What you need to know to be a real adult.
When you’re 25-ish, you’re old enough to know what kind of music you love, regardless of what your last boyfriend or roommate always used to play. You know how to walk in heels, how to tie a necktie, how to give a good toast at a wedding and how to make something for dinner. You don’t have to think much about skin care, home ownership or your retirement plan. Your life can look a lot of different ways when you’re 25: single, dating, engaged, married. You are working in dream jobs, pay-the-bills jobs and downright horrible jobs. You are young enough to believe that anything is possible, and you are old enough to make that belief a reality.
1. You Have Time to Find a Job You Love
Now is the time to figure out what kind of work you love to do. What are you good at? What makes you feel alive? What do you dream about? You can go back to school now, switch directions entirely. You can work for almost nothing, or live in another country or volunteer long hours for something that moves you. There will be a time when finances and schedules make this a little trickier, so do it now. Try it, apply for it, get up and do it.
When I was 25, I was in my third job in as many years—all in the same area at a church, but the responsibilities were different each time. I was frustrated at the end of the third year because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do next. I didn’t feel like I’d found my place yet. I met with my boss, who was in his 50s. I told him how anxious I was about finding the one perfect job for me, and quick. He asked me how old I was, and when I told him I was 25, he told me I couldn’t complain to him about finding the right job until I was 32. In his opinion, it takes about 10 years after college to find the right fit, and anyone who finds it earlier than that is just plain lucky. So use every bit of your 10 years: try things, take classes, start over.
2. Get Out of Debt and Stay Out of Debt
Part of being a healthy, mature adult is learning to live within your means all the time, even if that means going without things you think you need, or doing work you don’t love for a while to be responsible financially. The ability to adjust your spending according to your income is a skill that will serve you your whole life.
There will be times when you have more money than you need. In those seasons, tithe as always, save like crazy, and then let yourself buy fancy shampoo or an iPad or whatever it is you really get a kick out of. When the money’s not rolling in, buy your shampoo from the grocery store and eat eggs instead of steak—a much cheaper way to get protein. If you can get the hang of living within your means all the time—always tithing, never going into debt—you’ll be ahead of the game when life surprises you with bad financial news.
I know a lot of people who have bright, passionate dreams but who can’t give their lives to those dreams because of the debt they carry. Don’t miss out on a great adventure God calls you to because you’ve been careless about debt.
3. Don’t Rush Dating and Marriage
Now is also the time to get serious about relationships. And “serious” might mean walking away from a dating relationship that’s good but not great. Some of the most life-shaping decisions you’ll make during this time will be about walking away from good-enough, in search of can’t-live-without. One of the only truly devastating mistakes you can make in this season is staying with the wrong person even though you know he or she is the wrong person. It’s not fair to that person, and it’s not fair to you.
“Who are you dating?” “Do you think he’s the one?” “Have you looked at rings?” It’s easy to be seduced by the romance-dating-marriage narrative. We confer a lot of status and respect on people who are getting married—we buy them presents and consider them as more adult and more responsible.
But there’s nothing inherently more responsible or more admirable about being married. I’m thankful to be celebrating my 10th wedding anniversary this summer, but at the same time, I have a fair amount of friends whose marriages are ending—friends whose weddings we danced at, whose wedding cake we ate, whose rings we oohed-and-aahed over but that have been taken off fingers a long time ago.
Some people view marriage as the next step to happiness or grown-up life or some kind of legitimacy, and in their mad desire to be married, they overlook significant issues in the relationship.
Ask your friends, family members and mentors what they think of the person you’re dating and your relationship. Go through premarital counseling before you are engaged, because, really, engagement is largely about wedding planning, and it’s tough to see the flaws in a relationship clearly when you’re wearing a diamond and you have a deposit on an event space.
I’m kind of a broken record on this. My younger friends will tell you I say the same things over and over when they talk to me about love, things like, “He seems great—what’s the rush?” and, “Yes, I like her—give it a year.” And they’ve heard this one a million times: “Time is on your side.” Really, it is.
