How I Wasted My 20s

Travis Kassab Avatar


I wasted my 20s because I turned my back on real magic and settled for an illusion instead. The illusion that entertained me for a decade was that there was somewhere definite I was going and that I was making progress towards it.

What can I say? I found myself directionless in an uncertain world. What I wanted was vague to me and I didn’t know if it could be grasped, so I became impatient and manufactured what I thought I wanted. This was my way of outsmarting life – to deliberately create direction for myself. But now I see I never had direction, I just created the illusion that I did.

What was I supposed to do? I didn’t believe direction could appear on its own. Only real magic could make something appear from thin air like this, and I didn’t believe in real magic at the time. I lived in a world where, for anything to happen, plans must be made and action must be taken. It’s strange that I could consider myself so grounded in reality, yet at the same time, be so mesmerized by an illusion.

The illusion took place in my mind. It was a personal magic show because I was both the spectator and the magician. Nothing was wrong with the show. As a spectator, I have been sufficiently entertained. But, in seeing the same show over and over again, I have begun to see the sleight-of-hand and can no longer suspend disbelief. So, like a bad magician does, I will now reveal my act. Here’s a step-by-step guide for how to delude yourself perform this trick.

Magician pretending to think, but just wasting his 20s

Act I

First, reach into your mind. Tell yourself that you are reaching for the things you authentically want. But since the things you authentically want cannot be summoned on-demand, you instead use your mind to come up with good-sounding things you think you should want. This is the first sleight-of-hand, because the things you think you should want are things you don’t actually want. If you wanted them, you would not need to convince yourself. The things you actually want are self-evident to you, but you already know this so I digress.

Now pull these good-sounding things out of your mind and present them to the audience. Your friends and family will clap, and you might even believe for an instant that these good-sounding things are your own. 

Congratulations! You’ve created the illusion of direction in your life.

Act II

You could take a bow here. I wish I had. But the audience always cheers for more. They want a final act. What’s better than believing you have direction in your life is convincing yourself that you are making daily progress down that path. This is the illusion of progress.

Reach back into your mind. Tell yourself that you are reaching for an action plan that, if followed exactly, will get you what you say you want. But since such an action plan cannot be prescribed, use your mind to come up with a plausible-sounding action plan you think you should follow. 

This is the second sleight-of-hand. The action plan you think you should follow is sure to be ineffective. The things you say you want cannot be mechanically produced, but you already know this so I digress.

Now execute this prescribed action plan. Like running in place, performing these actions creates the appearance of movement without ever arriving anywhere new. The more movement the better, for if you stop to pick your head up, the illusion will be lost. 

Congratulations! You’ve created the illusion of progress in your life.

I told myself that hard work, learning, and skill acquisition were sure to bring me success. I thought if I did these things each day, then no matter what, I could rest assured that I was one step closer to getting what I said I wanted. When I noticed that no real progress had taken place, I would double down and tell myself I just needed to do more of these things, because I wasn’t doing enough already. This is how I sustained the illusion for a decade.

Rabbit in the Hat

The problem with all of this is that the mind (i.e. intellect) is limited. It can only recombine what has already been said or done. This is like how chatGPT gives the appearance of novelty, but its responses are the average of what billions of people have said before it. The mind ends up giving you good-sounding things it thinks you might want, but none of which originate from you.

In the same way, the mind generates an action plan it thinks you should follow based on what it has seen others do. But this is based on a fallacy, because the things that make other people successful cannot be ascertained. You will only observe surface-level things that will either be too specific and not applicable to your situation, or too general and lacking potency. Even if you could ascertain the exact causes of someone’s success, this person’s success cannot be replayed. Almost everything is different like the differences between the two of you, and the fact that the World is at a different point in time.

The rabbit in the hat is how I wasted my 20s.

Many people credit hard work for their success, but what caused them to work hard in the first place? You might say it’s because of their discipline, or that they were gifted with a lot of motivation, but the initial cause of their success is that they authentically wanted it. They may give off the appearance of hard work, but they are so immersed in their pursuit that everything they do is done because it is self-evident for them to do so. Hard work was never a goal in itself.

At any point in my 20s, if you had asked me what I wanted, I might have said: “to build medical devices”, “to write something beautiful”, “to start a business”, “to make an intellectual contribution.” Now I admit to myself I wanted none of these things. I wanted the illusion of wanting these things, which ironically had the effect of me avoiding the things I said I wanted. The things I did to sustain the illusion (like hard work, learning, skill acquisition) became goals in themselves. This is how I wasted my 20s.

So the question now is: why did I prefer illusion to reality?

Because the reality was that I was directionless, and rather than exist like this for more than an instant, I conjured an illusion to forget it. Like a clapping child, I was all too eager to be entertained and distracted from myself. So rather than sit with myself, I ran in circles for 10 years to preoccupy myself. Maybe the real illusion was a vanishing act with the title: how to disappear from oneself. If so, I find myself reappeared and exiting stage left, intending not to return for another show.

Real Magic

None of the work I did in my 20s I’m proud of. This is because it was fear-based. This is because it was uninspired. My technique was rigid because my movement was too deliberate. What a fitting punishment for the crime of forcing achievement!

It seems the only thing I didn’t try was to not try at all. Not trying was the first thing I eliminated as a possibility, because for something to happen without doing anything would require real magic, and I didn’t believe in real magic. It turns out, I just didn’t know what real magic was. I had some serious misconceptions about it that caused me to look past the real magic that was present in my life.

Serene older gentleman who believes in real magic.

Here are the two things I now know about real magic. First, real magic cannot be conjured, it spontaneously occurs. And second, real magic doesn’t require the suspension of disbelief, it is self-evidently true to the person who witnesses it.

Here’s my vain attempt at listing some of the things I consider to be real magic: 

  • shower thoughts
  • the sudden revelations that unblock you
  • the things that inherently draw your attention and interest you
  • the things you do for the sake of doing them without expectation of outcome or reward
  • playfulness, laughter and the ability to laugh at yourself
  • loving without the need for reciprocity
  • statements that require no justification or rationalization
  • a tacit understanding between two people
  • silence in another person’s company
  • conversations that give you energy
  • flow state and losing your sense of time

Part of me wants to describe the spiritual meaning behind “real magic”. The other part of me wants to scientifically explain “real magic”. But to describe and explain is to miss the point. I would just be reaching back into my mind for things that would lead me astray. The point is that the lived experience of real magic is profound to the individual, and will always remain central for what it means to be human.

I can’t say I regret wasting my 20s because I’ve enjoyed a lifetime’s worth of entertainment. I don’t know how I’ll spend my 30s, although I am certain of one thing. I want to spend it in awe of the real magic that is, and always has been, evident in my life.