During my twenties I played in beach volleyball tournaments with Olympic contenders all the time. You’d think this would mean that I love watching beach volleyball in the Olympics. But actually, watching makes me sad.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles, determined to play on the professional beach volleyball tour. People thought I had completely lost my mind. I gave up an invitation to study history in Yale’s graduate program. I gave up a job offer in New York City publishing. I gave up living in Chicago, where my whole family was.

Here’s what my day was like: I woke up at 7am and I walked to a bagel store. I ate four bagels because I had no money for food and I had to eat cheap calories that would hold me over until the end of  the day.

I rode my bike seven miles to the beach. I played volleyball for six hours. Then I rode back seven miles, showered and went to work in a bookstore for four hours. After work, I went to the gym for two hours. I did a twenty-minute aerobic warmup and then I lifted weights and then I meditated for twenty minutes where I visualized doing the drills I would do the next day on the beach.

I walked home after the gym and I read for two hours. Then I went to bed.

It was the same every single day. For three years. You’d think that other parts of life would get in the way, but here’s an interesting thing about having no money: there is no room for error. I planned every day so I had exactly enough money to eat, sleep and play volleyball. There was nothing else.

I made it to the tour. I was an internationally ranked player. But I thought I was just getting my butt kicked. I told myself my efforts were useless because I’d never be in the top five. I didn’t ever say, “Holy cow, I’m in the top 25.”

I thought I was a complete loser and I would never pull things together and I was mostly hiding from people so they didn’t see how messed up I was. I didn’t earn very much money, I didn’t do things that I thought a normal woman in her 20s would do. I was completely focused on beach volleyball.

Then, later, when I realized that I had actually been doing a good job of managing my life, I realized that most people in their 20s are worried, at one point or another, that they are messing up their lives. Especially people who take alternative paths. Yet, it’s the alternative paths that give people the most control over their lives as they get older.

I had a job in a bookstore because it’s the only job I could get that didn’t interfere with volleyball. But in fact, a job in a bookstore is great for someone with Aspergers. I catalogued all the books in my head. People left me alone to sort and shelve books. I read them as I went through the alphabet. In between the m‘s and n‘s was a special spot at the bottom where I put books I wanted to read that week.

The conversations I had with people were very limited in scope. I made change for a twenty. I made a joke to someone looking for Shakespeare in fiction. I made a recommendation to someone for a book that’s like The Rachel Papers (if you’re wondering: try Portnoy’s Complaint). I thought the job at the bookstore was a major disappointment for me and everyone who ever tried to help me pull myself together for adulthood. But in fact, the bookstore was a great place for me. I loved that job.

And I loved the repetition of training for beach volleyball. I did 200 jump serves every day. People wondered how I learned to set so well in just a year. It’s because I practiced, by myself, with fifteen balls, for hours each day. I had never worked so hard at anything in my life. But I didn’t see it that way—that I was completely focused and determined and hard working. I saw myself as lost.

But really, now I see that the hard work gave me confidence that I could accomplish whatever I want by working very hard to get it. Volleyball also taught me that if I want something difficult, there is no way to get it without being completely committed. I didn’t half-ass anything in my adult life because I saw women do it playing volleyball and I saw it made everything a waste of time.

Now I see that I spent my early twenties doing amazing stuff that was perfect for me. I read whatever I wanted to because there was no one telling me to stick to a syllabus. I made my own reading plans: metafiction, magical realism, minimalism. I was in love with what I was learning at night. I was in love with what I was learning in the day.

I did not have friends. I did not have money. I did not have the things I expected to have. But all that would have been fine if I had only had self-confidence.

I made great choices for myself after college. I read. I played sports. I spent time alone. This is all stuff I had been dying to do that I couldn’t do in school. I learned about what I wanted in my life by letting myself choose anything in life. It turns out that I chose great things for myself.

As an adult, I really appreciate the time I took to find out what is right for me. I don’t have that life anymore. I have kids now. And I have to earn money. And I had to scream at them six times just to get mental space to get this post written.

In the end, I left volleyball to write full time. Volleyball got boring. I am not a play-eight-hours-a-day kind of girl. Those women in the Olympics, they can play and play and play.  When I watch those women I admire how determined they are. To them, winning is everything, and they never let up. I was not like that.

But that’s not what upsets me. What upsets me is that I was not fine with who I was. I was a woman who worked really hard at volleyball and went home to read. I was a woman who needed space and time alone and loved routine. I was a woman getting to know myself. I wish I had felt strong and proud while I was doing that.

“What should I be doing now?” is a question I get a lot from people in their 20s. The answer is that you should be respecting yourself as you learn about yourself. You should give yourself the space to do anything and then look closely to see what you enjoy. You do not need to get paid for what you enjoy, but you need to find a way to commit to what you enjoy, and then use that as a foundation to grow your adult life.

