What to Do With Your Twenties When Your Life Plans Fall Apart
It’s a strange sort of self-reliance, thinking you can out-plan the grief, and heartbreak, and confusion of growing up.
I see a ghost of myself in a blank, black Zoom screen. I’m in the suspended space where you’re waiting for the host to join and wondering if anyone will notice if you do not. With the popping sound that signals my audio has reconnected, my faulty Wi-Fi drops me in the middle of the conversation where it’s my turn to answer the question that’s been tossed out: In five years, where do you want to be?
An existential icebreaker if there ever was one.
But I don’t know how to dream of five years into the future when five years ago, I never imagined being here. If I grabbed a bag full of life events and shook it out, what would tumble out is all the plans I made with myself and then broke—the jobs I said I’d leave and didn’t, the degrees I thought I’d pursue and hadn’t, the lessons I swore I’d learn and somehow kept forgetting.
The ghost of me waits for my answer.
Well, she’s probably thinking, if you’d followed our plan, you wouldn’t be here at all, trying to answer this question. You wouldn’t be left wondering if you’ve run out of plan Bs, if the tank of dreams that once belonged to you has run empty. Somewhere along the line,she’s telling me, you gave up planning for a future and you gave in.
Poor girl; she planned ahead and I ruined it all. She had the plan As that she didn’t know how to wish for aloud: She’d write and teach, she’d have a cat who was wonderfully distracting on deadlines, she’d hang her art on the walls and cook meals with someone she loved in the evenings, she’d never skip a skin-care routine. Then, the slightly more practical plan Bs just in case: a day job and writing in the evenings, waiting to get the cat until life was all figured out—whenever that was. She’d pair greens from plastic labeled “spring mix” with frozen pizzas and wonder where she could steal back precious seconds.
That ghost girl was responsible—she thought ahead. Her plans were practical and purposeful. She’d written enough college applications and cover letters and made enough awkward self-introductions to strangers who were only half-listening to know that people liked lives that unfolded in bullet points. She didn’t believe in herself at all but possessed the reckless enthusiasm of someone who believed she was one overeager “yes” away from changing her life at every turn. That younger version of myself—the good girl, the one who could organize and pivot and riddle her way through anything—was confident that she was one great plan away from everything snapping into place. When plans faltered and failed, she’d spin her life around on its axis and slap down a new plan, building the path as she sprinted down it.
Even now, that’s how I like to think about myself—even if the thinking is wishful. I’m a person who likes to walk narrow lines between knowing nothing ever goes as planned and the earnest belief that if I can plan just enough, life will snap together like puzzle pieces and the picture will be complete.
Having a plan is considered an ultimate gold star of young adulthood.
I’m taunted by the ghost-me staring back at me in the Zoom screen of a meeting I wouldn’t be on if I’d applied for that job, or pitched that one story, or moved into that apartment with the fireplace that didn’t work. I still haven’t figured out how to reconcile that version of me, who believed in plans so much, with me now.
If having a plan is a priceless piece of currency, a privilege of imagining life five years in advance, and a bedrock of the twenties, then maybe what I am sorting through is the flip side.
This is what it’s like to outgrow the plan and yourself along with it.
Having a plan is considered an ultimate gold star of young adulthood, signaling that you’re together, you’re following through, and you have it figured out in the forward-looking way we’re all supposed to. The last time I was asked, specifically, about a five-year plan, it was during a job interview. So much of the common framing of that question is about what you’ll be producing, and in what capacity, by then.
By that point in the process, I didn’t know if I even wanted the job. I talked like I did, because while it wasn’t in the plan, maybe it should’ve been. Like reading from a script, I chatted about the kind of work I’d be doing, my hopes of what that work would create, the kind of team I’d be on. Maybe I thought I could talk myself into wanting it because I was supposed to want it. It was a next step upward, after all. And isn’t that what we learn about planning? It takes us forward? Internally, I thought about how imagining life five days in front of me felt fragile—like betting on something that could fly away.
But in your twenties, plans are displayed most often during the work search—whether it be jobs or degrees or work of another form. They look like résumés with no gaps in employment, cover letters that tell the story of a life governed by an unyielding understanding of one’s self, and digestible sound bites during interviews. But this succinctness gives very little credence to the real-world conditions that often impede a person’s ability to follow such a clear-cut trajectory.
But that spills over out of work too. You get metaphorical bonus points for making life plans and sticking to them, whether it is earning a degree in a certain number of years, getting a promotion on a timetable you hustled for, or even personally, like getting married or adopting a dog or buying a home. Sticking to the plan says something about us—that we’re ambitious enough to have ideas for our lives and follow through. Maybe that’s why talking about five-year plans now feels like I’m lying to myself. Before, my plans were ambitious and curious. And now, I cling to plan Bs like they might be the life raft that floats me to shore alive.
My planning involves looking over my shoulder—the paranoid heroine no one is rooting for in a low-budget thriller, watching and waiting for the inevitable crash. Rather than being forward-looking and imagining the life I could create, my planning became armor to protect whatever I already had. I have a deadline in a few weeks? I’ll start working nowin case my immune system gives out and gets sick so I’ll still meet the deadline. Someone seems upset with me? I’ll try to read their mind and solve all the problems that could potentially make someone frustrated with me before they can point them out.
The car that isn’t mine starts smoking, a symptom I’ve never had before pops up, my mom’s cat stops eating, I don’t know which honorific to use for someone in an email; no worries, I’ve planned for this, and I will handle it myself. It’s a strange sort of self-reliance, thinking you can out-plan grief, and heartbreak, and confusion, and a plain old bad day.
