Health, Wealth & Self: Things I Wish I Knew in my 20s
Two months ago I lost my job.
Uber sold its South-East Asia operations to competitor Grab and I was made abruptly redundant in a matter of hours. I was suddenly forced to confront choices I never thought I’d have to make. I wasn’t in immediate dire financial need, but unemployment would cripple me in months. My career was built in the last decade, but it no longer fulfilled me enough to continue.
I had an opportunity to rethink what I wanted for my next decade. What sort of person did I want to be when I hit 40? While I wrestled with my situation I reflected on what led me here, and what I wished I knew in my 20s.
1. Exercise to feel good, not look good
I admitted to myself (last week!) I will never, ever love exercise. And that I’ve only been going when I want to lose some weight. But not exercising made me grumpy, restless, and bloated. You don’t have to “go hard or go home”. Be consciously consistent. I stopped pressurising myself to always! feel! pumped! about exercise, and it became easier to go 3, 5 times a week. Some days I muster enough energy for a 20 minute walk on the treadmill. Some days I do an hour of cardio and an hour of weights. I focused on what I loved most about exercise: sweating. My body felt its best after a good sweat, so that’s what I look forward to.
2. Have a healthy relationship with food, not with health food trends
I had my bulimic moments as a teenager and in the darkest hours of my 20s. I didn’t think to fight the ridiculous body standards society and women put on themselves. I tried low carb diets, juice diets (ugh, so stupid), intermittent fasting and calorie counting before I acknowledged and recognised how I used food as an emotional crutch. I turned this around when I addressed the issue, not the symptoms.
3. Take care of your mental wellbeing
It’s easy to fester guilt, fear, shame or anger when you receive overly negative feedback. It should be considered domestic violence when your inner voice tells you “you should’ve known better” when you make a mistake. It’s healthy self-awareness to question yourself, but when you replay negative moments repeatedly in your mind and take digs at yourself, you need to stop.
Take a step back, appreciate yourself for having recognised the situation you need to address, not internalise. Learn from it and move on. You will need this grit when times get tough and directionless.
If you need therapy, seek it. Have a good open cry — there is no shame in this. It is not weakness.
I shunned the idea of therapy throughout my adult life for the judgement and stigma that therapy gets. To need a therapy session or two does not mean you’re weak, mentally incapable or “omg are you ok; what’s wrong with you”. It means you’re self-aware and assured enough to understand that you need to work some things out with a professional to guide you to make better decisions for yourself. For what it costs, I recognise that therapy is a privilege, but it most helped me understand my choices during a time when I convinced myself I had none.
Wealth & Career
4. Diversify early
A full time job should never just be 100% of your income, I learned this the hard way. I dabbled in freelance a long time ago, though I stopped when I had a full time job. Why work more hours if your paycheck felt sufficient? Study investments, take calculated risks, build your assets for future financial freedom when things get tough. It’s naive to think to rely on a single monthly paycheck for the rest of your days.
5. Watch where your money’s going
I drink two Starbucks grande soy flat whites in the mornings, because I’m an adult with a monthly paycheck (not anymore!), have a taste for non-dairy alternatives, and need the caffeine to wake up and socialise like a normal person. $16. I need a salad for lunch because I ate my feelings in last night’s dinner. $10. I’m too lazy to take the train, Imma hop in an Uber since I have a tiny staff discount anyway. $10. Quick cocktail after work? Awesome, $25. Avocado toast on the weekend? $15. Fancy bag available to purchase on installments? Yes! $2,000 at $166 monthly.
Money flowed through me like rum & coke on the little things I didn’t think would ever add up, but they do. One day you can’t simply “YOLO! Here’s my credit card” when you want to buy a house.
6. Build T-shape experience
Elon Musk excels at something called “transfer learning”, where you utilise and apply knowledge from different fields (the breadth of knowledge) into the one you’re in (the vertical of expertise). It allows you to see gaps and opportunities others may not and to solve problems from various perspectives. Job-hopping was a vilified practice in my youth, but today it’s all about gaining as much exposure as you can. You can choose to move out and learn laterally instead of always only going up the corporate ladder. There is much more to lose by becoming stagnated when you have tunnel vision for titles.
7. “Don’t stay where you’re tolerated, go where you’re celebrated”
Go where you have opportunities. If your superior stifles your success or growth, don’t stand for it (“so-and-so is suuuccchh a legend and my opinions probably don’t matter”) and don’t beat yourself down for it (“I’m not good enough”).
NEVER tolerate a toxic environment. Ambiguous friendly foes are life-sucking. Find yourself an environment mature enough to treat employees like responsible adults (ever had a boss demand you come in from 9am-6pm so they always know where you are? That’s babysitting, not a job) and where you have colleagues who work hard at business results, not politics.
8. Surround yourself with people who challenge you
Someone who challenges you is the one who asks you to think bigger than you do at a given moment, and who asks the right questions to enable you to achieve the answer yourself. Bullies masquerading as challengers demean you, exert their superiority (“because I say so”) and are likely to throw your work in your face without an explanation of why and without solid, constructive recommendations for improvement.