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  1. Helen W
    Helen W says:

    I have learned alot of lessons after stepping off the lucrative corporate path everyone expected me to follow for the rest of my career, and it has changed my parenting of my teenager. All my son cares about is music, his band, songwriting, etc, and has decided to pursue a music degree after highschool, with a realistic view to a career whereby he will have gigs here and there, and teach. He is remarkably focused and plays his guitar almost constantly, and is learning other instruments, plus theory. Had I not learned lessons myself by running my own small business, I would have freaked out about him not becoming a professional with a traditional job, and having to rely on his parents just to make ends meet as a starving musician. Although honestly, this still worries me a bit, I am very encouraging of his pursuing his passion for music and remind him that money and things will not make him happy. He just needs to be self sufficient and all this entails is little more than being able to pay for a roof over his head, and food on the table. When I tell people this, they think I’m crazy, particularly my parents who are in their eighties and have been taught that a steady job is like nirvana.

  2. Rebecca | MidcenturyModernRemodel
    Rebecca | MidcenturyModernRemodel says:

    Penelope… I read this post and then immediately printed it and gave it to my 13-year-old son to read. He liked the volleyball part I think. But what I liked is the part about being okay with your journey, and not beating yourself up about it. I have nit picked some of my choices in the moment, especially when working for companies that were obviously poor choices, but hind sight 20/20…those choices involved very good lessons and helped me move forward. That was what I wanted him to get out of your post.

  3. Ebriel
    Ebriel says:

    Your post brought me back to my early 20s: young, hungry, absolutely dedicated to my goals (getting a painting degree – though with little vision of what to do afterwards besides a desire for travel) and driven and fearless. I smoked cigarettes because they felt good and kept food expenses down. Had nothing left over for beer or dining out, and was proud of it. Righteous.

    Still am righteous and insufferable. More dedicated than ever, yet now much more aware of career options and how my choices – geographical and otherwise – have impacted my current options for income. Not always in a positive way. However I would do (mostly) the same things again, no question.

  4. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    Thank You.

    I am a 29 year old woman. The last decade has been many things. Hard, busy, crazy. I’ve had over 20 jobs, dropped out of 4 universities, moved house 9 times and been in hospital for a collective 5 months.

    I’ve also done some really cool stuff and had amazing experiences and made great friends.

    Most of the time, I have felt like a failure.

    Thank You for reminding me that I’m not. I’m learning, and I’m awesome. I have made the right choices.

  5. chris
    chris says:

    I cannot help but think of the song sung by Judy Collins back in the day . . . 60s or 70s: Bring on the Clowns.

    In that song there is a line about losing your timing so late in your career.

    Penelope’s advice, then, must apply as well to people who are older, who have perhaps lost their timing at a time when they thought they would be coasting . . .

  6. Alan
    Alan says:

    You would think that after decades of looking at “self-improvement” material I would have seen everything by now, but

    “I didn’t half-ass anything in my adult life because I saw women do it playing volleyball and I saw it made everything a waste of time.”

    belongs in the Bible. That’s something that if the dumb grownups could have told me, I might have been a little more successful. That’s something that should, in some form, be in the rulebook for raising children.

  7. Kitchen Remodeling
    Kitchen Remodeling says:

    Great post Penelope! Between the age of 18 – 25 you’re probably going to be having the most fun of your life. Those years of searching for myself, was the greatest time of my life.

    During that time I did what I wanted to, but similar to you I trained my body for what I needed to do in order to survive.

  8. Eric
    Eric says:

    It’s been a long while since I’ve read your blog. Penelope, this is as if this post was written for me. While my situation right now is slightly different, this entry is something I’m going to keep so that any time I’m doubting myself, I can refer back and know everything will be alright. So, a big thank you from me, and of course I’ll be back to read your blog more often now.

  9. David
    David says:

    I’ve been reading your Blog for about 3 to 4 years now; and while I know your advice is usually targeted toward the younger crowd, I’ve always found advice, humor, and solace for myself – someone over 45 years of age. Of course this begs the question, “how do you translate “finding yourself” for the over 45 group?

    How do you cut through all the clutter and noise going on in life to listen to what is fundamentally important? How do you start over, and yet still move ahead?

  10. Seve
    Seve says:

    That kind of singular focus is often what it takes to excell at the highest levels. That icludes not only sports, but often other things as well

    Sports is unlike other pursuits, because it is both mental and intensely physical. Because there are two sides to the phsical; sport specific, and general physical conditioning, training for a particular sport in very time intensive……. but you know that.

    Ultimately, sports success comes down to two things: comittment and raw talent / athletic ability. An excess of one can often overcome a deartth of the other, but only to a point.

    At least you maintained your commitment for 3 years, and did manage to advance your athletic career. Most people can not say that.

  11. Sydney Owen
    Sydney Owen says:

    It should come as no surprise to you that this article was EXACTLY what I needed. I’m in the hot pursuit of putting together an excellent skydiving team to compete at the USPA Nationals next year. All I can do is eat, breathe, sleep, and live skydiving. When I’m not jumping out of planes, I’m watching videos of world class teams and visualizing success – or, planning the best events for the best drop zone in the country to pay for my training. It is my life.

    Recently, with student loan people starting to get annoyed with me, I questioned whether or not this is all worth it. And I knew that it was. And reading your post about how you felt about volleyball and how well it served you (excuse the pun), is exactly what the doctor ordered.

