Yesterday, I finally turned 30! By my own definitions, I've had a lot of success up to this point in life. I have supportive family & friends, a wonderful partner, a professional life that is moving in the exact direction I want, happiness, and health. I am currently doing things that I didn't think would be possible for me 10 years ago. After reflecting for the past month, I'm happy to share this list of the Ten most Important Things I Did in my 20s. If you've already advanced beyond your 20s, keep reading; I believe there's something in here for everyone.

1. Setting my own Goals

Setting goals is the single most important thing I did with my 20s. The type of goals I'm talking about are not to be confused with the goals you might set with your manager at work. The goals I'm talking about are specific to your desires and ambitions and may or may not have anything to do with your career. Having goals is important because it allows you to create a structured path to the things you want in life while balancing the amount of time you spend helping others work toward their own agendas (a.k.a. “employment”). By having goals, you now have a personal compass to help you through every tough decision you will make for your future. While every big decision is multifaceted, one of the most important questions you should ask is: will this decision outcome bring me closer to reaching my goals? Without goals, anyone can sell you an opportunity by making it sound good. With goals, you force them into selling you an opportunity that serves you and not just them.

2. Questioning what I learned about success in school

You owe it to yourself and all of your teachers to start questioning if the tools that earned you success in school will still earn you success outside of the classroom. If you're fresh out of school it is imperative that you realize the game has changed.

School is simple because there's no question of whether or not you are successful; you either pass a class or you don’t. Measuring success in life is not so easy and problems arise when people trick themselves into thinking it can be. I fell into a trap that I believe a lot of young ambitious grads can relate to: I swapped measuring my success with grades to measuring my success with money and promotions. That was a quick ticket to a nagging feeling of emptiness and lack of purpose.

I'd like to save you some time and share with you the only two measures of success I've found to truly matter in life:

  1. Happiness
  2. Providing for the People you Love

These are simple questions with complicated answers.

How do you measure happiness? How does happiness fit the A/B/C/D/F grading scale? Of course, it doesn’t fit at all. How do you measure if you can provide for the people you love? Can it be measured by whether you can make enough money to provide a stable home? Sure, but what about your friend who doesn't need your money? Do you have enough time to sustain and grow that relationship? What you provide to others is measured in greater terms than money.

Be sure you're measuring your success in a way that serves you and the people you care for. Having goals is an effective way to do this.

3. Being honest and accountable

Honest people are at a premium In a world where the truth is more-difficult-than-ever to find.

When dishonest people are "found out" in a corporate setting, the people they lied to will never forget it. A dishonest person could change their ways and be 100% honest from that point forward and the people they lied to will still mentally label that person as a liar. Lying is for weak people that do not have the courage to tell someone what they don't want to hear. In a healthy corporate culture, liars don't get promoted. People don't want to work with them, people don't want to build businesses with them, and they are not as respected as their honest peers.

On the other hand, honest people are the complete opposite. They are courageous and tell their peers what they need to hear in order to do their jobs or improve their skills. Honest people get promoted because they help foster a healthy work environment. People want to work with them because they don't have to waste time and effort wondering whether or not they're being lied to. Honest people are widely-respected in corporate settings.

With that in mind, dishonest people still manage to get ahead. Just because someone is dishonest doesn't mean they are not smart and thrifty. Another reality is you have a choice; you don't have to play that game. If you're working in an environment that is promoting dishonest people, you should find a new job before you adopt a bad habit in the name of "career growth."

4. Learning about opportunity costs

You have finite time in this life. Every second you decide to spend doing something is a second you cannot spend doing something else. Every dollar you spend on one thing is a dollar you cannot spend on something else. Moving forward requires sacrifice. This is the true meaning of opportunity cost. It is an unavoidable aspect of the reality that we live in. Unfortunately, just because you must sacrifice to move forward does not mean that you will move forward if you sacrifice. If I sacrifice $100 by throwing it out my window... well, I think you get the point. It's important to learn this lesson as early as possible. Ideally you'll have learned by the end of high school but if you have not, your 20s is the time!

Understanding opportunity cost is critical to making life decisions. What might be more critical is understanding that everyone is trying to convince you to sacrifice something of yours that is going to benefit them. It is up to you to make sure your sacrifices are moving you forward. While not every decision requires that you deeply consider what you're sacrificing, the big ones absolutely do. What are you sacrificing if you decide to start a family at 22? What are you sacrificing if you decide to buy a new car instead of a used one? What are you sacrificing by not making a decision at all?

