Why your 20s are the most important decade of your life.

One of my favourite writers is American Michael Schulman. In his recent article for The New Yorker, he quotes Joan Didion’s wry wisdom on the topic of living through your twenties.

“That was the year, my twenty-eighth,” she wrote, “the urtext of twenties self-reflection, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable, and that it had counted after all – every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

Mmm, I thought. It is a rather irresistible trap to fall into, isn’t it? You know, believing your twenties don’t matter.

I’ve always viewed them as a warm up lap, a quick nap, a pregnant pause before life really begins and pregnancy becomes literal. A time to be consistently drunk on mid-range champagne, and to make the most of wearing short-shorts whilst you still can.

It’s a practice run.

Advertisement Smoking, in a gold beaded ballgown, by the wheelie bin. I never thought your twenties were about making perfect sense...

But this can also be a dangerous mentality, because for that decade-long slide from teenagehood to adulthood, we convince ourselves that nothing we are doing is actually significant.

We dodge hurtling meteors of Big Life Events and slide through with a nihilistic cackle; mostly unscathed, sometimes with a small scratch.

But for the most part, we brush it off and clock it up as a fluke. Because life hasn't really begun yet, right?

In his article, 'Meryl Streep's Twenties, and My Own' for The New Yorker, Michael Schulman reflects on this attitude. He's writing a book on Meryl Streep, you see, and was searching for a sign in the narrative of her early life that could indicate the greatness that was to come.

"The question I asked myself at the outset was this: Who was Meryl Streep before she was the unsinkable queen of acting?" he asks.

"Was she ever just an aimless twentysomething, trying to make her way in the world?"

Schulman swings between answering yes and no. No, because there was a self-assurance from the start with Streep; yes, because he could recognise in her the same markers of raw youth he recognised in himself. The worry of not being good enough, the persevering identity crisis - yet the calm understanding that life was 'yet to begin'.

 

Every trip overseas, that sped past in a flurry of money exchanges and long train journeys - well, they all contribute more than we know.

To my understanding, growing up equalled a neat succession of events, chapter one to chapter two to chapter three, a step-by-step education. An IKEA instruction sheet; me, the allen key of whom will put it all together.

We learn a trade. We learn to date. We learn a job. We learn to love. We learn to provide. We learn to procreate. Life, in my eyes, was but a pre-arranged game of Tetris - all I had to do was guide the blocks to their correct place.

What no one warned me of, however, was the tumble-dryer era called Your Twenties.

They are like an awkward growth spurt where your limbs are too long for your body, and you're not quite sure what to do with your hands. You are learning hard and fast the life skills that, by the time you reach 30, are smooth as silk: holding down a job, sharpening your career, maintaining a relationship. Successfully cooking for a dinner party of 10 or more guests. Paying tax. Recycling.

But when you are in it, when you are living the learning curve, nothing seems to be happening correctly. Those tetris blocks are flying around left, right and center; and you're just doing all you can to avoid being knocked out.

"When I look back at my twenties now, I can see that they were all leading somewhere. As a story, they make sense," writes Schulman. "But at the time, as [Girls character] Hannah Horvath says, it didn’t feel like very much was happening. Most things felt haphazard, random, peripheral."

Biggest learning curve of my twenties MUST be that karaoke is not my strong suit.

Like Schulman intently studying the life of Meryl Streep, obsessively sieving through the flotsam and jetsam of her story to find nuggets of self doubt, or genius, or flashes of insight to her future - I have done the same.

What did uni really teach me?

When did I first fall properly in love?

Why did I shag that awful guitarist?

How did that horrible little flat in St Kilda shape me as a person?

Why didn't I learn how to drive?

Nick Cave and tattoos...permanent remnants of the tumultuous 20s.

My twenties have always felt like a tangled ball of string, full of knots and snags and bits of rubbish inadvertently picked up along the way. (You know who you are.) But now, as I unravel it, it all seems...right.

Moments that I felt strangely disconnected from now re-emerge with a fresh significance.

The apathetic and uneventful teen affair that was losing my virginity in the back of a car. Calmly turning my back on the tearful face of my mum as she waved a frantic last goodbye to me at the airport, age 18. Watching my precious aunt take her final rattling breath, then walking out - desperate, devastated, dry-eyed - into the cold 3am carpark of the hospital. Being fired from a vegan restaurant for wearing a fur jacket to work. Being fired from a property firm for eating a salami sandwich behind the reception desk. Being fired from...ok, you get the picture.

I can see now that, suspended in this vacuum of 'I'm young, it doesn't matter', those glaring milestones slid by in a mess of randomness and lost appreciation.

 

'Girls' celebrate what friendship looks like in your 20's. (Post continues after video)

Video by HBO

Lately, however, I have had a strange moments of recognition that I have put down to either being pre-menstrual, or psychic.

Because now I can just see those tetris blocks starting to slow down and slide gracefully into place. Nothing is random, nor did it 'not matter' - my twenties have actually been laying down the very foundation of who I am. Time and experience have worked to peel away layers of inexperience and pretense to reveal to myself and others, who I truly am. My core. My authentic self.

But, in the same way that I actively struggle to love the new wrinkles appearing in the corners of my eyes, I struggle to reconcile these days of extreme confusion into something that will one day 'matter'. But they do, of course they do.

"At the time, I was deep into Meryl Streep research," says Michael Schulman, "and I remembered something she once said about her grad-school apartment, where she lived when she was twenty-five: "I later found out that it was the quietest spot in New Haven. The point is, I thought it was the noisiest corner on Earth, so noisy I couldn’t sleep nights.” "

And I suppose that's what this is all about, isn't it?

It's like leaving a party, and only realising how good it was when you're halfway home.

 

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