“Eventually I realized that success is not about big hits. It’s actually in the opportunity to improve." — Paul Ford
If you’re like most young adults, under your happy exterior you often struggle with feeling like you’re on a never-ending race against yourself, your expectations, and your peers. You’re worried about when you’ll get married, or when you’ll get a better job, or when your life will finally feel together, all of which causes you to push harder and harder, trying to achieve your goals faster than ever.
If you struggle with this kind of thinking, it’s because you’ve adopted what I call the capstone mindset to your twenties. This mindset sees your twenties as the culmination of your childhood, high school, and college years, which forces you to try to prove to everyone that you’re a success. This need to achieve in your twenties to show that you’re a somebody is what creates so much of the anxiety, tension, and pressure that young people struggle with today.
But there’s an alternative to seeing your twenties through the capstone mindset, what I call the foundation mindset. This approach treats your twenties not as a final exam for your growing up years, but rather as a time to build a strong foundation for your adult life. While this distinction sounds subtle, each approach creates a drastically different environment for this key decade in your life.
the capstone approach
When you take a capstone approach to your twenties, you look at this decade as the final piece of your childhood, a time when all of your hard work should come together into real achievement. Long ago, every stone building had a capstone, the final piece that held everything together and show that the building was finished. For most young people that think this way, the goals of your twenties are to achieve the following:
Get a high-status job and start to climb up the corporate ladder.
Make good money and live a comfortable and fun lifestyle with other similar people.
Get married, buy a home, and then have children.
These goals become the benchmarks against which you measure your twenties, and if you can complete them all by the time you’re thirty, then you’ll have finished your life and shown yourself, your peers, and your parents that you’ve arrived. You’ve justified all of the hard work you’ve put into your life so far, and can now rest easy, knowing that you’ve made it.
This mindset causes young people to approach their twenties like a final exam, a decade-long test to show whether their lives are a success or failure. If you reach these goals, then you get an A, but if you don’t, you get an F that will stay with you the rest of your life. And since your twenties go by quickly, the key value in the capstone approach is speed, so you spend these years striving, willing to work hard, play longer, and spend money you don’t have all to prove you’re a somebody.
the problems with the capstone mindset
I lived my twenties in this capstone mindset, feeling both internal and external pressure to do more and achieve it faster. And while the things I was pursuing weren’t inherently bad, my mindset twisted these desires into unhealthy things, so I was basing my self-worth off of how far along I felt. I was scared that if I didn’t achieve fast enough, I would be a failure. This mindset created three major problems in my life:
1. The need to constantly compare: I spent my twenties constantly comparing myself to both my peers and my own expectations, checking to see if I was ahead or behind where I “should” be. All around me my peers seemed to be ahead: some had better careers, others had more money, whiles others were married with children.
This caused me to spend my twenties anxious about my level of achievement, always struggling to feel like I was falling behind. And like I wrote about in "You Can't Have It All," no matter how much effort I gave I could never catch up to all of the different people I felt behind.
2. Preoccupied with the external: the capstone mindset caused me to put too much focus on the external appearance of success at the cost of internal growth, since I had to prove I was somebody special. This focus on the external caused me to spend time trying to appear successful, rather than building the character, self-discipline, and growth that will actually lead to true success.
Capstone young people learn to perform and fake “success,” all to appear that they’ve made it. When I was advancing in my career, status, and relationships I was happy, yet if I ever felt stuck I became scared. So in your external life you work to appear effortlessly happy, excited, and accomplished, but in your inner life, you struggle with emptiness, dissatisfaction, and feeling disconnected.
3. Take shortcuts to “success”: Because of this pressure to show you’re successful, young people take shortcuts to act like they’ve made it. Instead of taking time to explore who they are and what they’ve been created to do, many blindly follow society’s script towards whatever’s considered successful in their circles, which almost always involves more money and status.
In this mindset, young people choose a blueprint for their lives that’s safe, relatively easy, and can be accomplished quickly, all so that they can be successful as soon as possible.. They gravitate towards prestigious career paths with either large salaries or enviable lifestyles, eschewing anything that will require years of training, a long-term commitment, or lifelong obscurity. The goal is to be successful, rich, or famous, all by the time you’re 30.
