Investing Your Twenties

A pop musician’s and a mathematician’s twenties are a precious part of their life. During those ten years of early adulthood, there seems to be a residual childlike creativity or randomness in the brain at a time when a person has had a chance to amass skills and experience. In some fields, the window in time when you will produce your best work is open only during your twenties. Take the Beatles, whose albums appeared when Lennon & McCartney were 23-30 and 21-28 respectively. Few would argue that either of them made a Beatles-quality album after the split, and looking at other bands, I wonder if they could have even if they’d continued to record together.

Since I think a lot about pop music and ageing (the first time I felt like an old man whose time was past was at ~22), I’ve been thinking about my twenties. What did I do with that finite resource, those ten years? Well, one common thing I did not do was try a bit of this and that. I was a professional archaeologist for the entire decade, if you count grad school as a professional activity. Luckily archaeologists do not bloom and wilt early. Two classic PhD theses that are mentioned among the best Swedish archaeology has produced were published when their authors were 35 (Ulf Erik Hagberg) and 41 (Mats P. Malmer).

As I wasn’t given a very well thought-out thesis subject, a lot of the work I put into the project had to be descriptive and enumerative rather than creative and analytical. One grumpy older colleague even told me I was squandering the best years of my professional life. But not being a pop musician, I can’t say that those years were of an unusual quality and should have been invested more carefully. Outside of work, I spent my twenties as I have spent my thirties, married and occupied with geeky pastimes, and I became a dad at 26. I guess I haven’t developed all that much since my teens, actually, which means that I am either a youthful or a stunted soul.

Dear Reader, to what did/do you devote your 20s? Are you happy with what you did/do?


  1. #1 Thomas Ivarsson
    October 25, 2011

    I do not miss my 20-29 age period because I had not matured and was very anxious about a lot of non important things. Had doubts about my career and what I should do with my life at that age.

    To some extent I was old when I was 7 years old with a father with diabetes that suddenly turned in to a zoombie.

    Some of us becomes mature much earlier than others but as your site suggest you are still occuoied with games.

  2. #2 Lee Drake
    October 25, 2011

    As a grad student of archaeology in my twenties now, I’d have to say that I’m spending them procrastinating on the Internet.

    …but I’m also having a blast using command-line computer code to run fancy analysis of stable carbon isotopes and pollen. And the ability to rapidly find papers digitally has made it easier to learn new methodologies.

    So the twenties + the Internet and computers are great for creativity nowadays (p < 0.05)

  3. #3 Matt B.
    October 25, 2011

    Pretty much the same story as you. 25 now and doing archaeology. Like you, though, I don’t really think that these are my best years professionally and that I’m in any way wasting them. Too much of archaeology depends on ones experience and knowledge of material. I guess I’m just going to have to keep my creativity until I’m in a position to use it…

  4. #4 Chris W.
    October 25, 2011

    I was a stay at home wife and raised four children.

  5. #5 CherryBombSim
    October 25, 2011

    I think my 20’s would have been much more productive if I had had better preparation in my teens.I grew up in an itty-bitty place in the middle of the desert without a whole lot of educational opportunities but somehow ended up at Caltech as an undergrad. I never really caught up academically, but I did manage to start a business when I was about 25 and still had enough youthful energy for it. Over 30, you just don’t have the flexibility and creativity to do things like that so well.

  6. #6 Mike Olson
    October 26, 2011

    I was a bit of a dilatante eventually getting a bachelors in Psych. I started a family, changed gears and hoped to work in medicine/medical research. I joined the military in order to get a vet grant to get more schooling. I worked as a training petty officer and mobile supervisor in a blood donor center. In short I was building a future. Which due to circumstances beyond my control was squashed as soon as I returned home to the midwest. I’d have been better off staying on as a civilian lab tech and going to school in California. I honestly thought being closer to family would be beneficial. Turns out that it might very well have been quite the opposite. Today, I’m mainly recommended as physical laborer, store clerk, or lawn mower jockey. I weathered a bad marriage, being a single parent trapped in the navy, but couldn’t beat an ingrained mid-western mentality. Thanks for allowing me to vent, as opposed to screaming, my frustration.

  7. #7 Thinker
    October 26, 2011

    Youth is a wonderful thing, but it’s a pity it is wasted on so inexperienced people… – Oscar Wilde

    I spent the first half of my twenties taking a degree, and then transitioned seamlessly into work life as the company I worked with on my Master’s thesis project offered me a job. In hindsight, it may have been a good thing to take some time off in between, but at the time I was in settling into a steady relationship and the job meant we could move into a slightly larger apartment than the studio we had been sharing while I was studying.

