I recently swallowed my pride and talked about some of the soul-crushing disappointments and flat-out failures of my twenties. If you missed that post, you can find it here. While it’s certainly good to take an honest look at your shortcomings and use these painful experiences as a springboard into a brighter future, you shouldn’t always dwell on your failures. It’s also important to look back on your decisions and figure out which ones were wins for you, or at least led you in a positive direction. So today I’m going to take a look at three choices that had the biggest impact on my personal and professional life in my twenties. I hope my observations can help you navigate this exciting and overwhelming time.
- Moving abroad—and staying there
Without a doubt, picking up and moving to Japan after I graduated from college had the biggest impact on my life in my twenties. Pretty much as long as I could remember, I had been obsessed with the idea of moving to Japan (which, in retrospect was a little crazy because I had never been there and didn’t speak the language—more on that later).
Even though I was super excited about moving to Japan, I also knew that there was a chance it could backfire in a major way. Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say I spent an awful semester in London in college and learned that sometimes getting what you want turns out to be not what you want at all. So I made a single promise to myself before I left. I vowed that no matter what, I would stay for a full year. I made this decision because I knew there was a good chance that the first few months were going to be tough, and I didn’t want to give up too easily. And you know what? During those first few months I did feel a lot of loneliness and isolation (along with excitement and novelty). If I hadn’t made that promise to myself, it might have been easy to surrender to the negative emotions and give up and leave, and I’m glad that I didn’t let that happen.
Wearing a kimono was one of my favorite experiences. Not pictured here: me running to the bathroom to frantically change because this became unbearably uncomfortable after taking a single bite of food.
The time I spent in Japan was incredible for so many reasons—I had the opportunity to travel, to learn about a culture and a way of communicating that were totally new and different, and to prove to myself that I was capable of achieving my wildest dreams. And what’s more, when I made the decision to move to Japan right after college I didn’t realize it, but I had determined the course of my life for much longer than a single year. At the time, I made a common twentysomething mistake in assuming that my decisions weren’t going to have that big of an impact on the rest of my life. I kind of felt like moving to Japan was a cool, fun thing to do, but I didn’t realize that it would actually set the tone for a much larger portion of my life. I left Japan after a year and a half to go to grad school in England, but the time I’d already spent there had made a big impact on me. At grad school, I befriended a group of Japanese students, continued to study the language, and felt an even greater pull to go back than when I had decided to move there in the first place. I ended up returning after I finished grad school and spending another six and a half years in Tokyo.
- Learning a new language
I love learning languages, and that had always been one of my primary reasons for moving to Japan—I was interested in learning Japanese and I figured there’d be no better way than by immersing myself in it completely. One of my favorite things about learning languages is the insight that it gives you into the culture and mindset of the people who speak it. (Side note: Did you know that German has one word, backpfeifengesicht, for “a face badly in need of a fist”?!) This type of mind expansion can happen at any age, but if you do it during your twenties while you’re still forming your own identity, it can help you to maintain an expanded worldview before you get too old and crotchety to change.
If you’re living abroad, it really does make sense to try your hardest to learn the language of the country where you’re living. It makes your daily life easier, gives you more opportunities in the workplace, facilitates building relationships with locals, and lets you promote a positive image of your compatriots to your host country. Learning Japanese helped me immensely while I was living in Japan (for all the reasons I mentioned above), but it also continued to help me once I’d left the country. In grad school, I met the majority of my friends because I was looking for language exchange partners. And just in case I didn’t hammer home the point about small moments from your twenties having a big impact on the rest of your life, let me just mention here that one of my Japanese conversation partners went on to become one of my best friends for life. We lived together for a few months when we first moved to Tokyo after grad school, went to each other’s weddings… you know, the real deal.
- Picking up a completely new skill
Ever since I got a C+ in high school gym for my inability to play badminton (despite some honest-to-goodness effort on my part), I’d kind of given up on anything sport-like, figuring I just didn’t have the physical coordination and never would. I always loved dancing, but that seemed totally different since being “good at” dancing is more open to interpretation than the rules of badminton could ever be. So when I happened to meet Deanne Love, an amazing hula hoop performer and instructor, I didn’t really believe that I could learn to do the things that she did. Even though I doubted my abilities to learn how to hula hoop, it was so fun that I couldn’t help but push through those initial barriers and keep trying. (More on that in this post about failure and success.) One trick in particular—corkscrewing a hoop from behind my waist to my hand above my head—took me months to master. I watched others do it. I tried and it didn’t work. I listened to people explain how to do it. No dice. I practiced over and over, and still it didn’t work. Then one day, Deanne said, “Have you tried this other trick where you grab it from the front instead?” I tried it and could do it instantly! It still took me another month or two to learn the corkscrew from behind trick, but that was okay. It was a good reminder that I didn’t need to obsess over that one trick—there were so many more out there that I hadn’t even heard of yet! I also learned that if I really persevered, I would eventually get it. This was honestly one of the most exciting moments of my life. I had experienced the same sort of aha moment a few times when learning languages, but this was the first time to experience it physically, and it was thrilling. Hula hooping was a ton of fun and a great way to build a community of friends, but most importantly, it taught me not to believe all those stories I’d been telling myself about not being coordinated or not being able to learn new skills.
If you stop listening to those negative voices in your head for a moment, you just might get a chance to prove them wrong. When I look at these three choices together, I realize that they have a common thread—they’re all about being open to something new. And your twenties are a perfect time for that. Like I said earlier—do it now, before you get too old and crotchety! But I also have to say that these choices didn’t come without negative consequences. Moving to Japan meant that I lost those amazing post-college years with my friends who stayed in Portland. From what I hear, I missed out on some pretty epic karaoke nights, some horrendously inappropriate partner choices, and a lot of laughs and fun. It also meant that when I returned to the US, I wasn’t as established in my career as I could have been if I’d never left. My cousin, who also lived abroad for the majority of her twenties, put it to me this way: “It’s like those years you spent abroad don’t really count to employers here, so you end up feeling like you’re a few years behind everyone else.” But at this point I can look back and say that these three choices not only defined my twenties, but the person I am today. Don’t be afraid to make bold decisions in your twenties. You never know where they’ll take you.
Cover photo by Deanne Love