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The 3 Most Important Questions to Ask in Your Twenties

Graduating from college can be a time of uncertainty and emotional turmoil.

Key points

  • It's not uncommon for people to experience a sense of depression and loss after they graduate from college.
  • The pressure to succeed in a career, relationships, and finding identity takes a toll on mental health.
  • You can begin to navigate your way out of this period of uncertainty by running a series of experiments.

It’s not unusual to feel lost after college. Your twenties can be one of the most overwhelming decades of your life. One minute you feel like you are on the right path, you can tackle any obstacle that comes your way, and you have totally figured adulting out, and the next minute you suddenly get laid off or your roommate tells you that she’s moving to another city to be closer to her boyfriend. Now you have no idea what to do next—eat a pint of ice cream? Binge-watch Netflix? Reach out to mom for comfort and support?

The best-kept secret is that the twenties sometimes suck.

Having worked with this age group for many years as a therapist and life coach, I have witnessed the loneliness, confusion, and range of emotions that come with one of the most uncertain times in our lives. It often comes as a shock that life doesn't get easier after graduating from college, especially if the trajectory of your life is no longer what you had planned out.

Clinical psychologist Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade, writes that the “twenties are the developmental sweet spot” for planning your future life. The twenties are a time of transition and change. The pressure to succeed in a career, relationships, and finding a sense of identity and purpose can take a toll on mental health. Many young adults experience feelings of anxiety and depression during their twenties.

But here's the thing about your twenties: they're the perfect time to run a series of experiments designed to let you figure out who you are, and what matters most to you and why. So, what's the answer?

3 essential questions to ask in your twenties.

1. Who am I? (What gives my life meaning?)

Do something that helps you get some identity capital by investing your time and energy in trying out new ways to learn who you want to be. Stop making excuses and stop procrastinating. The twenties are the time to experiment. Design these experiments intentionally based on who you want to become in the areas that matter most to you. For instance, in our Girls Thrive Lab coaching group, our 20-something cohort comes together as young women committed to personal growth and development. Every session is focused on how they can create the lives they envision for themselves through exercises in mind management and positive psychology.

Part of learning who you are requires intentionality. You create yourself through all of your life experiences, both your successes and failures. Figuring out who you are requires you to also determine who you’re not.

Self-awareness only comes through self-reflection. You must get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sometimes it requires a move or letting go of a job or career that is not aligned with who you want to become. Sometimes it requires letting go of relationships that no longer serve you.

Feeling sorry for yourself only keeps you stuck in the same old patterns that limit new opportunities for growth and connection.

2. What matters most to me and why? (Values-based decision-making)

It's necessary to explore your values and revisit them periodically throughout your life in order to better understand how your choices may or may not be aligned with them. This awareness will enable you to better understand how your real self measures up to your ideal self as you continue to explore the process of intentional change.

Your core values are the things that matter most to you. They are internal beliefs that dictate how life should be lived and how people should behave. Values give direction and guide behavior by shining a light on what matters most. Mahatma Gandhi once said that happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

We often lose track of what is truly important to us in life. You might spend hours worrying about what others may think of you or get overly stressed because of not getting invited to something. You may sometimes get obsessed with things you want but do not have.

Begin by getting honest with yourself. In order to clarify what matters most to you, you need to admit that the life you have now is the direct result of choices you've made in the past. Acknowledge when certain choices, activities, ideas, and/or beliefs are no longer serving you.

Next, have the courage to tune out the noise. Really listen to your heart and the messages from the people who matter most to you. Asking yourself the following questions can help to clarify if your choices are aligned with our values:

"In this moment, will this choice bring me closer or farther away from my goals? What future is this choice creating?"

Finally, you can become more self-aware by tuning in to your inner self, by developing a better understanding of where your beliefs came from, and whether they still serve you. Remind yourself that you can always make different choices that create new possibilities.

3. What’s mine to do? (What’s my purpose at this time in my life)

Coming up with a vision for yourself goes hand in hand with understanding what you want to do with your life at this time. Discovering one’s “purpose” in life essentially boils down to finding those one or two things that are bigger than yourself and bigger than those around you. It’s not about some great achievement, but merely finding a way to spend your time intentionally.

So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or, “What is my life's purpose?” what they’re actually asking is, “What can I do with my time that is important?” As long as you can identify a meaningful direction and how it will allow you to make a difference, we call that “purpose.”

If you say, “I just want to make a difference, but I have no idea how,” you’re probably searching for your purpose. But if you say, “I want to make a difference and I know I’m really good at teaching people, so it will somehow involve education,” that would indicate purpose, but with more specificity. The next step is to decide what's the next right action to take.

3 components to finding our purpose in life: goals, meaning, and motivation.

As emerging adults, you get to try on different roles and personalities as you figure out your place in the world. Research suggests that engaging in potentially purposeful activities (i.e., trying new activities, meeting new people, and learning new skills) can help you to discover what is meaningful to you, while also learning how your skills can help the world.

Reflection and self-awareness will help you explore what your purpose might be. Finding opportunities to act on this purpose can lead to a greater knowledge of which life paths you want to choose.

More from Pamela S. Willsey LICSW, BCD, PCC
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