Things I wish I knew in my 20s

Life brings many surprising lessons with time.

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Wanting something too much

When I was younger, I often brought matters to a head because I so badly wanted things to turn out well. This was mostly in terms of relationships. I would try everything to convince someone to get closer to me, to show them that I was worthwhile, both in friendships and in love. I didn’t understand that everyone was allowed to reject me. I did not deal well with refusals, especially if it really meant a lot. And it really meant a lot, so I struggled with my defeats. It was only later that I realized that it was all perfectly natural. People will criticize me no matter what I do. Successes and failures don’t matter, there will always be someone who won’t like something, because it hurts their ego. People take such things personally and judge them from their own perspective.

Relationships weren’t working out for me because I wanted them too badly and I tried too hard. Women who I fell in love with, and that I sacrificed so much for, didn’t want to be with me. This saddened and irritated me, they didn’t even notice what I was offering them, I wanted to be with them so badly I would have even changed my very way of existence. This never worked. I remember when I was in Paris, and I was in love with Mary who was in Warsaw. Each and every day I would send her some kind of sign to remember me by. I sent postcards, I ordered flowers, I wrote emails, I asked friends to pass something on to her. Hey, I was a romantic! Or at least I thought so. Now I see that I was naive and I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that Mary wasn’t interested in me. I was madly in love. How could I have noticed?

It’s hard to prove to others how much you are trying when they can’t see you for who you really are. That is why, with time, I just let go. I accepted other’s freedom. Everyone has the right to choose. There is no obligation in relationships. This is true for relationships, friendships and business contacts. People change with time.

I still only do the things that really fascinate me, but I try to gain perspective. I ask myself why I want something. I want it, I want it very much so, but I try not to want it too hard, to not cross the line. People come and go, relationships create themselves and fall apart, businesses start and fail. Each experience, bad or good, is a lesson that I remember for the future. The perspective of impermanence allows me to not attach myself too strongly. Nothing is forever, so I find joy in every moment, not waiting for something better to arrive tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come.

Jumping ship

My Dad always told me, choices are like ships. If you are considering if it’s the right moment to jump ship, then that means that you should. There is only “yes” and “no.” “Maybe” just means “no.” It makes no sense to delude yourself that the girl who is now considering being with you will suddenly change her mind. Why should she do that? “Maybe” means “no.” The only way to change a “maybe” into a “yes” is to change yourself. It all depends on you, the rest is only wishful thinking. You can think it will work out, but it’s better to take matters into your own hands. If you aren’t sure about something, change it or leave it. This follows both in activities as much as in relationships. Life is too short (though sometimes it can seem long), to waste time on forced friendships and jobs that kill your creativity. On the other hand, you do have time. You can allow yourself to wander to try to find the thing that gives you the most happiness. I can guarantee, however, that you won’t find it standing in one place and looking around. Be active! Work! Love! Make mistakes!. When you have doubts, decide whether it is time to jump ship.

Fear

Fear accompanies me into every new undertaking. It is natural. When I do something for the first time, there is a large chance that I will fail. I won’t make it, someone will laugh, someone will criticize me. When I was younger, I was concerned with these opinions, because I thought they mattered. Over time, I realized that other people are only insecure. It doesn’t mean that every criticism is bad, constructive criticism actually can help. But more often than not, I would only hear criticism that was caused by other people’s fears.

I faced my biggest fear when I published my first book. I already had a very advanced career in mathematics, I had my PhD, I was doing research in Oxford, you know, serious stuff! The book I wrote was not about math, it was a very personal novel. I was worried about rejection because the mathematical environment is rather conservative and looks down on anything that isn’t academic. I was also worried about criticism from my friends, everyone would be able to read what I wrote, and give their own opinion. Despite all that, I still published the book. And now comes the best part, some fears did come true, I was criticised by mathematicians and friends alike. Turned out it wasn’t the end of the world, because I also received a lot of support and kind words. I braved it. It was worth it.

Fear is natural. You will be afraid. I’m not telling you this to make you more afraid. You just have to remember, you can never avoid fear. And if you do not feel it in regards to what you are currently doing, it means you have become trapped in stagnancy. Doubts will accompany you as long as you will be trying new things, and you should be trying them all the time, because only in this way can you develop yourself. No studies will give you as much experience as your first job, failures, or your own business that you will learn how to manage by taking every step independently. You will be afraid, naturally, and this fear will never go away, so don’t try to fight it at all cost. Keep working despite the fear, count your failure into the total cost and do not worry. You have nothing to lose, in the worst case scenario, nothing will change. In the best case, a new life will await you. I repeat this to myself with each new project; this book is an example. Writing a book of advice comes with difficulty because I know I will be assessed, and that judgment will pass onto my life and me personally. I won’t run away from it, I am not only afraid of the evaluation of others, but above all else, I fear failure and the loss of time. How do I know that what I am doing is worthwhile? I will never know for sure. I will not have any certainty, I can only follow my intuition. I always wonder about why I want to undertake something new. I look for reasons beyond “how” and “why.” I have learned how to engage in projects that grant me both pleasure and learning. The journey is the most important. The path is what advances me, so the results are not important. I can fail, but I learned something along the way.

I separate myself from fear through a proper perspective. I repeat my mantra, “this could be your last day, do you want to waste it?” This frequently works. I contemplate my life and I find where the fear is coming from. It always appears out of fear of other’s opinions or about a waste of time and money. Now, at thirty, I can feel it even more clearly: I am getting older, my time to accomplish things is limited, it’s time to get to work!

What others say doesn’t matter

When I was twenty, I placed way too much weight on what others thought and said about me. Until I was twenty-five, I practically never used curse words. Not that I regret it. I still don’t curse, but then I didn’t because I didn’t want to upset anyone, even the person who was offensive towards me. I wanted to be a polite boy, I listened to people older and younger than me, and to strangers. I was very careful as to what I said and the way I said it. I never spoke of my own feelings, I tried not to show anger or irritation, I always accepted all proposals, and often took the initiative myself.

After a few years, it turned out that none of the people who criticised me the most, or doubted what I was doing, are in my life. Their opinions stopped mattering to me. If I had known this, I would have started things earlier, or done them differently. It doesn’t mean you have to do things at all cost. Listen to other people’s opinions carefully, and take into consideration if what they are saying is coming from the right place, then go your own way. You are free.

Freedom is a wonderful feeling. In this life, you are truly free. You can do whatever you want. Anything is allowed, but not everything brings you benefits. Getting older has shown me just how many occasions I have wasted through naively mulling over what someone was going to say about something. I imagined many situations where my intentions, along with their unsuccessful actions would be laid bare, and one of my acquaintances would laugh at my ideas. Only now I realize that it didn’t matter. If that person is someone worthwhile, they can at best give you some constructive criticism and will still wish you well. If you are met with laughter, you can dissociate yourself from that person. That is what freedom means. You can select the people you deal with, and you should choose them with deliberation. The five people closest to you have the greatest influence over you. The rest is meaningless. Live your own life, don’t look at others, though I do know how hard it is in the social media era with constant access to the internet. The hours you spend looking at Facebook are wasted hours. You don’t have have to read the news and be “up to date.” That also doesn’t matter. Get oriented about the world, but don’t blindly chase after it. You don’t have to know or how to do to everything, you can even speak of things naively.

Don’t worry.

Just live and grow.

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This text is an excerpt from my book, 100 things you need to hear when you turn 20, which is now available on Amazon and Google Books.

Written by

CEO Contentyze, the text editor 2.0, PhD in maths, Forbes 30 under 30 — → Sign up for free at https://app.contentyze.com

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