergrad and grad school, but there’s something about taking the road trips that was awesome, fun, cool, and will always give me good memories and remember that I’ve been happy when I’m feeling depressed or confused.

Marrying my husband.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

To be myself and not what others expect of me.

I’m still in my 20s, but I wish I knew that I am attractive and didn’t need to feel concerned that I was ugly or unappealing. And I wish I knew that I am intelligent enough to get by and make a contribution, at least, and to do even greater things. It would have helped with having more confidence.

That by your 30s you still don’t have it figured out, so stop trying to figure it out early.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Life is not as long as you think. Make projects, but start putting them into practice today.

Remember that you look good and are smart. So go ahead and have confidence. Also, things will be confusing, but that’s what friends, family, and significant others are for. And there’s always counseling if you need more critical insight. Most things are doable so try not to be so afraid.

Take your time making decisions, try not to be a perfectionist. It’s OK if you get it wrong, but overthinking everything just burns you out.

Corinne Garber, 58

Lina Khan, 26

Lisa Quattrini, 28

If I could go back in time, I would study less “romantic” subjects (e.g. philosophy, literature) and go for a more down-to-earth career (e.g. law, foreign language interpretation, interior design, criminology).

Adopting my first dog.



Search for a career that makes you happy, but realize that your passion and career don’t have to be one and the same— it’s not all or nothing. Demelza Benton, 29


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

learning, naive, dramatic, stressful, laughter

experimental, adventurous, carefree, spontaneous, reckless

fun, mature, change, school, carefree

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Every birthday.

Graduating from college.

Having lunch with my friends at an Indian buffet. We did it often and I miss it.

Road trip during school breaks. Gatherings with friends on the weekend.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

Not to date my ex. Not to trust friends so easily. I’d rather have a small group of good friends instead of lots of fake friends.

Should have graduated from college sooner than later.

I’m still in my 20s! But I do wish I approached college with a little more focus.

Get a degree from a college. Any degree or any college. Just get one.

Work hard, play hard. Cheesy, but true.

Jiun Heng

Sarah Min, 28

Keep your troubles to yourself. To be patient. To communicate better.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

The only one who cares about you is your family. Think for yourself, no influence. Strive for better, never be content. Education comes first. People will talk, don’t listen, as long as you’re happy with yourself. Be your own person. People have to accept you as you are. 20s are hard,especially early 20s, but if you never give up hope for a better tomorrow, things will turn out for you. If you allow the hardships to get to you, it will get the best of you.

Anarly Asimakopoulos, 29 12

fun, carefree, exploratory, love, growth

peripatetic, aspirational, new, wasted, unknown

irrational, wild, stubborn, emotional, misguided

Celebrating my 24th birthday at my house with my friends. It was just such a great group of funny people and we stayed up all night together. Back then there was no doubt that we would all meet up and just hang out. Something that takes babysitters and advanced planning to do now.

There are so many, but the one that sticks out right now is the first time I saw Red Square in Moscow. It was my first time in Russia and was the dead of winter. By the time I found it, the sky was already at half-light and the temperature was quickly dropping. The cobblestones were slick with ice and I shuffled along in my California winter-style “boots.” It was so exciting! I remember thinking to myself, I can’t feel my fingers so well anymore, and getting over these cobblestones is a workout...and...wow, there it is! The culmination of so many years of study and hard work, and I’m finally standing here—I made it!

Friends and exploring new things.

Cherish them!!! But also make sure you are making good decisions for your future. A good balance of both so that when you are in your 30s, you can settle down without having to start from scratch.

I think whatever I’ve figured out now came from a natural progression— it wouldn’t necessarily have helped to know the same things at age 20 that I know now.

Confidence and knowledge.

See above.

Learn about yourself and be bold! Learn how to operate out of a place of love rather than fear.

Live with no regrets, but don’t be too irrational. Think things through and know who your real friends are.

Search for a career that makes you happy, but realize that your passion and career don’t have to be one and the same—it’s not all or nothing. Take time to appreciate the good things you have, every day, even if it’s something really simple like “I have freedom of motion to walk from point a to point b without assistance.” If you’re a strong, successful woman and you’re in the dating world, go read Evan Marc Katz’s blogs—NOW—tons of obvious dating truths that would have saved me from many bad experiences. (Note, I don’t wish away those experiences though because they made it possible for me to understand the lessons now). I’ve read a few good books on the so-called “quarter life crisis.” They helped me through some tough decisions and I recommend them to anyone who wants to think about the unique (and often overwhelming) opportunities available to American twentysomethings today. This is especially true for women who have a perfectionist streak—we want to have everything and we’re given the message we can, which is a recipe for unhappiness, in my humble opinion. Also, the advice I always got about “find your passion and do it”—I still haven’t figured that one out, because it seems to me that if you have a job, and it’s 80% satisfying, and you have free time to do your hobby and have people in your life you love and who love you—you’re doing REALLY well in life. In any case, the books are “Undecided” by Barbara & Shannon Kelley and “Twentysomething, Twentyeverything” by Christine Hassler.

