It’s graduation season, and seeing others turn the page to a new chapter in life always makes me a little nostalgic. It struck me recently that it has been an entire decade since I donned my cap and gown for my high school graduation. I look back at that 18 year old, headed for college, feeling simultaneously like a grownup and an infant, and there’s so much I want to tell her.
So in honor of marking ten years since high school, I came up with a list of ten things I wish I could tell myself on the eve of “adulthood.”
“Learn to tell the difference between what you can and cannot change”
The sooner you learn this, the better off you will be. There’s something so disheartening about spending all your energy furiously pushing against something that’s never going to budge. Your boyfriend’s parents are upset you’re not Jewish? You’ll never be Jewish! Your short pinkie makes it harder to play violin? You can’t grow a new one!
As a general rule, you can’t change how someone else feels, thinks, or behaves. (Physical attributes—like pinkies—are also very difficult, or at least expensive, to change as well, I’m told.) You can change how you react to how someone else feels, thinks, or behaves. If you know you’ve done everything you can to make a job, project, or relationship work, but it’s still being affected by forces beyond your control, you have two choices: accept it as it is, or move on. (This, like the rest of what I am going to tell you, is easier said than done.)
“Be kind—to everyone”
You might think this isn’t a problem for you. That’s because you are good at being nice. You are cordial and polite. You say hi to your neighbors and smile politely. It’s a great quality of yours. But it’s not the same as being kind.
Over the years you will start to read about the teachings of Buddhism, and they will tell you that everyone is inherently good and deserving of love. You believe this, but it will take time to truly put it into practice in your heart. It’s a lesson you’re still working to grasp, ten years later.
Being kind means when you have a friendly conversation with someone—or even a heated argument—you don’t turn around and criticize them behind their back. It means even when you disagree, you try to cultivate empathy to understand what motivates somebody, or to recognize that they have their own problems to deal with. And when that’s not possible, it means at least accepting that we won’t always agree.
And being kind to everyone should also include you. Which brings me to…
“Take care of yourself”
Everyone you care about will let you down at least once. It will hurt, and it’s up to you to decide how much you’re willing to put up with. At the end of the day, you’re stuck with you. It’s your choice whether you will be your biggest ally or your worst enemy. So far, you’ve leaned more toward the latter. Don’t.
You’ll start to learn there are many people who turn to others for happiness and fulfillment—boyfriends, best friends, family. You tend to be one of those people. Your devotion to the people you love and your giving nature are some of your best qualities. Just don’t base your self-worth on whether your friends want to spend time with you or your family has critical things to say. Don’t wait for the people in your life to tell you that you’re awesome. Tell yourself you’re awesome—and believe it.
Take care of yourself at the most basic levels, too. Eat good food. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Read good books. Write. Treat yourself to an ice cream sundae or a massage, just because. Laugh. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Allow yourself to stay in it.
“Don’t be afraid to say no”
You’ll hear so many women talk about this that it’s basically become a cliché. But it’s worth a reminder. In high school, you wanted so much to belong, to fit in. You pushed to take part in every extracurricular and go to every party. You pushed back against your parents when they gave you this same piece of advice. You won’t really learn it very well in college either.
Now, at the ripe old age of (almost) 28, you don’t have much of a problem saying no. You’ll turn people down if you’re tired, or if the weather’s bad, or (a new phenomenon you will soon get used to) if you need to tighten your spending until your next paycheck. The saying no isn’t the hard part; it’s the after part you need to learn to get over.
When you’ve decided, for one reason or another, that you can’t do something, learn to quiet that little voice in the back of your head. It’s the one that tells you, “They’re going to be mad at you,” or “That’s the last thing you’ll be invited to.” There will be more get-togethers, and if your friends are worth keeping, they’ll keep inviting you.
“Follow your own path” (Or “Don’t keep score”)
You’ve always been a high achiever, and with that comes a natural competitiveness. You can’t help but want to know how your performance—and really, your life—stacks up against everyone around you. But once you’re out of the academic scene, you need to let that go. In the real world, it’s not only impractical; it’s impossible.
How do you measure who’s on top in life? The person with the most money? The most kids? The coolest job? (And who decides what job is the “coolest” anyway?)
Here’s what I can tell you: You’ll pursue an unusual career path. You’ll work weird hours. You’ll move away, and it will feel right. You’ll come home, and it will feel right. Your friends will start getting married and planning their families. You will feel a pressure from everywhere and nowhere in particular to settle down. As you approach your self-imposed deadline, you’ll get cold feet and think maybe you should do some more traveling. You’ll be jealous of your friends with kids. You’ll be jealous of your friends with money. You’ll be jealous of your friends who always seem to be catching a flight somewhere. One day you’ll step back and realize you like your life the way it is. You’ll realize you’ve liked it every step of the way. You’ll wonder why you didn’t appreciate it all at the time, before you find something else to be jealous about.