The capstone mindset, and it’s desire to prove yourself, is what creates the current high-stress, pressure-filled race that is your twenties. I followed this mindset for most of my twenties, always putting more pressure on myself achieve faster and faster. Eventually, though, I realized that there was a healthier way to approach my twenties.
a different approach to your twenties
The foundation mindset to your twenties completely flips the script on the capstone mindset, saying that your twenties are not the culmination of your life, but rather a time to lay the groundwork for the rest of your life. The goal for your twenties changes from trying to prove your a somebody, to taking the time to build a strong foundation that can support the coming years of your adult life.
The foundation mindset rejects the idea that the goal of your twenties is to sprint to achieve as much as possible, and instead encourages you to view your twenties as a time to prepare for the marathon of life. The foundation mindset exchanges short-term thinking for long term thinking, replacing speed with patience. Patience is what will allow you to do the daily work of building a foundation for a healthy, stable, and truly successful life. These are the four major ways the foundation mindset differs from the capstone mindset.
1. You can find the right blueprint for your life: Rather than blindly following society’s “get status and money” script for your twenties, you can patiently figure out which life blueprint best fits you, and then take the time to get equipped with the skills, tools, and resources that you’ll need as you build your adult life. By knowing what blueprint you’d like to follow with your life, you can use your twenties to get the right degrees, experiences, and mentors need for the journey ahead.
2. Build your life on bedrock: Since every young person’s life starts as a swamp, full of bad habits, character flaws, and mistaken perspectives, the foundation approach says that you need to spend your twenties more concerned about getting down to bedrock by developing good character, self-discipline, and a knowledge of ultimate truth, than building tall achievements. While internal growth isn’t as flashy as external achievement, if you don’t build on bedrock values, your life will collapse when difficult times come.
3. Be willing to start small: Because so many young people in the capstone mindset expect their twenties to be full of their lives’ crowning achievements, they grow disillusioned when they don’t experience success quickly or easily. The key to building a meaningful life is patience and perseverance, and if you are willing to start small and get a little better every day, you can accomplish so much over a lifetime . Many young people refuse to do something unless it happens quickly, and so they cut themselves off from the power of incremental growth.
If you follow the foundation approach to your twenties, there will still be times that you feel behind your expectations and your peers. But when you use your twenties to build a healthy foundation for your life, you will be preparing yourself to continue growing for many years to come. Rather than peaking in your twenties, you will be equipped to grow to new heights for the rest of your life.
why everyone follows the capstone approach
Most young people, however, struggle to treat their twenties as the foundation for their adult life, and instead return again and again to the capstone approach, trying to rush their way to success as soon as possible. While everyone is different, this usually happens for three major reasons.
1. Self-doubt: because of self-doubt, most young people spend their twenties feeling like they need to prove their worth, both to themselves and others. And so you take good life goals and force them to happen, all because you’re afraid you’re failure if you haven’t reached them all by the time you’re thirty. This causes young people to make rushed decisions, doing something not because it’s a good fit, but just to justify their existence.
2. Fear of the unknown: it’s easy to rush into a decision (job, marriage, grad school, career path, where to live) not because you know what decision you should make, but rather because you are tired of living with the unknown. It’s not wrong to achieve or advance during your twenties, but you should do these things when they are the right decision. Many young people force bad decisions to happen, all so they can keep up with all of their peers on the “my life is perfect” circuit.
3. The lure of consumerism: in our consumerist culture, lots of young people care about getting a certain lifestyle of experiences and possessions more than building a meaningful life. Because of this, they spend their twenties chasing money and status, always needing more of it to satiate their growing financial appetite. This causes them to spend their adult years stuck jobs and lives they don’t like, all to so they can keep their head above water on all of their monthly payments.
The foundation approach, at its heart, is about being patient to gain the skills, wisdom, and internal strength to be ready to grow throughout your adult life, rather rushing to get the right external achievement, status, and appearance. If you feel behind in your life and discouraged at how your twenties are going, let go of your self-imposed deadlines and remember that your twenties aren’t a final exam, but rather a time to build a strong foundation for the long journey of your adult years.