Melissa Lambert, 31

Demelza Benton, 29

Yang Zhou, 29 13

List 5 words that describe your 20s.

exciting, turbulent, transforming, beautiful, scary

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Best memory. That’s actually pretty difficult to pinpoint. How about an interesting memory? This one time, a bunch of friends and I decided to make a very special concoction called the Green Dragon. We made a batch that was enough to get 20–30 people pretty baked, and thought it was a brilliant idea to share it among just six of us. Nothing was happening for a while and I remember wondering if we had made a failed batch. But in about half an hour, the high was hitting me like a ton of bricks. It was too sudden, and way too intense. If you had smoked from a pipe, vaporizer or bong before, you’ll know that the high usually comes quite immediately after you inhale. And because of this, you usually have more control over how high you wanted to get and when to stop. Now, with the Green Dragon...dude, all that THC is already inside of you. So it was hitting me really hard, and I couldn’t do anything to stop myself from becoming more and more stoned, and that was only the beginning. I’ll tell you, I didn’t become fully sober until a whole 24 hours later. I knew I had to lie down. I had somehow made it to my bed, and I felt like electricity was coursing through my body. There was too much energy being released, but my body wants to be paralyzed. If I tried to sit up or move, an incredible wave of nausea would overcome me. Someone sat beside me and patted me. It was wonderful and it made me feel so safe. I remember dreading that he was going to stop. I think there were four other people on the bed with me now. We didn’t mind each other. I heard someone run to the bathroom to throw up. I heard a loud crashing sound. But it was so difficult to focus on anything. All my senses were crazy heightened but I felt so very detached. I didn’t care for the person who was getting sick in the bathroom, I didn’t care what made that crashing sound. All I knew was that something beautiful was playing on Pandora. I was hearing music but seeing images. The rhythm turned into girls dancing in red skirts, twirling umbrellas, ink mixing into water, all this in slow-motion. The shadows in my room were coming alive. Not in a horror movie sort of way, but it was so easy to find images in them. The shadows of my ceiling lights came together to make a reindeer. The images came and went for hours and hours, but sleep came eventually. When we woke, it was probably late in the afternoon and I was still high. The high was not nearly as intense as the night before, but I could definitely still feel it. It was kind of nice, actually. I felt perfectly functional, just a little more relaxed and unconcerned than my normal self. I was also feeling more creative than usual, so I got three of us to write a little story. There was once a girl named Paper. She was paper thin!!! She liked burgers. Burgers with faces on them. Motherfuckin’ faces, bitch! Bitch, you don’t mess with my motherfuckin’ burgers! The worst kind of burgers have beautiful eyes. So one day she went out for a walk to get some burgers. On the way, she saw a candy-colored poodle. And decided that she wanted a dog instead. A dog she could love and hug and stuff. But they gave her a turtle. And it reminded her of burgers with beautiful eyes. So she named it Patty-Pretty Eyes. It liked to poop. Its poop had beautiful eyes too! You see, Paper had boring purple eyes. Which could see through wood. Morning wood! Moral of the story: Trees fuel creativity.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

Unfortunately, I’m still in my 20s. Five more years of fucking up and falling on my face to go! It’s really quite exciting.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Live! We won’t be young forever. Don’t fear failures, don’t fear change.

Anonymous, 26 14


Make projects, but start putting them into practice today. Corinne Garber, 58


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

independent, fun, free, single, naive

exploration, exciting, freedom, growth, responsibilities

insecure, ambitious, hardworking, single-minded, lack of life experience

What is the best memory from your 20s?

While living in Madrid as an international student, my friend and I decided to buy tickets to go to Amsterdam the next day. We didn’t have a hotel or friends or speak English very well. Being on that train to that unknown destination gave me a great sense of freedom.

Living, working, and traveling abroad while in Japan.

It was the time I just came to UC Irvine as a graduate student, everyone around me was friendly and helpful. Combined with the cultural shock of just coming to the US, everything was new and exciting. Also at that age, I did not feel the stress from life at all. That’s a memory hard to forget.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

Your life doesn’t end when you turn 30...or 40, or 50.

To just be yourself. You can’t fake being someone who you aren’t, so don’t try. To be content within.

Politically, I wish I had known that China could become so powerful internationally today.

Friends come and go, but that’s OK.

Economically, I wish I had known the behavior of the stock market and housing market in the last 10 years.

Your mother will always be there no matter how bad things get, and she will always forgive you no matter what you do.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Take every opportunity life throws at you, no fear. Or as we would say in Spanish: Pura Vida.

Have fun, but try to stay grounded and make plans for the future.

Spend some time researching all your options before you make an important decision!

