06/22/2015 03:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The One Thing You Should Have Figured Out By the Time You Turn 26

Madeline Wahl

Growing up, I didn't really understand what it meant to take the road less traveled, to wander off the beaten path, to explore life and to live with wonder.

I thought you were supposed to get the grades, pursue the extracurricular activities, get accepted to your college of choice, land a great job and make a suitable amount of money in a respectable field during the appropriate time frame. Or, if you want to pursue a master's or doctorate, you do that and then land a great job.

That was the foundation and all of the puzzle pieces were supposed to fit neatly together.

The latter didn't happen and the foundation crumbled.

I felt like I was unraveling.

I was unsure of why I pursued my particular college major and even more unsure of myself. My parents divorced during my senior year. I didn't have a job when I graduated college to help define my transition to the next stage of my life. I was losing touch with my friends who were already moving on with theirs.

I felt like I was locked in a room and there was no escape. The feeling of hopelessness creeped in, and then regret and "what ifs" permeated my thoughts until I decided enough was enough.

Eventually, things fell into place. I accepted a job offer. I moved to New York City. I met a ton of amazing, inspirational people. I emerged out of the shell of the person I had become and I slowly began to value myself as a person again. I mattered, even if I had nothing figured out.

Instead of being trapped in a room, I was now able to roam free.

But everything comes in moderation, and everything came to a sudden halt in the fall of 2014 when my grandmother passed away. For the first time in my life, I really questioned what the purpose of everything was. Was there really a hidden meaning in everything that you did, a hidden nugget of wisdom in every person that you talked to, a dose of inspiration in every book or passage that you read? Was there a buried diamond that we had to find, but the only way to get to it was to sift through all the shit of everyday life?


My grandmother, my sister, my aunt (taking the picture) and I getting our nails done for my sister's wedding.

I used to be so concerned about money, so concerned about what other people thought of me, so trapped in who I was that I didn't bother to look around me.

I would do anything to be able to talk to my grandmother again.

I began to wonder exactly where everything had happened by chance -- or for a reason -- in my life.

It sounds cliché because it is cliché, but I really think everyone is here for a purpose, one reason or another. Every significant other you've ever been with, ever failed test grade, every frustrating moment -- it all means something (even if we don't know what the reason is, at the time).

After living in New York City for a few years, you begin to realize that there are no accidents. Reconnecting with people after running into them on the subway, finding out you're neighbors with a coworker, meeting friends of friends of your friends at random parties -- it all seems normal after a while.

You're supposed to be not only living your life and building a strong network of people around you but also a strong string of memories you'll look back fondly on years down the line. Those times don't have to include being best-selling author, a famous celebrity or an Olympic medalist. The times just being with your friends and family hold more meaning than a wad of cash and "being someone."

Various celebrities and politicians from all walks of life have "made it" well after their 20s, 30s and even 50s. You shouldn't think that your life is meaningless because you haven't been featured on an arbitrary "30 Under 30" list.

Overall, the one thing you should have figured out by the time you're 26 is that this is your life and you don't need to have everything figured out.

You should realize that you don't have to compete with anyone. You don't have to compare yourself to anyone. You don't even need to compete with past versions of yourself.

You should be happy with who you are, and if there is anything you want to change, then you should be the one to do it, and not be forced to do so by anyone else.

This is your life and while your friends and family and acquaintances and that guy at the bodega might mean well, you should weigh all of your options carefully. But, most importantly, the decision of how to live your life should ultimately come from you.