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10 things I would tell my 20-year old self

By James Wariero

The 20’s is the decade of life most adults remember fondly. It is a heady time of multiple transitions, new opportunities and expanding freedom- from parental control, lack of disposable cash and school restrictions. After completing school; you form important friendships that will last you a lifetime; you are likely meet the person you are going to marry, maybe even get married.

I started my twenties as a second year in university wearing loud T-shirts with equally loud messages and ended it as a new parent wide-eyed and humbled cradling a small human being. The 20s is a decade of exciting transitions. There are a number of things someone getting into their twenties, or there already, needs to keep in mind in order not to waste this pivotal decade of their life.

Many folks think that their twenties is the time for a happy-go-lucky lifestyle, where opportunities can be met without responsibility. It is bad enough that this may end with a wasted decade of ‘delayed milestones’ and missed opportunities.

A few important things that may help a young man to navigate their twenties, having had tons of fun and emerging into their thirties largely unscathed and considerably prepared for really the most important decade of your life: of marriage, child rearing, wealth creation, career progression- all of which your twenties should adequately prepare you for.

  1. Swim in your lane, run your own race:

    College is a mishmash of people of different backgrounds without the equalizing restrictions of high school where pocket money may be controlled, uniforms are standard issue and meals compulsory. Fellows will shore up in Audi convertibles and live in fancy apartments rented by their rich parents. Run your own race. We had brilliant fellows who had aced their entrance exam and even had a great first year, get discontinued for academic reasons. Some of the fellows you suffered with in college may take off faster than you by chancing onto a great internship at the end of which is the promise of a sharp corporate rise. Swim in your own lane. Be patient with yourself. Make daring applications and consult widely. Network aggressively. Learn to keep in touch with people of significance for your career without being an obtrusive irritant.

  2. Keep yourself in good health:

    Exercise. I can’t say this enough. Most people overestimate the reversibility of a life of gluttonous excess. A bulging midriff and bad eating habits are a stubborn pair in your thirties. It is easy to continue to keep fit from college before the two big enemies of a flat belly show up: your own money and getting married- men almost invariably pick up weight as they grow a beer gut and finally start eating home cooked meals under careful supervision. Don’t get HIV. I see people with ever more cavalier attitudes towards sex peddling the excuse that “now there are ARVs”. I have helped provide care to more than ten thousand people with HIV- literally. HIV is still a sapping battle even with ARVs and not one to be taken lightly. Don’t be an idiot about this. Hepatitis B is just as bad.

  1. Be disciplined about alcohol:

    Many people take their first alcoholic drink in their twenties. Alcohol is good for easing up and having fun with friends; too much alcohol can drain your pockets, destroy your health and lay asunder your relationships and career. If you come from a long line of alcoholics, it is best to avoid alcohol altogether- the tendency to alcohol addiction runs in families. The call of the first drink is however not any stronger in those who will become alcoholics than in others. And stay away from the ‘second generation’ stuff that makes people go blind.

4. Learn Monogamy:

Monogamy is not an impossible task, but the impediments to responsible monogamous relationships that you will need for the future- if you don’t want to be addicted to philandering ways- are learnt in the twenties. Take control of your sexuality and the raging hormones of the late teens. You didn’t invent sex, and it will be here long after you are gone- pace yourself, young man. The ability to lie through one of your most important life relationships, that with a romantic significant other, is learnt in the 20s. Don’t learn it. Debunk it. Mastery of your sexual instincts will serve you well during the rest of your life.

  1. Be nice to the ladies:

    Maybe you had a fine upbringing. Maybe you are a cad who has been under the influence of misogynistic uncles and tough-talking friends with little respect for women. There is time to set yourself up on a path of sensible relations with the fairer sex. Women have carried the burdens of a patriarchal society for ages- they are only recently seeing some of that even out, not all of it. Without being patronizing, be particularly gracious in your dealings with ladies. Some of the most enriching professional relationships and warmest deepest friendships I have had are with women- many of my go-to people, are women. You lose a full half- some would say more! – Of the amazing potential of human beings to enrich your life if you carry a poor attitude towards women.