Anonymous, 33

Anonymous, 30

Anonymous, 55 17


You’ll never be more prepared or ready, you’ll always be you at this moment. Brenden Sanborn, 27


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

exploring, discovering, bewildering, building a professional persona, enthusiasm

introspective, experimental, informational, formative

marriage, military, stability, independence, art

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Thanksgiving potluck in Japan with other Assistant Language Teachers. It was bizarre, outside the apartment it was just another day, but inside, the atmosphere completely changed. Everyone inside shared something—we celebrated Thanksgiving—and it brought us together, literally and figuratively. Everyone wanted to be festive and was anticipating a great feast, so everyone put their best effort forward (aka made food they have for Thanksgiving).

Sitting in an oceanside, outdoor onsen in Japan as steam rolled from the pools into the waters below, and rain drizzled onto my head.

Moving into my first place.

I was in a country far away, but that night, I had such a feeling of “home” from eating familiar food, and the sense that I belonged to a community. It was easy to feel isolated, in that situation—and in my 20s, past the days of college hangouts— so finding a community to belong to was, and still is, important to me.


Standing in one position for hours just so I can have a front-row spot to see one of my favorite bands at Coachella. Then singing along and dancing with thousands of people at my back, doing the exact same thing. Taking an impromptu camping trip with my friends, getting lost, and miraculously finding a camping spot without reservations. We ate the most amazing hot dogs that night.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

If anyone you first meet starts out by saying, “We might fight/ have disagreements,”—RUN. There is a reason why this person has fights/disagreements.

I realized this a couple of years ago, but I wish I knew this right out of college. That your 20s can be just as formative as your teens and college. It’s the perfect time to figure out what kind of man you want to be as you grow older.

Will have to come back to that one. Still only 21.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

It’s OK if you don’t know what you want to do in life. This is the time to explore and build off of who you already are.

Take chances! Make mistakes! And go/do see stuff while you can.

You’re young, you can do anything you put your heart and mind towards.

Sarah Zakem, 29

Gregory Shin, 29

Lindsey Gloria, 21

independent, possibility, roots, growth, change

new, freedom, exploration, experimentation, friends

active, crazy, energetic, sleepless, stupid

change, discovery, purpose, uncertainty, naps

Hiking down a narrow canyon in Utah on my first overnight backpacking trip. We set up camp for the night and I realized that we were completely out of range of any other human beings. It was exhilarating! (And scary.)

Just being foolish young adults with college friends.

Basketball and first love.

Probably the day my friend Saki and I took a weekend trip to Kyoto. I loved spending time with her, and it was great to have a native show me around the area. We also dressed up as geisha and had our pictures taken. I looked really weird.

That you’re definitely not too old to change your mind and decide you want to pursue something completely different.

Still in my twenties, but now that I’m older, I would not spend my money (i.e. student loans) so freely.

Control my temper and know what I want for my life....

Well, I’m still in my 20s, so...I wish I had known in my early 20s that I needed to work harder to have a career plan. My idea at the time was that somehow everything would work out, as long as I got good grades in school.

Everyone says to go ahead and take chances, because you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do. They’re right! However, the things I do regret all involve not taking care of my body. I wish I had worn sunscreen and hats more often, taken better care of my joints, and been better about exercising.

Try to have a plan and a few back up plans for life.

Be patient and try to find out yourself.

Have fun, but don’t forget to make a plan for the future as well.

Robyn Bytheway, 29

Anonymous, 29

Shih-Fen Lin, 32

Kelley McMorris, 26 21

If you aren’t the steward of your own happiness, if you don’t make the choice to live well, no one is going to do it for you. And no measurable material success or failure is really going to change the way you feel. Jessie R. Vernham, 26



List 5 words that describe your 20s.

transition, abroad, adulthood, uncertain, friends

fun, scary, dramatic, confusing, learning

Waiting for a kidney transplant.

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Going to Japan for a month in the summer. Traveling around, seeing sights I’ve never seen before, it was great. Really hot and humid though.

Getting married. Sounds so cliche, but I spent most of my late teens and early 20s thinking I didn’t want to get married. But I met the right person and got married at 27. It really marked a milestone of heading into adulthood and figuring out what I wanted in life.

When I got my first kidney transplant. I went, overnight, from the worst I had ever felt, from being on death’s door, to this insane feeling of wellness. I couldn’t believe that this was how healthy people felt all the time—it was as though I had been walking around every day with a thick black blanket over my head, and someone had taken it away and let me see the light and feel the fresh air.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

I wish I knew how to properly find a nice girlfriend. Still trying to figure that one out.

How to handle money.

I wish I had realized that happiness is a choice—and that no external thing will ever come along to make me happy. The only thing that will make me happy is deciding to be so.

To speak my mind more often. To trust my gut. To invest in my own ideas.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Live out your 20s to the best of your abilities. Try to have the least amount of regrets after they’re over. At least once get a crazy haircut.