Steer clear of fluffers: those who constantly pat you on the back and offer profusely positive comments without a care for how you can improve. Seek out people who see gaps in where your growth path should be and work out how to close it.
9. Speak up
A younger me would be disabled by my harshly critical internal thought process. Or let my social awkwardness prevent me from networking. Regardless of the outcome, don’t let fear of being wrong or momentarily embarrassed cripple you. People want to know what you have to offer. Be engaged.
10. Build a network
Consciously curate a network of professionals, peers and mentors you can speak to and ask for advice outside of your company or industry. You’ll come to value different opinions and perspectives towards tough situations and career choices, to enable you to get a full picture before you make up your mind. Opportunities don’t just fall from the sky. Speak up, initiate, go out and seek.
11. Be kind to yourself when you make mistakes, and to others when they do the same
The better I became at my job the more I took my authority for granted. My mistakes were intolerable and I expected the same standards from others. It affected the energy I brought to work and stifled my ability to be creatively productive. Go easy on yourself when you make mistakes; learn from it, find the humour to laugh it off, apply your lessons for next time. Do the same for others and understand everybody has different levers of motivation.
12. Read like your life depended on it
There will always be something to do besides reading. But you’ll never learn quite like when you read extensively. Read quality books. Read what you love and what you need, for me that meant fantasy books (anything by Neil Gaiman and David Eddings) to fuel my imagination and non-fiction books for the things I wanted to know more about.
I especially love medical non-fiction like Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Red Market: on the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers , Spillover or the Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Non-fiction books like Blink, Sapiens, Originals and memoirs like Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog are some of my most dog-earned, underlined books with lessons I keep coming back to.
13. Stop comparing yourself to others
This one accelerated as I got older. By the time I was 30 I had my peers’ and society’s benchmarks and expectations mirrored to my life, and in my mind I fell short. It drove me insane with unhappiness that I didn’t earn as much, hadn’t achieved as much as others (Lady Gaga is a year younger than I am, J.K. Rowling was 29 when she finished the first Harry Potter). But it’s all relative to what you want your life to be, which should be the only thing that matters. Everyone blooms differently.
14. “On your deathbed you’ll regret the things you didn’t do, not the things you did”.
Total cliché. But guess what, it’s right.
I feared a ton of things in my 20s and made my choices accordingly — stable employment in lieu of potential start-up ideas, letting unhealthy relationships go on for longer than they should, staying put for “experience” when I should have pursued opportunities elsewhere. You will constantly think your lack of experience is a setback. In hindsight, you are a sum of all your experiences at any point of time in your life. Learn to experiment, face risk and how to extract lessons from failures early because grit, problem solving, innovating and knowing your value are lessons that will take you through life.
Make friends when you travel, speak to strangers at coffee shops, visit places more than once. Travel wide, live deeply. Revisit cities. Revisit places you’ve been to see how things have changed and to experience cultures at different points in your life.
15. Discipline yourself
Make the bed. Pay your bills on time. Commit to a pet. Don’t cut queues. Motivate yourself. Care for someone else. Don’t litter. Don’t expect help from someone else if you can’t help yourself. Put your phone away at the dinner table. Clear your messes every now and then. Be accountable. Take responsibility. Stop talking about yourself all the time. Stop whining. Stop just “thinking about doing something”.
You’ll hate all these behaviours in other people when you’re older.
16. Dress to feel good now, not for when
Every so often I bought a dress or two (or 30) for when I got to my ideal size. Well spoiler alert, that day never came. When I felt my most bloated, my “when” clothes made me feel needlessly worse. I’d have saved quite a bit of money and grief if I had realised this earlier in my 20s. Build a wardrobe that’s filled with smart, comfortable clothes that fit you and accentuates your personal style, not what’s trendy at the moment. Don’t underestimate how what you wear makes you feel, so aim for fabulous and confident.
17. Give back to your family
Most of us don’t get a family we click with like friends. Or have the best communication with. We have to work at it. Although I do this now, I wished I’d been more patient with family when I was younger, been more open, had more weekly meals with, travelled more together. Give more so someone else feels like you’ve made their day better. Give your knowledge, share stories about your life, take the time to shoot the breeze. Don’t expect anything in return.
18. Enjoy yourself at every year
I was teased for my “thunder thighs” in physical education, for the moles on my face, for not being part of the cool kids, for being a little introverted, very awkward and into “weird nerd things”. I felt fat when I was 12, 22, and at 32, no surprise I still feel it. Recently I looked at pictures of myself from when I was in my early 20s and clearly saw that I looked much thinner than I felt back then.
Have the courage to be a little weird, a little chubby, a little louder than everybody else. You only get to be you, so be different, cultivate, get to know and love yourself unapologetically. Don’t wait till you get retrenched and suddenly find yourself faced with a question: who are you when you are without a job?
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