What are the most difficult and useful things people have to learn in their 20s?

By Abi Tyas Tunggal 23 October 2018 7 min read


  • Listen and learn;
  • Build trust;
  • Make friends;
  • Cooperate.

There are two ways to improve yourself:

  1. Develop skills for a certain task.
  2. Change how you operate.

Both ways work but one is more valuable than the other. Can you guess which?

I’ll give you a hint. Under the first approach, you’re rushing to the finish line. Learning the bare minimum. Enough to start the race.

Inversely, the second approach is upgrading your operating system. You’re changing the habits and beliefs that guide you. This is hard. Hard is valuable, you’ll often hear this and for good reason. Upgrading your operating system means you learn until the new way becomes a part of you.

This is the process to becoming great, learning how to change your habits. Only then you begin to change and you’re effective. Let’s stop looking for the next life hack, let’s go back to the book. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

Stop installing more widgets and starting upgrading your operating system.

Widgets are slowing you down. The important thing to do in your 20s is start to build the blocks that make you, you.

What you see isn't all there is.

Your perception, my perception, they aren’t true reality. Our perception is our reality but not everyone’s. There’s how I see the world and how you see the world. 99% of the time, those are different things. What we believe determines our reality.

As the Mad Hatter rightly said in Alice In Wonderland:

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

If you want to change what you see, it’s time to become self-aware. You can’t change what isn’t there. What you see is not all that is.

Some habits are so ingrained, they become invisible. How can you hope to change them? You measure yourself against those who you look up to. You emulate the success of others. Why reinvent the wheel?

Emulating the success of others means smooth sailing. Smooth sailing isn’t always the goal but it’s a good start. The smoother you sail through the sea of people the easier it is to develop good habits.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Abraham Lincoln said that.

If you spend the day, chopping away and never find time to sharpen your axe, what will you achieve? There’s a better path.

The best thing you can do is stay physically and mentally healthy. That’s your axe. Care for it, sharpen it, and never let it dull.

There are hundreds of guides to staying fit. Most follow these principles:

  • Exercise
  • Eat well

That’s it. It’s simple to understand and hard in practice. Remember, hard things are valuable.

Mental health isn’t so simple. Something I’ve found to help is reading. Read, read, read and read some more. Take what you’ve read and write about it.

Whatever form doesn’t matter. Writing sharpens the mind.

Care for your social life too. Working and working and working doesn’t produce good work. To achieve what you want in life you need high-quality friends and as many as possible.

Never neglect this, humans are social animals.

Most importantly, take time to rest. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking more time spent working is better. Focus on deep work.

Take a long term bet on yourself. Develop the habits to produce more over time.

The world doesn't wait for anyone, why are you?

Humans need to create an influence on the world around them. That makes you and I human. Evolution has programmed animals from birth, few are lucky enough to learn more. We can build our own operating system from scratch.

You can change and adapt. You can reflect. You can choose to change your output whatever input you receive. You can step back, see yourself and your actions.

That allows you to change.

Most people don’t realise that they live a reactive life. They react to inputs and produce default outputs. Their emotions, actions, and outcomes are determined by what happens around them. They are passengers.

You need to be proactive. If you don’t like the input you receive, change it. Your emotions, your actions, and your outcomes are yours to determine. You assume responsibility for everything.

If it rains, you don’t complain. You bring an umbrella.

There will never be a time when it wasn’t your fault. Accept it. “I made a mistake” is harder to say than “it was out of my control”. That’s hard and valuable.

Don’t be efficient, be effective.

These days people love the thought of doing more in less time. “Here’s how you can produce 5x in half the time”. Life hacks are great if you are working on important stuff.

Sadly, many people work towards nothing. Pushing information around the office via email, updating their social media. They don’t know the outcome they want, too focused on being efficient instead of effective.

Yes, getting 5x done in half the time is great. But is scheduling 50 posts instead of 10 in half the time valuable? Let’s be honest, if it takes no training then it’s not.

Stop producing rubbish fast. Start producing your best. Be clear on what’s important now.

What do you want people to see in 5, 10, 15 years? How do you want to be remembered?

Think of your life as a startup with its own mission statement, KPIs, and metrics. You need values and principles you hold yourself to.

Your operating system is creating a standard for everything you do. Your direction in life.

Visualise where you're going.

Everything happens twice. First, when you come up with it. Second, when you execute. The clearer outcome you have, the clearer the path. Again, the Mad Hatter says it best. He isn’t so mad after all?

“People who don’t think shouldn’t talk.”

Think like the world’s best investors, long-term. You’re never selling the startup of you. There is no exit strategy. Ignore what happens today or tomorrow. Don’t align actions with now, align actions with later. You know what you need to do.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Seriously, go and read Alice in Wonderland. You’ll see how important having a plan is. Without it, you could end up anywhere. You don’t know, what you don’t know. Devote time developing a clear picture of your future.

First thing's, first.

Time management is important but most techniques focus on increasing efficiency, not effectiveness. I touched on this much more in my deep work post.

The important thing to do should be the first thing daily. You must be ruthless with this.

But how do you determine what is important? Ask yourself, is this bringing me closer to my goals or taking me further away? Don’t worry about the small things.

The important thing is you get one important thing done.

It must impact. It becomes a part of your long term picture. Once you dedicate yourself to the crucial things and ignore what isn’t, you’ll make leaps and bounds. As Derek Sivers says

No ‘yes.’ Either ‘HELL YEAH!’ or ‘no.’

Life is not winner takes all.

The establishment wants you to believe something. Everything is a competition with one winner and everyone else gets nothing. Life doesn’t work that way. Competition means you’re working on the wrong thing.

There is enough for everyone, if you move from Zero to One.

Don’t fall into the win-lose mindset. You lose. To win you need a great network.

Build lots of positive relationships with people in any industry. What’s important is the ability to form relationships.

Your network is your net worth. It makes you, you. It’s the foundation of your effectiveness. It means when you need help, it’s a call away. Your ability to build it comes down to providing value.

Your network is your net worth.

Your network is like a garden. Each relationship is a plant that needs to be watered. Treat each as such. Regularly feed and water your network, more than you think you need to. Give out more than you ask.

Every relationship you have is more valuable than you think.

If you take the time to understand your network’s goals and help them. In time, they will do the same for you. Keep your promises, be kind, be timely.

Then when you ask for a favour, you’ll get it. I’ll go as far to say people will want to help you. But you’ve got to water the garden before you can take from it. Otherwise you’ll kill the plants.

No one will take the time to understand your mission, if you don’t do the same for them. Learn to listen. If you want people to listen to you, listen to them, really listen.

Repeat what they say, mirror their body language and connect with them.

Talking is easy. Listening is hard. Few people in the world can truly listen.

The good news is you can learn. Trust me. The value will come and fast. People will open their hearts and minds to your mission. They will value you. They will listen to your opinion. They will listen to your advice.

Respect and you shall receive.

Be the person people want to work with. Be effective, not efficient. Work well with everyone.

I know what you value. The people who fix the things you aren’t great at. You do what you’re great at and they do what they’re great at.

Everyone has different skills. No one has the same operating system as you, no one has the same programs. Ensure you are compatible.

To do this, overcome the need for structure and security. Jump into the deep end.

If your habits are great, what you want will come. All you do is work on important stuff. It’s under your control. The world is yours.

Listen and learn. Build trust. Make friends. Cooperate.

Treat people as you want to be treated. Don’t let the world make you sour.

Focus on your goals. Don’t focus on what is out of your control. That’s not effective. That’s lazy.

What are the most difficult and useful things people have to learn in their 20s?