Travel!!!! Travel, travel, travel. It is amazing how much you can learn about yourself and life when you travel. The farther the better. :)

Be aware that the events of your life will conspire to make you bitter and unhappy, but that there is no one in the world who is more invested in your well-being than yourself. If you aren’t the steward of your own happiness, if you don’t make the choice to live well, no one is going to do it for you. And no measurable material success of failure is really going to change the way you feel.

Teresa Camp, 33

Jessie R. Vernham, 26

Still being in my twenties, it’s kind of weird answering these questions, but knowing that 30 is right around the corner really makes me think about them. I hope someone can get something out of my answers.

Richard Suh, 27 24

frustrating, anxious, insecure, humble, mobile

tumultuous, marriage, military, children, higher education as mid-20s person

broke, fun, adventurous, busy, experimental

happy, hard finances, drunk, acceptance, direction seeking

It’s more of a set of memories than any particular one that became an experience. It was finding and growing into my relationships with my best friend, who in time, became my husband. We met in college, moved three times between states, and were married in England (we share a love of history and there was no single place in the US that worked best for us).

The Birth and Dedication of my son and daughter in front of our local church.

I traveled internationally for the first time ever with friends to Tokyo for nine days. This was an unforgettable experience since I’d never been to a foreign country and had lusted over Japan for years and years. It was some extreme bonding time with the friends I went with and we have memories from that trip that we’ll never forget. Also, Japan is a drug and I must go back.

That moment when I finally figured out what I was passionate enough about to want to do it for the rest of my life.

I think college, especially undergraduate school, offers the unique period in which people are meeting a mixture of others for the first time in close quarters without the added pressure of work environments or other commitments. It’s also perhaps the most mobile time of life—people move from place to place in their twenties more than any other point, I think because they have broken free of their parents and haven’t yet established roots. It’s OK to feel fluid during this time—that your career and relationships aren’t set in stone. But also that you have the time to figure things out.

There is a market for what it is that you LOVE!

I wish I more thoroughly understood how hard the job market would be. I knew I was attempting a highly competitive market, but employment in all areas tanked. It was a bit staggering when I got my BFA and couldn’t find any job at all, even unrelated to my degree. But even this wasn’t completely unknown to me. I’d heard how hard it was before getting into it.

What I wanted to do with my life—would’ve saved me thousands of dollars.

Save your money. That means “pay yourself first”—set it up so that it’s automatically deducted from your paycheck and put into a savings account. Not only do you have less job security than you think you have, and may need to survive on what you’ve saved for six months or longer, but you also will probably never see a social security check. You need to save for your retirement. And if your employer offers a retirement plan, especially one that matches, don’t walk—run—to your HR department and sign up for it.

Find what you LOVE and pursue it like your entire life depends on it, because it does.

Alexandra Bond, 31

Dale C. Rice, 64

What I didn’t know about the world could still fill volumes, but now at least I know that not valuing MY feelings was as wrong as choosing the right job for the wrong reason.

When I got my older, abusive sister kicked out of my mom’s house and got blasted drunk that night.

Oh, I know. Credit cards. I wish I knew that getting all those credit cards just wasn’t worth all that interest...haha. It’s fucking hard but a ton of fun. If I had the chance again, I’d love to do my twenties all over again...just in another life because eff that shit right now. I’m ready to work!

You must feel and hear the validation of others at some point or you may be deluding yourself. Listen quietly, then ACT!

Do what you need to do in order to go after your dream and passion, but try to be as frugal as possible. Don’t be afraid to take risks because everything you do adds to your experience, even if it doesn’t pay off immediately. There are things I studied or tried early on which I wasn’t really pumped about (graphic design, learning computer programs), but have really helped out later.

No matter what anyone says, you’re not going to know what you want to do with the rest of your life until you know what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’ll know what that means, so don’t let anyone rush you into trying to figure that out. (Also applies to teenagers.)

Melisa Des Rosiers, 28

Jolene Ann Young, 27 25


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

drunk, dancing, pensive, changing, educational

changes, friends, music, emotional processing, social justice

uncertainty, change, exploration, pain, growth

What is the best memory from your 20s?

The best was during my undergraduate years. Studying, working a lot, sleeping very little, being able to function on 4 hours of sleep every night, going out to clubs and dancing the night away; making out with randoms at the club Thursday through Sunday.

It’s hard for me to think of a specific best memory, but I really enjoyed playing shows. I was (sort of am still) a drummer throughout college with several bands over the years. Some of the most enjoyable times I had were playing live music with my friends.

Scuba diving some of the most beautiful oceans in the world.

It allows me to enter some sort of other mind-space, where I kind of forget that I’m an individual person, and instead, feel like part of an entity, which is a feeling I don’t get anywhere else in my life. And also dancing. I discovered in college that I love to dance. I still do sometimes, but not as often.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

I wish I would’ve just gone to medical school rather than changing careers and settling for something in the medical field which does not capture my full potential.

