How I Rescued My 20s – 20 things I wish I learned sooner19 min read
So I am 27. Jeez, I’m getting old. However, I think 27-year-old Zach is hugely different from 21-year-old Zach and tremendously different in a better way. The worst year of my life was probably when I was 23. I was floating in between schools, unhappy, unhealthy, and unsure where my life was going. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, my life was pretty good, but I didn’t feel like my life was good. I knew I needed to make a change. I tried new things, developed new rules for myself, and turned my life around.
Now I am the happiest I’ve ever been and thrilled to be where I am. I will be a doctor in one year; my YouTube channel just passed 250k subscribers, and, most importantly, I feel good; I feel happy. My body and mind are the healthiest they’ve ever been.
In this post, I’ll give you the 20 most important things I learned in my 20s (so far).
1. Your 20s matter
In one study, reanalyzed by Meg Jay, many life stories were examined of prominent and successful people. Of the subjects, 80% had their life’s most defining moments taken place by thirty-five.1,2
For many people, your work is decided in your 20s. You go to school, land that first job (hopefully), and then are set down a career path.
For many, your love life is decided in your 20s as well. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, in 2018, the average age of first marriage was 28 years old for women and 30 years old for men. A good relationship, such as a high-quality marriage, provides benefits to health. However, a lower quality marriage is associated with a worse overall life and well-being.3
For many, your physical health is solidified in your 20s as well. Your exercise and eating habits are established.
I know I may not necessarily find the perfect relationship, job, or health in my 20s. However, I do know my 20s are a critical time. I don’t want to waste it.
Bottom Line: The 30s are not the new 20s. They are the 20s.
2. Savings won’t make you rich
Across all of my teenage years and until I was 22, I had saved $10,000, not bad, right? But not great. I saw that money sitting in my bank account, and I struggled with where to put the money, an index fund? Bonds? Crypto?
I could save a couple of bucks every month and contribute maybe a couple of $100 a month, but that wouldn’t take me very far.
Unless you are in the top ~5th percentile of earners in their 20s, it’s likely your savings won’t make a huge plus to your bank account. Indeed, it can help, and it may be a good practice to get in the habit of savings, but to make extreme jumps in cash flow, to make more cash, savings will not get you there.
I realized this about two years ago and spent the entirety of that $10,000 on YouTube. This was a fantastic investment for mainly one reason. Even if it failed, I would learn valuable skills such as videography, writing, storytelling, etc. Also, there was a chance that the venture would succeed, and it did!
Bottom Line: Your 20s is the time to be a bit riskier with your money, especially if that’s an investment in yourself. Savings won’t make you rich.
3. You can teach yourself anything
You can accomplish any task, jump any hurdle, you can learn anything; it is just a matter of time. Seriously.
Countless times in the past couple of years, I have thought something would be difficult to impossible: learning complicated medical topics, building a podcast studio, designing a website, and hiring a video editor. Yes, these things were all tough, but I accomplished them. It just took some time.
Coding? You can learn that. Business organization? You can learn that. Rock climbing? You can learn that. You can teach yourself anything.
Bottom Line: You can learn or do anything; it’s just a matter of time.
4. Find advisors, mentors, supporters
A mentor in college pushed me to go to medical school. A mentor in medical school helped me pursue Internal Medicine. An internet mentor, now friend, pushed me to start creating YouTube videos and now a podcast. I am still in contact with all of them.
Mentors have pushed me into the happiest parts of my life.
However, the question I always had is how do you find a mentor? What is the mentor/mentee relationship? It varies so much, but the way I found my mentor was through school. I had worked with various people and asked if I could call them or meet with them occasionally for advice, never asking them to be my “mentor officially.” Then, we would meet, and I would have a few questions prepared, but, mainly, we would just chat.
Especially in higher education, most teachers tended to mentor and support students; I was surprised by how positive and motivated many of my mentors were to help and instruct me. The key is that your mentors are usually busier or have more life commitments than you, so you have to be the one that sets up the meetings. I like to chat with my various mentors about once every three months.
Bottom Line: Find someone you admire, and ask if you could meet for advice; you will be amazed by the response. It is on you to keep the relationship going.
5. Succeed, with no wasted effort
Aim for the minimum necessary target and move there as efficiently as possible. For example, I only needed a specific score to pass many of my medical school classes. I knew if I put in 30 minutes for a particular quiz, I could score a minimum of 70-80%, a pass. I could put in another hour or two and achieve a 90-100%, but why? That’s an increase in 100 – 400% effort for no real benefit.