    Thank you for sharing. This was timely. And needed. And of course, continues to blow me away with how similar my path is to the one you took, albeit several years behind yours. And you know, not professional volleyball. But yeah. Totally close.

    Hope you’re well, P.
    -Sydney

  12. Desiree Porcaro
    Desiree Porcaro says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I also think this applies to just about anyone, in every stage of life. We all have those moments of self-doubt, when really we should be proud of everything that we have accomplished up to this point. Sure, we all make mistakes, but isn’t that part of the learning process? Nobody is perfect, and we should always be confident in our own abilities.

  13. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    This is wonderful, Penelope.

    It’s taken me years to develop self confidence to do what I want to do. Actually, I still work on it on almost a daily basis. Some people seem to just be born with it, in spite of their circumstances. I’ve seen it.

    I can recollect being shamed, criticized, and not being supported in my own individuality–and it just crushed me. Anyway, I don’t mean to sound whiny. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am now. Being naturally self reflective, I think has helped too.

    Posts like these can mean all the difference to someone out there who is building self confidence.

    Yes, trust yourself.

  14. Minnie
    Minnie says:

    Your story is truly an inspiring one. I wish I had been as brave as you are when it comes to making your choices about how you are going to live your life. Even if I made the mistake of letting other people help rule my life, your story is really helpful in putting me into action as to what I should do to make things riight. I will surely enjoy my 20s.

  15. TJ
    TJ says:

    Here’s a twenty saying “thank you” for a dose of optimism, which I sometimes need at 3 in the morning.

  16. Dan Feld
    Dan Feld says:

    I myself have been a longtime sufferer of the question “what should I be doing now?” and at one point became an insomniac because of the anxiety it caused me.

    I think stories like Penelope’s help relate what it’s like to figure out what want to do and I’ve created a podcast featuring stories of people who are taking risks and pursuing their passions. It’s called Prologue Profiles (http://prologueprofiles.com). I hope you find it helpful!

    Dan

  17. Alex
    Alex says:

    Hello. I think taht yopur are quite an inspiring woman to girls in their 20’s. I am also in that age [period at the time and also have a difficult time, espetially when we dont have money. Yet your story gives me hope and a good outlook on my fututre. However I don’t think that I’ve ruined my lifes path, but I just don’t know how to start it.

  18. Rachel D
    Rachel D says:

    …and then I come back and read this post again, because in a lot of ways, this is how I feel. I’m pleased and happy with my life, but I’m still working on the self-confidence to own it. Maybe once I’m confident enough I’ll be able to think of a new, more appropriate path for myself, but I’m way past 20… Life’s kind of a bitch. You work hard to get your shit together. You finally do, then you’re uncertain and still feel something is not quite right. Blah! Oh well… I should just be grateful, maybe.

  19. sam
    sam says:

    I’ve been actively searching out posts on this topic of being a lost 20 something, primarily because I am one. I just turned 24 and will graduate in a few months time and as a result of graduation fast approaching my brain seems to have gone into overdrive. I have recently found myself dwelling on questions such as; Am I still young or am I supposed to be a full adult now? I have so many ambitions, which path do i take? Am I supposed to settle now, meaning i’m too old to do the whole travel thing? I recently had a girlfriend of 18 is this too young for me now? Where do i want to live?…..I know these must seem crazy and somewhat weird questions to dwell on, and they will not leave my mind, I seem to be getting overwhelmed by a sense of the unknown but yet drawn to it at the same time.I can positively say I am more lost and confused about myself now than i was at any point during my teens, and i don’t feel as if they were long ago either! Anyway I have decided to travel through Europe from the UK this Christmas and study for a masters in the Netherlands starting next august, and teach English in China for a year after that, hoping i’ll meet new people, discover truly who I am and what I want from life…..and to be honest I really hope I do, as I do feel very lost right now!

  20. Laura F
    Laura F says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Thank you immensely for this post. I was googling “I have spent my 20’s applying for jobs”, and expected to find a string of similar, mostly depressing, accounts. I’ve been a freelance writer for 5 years, a position I was introduced to by a friend who thought I had talent. None of my previous training before 23 had prepared me for this life (I had wanted to be an artist/ European historian, so still, the path less chosen).
    I’ve spent the last five years wondering why no one was stepping up to mentor me, why I’ve spent at least 15 hours a week for the past five years applying for solid editorial work only to be offered (enthusiastically) more freelance work. I’ve been wishing for a miracle, a sign that this is really the right thing for me– i’ve been wishing for outside guidance, or a “big break”, when perhaps I really should have been focusing on trusting my own intuition. Now at 28, I’m at a crossroads where I wonder if I should leave NYC for somewhere less competitive, and yet again–if anyone will answer any of my hundreds of sent resumes. But your piece made me realize that there are things about this time I can look back on and been proud of: though I wasn’t paid, I’ve gotten to travel internationally to create amazing stories, interviewed some of the most interesting people in highly creative fields, and built within myself a sense that I am not dependent on a job someone else has provided for me– I am my own unique job resource center. So thank you again for providing this, I hope other people are as lucky as I was to stumble upon it.

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