But it’s also what we’re encouraged to do. Capitalism instructs us that the goal is to keep going—not just to be productive for the time we’re in but to constantly be analyzing what our future goals will be. Careers and work are wired for it, but even life feels nailed to it: Why haven’t you done X, Y, or Z yet? Haven’t you thought about that? Isn’t that all a part of your plan?
Compounding crises also make long-term planning feel daunting at best. As we continue to navigate a pandemic that has left the world reeling, the present moment demands plans that stand to be life-defining: Who have I been around at work or in the grocery store? What’s the least amount of hurt I will bring to my neighbors? What steps do I take to protect us?But somehow, we haven’t ceased the aspirational “life plans” either.
Students graduating tell me about their post–high school or post-college plans tinged with apprehension about what will actually unfold. My friends who are parents talk about the pressure they feel to ensure their kindergarteners and elementary schoolers don’t fall “behind.” I meet deadlines for my second book and, when asked about when it will release, couch it in language like “if all goes according to plan” and “depending on what happens between now and then.” What strikes me isn’t just planning for the good stuff, with the excitement of looking forward. It’s the planning in an effort to prove everything is still “on track.”
Still moving forward. Still, somehow, okay.
But sometimes the plan doesn’t move forward; sometimes it isn’t okay.
By coincidence, while traveling for a wedding, I wound up in old neighborhoods where I used to live—places I planned to stay in for the duration, with those versions of myself.
We are all concerned that rerouting is a form of giving up.
I had plans for my life set in both places and, with them, ideas of who I’d be. I picture what those selves would tell me now, just like the Zoom-me wondered what we were still doing there in the darkness of the screen: You mean you let it all fall apart? You didn’t keep choosing this? In some ways, that’s how not following your own plan feels: I took a sledgehammer to my life and thought it would make glitter, and, instead, things broke apart in chunks with ragged edges that formed no clean picture of where I was supposed to go from there.
Because none of the backup plans to my plans caught me like fantasy safety nets. No amount of future planning kept the sting of failure away when I didn’t get the master’s degree I thought I would, or when I hung on to my day job, or when rejections rolled in like steady thumps of thunder. Just because I attempted to out-organize my chronic illness, with lists of symptoms ready to rattle off, that didn’t mean my body didn’t challenge every plan or schedule I made or thwart every doctor I got in touch with. Just because I’d planned out exactly what would happen when I got my heart broken by all the things that didn’t go the way I’d dreamed they would—how long I’d wallow, how I’d recover with a new exercise regime and new comfort recipes and a new haircut—that didn’t mean that my heart wasn’t, in fact, broken.
I began to understand planning in a way I didn’t before. Namely, that hyper-planning is a form of coping with the fact that often, nothinggoes according to plan. Because life doesn’t work like that; because people grow and change. Because I learn; because I mess up. Because sometimes it’s going to be worse than I thought it would be. Because sometimes it’s going to be better than my most ambitious plans.
There is no neat, orderly path to walk that guarantees everything will turn out how I thought it would, which terrifies me. The water sign who savors comfort, the eldest daughter whose identity is steeped in how well she cares for others, the diagnosed obsessive-compulsive thinker who craves order so badly she’ll invent it isn’t well suited for the unknown. But all the failures to follow the plans aren’t rejections of past selves who once believed in those plans with all their might. I can miss the lives, the plans, I thought were mine and know that the fact that they didn’t work out in the end simply means that they aren’t for me anymore.
I know that terror takes different shapes, because some of them fill up my inboxes. The young person whose plan has fallen apart because of illness, money, or being laid off; the twenty-something who is midway through a decade-long plan only to discover it doesn’t feel like them anymore; the dozens of us who worry that changing course means abandoning the version of ourselves that set the course to begin with: We are all concerned that rerouting is a form of giving up. Every derailed plan forces us to face the thing we’ve been coached to avoid with all our effort, all our brain power, and all our—yes—planning, our entire lives.
You don’t know what you’re doing, I think to myself sometimes, feeling the flutter of panic chased immediately by a strange sense of relief. If the whole point of this time of life is to keep growing, then wouldn’t that mean outgrowing too? There is no out-planning the fact that parts of ourselves grow up and surprise even us.
It isn’t the career plans and executions of them that make me feel most whole, though. It’s the minutiae of the day-to-day that seem to bring the most fulfillment to my life. I plan to have a relationship with my neighbors where I bring my excess baked goods to them. I plan to one day have a bookshelf painted blue. I plan to spend lots of my free time laughing and trading cat videos on Instagram. I plan to learn how to play tennis. I plan that at least some of this will change.
Before, I didn’t think of these as plans. Planning, despite my best efforts, isn’t the buzzer-beater that saves the day, the instruction manual for the reassembly of yourself when it all falls apart. If I don’t know what I’m doing next, maybe, instead, I can look to what matters. I can look to a future that’s less tied to what I can produce and the boxes I check and more tied to the kind of world I want to live in. I plan for it to be a little softer, a little more forgiving, a little more tender than the rigidity of aspiration and organization once allowed.
But for now, I’ll be back on the Zoom screen tomorrow, and I’ll know none of this was part of the plan.
Rainesford Stauffer is a freelance writer and Kentuckian. She is the author ofAn Ordinary Age (Harper Perennial, 2021) and All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive (forthcoming from Hachette Books, May 2023).