I wish that I knew it was OK to change my mind about what I valued, what I wanted to study, what career I wanted, and how I felt about my relationship with my family (to know that things can be complicated and confusing, to know that it’s OK to hold them accountable for their behavior).

That I’d still be hot and getting hotter at age 30.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Take the time to figure out what you want career-wise, so you don’t waste time going back and forth. Also, take the time to view and observe those closest around you and be careful who you associate yourself with.

Try lots of things! Jobs, relationships, where you live, anything! I think sometimes we do things not because we love them, but because we think that is what we are supposed to do. But there is nothing you are “supposed to do”—you get to choose!

Probably, not to be too afraid of making mistakes or sidesteps in life. I think if I had children of my own in their 20s and they were going through the “quarter life” career what-to-dowith-my-life crisis, I’d tell them that it’s okay if they don’t know what to do with their lives—that some things come only with time, experience, and age.

Angelica Valentin, 27

Jessy Lancaster, 29

Anonymous, 30

Hahaha I’m kidding. I’m gonna give you that answer anyway, because I honestly can’t think of anything else, and I’m thinking pretty hard. Good question though. =P




List 5 words that describe your 20s.

discovery, freedom, uncertainty, doubt, risk-taking

naive, curious, persistent, confident, frustrated

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Hard to choose!

College life.

There was the first time I volunteered in Latin America, during college in 2003, teaching in underserved schools with a team of local and international volunteers in Nicaragua. That experience not only influenced my choice to pursue studies and work in international education, it shaped my philosophy of teaching and development work. Somewhat related was the time I went back to Nicaragua in 2006. I was living in Costa Rica at the time and needed to renew my visa by spending 3 days outside the country. I had gotten on the bus to cross the border with the equivalent of about $2, hoping to survive on the charity of the community I had volunteered with in 2003. (The place I was working at was months late in paying us). Not having communicated with anyone from that community in many years, I was banking on them being there and remembering me (and on me remembering how to get there). Luckily, despite the village having grown into a town, I managed to get there and find people I remembered. And thankfully, they were very welcoming. It was a humbling experience facing such uncertainty and depending on folks who barely had enough to get by. An interesting thing I’ve realized about my earlier 20s is that I took a lot of risks I probably wouldn’t have taken now. I’m not sure how much is age making me more fearful or experience making me more sensible.


What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

That it’s all in the head—I create my own unhappiness, regardless of the external circumstances, but can equally take charge and be happy. Well, even if I “know” this now, 10 years from now do a survey about people in their 30s and let’s see how much I internalize it by the end of that decade.

Nothing, really. I would not have had a real 20s’ life if I knew what I know now when I was in my 20s.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Take risks, believe in yourself, show gratitude toward all the people that help you along the way.

Trust your instinct, follow your curiosities, and always pursue happiness.

Lauren Marar, 29 and three-quarters

Ben Gao, 58

experimentation, struggle, self-awareness/confidence, wisdom, vindication

Am I a good boy?

I don’t have a specific best memory from my 20s; it’s more like a culminating realization of what I’ve learned in that decade. Fresh out of college at 22, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or what I even planned on doing, other than some vague inclination on which direction I should go.

Practicing Chinese calligraphy by using water on the ground, led by my grandfather.

It troubled me that some people seemed to know exactly what they were doing and where they wanted to go (or, at least they were good at giving the impression of that). It was only years later after meeting many people and working in various jobs that I realized that many people’s blustering self-confidence (or even arrogance) actually masked terrible insecurities and personal failings. The truth, I realized, was that NOBODY really knew what they were doing. This realization became enormously comforting for me. It became the starting point of the wisdom I gleaned from the experiences of my 20s—though I had no idea what I was doing (nobody does at first); through hard work, dedication, a bit of courage, and a lot of help and luck, I could l teach myself to become competent. This was true, whether it was training for and completing a marathon, taking on a new job in a completely different field, getting into and completing graduate school, or taking and passing the bar exam. In all, the best memory from my 20s was learning to become comfortable with myself, with all my strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and quirks. Only time and experience can bring one to this realization.

I know now that everyone in their 20s was probably just as lost and bewildered as I was, and I wish I had known that from the very beginning. It probably would have saved me a lot of pain and confusion.

More stuff in my area of major.

However, looking back, I realize that I needed that period of confusion to eventually bring my life into focus: setting realistic goals and learning the discipline to make the incremental steps towards self improvement. By experimenting and trying new things out, I learned what I didn’t want to do, what I was good at, and what I was lousy at. I couldn’t have learned these things unless I endured this humbling period of self-discovery.

I don’t have any advice other than to simply learn to be comfortable with yourself— don’t ever let people get you down or tell you otherwise. They’re just as lost and confused as you are, whether they admit it or not!

Study hard and train.

