You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.  

Maya Angelou (American poet 1928 – 2014)

I was 25. The extraordinary music of Maya Angelou’s words filled the air, my ears, my heart at my Simmons College graduate degree Commencement ceremony many Mays ago. Her words were reassuring, bold and rich.  

I’ve never forgotten the 20s. I never will. I am nostalgic for the freedom and delicious fun of those years, but delving a layer just beneath nostalgia, and being truthful, the twenties were really, really hard.  Sometimes it felt like a race to achieve order out of the sometimes beautiful chaos of the 20’s. Towards that list of: a career, marriage, car, house. Achieve. Reach. For those not quite there, feeling late or behind was common. And still is.

The twenties present crossroads in life of all that lies ahead — personally, professionally, financially, geographically, spiritually. But when what lies ahead is an open frontier, not a marker in sight, the questions mount. What do I do next? Where do I place my dot on the planet? And how do I get there? Sleepless nights. Worried days.  

Recently, I received a text message from a former student, which included a photo of a note I’d written to him six years ago, when I was his college academic advisor. He wrote: Lisa, I hope you’re well! Just came across this and it made my night! The note read: “Everything ahead of you is only possible because you were courageous enough to experience and grow in all that is now behind you.” 

Perhaps he was cleaning out an old desk, preparing to make a move, heading to somewhere new, moving on. In the quiet moment of finding my note amidst papers and books stuffed in a box from college, hopefully he looked in the rearview mirror with clarity and acceptance in thinking of those pivotal college years.

I’ve witnessed twenty-somethings gut rattled with the intensity of a life untethered and interrupted. Hasty first job acceptances. Jobs paused. Derailing breakups. Relocations. Financial disarray. Isolation. Missing old friends. Worries on where and how to make new ones. I recall their sadness. Their defeated voices. The fear in their eyes. And the tears.  Certain, they were, that all was lost.

My office was, and is, a safe place for reflection. A place to realign the blueprint. And a place to come to terms with a loss. What joy it now brings me to hear from these 20-somethings, some now in their 30’s, via text, phone, email and posts. Months and years later.  Reaching out to say: I am good. I found my way. And thank you. 

A few weeks ago, a graduate student asked me to participate in an interview for a psychology class. For this assignment, the interviewee had to be someone at or near 60 who could share their reflections on the meaning of the word wisdom. Hmm!? At or near. Well, I agreed since I’m near, but not quite there. 

In your view, what is wisdom and how do people acquire it?

Wisdom is an acceptance of circumstances. Wisdom is feeling sure in your approach to matters. Wisdom allows for a sense of peace and balance. Wisdom arrives by the passage of time and with each experience we have. Wisdom cannot be purchased or borrowed. Wisdom is in your heart carefully stored there when you are born, and takes a lifetime to chisel and cultivate to its awakening. Everything you need is there. Your compass. Your lantern. Your hopes. Wisdom can be heard with a close listen, even before the later years in your life. 

What words of wisdom or advice would you give to someone in their twenties?

  • Start your day in silence. And breathe. Big breath in. Then out. Bow your head. Kneel down. Hold your arms out. Whatever and wherever it is that you can offer the simplest measure of gratitude. And to ask for strength and courage. To just be. 
  • Our most meaningful learning takes place outside of the winner’s circle. Everything before the W, and everything after, that’s where the learning takes place. We learn when the stakes are the highest and maybe even when our spirits are the lowest. We scratch our way back from worry, frustration, isolation, sadness, heartbreak. Despite feeling there’s no way we can, we do. 
  • Build a tribe, a community. We need people. Even when they frustrate us, disappoint us or challenge us. We need to rely on and be relied upon. Sometimes that means starting from scratch in a new town or city. Maybe in a new job. Push yourself to connect with people. On the elevator, at the deli, at the T stop. Lines in.
  • Pay attention to your health. Physical health. Mental health.  When something is off or hurts for too long or feels broken, find a specialist to help you. Tend to your symptoms and do not be afraid.  Create a personal mental health and wellness support system from head to toe. The body hosts a life inside of it.  Tend to the vessel.  
  • Someday the unknowing, the sadness and frustration of why something or someone did not work out, will make sense.  But it won’t make sense, until it makes sense.  And sometimes there is a wide gap of time between these two periods before the day arrives and you declare…yes, now I understand why. 
  • Reconnect with your classmates from your original, early zip code. The people from the K – 12 years. Maybe there is more of a connection now that you told yourself never existed. Maybe you are at a crossroad in life that is equivalent to theirs.  Dialing way back sometimes moves us way forward.
  • Know this meaning of the word grace, the one that translates to forgiveness. Understand the depth of grace and how it may positively impact you. Grace, at its highest level, is the ability to offer pardon to a person, who you actually believe does not even deserve your forgiveness because they hurt you or disappointed you. Carrying the baggage of those disappointments and hurts throughout life is hauling anchors and boulders. We are not free. The weight gets heavier as the years go on. Only through grace do we feel lighter and make room for what lies ahead.
  • Time spent alone can be mined and cultivated towards a shift in geographic place, relationship status, career plans, academic plans, leaving this, or adding that. An inventory. A personal audit. 
  • Remember, airbrush exists electronically. Never presume that those posted photos represent absolute happiness, peace and success. Sure many friends are happy and deservedly so. Join in their happiness even if they seem a bit ahead of you on the journey. Don’t compare.  Only when you sit with or talk to a friend, can you really learn if they’re on solid ground or thin ice. Maybe you learn that things aren’t how they appeared in a photo. And maybe then you’re able to offer a hand and your story.
  • Be brave even if the blueprint is vague. Every big move forward will require an incredible leap of faith, with no guidebook or manual. Trust will propel you forward. 
  • Align yourself with an elder.  Of their years lived, they can offer answers and remedies and a way to help you understand the world around you.  Sit on a porch or park bench with someone in their 80s or 90s. Ask questions and seek answers.  You’ll receive reassurance in recognizing that our elders were 20-somethings once, too. And they had loves and losses and challenges, once upon their time. And are here now to tell their story to you. As you will someday tell yours.

Let’s embrace our unique and spirited 20-somethings, rather than throwing them all into a giant brewing pot labeled selfish, entitled and tech addicted. There is so much of this amazing group to learn from, create with and love. Blended generations are a treasure, at home, in the workplace and in our communities.  Surely, the blend can be clunky, eye-rolling silly at times, with gaps in language and styles, expectations and goals. But at the very heart is the potential for a highly respectful and life-changing collaboration – even a forever bond spanning generations. 

This writing is dedicated to all of the 20-somethings I have met and known at shared crossroads on our journeys. You all know who you are, as I always will. Wishing you continued courage, peace and balance as you traverse life towards that park bench when someday you will tell your story to a 20-something in need of what you can give from the wisdom in your heart.

photo credit: Alamy- copyright 2020




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