However, for Step 1 and Step 2, the most critical exams in medical school, I put in that extra effort because even if that effort gained me 1%, that 1% could be critical to achieving an incredible residency program.
For my attitude towards quizzes, some people would say I am a “slacker” or “coaster.” And I may agree. However, the effort is purposeful for my target to pass. Anything above that is wasted effort. My time is precious; everything I put an extended amount of time into should be for a good reason and a specific goal.
For example, if you want to pass the course, pass the course. If you want an A, realize the effort for an A and see to it. However, there is no point in getting above an A. Why put in the extra work for no change in outcome? If it’s for the sake of learning, great! But realize that, realize you are putting in the extra work to learn more for yourself instead of a higher grade.
This was ironed into my thinking when I read this article.
Bottom Line: Aim to achieve the necessary target as efficiently as possible.
6. The little things matter more
Small habits repeated consistently are more likely to succeed than large habits repeated inconsistently. When I started focusing on what I do every day instead of my ethereal big goals, I started achieving what I wanted. Some little things I do consistently:
- Study a little bit every morning
- Write once a day for 30 minutes
- Read once a day for 30 minutes
- Exercise five times a week
- Get as much green space as possible (reading in the park, eating in the park, hikes, etc.)
- Do something fun once a week (play soccer, hike outside, watch a movie)
Bottom Line: Focus on your every day habits.
7. The World isn’t so Scary
Recently, I went back to NYC for the first time in over ten years. I first went to NYC when I was thinking about colleges and schools. My thought about NYC was always, “it’s a big scary city with too many people.” Returning a couple of months ago, I realized how wrong I was. I loved the buildings, the people, and how different everything was. I walked endlessly around everywhere, and when I was lost, I just talked to someone; they didn’t attack me; they were kind.
My best life experiences have been in Tanzania, Croatia, Amsterdam, and Budapest (those places are not in America). It’s hard to put into words, but these other parts of the world live life differently. The difference is, at first, shocking, but later, you realize things can be different and still be good.
When I first saw a Maasai man leading a hippo away with only a stick in Tanzania, it was almost like a new part of my brain opened up; a compartment door was unlocked. Someone can control this extremely dangerous animal with a stick? The same thing happened when I saw the biking in Amsterdam and partied with the fun people of Budapest. *Click* New brain compartment unlocked. I want to unlock more compartments.
Bottom Line: Find a way to travel, talk to people, and learn about them; the downside is slight, and the upside is huge.
8. Avoid underemployment
Avoid jobs that don’t teach you quality skills or provide some “identity capital.”
I took this idea from Meg Jay’s book, “The Defining Decade.”
… underemployment doesn’t pay off. Sometimes it is just a way to pretend we aren’t working, such as running a ski lift or doing what one executive called “the eternal band thing.” While these sorts of jobs can be fun, they also signal to future employers a period of lostness. A degree from a university followed by too many unexplained retail and coffee-shop gigs looks backward. Unless you want to have a career in retail or hospital-those sorts of jobs can hurt our resumes and even our lives.Meg Jay
When I was 16, I was a lifeguard for a year. I have no idea why. I wanted a job. It was underemployment, I wasn’t learning anything, I was selling my time for no benefit to myself, and it felt like I was selling my soul.
Whenever I take on a serious task or commitment, I think, “why am I doing this?” What am I trying to gain? Will I achieve that gain? Will I have an impact on someone or something, or is this commitment a waste?
Bottom Line: Avoid underemployment at all costs.
9. Say No… Most of the time
Derek Sivers puts it best, “either HELL YEAH, or no.”
Saying “no” to things that you feel 7/10 or worse about frees you up for the opportunities you feel 8-10/10 about.
As a caveat, I think we are opportunity-poor, especially in our 20s or at the beginning of our careers. We should be saying “yes” to more things to build new connections and relationships and push ourselves.
For example, I have a personal rule: if I know something is beneficial, like asking for something or trying something new, but I have a sense of fear around that thing, I do it. No matter what.
I find myself having many opportunities, even as a smaller creator. I say “yes” whenever something excites me or feel a valuable connection could be made. However, I am still saying “no” at least 95% of the time.
More than likely, however, you are not saying “no” enough.
Bottom Line: Say “no,” most of the time.