4. Give Your Best to Friends and Family
While twentysomethings can sometimes spend a little too much energy on dating and marriage, they probably spend too little energy on friendships and family. That girl you just met and now text 76 times a day probably won’t be a part of your life in 10 years, but the guys you lived with in college, if you keep investing in them, will be friends for a lifetime. Lots of people move around in their 20s, but even across the distance, make an effort to invest in the friendships that are important to you. Loyalty is no small thing, especially in a season during which so many other things are shifting.
Family is a tricky thing in your 20s—to learn how to be an adult out on your own but to also maintain a healthy relationship with your parents—but those relationships are really, really worth investing in. I have a new vantage point on this now that I’m a parent. When my parents momentarily forget I’m an adult, I remind myself that someday this little boy of ours will drive a car, get a job and buy a home. I know that even then it will be hard not to scrape his hair across his forehead or tell him his eyes are looking sleepy, and I give my parents a break for still seeing me as their little girl every once in a while.
5. Get Some Counseling
Twenty-five is also a great time to get into counseling if you haven’t already, or begin round two of counseling if it’s been a while. You might have just enough space from your parents to start digging around your childhood a little bit. Unravel the knots that keep you from living a healthy, whole life, and do it now, before any more time passes.
Some people believe emotional and psychological issues should be solved through traditional spiritual means—that prayer and pastoral guidance are all that’s necessary when facing issues of mental health. I disagree. We generally trust medical doctors to help us heal from physical ailments. We can and should trust counselors and therapists to help us resolve emotional and psychological issues. Many pastors have no training in counseling, and while they care deeply about what you’re facing, sometimes the best gift they can give you is a referral to a therapist who does have the education to help you.
Faith and counseling aren’t at odds with one another. Spiritual growth and emotional health are both part of God’s desire for us. Counseling—like time with a mentor, personal scriptural study, a small group experience and outside reading—can help you grow, and can help you connect more deeply with God.
So let your pastor do his or her thing, and let the person who has an advanced degree in mental health help you with yours.
6. Seek Out a Mentor
One of the most valuable relationships you can cultivate in your 20s is a mentoring relationship with someone who’s a little older, a little wiser, someone who can be a listening ear and sounding board during a high change season. When I look back on my life from 22 to 26, some of the most significant growth occurred as a direct result of the time I spent with my mentor, Nancy.
The best way to find a mentor is to ask, and then to work with the parameters they give you. If someone does agree to meet with you, let it be on their terms. Nancy and I met on Wednesdays at 7 in the morning. I guarantee that was not my preference. But it was what worked for her life, so once a month I dragged myself out of the house in what felt to me like the dead of night. It also helps to keep it to a limited-time period. It’s a lot to ask of someone to meet once a month until the end of time. But a one-year commitment feels pretty manageable for most people, and you can both decide to sign on for another year or not, depending on the connection you’ve made.
7. Be a Part of a Church
Twenty-five is the perfect time to get involved in a church you love, no matter how different it is from the one you were a part of growing up. Be patient and prayerful, and decide that you’re going to be a person who grows, who seeks your own faith, who lives with intention. Set your alarm on Sunday mornings, no matter how late you were out on Saturday night. It will be dreadful at first, and then after a few weeks, you’ll find that you like it, that the pattern of it fills up something inside you.
8. Find a Rhythm for Spiritual Disciplines
Going out into “the real world” after high school or college affects more than just your professional life. Where once you had free time, a flexible schedule and built-in community, now you have one hour for lunch, 10 days max to “skip” work and co-workers who are all over the place in age, stage of life and religion.
In those first few years of work-life, it’s easy to get too busy, too stressed and too disconnected to keep up spiritual habits you may have built in school. Figuring out how to stay close to God and to grow that relationship through activities and disciplines that complement your new schedule is critical for life now—and those habits will serve you for years to come.
