I TURNED 26 in March, and after an incredibly busy year both personally and professionally, this birthday has woken me up from the state of autopilot I’ve been in.

For the first time in a while, I’m fully behind the wheel of my own life.

You spend your youth yearning for the twenties that you so often hear are the “best times of your life”. You can’t wait to be twenty-something and thriving.

My younger self absolutely was sure that at 26, I would be a degree-educated, homeowner, with a thriving career, a husband and the first of two babies crawling around.

It makes me snort with laughter when I think back on the naivety – but also, despite those aspirations being deeply misguided and influenced by outside factors so much that they didn’t represent a single fibre of my true being – it still, in some way, makes me feel like a failure that I didn’t achieve them.

The truth is, my twenties have been filled with uncertainty. I have spent the last six years grappling incessantly with the weight of a thousand expectations. Feeling like a failure for not achieving things that I have no real ambition to achieve.

And what I’ve come to find as my twenties progress, is that this experience is vastly shared.

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In a modern society, we are all at such varying stages of our lives as young adults – and that can be a very overwhelming and sad experience.

We don’t talk enough about how challenging this decade really is. The bridge between being a teenager and being a full-fledged, independent adult is rickety. You never know when it’s going to sway violently from side to side – or worse yet, collapse entirely from beneath you, plunging you into freezing waters.

Probably in some aspects down to autistic survival instinct – learned from years of trying to navigate life as an outsider – I tend to dissociate from my life quite a lot.

Whether good times or bad, I often look at my life as if I’m watching it rather than experiencing it myself and I struggle to really “live in the moment” – whatever that even means.

For example, people ask me a lot what it was like to film Make Me Prime Minister. The answer is that I’m actually not very sure.

I watch the show now and almost can’t believe it’s me that I’m looking at on the screen. I don’t feel like I was there, and don’t think I ever really gave myself the space or self-compassion to really digest that experience. An experience that was undoubtedly once in a lifetime.

The National: The six-part series showed in September 2022The six-part series showed in September 2022 (Image: Channel 4)

I rushed so much into harnessing the opportunity that it brought that I forgot to just enjoy it. I forgot to reflect properly on the relationships I formed and the achievements that I’d left with because I was so focused on how it would lead me to the “real” success of things like buying my own house. How terribly boring and short-sighted.

I find that we collectively, in our twenties, often rob ourselves of some of the greatest moments of achievement and joy we will ever experience because we are in this unstable middle ground. Because stability is pinned as the ultimate measure of success but there is so much joy and life to be found amongst the uncertain.

I’ve come to realise that all of this is born from the need to fulfil a version of ourselves that is really for the benefit of other people. The constant need to have everything figured out, the fear that another year is ticking by and your life looks nothing like society tells you that it should.

It drives a deep dissatisfaction amongst young adults because we’re always looking ahead at that arbitrary finish line that we’re not even sure speaks to us, or indeed, that is simply unattainable for us.

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The twenties-conditioning starts far before your twenties actually hit. We’re taught from an impressionable age that the natural progression from school is higher education.

We are crammed into exam halls for glorified working memory tests that, we are led to believe at the time, will dictate our entire future. By the age of 16, we are supposed to have our entire career ambitions decided – with a specially curated plan on how to get there.

If you don’t do as you hoped in exams for subjects you chose at 16 years old, then straight off the bat you’re cloaked in failure and self-doubt before your twenties even hit.

At 16, I’d based my career ambitions entirely on my favourite film The Devil Wears Prada. I had years of development and learning ahead of me before I even discovered who I really was.

Only now, 10 whole years later, am I really coming into contact with my truth. And still, I don’t know where I’m headed or what I want from the next decade of my life.

Since I left school, I’ve worked in multiple different jobs, doing multiple different things and have changed my mind about my direction of travel on a hundred different occasions. As is the reality of your twenties.

Life happens, things change, opportunities arise. It is physically impossible to plan your life at 16 and execute every step along the way with precision and grace. Real life is simply far messier than that.

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You’re also subsequently being sold a dream that your twenties are the most carefree of your life and you should savour every second, so if they end up resembling more of an anxiety-fuelled pit of instability rather than the sunshine and sparkles you were promised, it’s easy to take that in itself as a failure. It’s also valid for both of these realities be true at once.

Life is fluid. It chops and changes, it sometimes completely tanks and then out of nowhere, it skyrockets. Being taught that there was a superior, linear path to success cost us the very years they tell us we should be enjoying.

As a woman, the weight of this decade is considerably heavier. It’s being constantly asked whether you might have children. If you’re single it’s “when are you going to find a man?” (even if you explicitly aren’t attracted to them).

If you do have a partner, it’s “When should I buy a hat?”. It’s so eye-wateringly boring to me. The only aisle I aspire to walk down is the one on the British Airways service to New York, where I will write my column from a picturesque cafe in the West Village.

I find, with each year that I age, the urgency with which these questions are asked seems to increase.

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It’s only now, more than halfway into my twenties, that I realise none of the things society told me I should aspire to really interest me. That a lot of the anxiety and expectation I’ve put on myself has been needless and manufactured.

Your twenties can be magical and fun and freeing in a way that other decades of your life might not be. But they’re also limiting and scary and unpredictable, and that’s perfectly okay.

The reality of these years varies considerably from one person to the next but there is no right way to exist in this decade besides being the version of yourself that speaks most to you. It’s okay if you’re not living your very best and perfect life yet. Just live.