    No regrets about the decision to start working, though: I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot I have been able to apply throughout my career. One current challenge now is how to create opportunities for today’s 20-somethings to apply their creativity, and learn things in the process…

  8. #8 Emir A.
    October 26, 2011

    I am 25. After having spent about 4 years (age 20-24) studying classical music on folk high school (folkhögskola) and conservatory (musikhögskola), i decided to switch to a completely different type of education. Now im studying vehicle engineering at the royal institute of technology in stockholm (kth). I’ll be done when im 30 (or later…), but its gonna be lots of fun. I dont regret the music years though, they were important to me and i learned a lot. I still try to play on my free time, if i didn’t i would probably have a harder time with kth studies…

  9. #9 Birger Johansson
    October 26, 2011

    My twenties …. 🙁
    — — — — — — — —

    Swedish scientists have just discovered yet another deadly tick-borne disease waiting to get you as you walk into the forest to a dig (sorry, no English-language link).

    At the risk of looking like an apostate to the Aard blog, here are some T-shirt mottos:
    “Why should I care how many people I have to kill? I can make more in my tummy”
    “Evil; a growth industry”

  10. #10 Mu
    October 26, 2011

    My 20s revolved around beer. Got a taste for good wine and scotch in my 30s. Got married at 40 and now it revolves around kids. At least I have memories …

  11. #11 Steven Blowney
    October 26, 2011

    My Twenties? Mostly I was in school, trying to earn money to go back to school, drinking beer, and chasing women.

  12. #12 Gavin
    October 28, 2011

    I’m rapidly approaching the end of my twenties. What have I done with them? Studied (and practiced) archaeology. That’s about it, and I have no regrets at all.

  13. #13 24fps
    October 28, 2011

    I went to theatre school, got tossed from the acting program, shifted to design and playwriting, then back into acting, switched to film. Got degrees in both. Worked as a nursing aide on night shifts to pay for it, learned a lot about old age, infirmity and learned a lot by talking to old people who lived with regrets about what they hadn’t done and old people who looked back with satisfaction on their lives.

    I married young, divorced shortly thereafter – had my heart broken more than once, healed and grew stronger. Found out what I did and didn’t want in a partner (which was totally different than what I thought it would be), which helped me find my beloved in my 30s.

    I worked as an actor, took off on spontaneous road trips, hiked in the badlands, went to theatre and film festivals, made experimental films, wrote a screenplay, volunteered at an artists’ co-op, got a real job, bought a house, made a plan to quit the job (which I did at 31 to go back to making films).

    I’m so glad I didn’t have children when I was in my twenties. I had the freedom to be selfish, inconsistent and irresponsible. I didn’t accomplish anything earth-shattering, but I did figure out what I wanted out of life. As it turned out, my thirties were a great time to have a marriage and family.

  14. #14 Mattias
    October 29, 2011

    My twenties was a decade invested (wasted, some would probably say) on music theory and musicology. I finished my Ph.D at thirty, and then time seems to accelerate, with family, house and steady job time seems to fly by. The cult of youth seems to be part of modern ethos, especially in popular culture, as you say. Nobody shouted “dinosaur” at Dickens when ‘Great expectations’ appeared, I suppose…

  15. #15 djlactin
    October 31, 2011

    I got stoned a lot. My best years were from 35 – 40. Coasting since.

  16. #16 Martin R
    October 31, 2011

    Your best years were only five in number? Or did things start to get good during those five years?

  17. #17 John Massey
    October 31, 2011

    #15 – No, but I shouted “bastard” at the book a lot at school, especially when the exams got very close and I discovered my copy was missing the last few chapters.

    I thought it ended abrup

  18. #18 Martin R
    November 1, 2011

    I took an oral exam on Great Expectations and some other English books in order to get my final high-school English grade three years early. I passed. But I didn’t tell the teachers that I had actually read the book only in Swedish. I was supposed to read 600 pages of English fiction. At first I offered to talk about a (bad) Terry Brooks fantasy tome of 650 pp. that I was reading at the time, but the teachers had never heard of him.

  19. #19 cc
    May 6, 2012

    i spent the first half of my twenties studying film production and working as a folk musician. I spent a lot of time running away from heartbreak and not quite understanding what I was meant to do with my life. I spent the third quarter very quietly while I recovered from a physical injury that severely inhibited my ability to produce music. Oddly, in the final quarter of my twenties, my musical style has shifted pop-ward and I am toying with the idea that it might not be too late to achieve my dreams. I collect examples of popular artists who achieved success after the age of 26. It fills me with fleeting sparks of hope. Perhaps I am in denial. I feel old. It’s ridiculous.

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