For me, this is something I spent my entire 20s learning, and the process continues to this day. Nobody is perfect, and nothing ever quite goes according to plan. You might even have your life completely mapped out, but things get in the way that may take you in a wholly new and unexpected direction—and it might end up being the best thing that ever happened to you. Sometimes, even silly childhood dreams may become a reality—it certainly did in my case. So yes, experiment, try new things, start climbing and see just how high up you can go. But also be prepared to struggle, sacrifice, and work hard—nothing worth doing is ever easy. It takes time to find out what you’re good at, what you’d enjoy doing, and how exactly you will end up contributing to society. These things are what your 20s are spent finding out.

Anonymous, 30

Ivan Zhu, 22 31


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

flighty, free-spirited, immortal, independent, selfish

busy, fun, over, successful, awesome

wisdom, growing, lively, adventurous, persistent

What is the best memory from your 20s?

When I was finally successful in interviewing for a flight attendant position and graduated from training. I was 28 years old and had been trying for 3 years to get this position. I knew this was the perfect job for me and it was the first time I’d put my mind to something, attained it, and graduated with the highest score in the class.

New Year’s party in 2010 at Lisa and Chris’s apartment in Hudson and St. Paddy’s Day with Amanda and Meaghan in 2008.

Giving birth to my son. =)

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

Education is as important as my parents always told me. If I would have buckled down, studied and found what I loved much earlier, I would have had many more years feeling successful. While I wouldn’t trade those years because it made me who I am, I will be paying for it by remaining in the workforce well past when I could have retired.


To push myself harder than what I think I can do and to not give up.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Do the absolute best you can in everything you do, especially educational endeavors. It does delay gratification in the short term, but the payoff will be much greater when you do.

Don’t be so worried about what other people think of you.

Never give up on your dreams.

Caryn Eaton, 43

Laura Farley, 29

Sarah Hine, 25 33

List 5 words that describe your 20s.

dad, son, saddest, happiest, hardest

awkward, lonely, educational, satisfying, difficult

confusing, challenging, unsure, broke, exciting

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Birth of my son.

Cliche—my wedding day is my best memory. Even though stuff went wrong, I still got to marry my husband and none of it mattered in the end.

Moving from Atlanta to San Francisco to start chasing my dream at the age of 25.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

Working hard at something isn’t always the solution. You have to stick up for yourself and other people have to do things for you too.

That even though I was belittled by some, misled by others, and used more times than I can count, in the end, it gave me the ability to appreciate what I do have rather than what I don’t. If I could go back and tell myself one thing it would be the now overused phrase,“It gets better.”

That hard work and lots of sacrifice is required if you want to make it anywhere in this world!

Not sure I have anything... maybe just enjoy every moment!! If you are always thinking about the future or the past, you miss the present.

You don’t need to get married by 25 and have your first kid in the next year to have a fulfilling family life. You also don’t need to sleep around and party hard to enjoy your life. Move through your life naturally, and don’t feel like you need to please everyone around you.

If you think you’re working hard, you should probably be working harder. Don’t judge your worth by your paycheck, or if you have a job that’s “related to your degree” or not. Work hard, do what you love, and if you can’t, work hard to ALLOW you to do what you love on the side.

Amy Attaway, 29

Anonymous, 29

Joie Brown, 27

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?


The 20s are really a new “teen” age. I feel like people don’t really start getting their lives together until their 30s.

Try to be more considerate and less self-righteous. It’s hard, I know. Wing K., 32


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

fun, adventure, love, studying, baby

exhilarating, ephemeral, endurance, evolution, epiphany

energetic, careless, carefree, immortal, lost

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Getting married at 24, there were many great memories from my wedding. Also, having my first child at 27.

It is impossible to pick one thing. In this past year alone, I’ve organized events for 10,000–30,000 people, I took part in the Mars Curiosity landing, I’ve traveled to Alaska and Hawaii for work, shook the President’s hand, watched the shuttle Endevour fly over on a 747, almost died (and more scary yet, watched my wife almost die) while whitewater rafting, backpacked across Yosemite and Big Sur, went scuba diving in brilliant kelp forests in the Monterey Bay, helped my pregnant wife and saw the fragile miracle of life only to watch it almost slip away in the neonatal intensive care unit while my daughter fought for her right to enter this world.

Living life one day at a time, eating everything and anything I wanted, and those nights of endless drinking.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

I’m still in my twenties, but I wish I had slowed down more and enjoyed every day for what it was.

If I could tell myself (at the age of 20) a few things, it’d go a little something like this:

Know where you want to go and go bravely.

You’ll never be more prepared or ready, you’ll always be you at this moment. You only ever get one chance to make the most of the moment, once it’s gone, it’s lost forever. We’re all trying to figure it out, and nobody (even the people who think they do) has got it down, so just make peace with yourself and everyone else so that we can work together to make it.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?


Slow down. Enjoy the process of getting where you’re going.

