illustrated essay: when I turned 27

A reflection essay from 2021

illustrated essay: when I turned 27

(Originally published in Fall/Winter of 2021. I had drawn 10 illustrated pieces and then wrote my reflections after the fact. It’s funny, I am sharing this right as I am about to quit my job to travel and work on my creative projects full-time. Newly 27 year old me less than a year ago probably didn’t know that I would be where I am today)

If it hasn’t been made clear yet before, I’m someone who tends to fixate a lot on my own personal growth as I age. I find myself thinking about my age and how I “think” more, mostly because time has flown by and I can’t believe it’s been almost five years since I graduated from college. I mentally don’t feel that different in some ways; it feels like I can just go back to campus and jump right into the same classes and chat with the same friends. But then in reality, I have been in touch with these friends and seen them grow and develop in the adult world. I see the changes of people around me and know we are not the same people we were 5 years ago, while also being the most “us” we’ve ever been.

I’m a nostalgic person. So I think seeing my life pass by quickly, makes me feel like I don’t have enough time. I say hello and goodbye frequently…also makes life feel like it is passing by too fast and is always just slightly out of grasp. I feel like I’m constantly chasing life and trying to hold it in my hands just a little longer. As a result, my coping mechanism has been writing and drawing out my thoughts. It helps me hold onto significant moments and thoughts from my life, and feel like I have successfully grasped on even after the moment is long gone. I think this also informs my need to grasp onto and fixate on my own personal growth. I want to be present and observe myself in the present time and be conscious of how I am developing, because before I know it, I’ve changed a little, or am a little different, or have a new revelation that informs a slightly different me or future.

So of course after I turned 27, I wanted to process what it meant for me to turn 27. I feel like life in the last seven years happened in a blink of an eye sometimes. And because I am scared of it all slipping away without ever getting to think about it, this series of illustrations is zooming out to take a look at how I viewed my post-graduate early and mid-twenties life.

Lydie daydreaming about her future hoping that she can pay off debt, learn to drive, travel the world, go to grad school, and be self employed.

Life felt slower in my early twenties. I recently watched a good Ted Talk on how to slow down time and explained why life seems to pass by slower when we’re younger (hint: more new experiences). When I was 21, I had envisioned my post-college life to also be…slow, and that I would have a lot of time to achieve the things I wanted to achieve before I hit my late twenties.

At 21, I had imagined life would feel slow forever. And 12 weeks is a long time (the length of a college term). And that I would have achieved specific goals at 25. I didn’t even have that many goals back then. I was ready for an open-ended future. I had spoken with alumni and other people older than me and hearing how differently people’s lives turned out and how they just figured it out as they went, I was hoping that would happen to me. That I’d have one very “cool” opportunity and more “very cool” opportunities would follow each. For context, this is my experience networking with alumni who worked in international development or were in graduate school in the social sciences. People did a lot of traveling and learning, and embarked on fellowships and research field trips. I thought that was “cool” and I found the people with the coolest trajectories (my opinion) were the ones who were working in very interesting fields (usually social science or social impact related). I was so sure I would follow the same path, and that at 25 or 26 I would have had a couple of years trajectory moving to different parts of the world working in a field that I personally found “cool” (e.g. documentary, journalism, think tanks, social science researcher, grad school, educator).

27 year old saying I paid off my loans and learned how to drive. 21 year old me saying that's it?

Well, the future I had envisioned for myself at 21…did not happen. The truth is, I think the path I ended up embarking on would have come off as very boring to 21-year old me. As in I think the facade of what I ended up spending my mid-twenties doing would be boring (I am reminding myself that my mid-twenties happened during the pandemic too). I believe 21-year old me would not think of myself as that boring if she knew my inner thoughts and internal motivations. I imagine a “networking” call between 21-year old and 27-year old me. Since there is rarely vulnerability inherent in a networking call, I believe 21-year old me would have just perceived 27-year old me as bland and not daring enough. I ended up working in corporate and tech jobs after graduating from college with a degree in sociology and a head full of big, huge, idealistic dreams. On the surface level, it’s hard to tell what is buried inside 27-year old me and how in reality, my dreams had not left me. And how between graduating college and now, 27-year old me has worked very, very hard on these dreams and they have certainly developed and manifested…but in a quiet way.

Lydie surprised that she did indeed travel during these years. She traveled somewhere meaningful.

The main feeling I’ve been trying to process and be okay with myself about reaching 27, is that there is a part of me that feels a little ashamed of not being where I thought I would be at this age. But, is that really true? The younger version of me did not have the life experiences and maturity that I have now. Back then I was all kinds of anxious and insecure (as we probably all were) and likely idealized a very specific life to make myself feel better. And more importantly, to feel hope and excitement for the future. Looking back now, do I regret my path or am I disappointed in my path at all? No. Not at all. I’m eternally grateful for the path I ended up taking and am excited for the coming future.

In some ways, I feel like the last 4 years were another version of “college”. It was a college into adulthood.

I spent the first few years fumbling, and all these years exploring, and now as I enter my late twenties, I finally feel a sense of clarity about who I am and what I want to do. No, not what career I want, but what I want to do, like what I want to spend my days doing (a tangible act). There is a difference.