5. Establishing financial literacy

I'll define financial literacy as the ability to understand the financial consequences of decision-making and the ability to identify, analyze, and act on financial opportunities. Schools typically do not teach financial literacy. If you're lucky, you had a family member or mentor to teach you about financial literacy at a young age. What's more likely is that you finished 15+ years of formal education and the only things you truly learned about money is how to earn it by renting out your time/skills and how to spend it.

Think for a second about what American society tells you who you should be. I think you know who I'm talking about: the 20-something-year-old whiz kid with the great job, luxury car, big house, and beautiful family. You know what happens to people that shoot for that goal with no financial literacy? They end up with crippling credit card debt, unpaid student loans, an upside-down mortgage, and no free time. They're prisoners to poor decisions they made in the past and they're lucky if they come out even by the time they're ready to retire almost 40 years later. The crazy thing? You can have all the positives and none of the downsides if you just slow down and learn about simple things like:

  • assets, liabilities, and their differences
  • determining and increasing your net worth
  • responsibly and effectively using debt (credit, loans)
  • creating a budget
  • investing for retirement
  • best strategies for paying debts down
  • determining if a deal is beneficial

Do these things before you make your major financial decisions coming out of college. Start learning these things before you buy the new car, big house, or decide to have kids. If you do this I promise that not only will you be much better off, but it will make these major financial decisions a much more enriching experience for you.

How do you start? Read "Rich Dad Poor Dad" by Robert Kiyosaki and "The Total Money Makeover" by Dave Ramsey. These books will help form a solid foundation for your financial literacy but they're still just the first steps on a long personal journey toward knowledge. Building wealth takes time, effort, knowledge, and personal creativity. It is not easy to do and you should approach anyone who tells you otherwise with caution.

6. Learning about proper nutrition and exercise

If you're the type of person that skips breakfast, drinks energy drinks, consumes a large amount of processed foods, etc, then it’s likely you’ll need to make some changes as you age. If you're the type of person that is hopping from keto diet to paleo diet to intermittent fasting just trying to find "something that works" then you also may need to make some changes. If you're the type that sits at a computer all day and the most exercise you get is walking your dog for 20 minutes a day, you probably also need to make some changes. Your 20s is the best time to make these changes because you have relatively few obligations. If you let those habits continue into your 30s and 40s they become much more difficult to correct and you're more likely to accumulate chronic medical issues along the way (i.e. high blood pressure, poor spinal alignment, & diabetes.

That being said, and there's really no way to sugarcoat this, these aspects of life are some of the most difficult to get under control. Many people have bad nutrition habits they developed from how their parents fed them (I've heard "finish all the food on your plate" more times than I can count). Some people are emotional eaters (guilty!). Others have a difficult time consistently exercising (also guilty). Ultimately, you have to experiment and find something that works for you. The key is to not give up. If something doesn't work for you, try something else. If you tried running and you hated it, try powerlifting.

You also don't need to do it all at once (nor would I recommend it). You're better off approaching changes like these slowly, and individually. When you get started maybe you eat healthy 1 day per week, then next month you do 2 days per week. Once your nutrition is under control and you feel like you have healthy and consistent habits, apply the same strategy to exercising. Make small changes that you can be consistent with, and build on them. You'll find this strategy works well in many other aspects of life.

7. Questioning the status quo

Standard Successful Life Plan:

  1. Get good grades in high school. Do extracurriculars and honors/AP/IB classes
  2. Get into a good college
  3. Find a good job
  4. Work your way up the career ladder
  5. Get married
  6. Buy a car, buy a house
  7. Have kids
  8. Retire at 65
  9. Do some cool stuff that you now have the time (travel, volunteer, learn, etc.)
  10. Die

Does this excite you? It does not excite me. This is a more accurate representation of my plan:

  1. Get good grades in HS. Do extracurriculars and honors classes
  2. Get into a decent college
  3. Find a job in tech
    --- Start establishing financial literacy, question the status quo ---
  4. Learn as much as I can at my job, build a career reputation outside of my job, don't worry about climbing the company ladder
  5. Find a partner that shares my passions, don't get married, don't have kids
  6. Buy a used vehicle and pay it off ASAP, buy a house under market value in a growing area, fix it up over time
  7. Start independent consulting
  8. Start building businesses & investing in real estate. Use businesses to influence positive change in the world
  9. Retire? Maybe if I'm not having fun with business anymore
  10. Die