10. Say “I don’t know”
I don’t know everything. No one knows everything. Why is it such an ego trip to say, “I don’t know?” It is so freeing! I remember when I was first talking to a patient, and they wondered why some people get fibrosis of the lung or idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. I bumbled around, but eventually, I just said something, “I don’t know.” The patient didn’t run out of the room or call my supervisor. He said, “thank you for being honest with me.” I was astounded.
Realizing my gaps in knowledge or faults is difficult. We all want to be the best, most brilliant, and super-awesome-cool dude. However, admitting you don’t know something is hugely important, and relaying that to others is even more critical. I’ve found honest communication vital, especially in my early dealings with clinical medicine.
The biggest trouble I’ve seen fellow medical students get into is lying to the supervising doctors, so they don’t appear like they missed something. One student did not push on a patient’s belly, and the supervising doctor asked, “did you push on the patient’s belly?” The student immediately replied, “his belly was soft and non-tender, yea.” The next thing I knew, the student was being pulled into a room with the supervising doctor for what looked like a very serious 1-on-1.
Why fumble around to create an answer when you aren’t sure? Be honest; it will help not only you but also every person you interact with.
Bottom Line: Try saying “I don’t know” when you aren’t sure about something.
11. No one cares and no one knows
No one cares what you are doing, and no one knows what you are doing.
When I posted my first YouTube video, I thought the world would end. My high school friends would goof on me, my cousins would laugh, and I would be turned into a ogre to forever live in a swamp alone, maybe a donkey would be with me. But, the world didn’t end. Absolutely nothing happened. No one commented on the video. No one messaged me. I showed up to my medical school class, expecting everyone to point and laugh; no one even knew anything had happened.
Most people are way too concerned with themselves to have any idea what you are doing. What other people think should not affect you one iota.
Bottom Line: No one cares, and no one knows what you’re doing, so do it.
12. Do the “adult” things
If you don’t know how to do these things learn to do them:
- Cleaning your living space
- Calendars and organization
- Public speaking
- Dressing well
- Doctors and Dentists appointments and insurance
Bottom line: try to adult.
13. Don’t Complain
I can’t believe I have so much annoying text left to type in this post… oh, we’re recording, oh, I’m not talking to anyone here; I’m all alone, oh, I’ve gone insane.
The first lesson of How to Win Friends and Influence People is “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” Criticizing, I think, is sometimes necessary. I appreciate criticism, and it can often help me improve. I don’t condemn many people, so it hasn’t come into my life much. However, complaining is big and bad.
I find myself falling into the trap of complaining way too often. There are two problems with it, number one, it bums people out. People don’t like to hear other people complain. Problem number two is when I am saying to myself, “these things are bad,” I am establishing things aren’t great in my life in my head. I am being negative. Multiple studies indicate negative thoughts can actually change the structure of our brain and affect our quality of life.5,6
What I do is try to catch myself. Another fantastic strategy to combat complaining is focusing on gratitude. I’ll take more about that later.
Bottom line: Don’t complain.
14. Wake up and go to bed at the same time
Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day is one of the simplest things that have dramatically improved my life. The best way to do this is to set a consistent wake time. You will begin to get sleepy at the perfect time for you when you consistently wake up at the same time.
Having bedtimes that vary by > 30 minutes is associated with lower dietary quality, higher alcohol consumption, higher sitting time, more frequent insufficient sleep, and poorer overall lifestyle behaviors.4
Bottom line: go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
15. The people you hang around most influence you
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I think you impact who you are mostly, but the people you hang around with also have a considerable influence. I started lifting weights because of my friends in high school; I also nerded out on video and card games because of my high school friends, and I also began watching sports because of them. I don’t watch sports anymore, but I still nerd out on video games and lift weights. Realize the five people you hang around most are huge influences on you, whether you think they are or not.
At the end of college, I realized this and began to hang out with certain people while avoiding others. Choose your friends carefully. And yes, you can choose.
Bottom line: Realize the influence people you hang around with have on you.
16. Read More
I started reading more seriously about two years ago; beyond the actual content in the books (which is huge), I noticed some other benefits:
- My writing improved
- My vocabulary improved
- I was staring at fewer screens
- My focus improved
- My communication skills improved
- I sounded smarter on dates
I try to read about 30 minutes before bed every night. I spend about half of that time on a nonfiction “learning” book and the second half on a fun fiction book.