Ask yourself what REALLY matters. Ask yourself EVERY morning what you hope to accomplish, what is your purpose, how can you make a difference. Every day you are living for someone or something, so realizing that and taking control is the most important thing we can do. And if it’s not obvious, living for yourself isn’t going to lead to a sense of fulfillment down the road.

Be brave. Follow your gut.

Malia Sanborn, 27

Brenden Sanborn, 27

Young Kim, 31

challenges, frustration, tragedy, lost, confused

evolution, unplanned, surprise, work, art

oblivious, blunt, foot-in-mouth syndrome, determined, driven

Graduating college.

One of my best memories was one of my hardest memories: moving away from home. It allowed me to become who I am.

Successfully transferring into the design program at UCLA after two previous failed attempts. I remember that up to that point in my life, I’ve never wanted something so intensely. I remember the day I received my acceptance email...I was in the library and literally jumped out of my seat and yelped (Sam was there and was both happy for me and embarrassed ha)! This small victory ultimately led me to my current profession, so it definitely affected me in a tremendous way. Visiting my grandmother in Hong Kong shortly after college graduation is also a great memory. That was the first time I traveled back to my birthplace since moving to California when I was a kid. It was nice to see that the city was mostly the same, just more overpopulated. Paying off my student loan. As silly as that sounds, it felt like one of those cliche moments in which a chapter of my life has officially ended. Of course from then on, there are far crappier things to follow (car loans, IRA, health insurance, bills, freaking rent/mortgage).

How important family is. Doing what is right instead of silence can be freeing and could have saved a life.

I wish that I knew how to maximize my time better.

Once people are set in their beliefs, it’s very hard to change their minds, so pick your battles carefully. Religion, for example, is a fruitless fight. The best you can hope for is for those with differing beliefs to just freaking leave you alone. O_O Whatever “epic” projects you’re working on, be they short films or music or whatnot, you’re going to look back in ten years and find them kind of embarrassing. But that’s okay, because people change...their tastes change. What’s important is you’ve created something that at one point in your life mattered to you.

Things don’t come to those who wait.

Try to be more considerate and less self-righteous. It’s hard, I know.

Never forget family. Work hard, but don’t forget what is really important.

You don’t know nearly as much as you think you do. Listen to those who have done it before you and synthesize their thoughts with yours.

Pursue things that interest you. Don’t waste your time doing things you don’t care about, because by the time you realize that what you do bores you to death, you may find yourself in a stagnant, yet comfortable place in life where, despite your best efforts, you’ll be reluctant to change. If there’s nothing that interests or excites you, then take the time to try new things until you find something that does. It’s worth it.

Cindy Quach, 26

Josh Smothers, 27

Wing K., 32 37


Stay curious. Fight the cynicism and don’t get jaded. Joanne Seto, 30


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

uncertain, bright, hopeful, disposable income

fun, stressful, exciting, scary, fulfilling

insecurity, depression, revelation, inspiration, courage

What is the best memory from your 20s?

Traveling with friends to Sydney, Australia, or any other destination really. Work was great and making strides in my career are all very good, but traveling with friends and seeing the big, big world are why I work.

Well, I’m still in my 20s—early on in them at that, but my best memories will probably be what I’m experiencing right now and will be going through for the next few years. Graduating from the Academy of Art University, attending law school in the fall, and passing the bar (after however many attempts!). I can say with confidence that being a student has been and will be the best memory of my 20s. But I just love school, so I’m an odd one haha.

The best memory from my 20s was when I found the courage to pursue my calling as an artist. It was the spring of 2010, when I was 25 years old. I had just gone through a public speaking and selfmotivation seminar, where I learned a lot about myself, what I’m capable of and what I can do to grow as a person.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

Work harder play harder.

What I wish I knew two years ago was to be a little more careful with my heart. I’ve become slightly jaded when it comes to love only because I’ve had my heart broken a few times now (but who hasn’t?). It’s not that I’ve learned to avoid love, it’s just that I’ve learned to only love those who earn it and give the same love back.

I wish I had known that there is no reason to be afraid. But I couldn’t have learned that without taking the journey that taught me that.

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

Travel in your 20s. Adventures, experiences, and connections are irreplaceable since you’re still probably developing. Save the 30s and 40s for raising a family.

I would say...being in your 20s is probably one of the only times in your life when you’re sort of allowed to be selfish. Not in the sense where you’re only out for yourself, but in the sense that the big decisions you make need to be what is best for you down the line. And if that means moving away from your boyfriend/girlfriend or staying in to study for a final instead of going out and celebrating your best friend’s birthday, then do it. It’s not that it will be easy or that there won’t be certain repercussions of those decisions, but if it helps you to achieve an overall goal you have, then do it. And do it full force.

Never stop growing. Know that you have time to grow, mature, and develop as a person.

Jessica, 22

Anonymous, 28

Anonymous, 30 40

The best decision I ever made was to come out to San Francisco and become an artist.

