10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 (Now That I’m 30)

Declan Wilson

Photo: Kyle Glenn/Unsplash

I turned 30 last month. Unlike birthdays I’ve had in the past, this one felt different. I woke up, looked at myself in the mirror, and thought: What does this next decade hold?

The last time I asked that question I was unmarried, childless, and still in college. I didn’t know a lot of things that I know now. And I couldn’t rent a car in a foreign country.

I feel fortunate to be in the position I’m in now, however, a part of me wishes I knew a few things about life when I was 20.

Maybe I’d have enough money saved up for a house by now. Maybe I’d be more famous. Maybe, and this is a stretch, I’d know what the heck I’m doing.

Or maybe, in 10 years' time, I’ll still wish I knew more about life now at 30 — I guess that’s the real takeaway here.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, as they say. I can’t go back in time and relearn the following things, but for those who are newly minted 20-year-olds, here is my birthday gift to you.

1. Stop trying to impress people

Nobody cares.

When you are 20 it sure as heck seems like everyone cares, but they don’t. Maybe your parents care a bit more than most people do. But they have their own lives to worry about too. It’s not all about you.

Nobody cares if you bought a new car.

Nobody cares if you landed you “dream” job.

Nobody cares if you vacationed in the Balkans.

Stop trying to impress people who don’t care. Instead, keep a few people around who care about the seemingly less important things. The inside jokes. The 2 AM phone calls. The impromptu game night and sushi.

Care about those people, not the ones you think care about you.

2. There are many ways to make money

At 20 I thought the only way to make money was showing up to an office and collecting a paycheck.

As it turns out, knowing people’s pain points and offering to solve them in a timely manner also does the trick.

And many other things. So many other things.

Don’t ignore your potential.

3. Reading will change you

I wish when I was 20 that someone handed me a stack of the following books:

  • Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
  • Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin

These are books I’ve read within the past few years, I can keep going. The point is, you can walk into any public library, grab a random selection of 10 books, and chances are at least one of them will leave a lasting and positive impression on you.

Reading can change the way you see the world. Reading can save you from making costly decisions. Reading can rescue you from your darkest thoughts

4. Practice in the open (even if no one is watching)

Your digital footprint matters.

The easiest way to create your digital footprint is sharing everything you learn and create. In other words, practice in the open, document your learning experiences.

Only a few people might peruse your blog or scroll through your IG feed, but don’t be discouraged, the goal is to build new skills and potentially connect with others who want to do the same as you.

Eventually, having a well documented and public portfolio will become one of your greatest assets and might lead to more opportunities.

Start something and keep building. I guarantee there’s a 0% chance it won’t amount to anything.

5. Stop thinking short-term

Ten years into the future may feel like a long time. It is. That’s 50% of your life when you are 20 years old. But the next ten years will pass you by faster than you think.

Stop thinking in monthly windows. Where do you want to be in the next year, two years, five years? Chances are you probably don’t even know who you want to be yet, that’s okay. Start experimenting. Start learning new skills. Find the small things that will compound over time.

There is nothing you should be doing at this moment in your life other than admitting you still have a lot to learn.

Okay I lied, there are a few things you should be doing.

  • Open a savings account and set aside small chunks of money each paycheck.
  • Cut out drinking pop (or soda if you’re from anywhere but Pittsburgh).
  • Go to bed before 11 PM.

6. Making new friends will get harder

Who are you and what can you do for me?

I’m sorry but this is how most adult relationships go. If you have a tight core group of friends, hold onto them. You’re going to need your people.

But for everyone else, be wary. I’m not saying everyone out in the real world is selfish and cruel, it’s just harder to make friends as you get older. No one wants to waste their time so friendships tend to be surface level and transactional.

As we get older, we become more entrenched in our ways. We’re less likely to try new things and put ourselves in positions to meet new people.

But not all is lost. As it turns out, proximity plays a major role in who we become friends with — at least that’s what Malcolm Gladwell believes (and I do as well):

We’re friends with the people we do things with, as much as we are with the people we resemble. We don’t seek out friends, in other words. We associate with the people who occupy the same small, physical spaces that we do.
— The Tipping Point

I moved to Baltimore last year after spending the majority of my life in Pittsburgh. When we moved, I signed up for an adult soccer league because I love soccer and I don’t have any friends here.

Since we spend at least one night a week together doing something we love (proximity), a lot of us on the team became decent friends.

Making new friends as you get older will get harder, but put yourself out there. And remember, it’s not that people don’t like you, it’s just that we’re all busy with other things.

7. Understand the sunk cost fallacy

People are afraid of quitting because they worry about giving up on all the time, money, and effort they’ve already committed.