One of the best routines I adopted in my 20s was a monthly solitude day. In addition to my daily prayer time, I found I lived better if once a month I took the time to pray, read, rest and write, to ask myself about the choices I’d made in the past month and to ask for God’s guidance in the month to come. Some of the most important decisions I made in that season of life became clear as a result of that monthly commitment.
Give of your time and energy to make the world better in a way that doesn’t benefit you directly. Teach Sunday school, build houses with Habitat for Humanity, serve at a food pantry or clean up beaches on Saturdays.
It’s easy to get caught up in your own big life and big plan in your 20s—you’re building a career, building an identity, building for a future. Find some place in your life where you’re building for a purpose that’s bigger than your own life or plan.
When you’re serving on behalf of a cause you’re passionate about, you’ll also connect in a deep way with the people you’re serving with, and those connections can yield some of your most significant friendships.
When you serve as a volunteer, you can gain experience for future careers. Instead of, for example, quitting your banking job to pursue full-time ministry, volunteer to lead a small group, and see where it goes from there. Use volunteer experiences to learn about causes and fields you’re interested in, and consider using your vacation time to serve globally.
10. Feed Yourself and the People You Love
If you can master these things, you’re off to a really great start: eggs, soup, a fantastic sandwich or burger, guacamole and some killer cookies. A few hints: The secret to great eggs is really low heat, and the trick to guacamole is lime juice—loads of it. Almost every soup starts the same way: onion, garlic, carrot, celery, stock.
People used to know how to make this list and more, but for all sorts of reasons, sometime in the last 60 or so years, convenience became more important than cooking and people began resorting to fake food (ever had GU?), fast food and frozen food. I literally had to call my mom from my first apartment because I didn’t know if you baked a potato for five minutes or two hours.
The act of feeding oneself is a skill every person can benefit from, and some of the most sacred moments in life happen when we gather around the table. The time we spend around the table, sharing meals and sharing stories, is significant, transforming time.
Learn to cook. Invite new and old friends to dinner. Practice hospitality and generosity. No one cares if they have to sit on lawn furniture, bring their own forks or drink out of a Mayor McCheese glass from 1982. What people want is to be heard and fed and nourished, physically and otherwise—to stop for just a little bit and have someone look them in the eye and listen to their stories and dreams. Make time for the table, and you’ll find it to be more than worth it every time.
11. Don’t Get Stuck
This is the thing: When you hit 28 or 30, everything begins to divide. You can see very clearly two kinds of people. On one side, people who have used their 20s to learn and grow, to find God and themselves and their dreams, people who know what works and what doesn’t, who have pushed through to become real live adults. Then there’s the other kind, who are hanging onto college, or high school even, with all their might. They’ve stayed in jobs they hate, because they’re too scared to get another one. They’ve stayed with men or women who are good but not great, because they don’t want to be lonely. They mean to find a church, they mean to develop intimate friendships, they mean to stop drinking like life is one big frat party. But they don’t do those things, so they live in an extended adolescence, no closer to adulthood than when they graduated.
Don’t be like that. Don’t get stuck. Move, travel, take a class, take a risk. There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming. Don’t lose yourself at happy hour, but don’t lose yourself on the corporate ladder either. Stop every once in a while and go out to coffee or climb in bed with your journal.
Ask yourself some good questions like: “Am I proud of the life I’m living? What have I tried this month? What have I learned about God this year? What parts of my childhood faith am I leaving behind, and what parts am I choosing to keep? Do the people I’m spending time with give me life, or make me feel small? Is there any brokenness in my life that’s keeping me from moving forward?”
Now is your time. Walk closely with people you love, and with people who believe God is good and life is a grand adventure. Don’t get stuck in the past, and don’t try to fast-forward yourself into a future you haven’t yet earned.
Give today all the love and intensity and courage you can, and keep traveling honestly along life’s path.
Shauna Niequest is the author of Bittersweet (Zondervan). This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of RELEVANT. You can read more articles like this by subscribing—click here for more information.