  2. Learn etiquette:

    You may have the privilege of a good parentage and already be on your way in the field of good manners. You may not. It is not too late if you don’t already know how to eat with a fork and knife, sort your cutlery, and conduct in polite company. Open doors- for ladies and gentlemen. Pull chairs. Say please, say thank you. Learn to see and acknowledge the ordinary people who serve you- janitors, guards, and wait staff, till attendants. At least smile even if light banter doesn’t come naturally to you. Learn to listen to people and to wait your turn. Queue properly by respecting other people’s personal space. Be orderly. Learn to tie a tie; maybe more than one go-to knot. Dress smartly. Learn to write properly and to address people appropriately. Have a sense of occasion- the kind of SMS language and abbreviations you use with your peers doesn’t come off well for all kinds of communication.

  3. Be generous:

    Generosity is the art of putting others’ needs before your wants. This doesn’t need to be overdone to ridiculous excess but it also can’t be done with showiness and pomp. While we yell at our kids “share!” our people are not that great at adult sharing. Find a cause you are passionate about. Set aside a proportion of your income towards doing good to people who have little chance of returning the favor. Once you form the habit you will find that it gives you perspective even when you go through hard times of your own. Doing good makes the world go round.

  4. Save money:

    Learn to spend less than you earn as quickly as possible. Putting this off because of a low-paying first job and the needs that come with starting off in life may make it more difficult to start it later. Control your expenditures. It can be tempting when you are finally making your own money to spend it on “stuff”. Stuff is fluffy things you don’t need: seven pairs of cheap jeans, ten pairs of ugly “sharp-shooter” shoes, a bike you never ride, and endless clutter. It is better to have a few good quality things than tons of things. Buy a reasonably good durable watch. Pick a good scent and make it your own. Get two pairs of good jeans, two belts, and four pairs of shoes- a pair of dress shoes, a pair of loafers, a casual pair, and a pair of sports shoes. Learn how to pick and how to fit suits- read! – And work your way up from one reasonably good but perfect-fitting one. No one expects you to wear a super 200s woolen suit as a young professional, but we don’t want to see you in a flashily colored polyester number that looks like you wandered off from a science fiction movie set.

  5. Solidify your integrity:

    You may be a nice person but you aren’t really tested in matters of significant consequence until you are an adult. Practice being a person of your word- keep promises, don’t spill secrets you promised to keep for the temporary thrill of telling them, and always be loyal to your friends and family. Be punctual- only always. Becoming a loose talker and a flaky person on whose word no one can rely on, creeps up on you. Become known as the person who always shows up on time. You might just influence others positively. Kenya is in a bad way in terms of integrity and you might feel that people with integrity are missing out and yet I have seen many people get amazing opportunities not because they had outstanding proficiency but because they had a reputation for faultless personal integrity. Don’t let people normalize stealing, bribery, injustice and tribalism to you.

  6. Find a mentor:

    Find someone who epitomizes what you would like to be. Often, mentors are not everything you want to be. They may be the consummate professional and brilliant expert in your field and hopeless social beings. Follow people only to the extent that you need to. This is the year where you are going to start your first job, pick a specialty and perhaps study for your master’s degree. While relying on the experience your mentors, don’t lose yourself. A good mentor should explain to you the reasons behind their opinions so that they are backed up with logic in your own mind before you make them your own. It is often a good idea to triangulate ideas you get from one mentor with another and with your peers. Someone who has mentored others in your field successfully would be the kind of person to look for.

About the author:
James Wariero is a pharmacist, a public health practitioner and a businessman. A married father of two- he is a keen observer of people and likes to write commentaries on contemporary topics of the human condition as well as poetry.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.

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