However, my biggest “spurts” of reading are when I have a chill time. I often find myself sitting in the park on the weekends, especially when it’s nicer, reading for hours. I used to look at my phone or listen to music, but I’ve found more enjoyment in reading. I don’t know how to explain it, but it almost is like my brain goes for a run.
Bottom line: Read more.
17. Just do it now
Start the website, apply to that job or school, begin the YouTube channel, and write the book; what does it cost? Very little to nothing.
Most people come to me saying, “I want to start a YouTube channel,” or, “I want to start something and make money on the internet, but I don’t know exactly what to do…” My answer is always the same, “do it now.”
I played around with starting a YouTube channel and website for two years before actually doing it. Imagine if I started right away? I would be two years ahead of where I am now! The standard argument for waiting to create sounds like, “I’m not ready; I need to do X, Y, Z.”
I had that same argument. However, your learning rate is dramatically slower when you are not doing it. I learned about 20x more from one month of actually having a YouTube channel than two years of thinking about starting one. The same was true for my website.
Bottom line: Just start.
My last three tips at the end are my most important tips. If you could only take a couple of things from this post, take these last three tips.
18. Most things aren’t personal, especially personal insults
I wasn’t ever seriously bullied growing up, but I remember at one point in middle school, someone called me lame and weird, and it stung. It didn’t feel good. I thought about that encounter for a year and started to think that maybe I was strange? Perhaps I am lame? Luckily, the newest Halo game came out, so I was quickly distracted.
In my early 20s, I remember the occasional encounter with road rage or someone at a party that would suddenly become very mad at me. I also got angry, almost getting ready to fight, but luckily, I never did. As a side note, physical violence and fighting are idiotic and dangerous; avoid them.
I remember, at some point in college, I saw this Yogi guy with a long flowing beard on Reddit, and under his picture read this quote:
If you are willing to look at another person’s behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react to all.Yogi Bhajan
I didn’t think twice about it; I kept scrolling. However, a couple of years ago, I saw this quote again, and it hit me. He is right. Other people’s insults and anger usually are not about you. It’s about them and their feelings and what’s going on with them. Accept that, and no verbal shrapnel, anger, or mean statements can touch you. I can’t remember the last time someone insulted me, I’m sure it might have been yesterday or even an hour ago from a YouTube comment, but because I realize it isn’t about me, it doesn’t phase me.
Bottom line: Insults towards you aren’t personal, they are a reflection of the person flinging the insults.
19. Start cultivating a healthy mind and body now
It is much easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. In your teens and 20s, your hormones are optimal for building muscle, attaining good sleep, and having high energy. Use that high state and get in good physical shape.
Exercise improves sleep, memory, anxiety, depression, all-cause mortality, chronic disease, and premature death.7,8 So, definitely avoid exercise at all costs.
The newer thing to me is cultivating a healthy mind. All my interactions with other people are better because of getting my mind in shape. Here are the things that have had the most significant impact on me in that regard:
- Meditation Practice
- Morning Journal
- Gratitude Practice
- Reading more
- Outside and nature time
Bottom Line: Get your body and mind in shape ASAP.
20. This too shall pass
Everything that happened at the beginning of my 20s felt critical at the time. That girl doesn’t like me; I said something dumb, I got a C on a test, I didn’t get into that internship program, all of the above means the end of the world, right? Nope. Life goes on. Those things didn’t impact my life, even though I thought they all were the end of the world.
Importantly, this also applies to the high points in life. Enjoy the high moments in life, and live them. But realize that it will go away; it will pass.
Bottom line: This too shall pass.
Thanks for reading and good luck!
- The Defining Decade book
- Hölzel, Britta K., et al. “Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 5.1 (2010): 11-17.
- Pruessner, Jens C., et al. “Self-esteem, locus of control, hippocampal volume, and cortisol regulation in young and old adulthood.” Neuroimage 28.4 (2005): 815-826.
- Kelley GA, Kelley KS. Exercise and sleep: a systematic review of previous meta-analyses. J Evid Based Med. 2017 Feb;10(1):26-36. doi: 10.1111/jebm.12236. PMID: 28276627; PMCID: PMC5527334.
- Mora JC, Valencia WM. Exercise and Older Adults. Clin Geriatr Med. 2018 Feb;34(1):145-162. doi: 10.1016/j.cger.2017.08.007. Epub 2017 Oct 10. PMID: 29129214.