Understand that we are all afraid, lost and confused, at least some of the time. Understand that this is natural. Don’t be afraid to make plans. Don’t be afraid to deviate from plans. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid.

busy, productive, exciting, tiring, new

adventure, exploration, maturity, challenging, introspective

challenging, growth, decisions, independence, questioning

Being in the beginning of my 20s, I’d have to say one of my favorite memories would have to be using my ID for my first legitimate alcohol purchase. I remembered the times in high school when we had to ask older siblings or cousins or find a fake ID. Using my 21 year old ID for the first time gave me a sense of independence, and a nice buzz afterwards.

As a collective memory, all my backpacking trips. It was mentally and physically challenging but I connected with my inner Thoreau. Being away from the city, getting in touch with nature, it was my getaway to recharge and clear my mind when the daily grind was getting too gritty.

Choosing to join Peace Corps and live abroad and work in a small community for two years was the best decision I made. I would say a lot of my life choices before then were somewhat random and impulse-driven, with a focus on being successful and trying to make my parents proud. In Peace Corps, I learned what really matters to me and struggled to find my way, two things that I think have made me stronger and able to make more informed and better decisions.

I guess this applies more to my knowledge in my late teens, but after being a bit in my 20s, I wish that I hadn’t played video games or sat around watching YouTube or surfing the internet as much as I did. Being in your twenties, you see how important time is.

Undergraduate courses can “expire” for graduate school prerequisite credits, but the cumulative GPA stays forever!!

Do something everyday that you know your future self will thank you for.

Stay curious. Fight the cynicism and don’t get jaded.

I would look forward to my trips every summer. Great new tradition!

It’s never too late to go back to school, but you might have to start all over with the general education courses. Which is a blessing in disguise, because you get to revisit familiar ideas with new perspectives.

It’s never really about you. You’re just a catalyst. People’s actions/reactions say more about them than about you.

Christian Rimando, 21

Joanne Seto, 30

That life is not just about taking a test, that people and experiences matter a lot more, and to take advantage of opportunities. Also, there is no one right or wrong decision. Life presents a series of options that all can lead to different and interesting paths.

Relax and take the time to enjoy all the changes and options in front of you. Slow down and try to be intentional with your decisions. Don’t just do things you think others want or expect of you. And wait before you get that tattoo. :)

A.M., 29 41

I would not have had a real 20s’ life if I knew what I know now when I was in my 20s. Ben Gao, 58


List 5 words that describe your 20s.

exploration, fun, growth, friendships, possibilities

best, reality, plight, discovery, acceptance

What is the best memory from your 20s?

The first time I was at a bar with friends on New Year’s Eve and counting down the clock. We walked along the beach afterwards, and I apologized to someone that I had hurt before.

Every moment of college. Everything was fresh and full of possibilities. It was something magical that can never be regained. I knew it at the time, so I took every advantage to enjoy it to the fullest.

The time I came home and found that one of my friends had mailed me the missing bed pole that I needed. That time, after swapping stories about crushes with my college roommate, I opened my email to see a parallel photo collage that she made showing the guys doing similarly dorky things.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

What’s your advice for those currently in their 20s?

You are not perfect, so stop trying to do things perfectly. Do things messy, and don’t care so much about how others perceive you.

At 24, I felt unaccomplished in my career and that it was too late to get started when, in fact, it was the best time to try, make mistakes, and learn!

Figure out what you want to do or what you love, and then follow that. It takes about 5 years to reinvent yourself into an expert, so it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or what mistakes you’ve made so long as you start. Don’t get caught up on the costs that you’ve already sunk on the path you came from. Choose what you love, move forward, and don’t look back.

Depending on who you are, it may be the hardest time in your life so far. Know that you are not alone. Everybody fears failure and has self doubt from time to time. If you have good health, you have everything. Take courage and start building your life.

I often felt I had to prove myself and defend my decisions. Now, I’m less inclined to do so because it’s replaced by a new confidence forged from my experiences.

Get ready to be humbled. Don’t be too proud to ask for help, admit that you were wrong, or apologize. There’s no need to compare yourself to others. They may seem happy or successful to you, but you can’t truly know how they feel or what their life is like. Find out what works for you. It will take a long, long time and when life becomes too grueling, ask yourself,”Is there anything else I’d rather be doing?” You can’t control everything, so enjoy life’s little surprises and you’ll always have something to look forward to.

Anonymous, 30

Shirong Gao, 30 43

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CONTACT ME Shirong Gao mail@gaoshirong.com gaoshirong.com

GOOD READS The Defining Decade by Meg Jay Grow Up? Not So Fast by Lev Grossman Friends of A Certain Age by Alex Williams Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy by Tim Urban The Neuroscience of 20-Somethings by Ferris Jabr

All illustrations and design are Š 2013 Shirong Gao. 44

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A compendium of people's accounts of life in their 20s.


A compendium of people's accounts of life in their 20s.