To The 20something (and beyond) Who Doesn’t Know What They’re Doing With Their Life

Read this if you can’t seem to get your sh*t together

Emily Steele
5 min readAug 7, 2023
Photo by Kyle Gregory Devaras on Unsplash

I met a girl the other day who was in the process of getting her personal training certification.

“That’s awesome!” I said, “I actually used to be a personal trainer. Who are you getting certified through?”

She responded nervously, quietly, bubbling out a longer answer than the question opened up room for, and I recognized her self-conscious “fluffing” instantly.

My heart did that thing where I swear it flits in an extra beat — this one for her and her soft, 20something struggles — and I That’s-So-Raven’d myself backwards in time to a day back in 2017 when I was her and some stranger (no doubt older, wiser, more established and settled than me, because at that time — everyone was in my head) was asking me about my own current career journey over pre-workout small talk in the gym.

“What do you do?” (or any genre of the question) used to make me want to hurl.

(It still kinda does. PTSD? Or maybe just another phase shift.) My hands would get clammy, my throat would get tight, and, like the girl from the other day, my answer would always come out in 27 disjointed pieces, each one justifying or patching over the one before it.

I was so worried back then about what other people were thinking about my life, my job, my financial status, my “togetherness.” I wanted so badly to answer in a way that checked all the boxes I assumed they were asking about:

  • Do you support yourself?
  • Do you have a plan?
  • Does your current career have a healthy trajectory?
  • Will you one day buy a house, settle down, make a family, and be a soccer mom?

Beneath their question that I know now was almost always just an innocent spurt of polite small talk, I had inserted all kinds of subtext, the basis of which was: are you playing by the unspoken rules of society and climbing the unseen-but-universally-understood ladder of a “normal” life?

And at 23, I felt like the answer to that question was: absolutely not. Not even close. In fact, can someone show me the ladder?

And I was mortified.

I was ashamed.

I was frustrated at who I was turning out to be.

Why couldn’t my interests perfectly overlap with an easy-to-find well-paying job with benefits? Why couldn’t I love something like accounting or open-heart surgery? Why did everything I love have to be from such separate distant categories? Why did I have this incessant effervescent rising of bubbles inside of me that could never quite settle in between 4 walls and 8-hour shifts, Monday through Friday?

This Liz Gilbert quote hangs on my wall and talks to me almost everyday.

Why did my jewels have to be so strange? Why so hard to find?

To the bumbling, justifying, insecure 20something girl from the other day — this is what I wanted so badly to explain:

I get it. You don’t have to feel that way around me. Or around anyone, really.

Most people are cheering you on.

Most people are watching your young life with sparkling eyes hoping you do daring things and leap at all the seemingly crazy opportunities, “because that’s what your 20s are for!” they will say.

And while this is true, is it not also what your 30s are for? Your 40s? 50s, 60s, 70s? 90s? Why do we limit our leaping to a single decade? Why are we not all watching each other’s lives — irrespective of age — hoping each of us seizes every moment and leaps at every opportunity that speaks to us?

Nipping at the heels of 30 myself, I don’t feel ready to toss in the towel of leaps and new things. I’m not sure if I’m climbing that ladder we all “know” but don’t actually all desire to climb. But I am sure I’m pretty dang happy.

I don’t know if I’ll be a soccer mom. I don’t know where my “career” will take me or if I will always be able to afford the lifestyle I enjoy now. Perhaps I will slide up and down the scale, slipping between “jobs” and phase-shifting through various metamorphoses while my steady-as-they-come husband hangs on for dear life and rolls his eyes with a smirk as if to say, “There she goes again.”

I don’t know.

But I know the thing I craved most in my early 20s was a comfort with that very phrase: I don’t know.

And having found it makes the journey of discovering the rest of my strange jewels that much more beautiful.

Photo by Max Andrey on Unsplash

I hope you have the courage to find the strange jewels hidden within yourself.

I hope you have the courage to recognize them even when they don’t seem to look like the jewels everyone else is finding. I hope you have the courage to unearth them at 35, 48, 62 or 89.

And when they ask “What do you do?” I hope you have the courage (and inner peace) to maybe say, “I don’t know.”



Emily Steele

lifter of heavy things: thoughts, words, weights, burdensome beliefs