The guiding light of the average American's path is the status quo. It's the same well-worn path from cradle to grave in most societies of rampant capitalism & consumerism, probably the path your parents went down, as well as the path they want you to go down. If you do everything you're told to do and you do it well, there's a high likelihood you're going to end up following that path. There is no shame in going down this path, but personally, I believe there are better opportunities out there for people that reject this path than those who choose to follow it. Do you want something different than average? If you want something different, then you need to be different. You need to think differently and make different decisions than the average American. You need to think independently and not be afraid to reject people trying to pull you back into the status quo. You need to become a leader. Your 20s are a great time to try something different than the status quo. You have almost nothing to lose; The status quo will always be there if you should decide something different is not for you.

8. Learning how to re-frame failure and take risks

The fear of failure is the most unfortunate thing in the world to me. I believe the fear of failure primarily stems from the use of passing/failing grades in the education system. People spend 12 - 20 years in a system that rewards them for doing what they're told and punishes them for doing otherwise. In psychology, this strategy of influencing behavior is called operant conditioning.

If you have any desire to live a life different from the status quo, you need to unlearn this trained behavior. Why? Because everything exciting about life and all of your vast potential is on the other side of your fear of failure. This conditioned fear of failure is exactly what keeps people from pursuing what they truly want. Failure is the single best teacher in life, don't avoid it! There isn't a single person in the world that can provide you a better education than the cycle of trying, failing, learning from mistakes, adjusting accordingly, and trying again.

That said, it's not as easy as just going for broke and having no fear at all. Some fear of failure is healthy and natural. However, instead of letting this fear prevent you from taking action it should drive you towards assessing the risks of the decision you're making. You should then create ways to mitigate that risk.

Often, people will fear failure over something that has virtually no risk. For example, if you're in the salary negotiation section of a job offer and the company offers you $100K, there's virtually no risk in asking for $110K. They already want you for the position or they wouldn't have made the offer. On top of this, the offer is likely low so they have room to increase their offer if you ask for more money. They're probably planning on you asking for more! If you look at it from a financial standpoint, there's more risk in you not asking for more simply because you may be throwing money away. Given all this, often times people still can't bring themselves to ask for more. For these situations I offer a simple strategy: take the risk out completely and do mock negotiations with a friend, practicing what you will say in various scenarios.

9. Learning how my relationships affected my success, minimizing time with those that are not helping

Show me your friends and I'll show you your future.

  • A wise person

The people you spend time with might influence your behaviors and thoughts more than you think. Imagine two people with the goal of eventually running their own businesses. One of them is spending most of their time with friends from college that are happy with the 9-5 grind and partying until 1 AM on weekends. The other has started building new relationships with people who have similar ambitions. They still go out on weekends but mostly to grab a beer or two, catch up, and discuss entrepreneurship and their goals with friends.

Of those two people, which one is more likely to reach their goal of eventually running a successful business? Obviously it is the one who has started building relationships with people who have similar goals. The people you spend the most time with have tremendous power over the way you think. You can let this truth hold you back, or you can leverage it to greatly increase the likelihood that you're going to get what you want out of life.

Make a list of 3 - 5 of the people you spend the most time with. Now ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do they support your goals and/or have similar goals?
  • Do they inspire you?

If the answer isn't "yes" to at least one of those questions then that person is holding you back.

10. Determining my edge

Your edge is a unique skill, personality trait, or experience you have that is difficult or impossible for others to replicate. It doesn't necessarily need to be a job skill like being the best Java programmer in the world. In my experience it's likely something more difficult to quantify like being great at inspiring people, being a quick learner, or having an intuition for when people are feeling down and need help. It doesn't have to be business-related. Maybe you have the most supportive parents in the world. Maybe you're the best Super Smash Brothers player in your region. Whatever your edge is, it's probably a good idea to start experimenting with ways to leverage it, and share it with others. In my experience, this kind of thing ends up leading to a lot of opportunities.

Conclusion

I selected most of the items on this list because in some way they either helped me stay focused on getting what I wanted out of life, expanded my options, or kept me out of debt. My life in my 20s was relatively career-focused and my list probably reflects that. I'd be curious to see your list in the comments below.