These illustrations elaborate that those years between college and now are not wasted. Even if 21-year old me may look at them and think they were wasted. No, 27-year old me says adamantly. Sure, I ended up going for the “secure job” route. It helped me pay off my loans and build a little financial nest for myself in which I got to work on my own financial insecurities (a lot of it was psychological). I had this time to learn to do adult things, like laundry and cooking and taking care of bills and finding sublets and finding community spaces to participate and making sense of big cities and what work/life balance is. It gave me time to rest, to explore hobbies, to watch frivolous Korean dramas, to try new foods, to have the space to be on my own, and spend time with myself.

Lydie's inner world asking herself "who am I?" with a smaller lydie inside traveling.

I remember looking back at my mid-twenties years, specifically 23-25 and remembering how challenging of a time I had. Or perhaps it was overblown at the moment. Because looking back, I had a lot of peaceful moments and moments of joy. I had just let my insecurities and anxieties of not being “enough” get the best of me and override those moments of peace and joy. It took a few more years and lots of self work to get to the point I am now, where I’m more comfortable being myself and challenging the mental thought of not being “enough”. I give myself more grace now to be who I am, and not the unrealistic pressure back then of thinking everything I was doing or trying was plain “wrong”.

That’s the thing though. It took until I was 26 to be more comfortable with myself and let myself feel the joy that I would feel, and not let anxieties override the joy. A lot of my early twenties was spent judging myself. Like, feeling like my 21-year old me judging the version of me today was how she judged herself constantly back in the day. When I hit my mid/late twenties, I slowly learned to stop judging myself and being kinder to myself. This series of illustrations depicts the “kinder to self” narrative.

Instead of looking at those years as “not achieving my dreams”, I see clearly now that those were beautiful years spent growing into myself. These years were spent so much on self development and self work.
Lydie looking into the mirror saying it is hard to confront herself. The mirror Lydie saying that it is worth it.

The analogy I use of burrowing in the cocoon these years is a very real one. Yes, I did do a lot of self work and grew from it. But I was also in a comfort zone. Working a day job that I actually like (nuance: there are other things I like more), and gaining financial and social stability in your twenties is the pathway to creating a comfortable life. Am I looking for a comfortable life? Not exactly. I’m also not looking to intentionally make myself suffer. There is a fine line to tread here. But I do believe in always going on the less easy (and more fulfilling) road because I think I am made for that. When I get too comfortable, I get unmotivated and I get fearful. I know that for me, I need to conquer my fear once in a while to remember what it means to be alive.

Working on this piece helped me come to reframe my early/mid-twenties with some finality. I feel glad that I do not regret the choices I made and I look back at spending those years, many of which consisted of relatively uneventful daily life activities, with gratitude. I absolutely needed that space to confront myself. I had a lot of inner tumultuous-ness and it was only because I had the extra time on my own that I was able to introspect and reflect so much. It wasn’t easy. It was challenging, but growing is never easy (it doesn’t feel good). It’s a bit ironic because it was a time with lots of comfort and ease, while also a lot of challenges. The challenges were happening mostly internally though, while I think the act of living was made quite easy (except of course the days when things just never go right).

Lydie coming out of the cocoon.

I spent my early/mid-twenties frequently questioning my choices and why I was on the path I was on. I had nights after work where I would feel miserable about it all, but it was also because I was not giving myself time to grow and was being too hard on myself about what I “should” have been doing, based on the younger me’s concept of how my twenties “should have gone”. When really, all that time I was just growing into myself and learning what I liked and did not like. I got to get a lot of the practical adult life learnings out of the way, and now at 27, I feel more mentally free and excited to pursue the same dreams I had at 21.

It’s just that now, I actually feel more confident and have a better sense of self than younger me had. I got to spend those years working on myself and now feel more prepared. I think the alternative would have been to spend those years very busy and distracted, and never having the chance to slow down and confront myself, to work on the issues that were very much there, and have the symptoms of those issues continue manifesting as anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. As I am writing this piece, I am feeling at peace, deep within, and glad that things went the way they did.

Lydie used to feel like her dreams were anxious, but now they are open and expansive.

Perhaps this is just a life lesson that is unique to me and many others already know, but I am learning that there is nothing wrong with doing the “boring” thing. In my case, that was getting a stable job in an industry that also came across as “corporate” and “boring” to many others, and not living a particularly exciting life. I stayed in many nights, learned that I actually prefer staying in, watching a show, reading a book, writing and drawing, and cooking a low-key meal. Choosing “boring” was also how I slowly learned to relax, take it slow, and get to know myself better. If I didn’t get a chance to slow down, I’d be worried never finding out who I am beneath all the noise.

Lydie's dreams have not changed and she still wants to travel the world and learn.
2022 Note: And I’m about to go do it!
There is nothing wrong with doing the “boring” thing… Choosing “boring” was also how I slowly learned to relax, take it slow, and get to know myself better.

Nowadays, I see the value in eradicating that noise, so I try to put the effort into eradicating the noise from my life so I can focus on what is important to me.

Lydie asks herself "who am i without the noise?" lydie answers "I am me!"

This concludes my long reflection around turning 27. It wasn’t even about turning 27 really, but about looking back on the last few years of life that I have only recently started making sense of and better understanding. I wanted to better understand where current me came from, so I can move forth with that understanding of my life. I am not going to stop with the musings of being in my twenties. They’re going to keep on coming, that’s for sure!