Fun-loving Decade?: The innate fear of failing your twenties

Words by Emily Fuller

The further I get into my twenties, the more anxious I feel about living in them. Or to be more precise, the more worrisome I feel about failing at them. I often feel myself struck with inertia at the prospect of failing at not attaining the correct life experience – in throwing myself into the intoxicating whirl of irresponsible youth. It is an almost comical image isn’t it – of someone who has not even reached the age of twenty-four, wearing a constant concern of whether she is utilising this decade of trial and error and freedom to the best capacity. Though the more I expose this vulnerability with those around me a similar age, I am met with an anguish that is not unlike my own in regard to how they believe they should be spending their twenties. The more conversations of this nature I encounter, I feel as if I am existing in an extended metaphor of a decade that embeds a shifting tension of where you want to be, where you think you should be, and where you actually are.

The discourse around romantic relationships in your twenties appears murky and dizzying. In today’s climate we bear witness to those around us settling down with partners and vows of sentimentality and monogamy, and yet in the same breath we are encouraged to remain single for that of our twenties as we grow to learn so much about ourselves and what we want out of our lives. We are told that your twenties is a crucial time to build the foundations of your career. We are also assured that we have all the time in the world to be ambitious with our career prospects, but we only have a few years to take advantage of our youth through travelling or creating art or pursuing hobbies. All of these confusing signals of how to best live out your twenties bear the endless questions of whether I should be writing more, travelling more, partying more – eliciting a burden of guilt that I am failing to perform the codes of reckless pleasure and creative exploration.

Alongside this tension, there seems to be so much cultural baggage carried in one’s twenties due to the crazy expanse of pop-culture iconography, informing us of what it is to be living out this decade. To many of us this may look like sipping a coffee with your rambunctious friends in the Central Perk, or perhaps sharing the minuscule details of your latest dating rendezvous with your closest girlfriends over martinis Sex and the City style. It creates a sense of misapprehension that if we are not making the most of our twenties in ways such as these, then we are clearly failing to make the most of this supposed decade of freedom. Sometimes I feel a tug-a-war of guilt with these expectations – feeling like I am much too young to be preferring nights in a soap-sudded bath in the company of a book rather than dancing through all hours of the night with your girlfriends in tow. Growing up with such films and shows, the depiction of your twenties on screen appeared to be fabulous, with only missteps so inconsequential that they only seemed to add a layer of peculiar charm to one’s life rather than bearing us the unseemly and messy reality that is young adulthood.

I suppose that is why, when I look upon my early twenties, I see it as a time where no one communicates candidly about the messier sensations of the way we feel – the way we feel guilt, the feeling of being lost, the fear of failing. It has already felt like living a few years of putting on a good show – that you know precisely where you are headed and you know exactly how to get there whilst throwing yourself into the present tense of your youth. It feels like a time where you feel complacent at thinking you have all the time in the world whilst holding the knowledge that you are also running out of it. It is a period of constructing your identity or career or financial position and yet feeling impatient at the tedious pace of it from day to day. It is a time of wondering if the next person you date is that mythical and alluring ‘one’ in which you will want to grow old with.

In dismantling this, I have begun to understand that it is not your achievements and successes and journeys that are universally shared amongst those living in this decade – but rather it is those anxieties and uncertainties of feeling lost or fear of failure that connect us viscerally. Failing to comply with the expectations of behaviour that are socially required of us in our twenties does not necessarily represent a failure of this period of your youth. I am a person who has never genuinely felt the adrenaline of late nights or casual sex or waking to tell the absurd tales of a drunken adventure from the night before. I seek exhilaration from reading books and writing words in the comfort of an early night in, or from balancing solitude and independence with the work and nourishment of building a healthy relationship that I hope will prolong itself into the distance of time. I still find joy in my part-time work as a bookseller and from spending years in pursuit of studying something that kindles a curiosity and keen interest in me, rather than worrying about finding an easier career path to bring me quick stability. I have learnt that whilst these things may not look like the exhibitions of youthfulness I see around me from friends and other twenty-somethings, they are things that afford me comfort, assurance and fulfilment in my own twenties – and that is okay despite them looking vastly different to the expectations of pursuing your twenties. Be silly, they say. You’re young, be selfish – and I suppose I am being those things in a way of resonance for myself, even though it may not look like it to another fellow person navigating their years of this decade. I am slowly learning that amongst this anxiety-inducing dictation of dos and don’ts and in the midst of feeling impatience in getting to the places I want to be, there is no fixed pathway or timeframe for how to correctly wander through your twenties – as long as it is right for you and provides you with the heart and guts you need in order to live out the rest of your days.

Art by Katty Huertas – @kattyhuertas

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