This is called sunk cost fallacy.

Let’s say you’ve been standing in line at Starbucks for 20 minutes. You’re only 3 customers away from being served but you know the barista is new and taking about 4 minutes per customer.

Do you wait for an extra 12 minutes because you’ve already waited for 20?

Does your answer change if you have a friend waiting to meet you? Does your answer change if someone asked if they could pay you $5 for your spot in line?

Many people will factor in the 20 minutes they’ve already waited into their decision. They don’t want to feel like they’ve wasted their time. However, the 20 minutes have already been spent, you can’t get them back, it’s a sunk cost. the only thing that matters is how valuable are the next 12 minutes.

I wasted a lot of time and energy on projects and ambitions in my twenties because of this same premise. Instead of quitting and shifting my efforts elsewhere, I stuck with the sunk cost options instead of factoring in the opportunity cost of other options.

People tend to value sunk costs more than opportunity costs. If you change this thought process, you’ll find yourself making better-informed decisions.

8. Change is hard, start small

Humans have a hard time overcoming inertia. Think about the early settlers of America and the meandering streets we drive on today. What was once an old shortcut across the island is now every high-school thespian’s dream. (Broadway, if you don’t get the reference.)

City layouts don’t change because people don’t change, well they don’t like it. Instead of rebuilding an optimal road designed for, I don’t know, 21st-century vehicles, we stick to the old town roads.

The same goes for making big changes in our own personal lives. For years, I thought I was sentenced to life in a lanky body. I wanted to work out and get stronger, but again, I didn’t know where to start.

So I dropped to the floor and did ten push-ups.

The next day I did twelve push-ups. Then fifteen. Then twenty.

Fast forward to a year and I now lift weights three times a week and have completely transformed my body. I knew I wanted a work out routine. I also knew driving to a gym would be an obstacle (both financially and time-wise). I knew I’d have to start simple with a few dumbbells and a yoga mat.

People fail at change because they start big without understanding the nuances of their “new life”. Instead of starting small and making small adjustments along the way, they go all out and hope for the best.

I started small and introduced small variations to my exercise routine month after month. I didn’t overwhelm myself.

Starting small and staying simple is your best shot at superhuman progress.

9. Adopt a square-one mindset

I worked in a big corporation after college. (I won’t say where but they’re known for their ketchup.) I had this manager. Nice guy. Tenured. In charge of running the transportation department. Sat in big important meetings.

He was safe and comfortable, so he thought.

When the ketchup company was acquired by a much bigger company, they cleaned house. I was cheap, they kept me. Nice-guy-manager lost his job. He had too many vacation days built up apparently.

Fast forward 5 years. I escape the corporate world and am working for myself. One day I needed an Uber ride after a meeting.

Guess who picks me up.


Square one was not treating him well.

The moral of the story? Don’t fall for the fallacy that you’ll have everything figured out in your twenties. Don’t assume a secure job and a fancy title give you immunity to the market sways. They don’t.

Don’t let your guard down, always keep learning and building new skills so that when you find yourself back at square one, you can adapt and keep moving forward.

Self-efficacy, that’s the name of the game.

10. How to budget

When I was 20, I wish I knew how to budget. Namely, how to give my money jobs and understand my true expenses. I believe if I had learned how to budget I’d find myself in a much healthier position at 30 years old: more life savings, no credit card debt, maybe an actual house (or money saved up for a down payment).

Instead — and I don’t want to paint myself and my wife as trigger-happy consumers, we aren’t — during our twenties, a typical trip to any store followed the same pattern:

  1. We see something we like
  2. We wonder if we can afford said thing
  3. We buy said thing with credit card

It’s not that we spent our money lavishly, it’s that we followed the pattern for a lot of small purchases. Do we need a dish soap dispenser? How about this sweater, it is getting colder? Maybe we should get one of those posters to hang on our wall? These purchases add up over time.

At 30, I now use YNAB (You Need a Budget) to wrangle our family purchases and expenses. I’ve learned that budgeting is more than just numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s a mindset.

Budgeting is going to the store and knowing exactly how much you can spend on groceries before cutting into next month’s rent payment.

Budgeting is setting aside $50 every paycheck because you know you have a $600 veterinarian bill at least once a year.

Budgeting is treating yourself and knowing your bills are paid.

To think where I’d be today…

I could list another 99 things, nay, 999 more things I wish I knew when I was 20. But that’s how life works, you can’t go back and change your past.

But you can change how you live your life moving forward.

Don’t forget that.

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Stay-at-home dad. 9-to-5 escapee. Aldi aficionado.

Baltimore, MD

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