3 Things I Learned in My 20s

I have always loved turning another year older. Since I was little, I thought people who were older than me were cooler than me. Therefore I thought with every birthday – every age promotion – I was getting a little cooler.

Earlier this month I turned 30. Unlike many of my friends, I couldn’t wait for this birthday.

The anticipation started around the time I turned 28. At that point, I was over my 20s. The decade had been one failure after another, filled with self-doubt, low self-esteem and tons of insecurities. I was ready to leave all that behind and move onto my 30s, where I believed everything would be magically easier.

Michelle Chalkey with a 30th birthday balloon
Balloons never get old 🙂

People had been telling me all these great things about what happens when you turn 30. I’d heard, when you turn 30, you no longer give a f*** about what anybody thinks. You start doing whatever you want.

My favorite one – when you turn 30, you’ll have it all figured out.

And of course, I thought when I turned 30, well, I’ll be that much cooler.

Sure, the hype was huge and I couldn’t wait to get to my 30s, but in all that anticipation I had totally diminished my 20s. I hadn’t stopped to recognize all the good that happened, all the growth that came from the mess.

Mess and failure lead to lessons learned, and there are so many incredible things I learned in those 10 years. I’m capturing them in an essay collection I’m writing, but for now, I want to share three valuable things I learned in my 20s that I hope will help you no matter what age you’re at.

1: Do the things you say you want to do.

Just do them. Whether you’re afraid or have excuses, do the things anyway. In my early 20s, I was a big talker and not so much of a doer. There were a lot of things I said I wanted to do – I wanted to move far away, I wanted to run marathons, I wanted to write books…

…and I didn’t actually believe I could do any of them.

But one by one, I started.

After college, I moved to Orlando without any money or a job. It was perhaps the worst year of my life but looking back, I can also say it was the most transformative. I grew so much in that year, and thank God I did it.

When I came back home to Illinois, I signed up for a half marathon. The training terrified me but I kept doing it, and after slowly trotting across the finished line, I signed up for another half marathon and went on to run 8 more, and then a full marathon. I met some of my best friends in running and learned that I could do anything I wanted if I made a plan and showed up to do the work.

Do the things you say you want to do. Whether you succeed or fail, you win because you were true to your ambition. You never know what good will come from simply showing up and doing it anyway.

2. Eat well for the sake of living well rather than looking good.

At age 20, I had an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. I saw restrictive dieting and working out for hours at a time as a means to being thinner, getting in a good shape. It was impossible to maintain a positive mindset around eating healthy with that kind of pressure.

When I got sick in my mid-20s, my perspective changed. I had stomach aches nearly every day for years, and after all the testing and procedures, the only thing that seemed to help was changing up my diet and managing my stress. I gave up gluten and dairy, restricting foods because of the way they made me feel. I got more into walking and yoga and made sure I was active every day, even if that was only stretching and taking Yoshi for walks. I made sure I was getting enough sleep and making more time for fun and relaxation.

I started looking at eating well and exercising as a necessity in order to feel good, to simply have a good day without stomach aches knocking me down. Along the way, this mindset about using food to get thinner clicked off.

Your habits will catch up with you at some point. I’m glad mine caught me in my 20s so I could change things up early and get on a better track with my health. It’s never too early to start taking care of yourself, and if you’re still here, it’s not too late either.

3. Own your decisions.

Finally, I have to touch on what I’ve learned around the idea of having it all figured out.

In May of this year, about a month before my birthday, I started contemplating my career, as I tend to do every year around my birthday. The decisions only seem to get harder the closer you get to 30.

I really didn’t know what to do. I’m grateful to have quite a few ways I can take my career and different opportunities available. As I whined about all this to Kyle, I sighed and said, “I just thought on my 30th birthday I’d be standing at the top of Mount Humphrey’s, all confident and able to say that I have it all figured out. That I know my next step to take. I know what direction to go.”


Kyle laughed at me. He said, “Michelle, you’re never going to have it all figured out. No matter what age you are or where you’re at in your career, you’ll never have it figured out. But you do have to make a decision. And whatever choice you make, just own it.”

My husband, everyone.

And he’s only 28! He’s not even cool yet! And here he is spitting out facts of life.

But he was right. I can’t possibly know what choice today will have the biggest payoff five or 10 years from now. But I can trust myself enough to know what’s best for me now, to make the best decision I can with the knowledge and experience I have now.

Lessons Are a Work in Progress

I’ve had to learn these lessons over and over the last 10 years, and I imagine I’ll keep re-learning them in my 30s. They’re a work in progress.

At any age, I think it’s important to stop and ask ourselves what haven’t I done yet that I’ve always said I wanted to do? Learn sign language? Take a pole-dancing class? Visit North Carolina? (Sneak peek at my bucket list 😉 ) What small step can I take today toward making that thing happen?

What area of my health is lacking? Make it a priority to take care of yourself.

And finally, whatever age you are, I assume you don’t have it figured out either. If you do, please, comment here. I’d LOVE to hear more.

But if not, I hope you can at least own where you’re at. Own your age and the choices you make.

I plan to own the heck out of my 30s!

And, hopefully, every decision I make from here on out.

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