Focus your vision forward as you follow your own path. If it’s leading you in the wrong direction, change it. If you can’t change it, revisit Item #1.
One day, while lamenting over a cheating ex, a friend’s mom will tell you something that will stick with you: “Forgiveness is for you.” Years later, you will be reminded of the conversation when you read a quote by the Buddha: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Resentment and bitterness have no productive purpose, aside from fueling your anxiety. Often the person you’re angry at couldn’t care less that they’re making you stew, if you’ve even made them aware of how you feel at all.
The bottom line is, if you are angry with someone who’s filled with regret and wants to make it up to you, they probably deserve your forgiveness. And if they don’t care, they’re not worth your energy anyway.
“Just do it”
The last minute has always been your golden hour. You figure, why spend a couple of weeks working on a paper when you can stay up all night before it’s due and still do well? Not to mention, in the meantime, there are things to do. Like watching movies you’ve already seen, painting your nails, or The Internet.
Ten years later, and you haven’t really changed your ways. Senior year of college, you will actually leave a paper partially completed to go on a bar crawl, then come home and finish it before bed. Two years ago, you spent a week banging out two chapters of your first novel, and haven’t touched it since. And you probably won’t be getting back to it any time soon, since you just started watching “Gilmore Girls” from the beginning on Netflix.
What I’m finally starting to learn, though, is that if you listen to Nike and “Just do it,” it’s easier on your anxiety and your productivity. It’s easier to be prepared for whatever life (or school, or work, or whatever) throws at you if you don’t have 100 tasks left on your to-do list and you’re running out of time to do them.
“Embrace your lows as much as your highs” (Or “Feel your feelings,” or “It doesn’t always have to be okay”)
You know what’s worse than feeling sad? Hating yourself for feeling sad. Wishing you weren’t sad. And wondering how long it will be before you’re not sad anymore.
Unfortunately and luckily for you, you know exactly what that’s like. And unfortunately and luckily for you, your struggles with depression and anxiety aren’t over. When you feel a bout of depression creeping up on you, it feels like standing in a rising pool of water, knowing you can’t swim. The panic of wondering how long it will be before you can’t breathe, and how long you’ll have to hold your breath is worse than just surrendering and allowing yourself to float.
In a couple of years, you will work with a counselor and learn that you avoid feeling your emotions so much that you don’t even know how to identify them. As you learn to cope with the changes in your life, the best you can do is tell her that you feel “bad.” After she sends you home with a list that literally defines the basic human emotions, eventually you will realize you feel sad that your relationships from high school are changing, angry that your parents aren’t giving you the freedom you want, ashamed at your inability to cope. It’s a lesson you’ll need to return to many times.
In the years ahead, you will experience deep love, blissful happiness, betrayal, and inexplicable loss. At the highest moments, you will feel complete and connected with the world; at the lowest, you will feel painfully alone. The key is to realize that everyone experiences pain and sadness, and the only way to let it pass through you is to really feel it. You can’t appreciate the joy life brings if you don’t remember its potential for darkness. Besides, the hardest moments in your life are the ones with the greatest potential for growth.
The good news is…
“The world has more good than bad”
Besides your personal struggles, you’re about to enter an industry that constantly bombards you with the worst humanity has to offer. You will read and write about a man who walks into an elementary school and kills 20 young children. You will watch and re-watch devastating video of natural disasters that leave people who had nothing with even less. You will ask a mother to talk about her teenage son who was just gunned down in the streets of Chicago. Some days, you will go home and cry. Others, you will make jokes with the people around you in an effort to forget. This lesson will often be the toughest.
But you will see a lot of good in the world. In the wake of their most painful moments, you will see people drag themselves up and put their arms around each other, giving what little they have to someone else.
When your former colleague is diagnosed with leukemia, you will see a community come together to raise thousands of dollars to help with her expenses, and thousands more to research the disease. When your friend loses her young son, you will be amazed by the network of people who show up to take care of her, to cook her family meals and share their fondest memories of his precious life.
You can find light in the simplest things, too—internet videos of talking dogs or waving bears, random text messages from friends you haven’t seen in ages, or the moment when you’re about to flip over a bad day, until you see your coworker left a chocolate chip cookie on your desk.
You will see that there is more good than bad in this life. And in the moments when you can’t, it’s essential that you believe it.
“You’ll never really feel like an adult”
You’re almost 28 years old now, and there are still many moments when you feel like a kid in grownup clothes. You’ll find yourself walking the aisles of the grocery store, simultaneously giddy that you can buy whatever you want, and grouchy that you’re now responsible for figuring out what the hell to make for dinner every night this week. You’ll feel a little naughty when you decide to have cake or ice cream for breakfast, before stubbornly reminding yourself, “I’m an adult, dammit!” And you’ll still hear your mother’s voice in the back of your head, telling you it’s really about time you straightened up this apartment, because it looks like a pigsty!
Let adulthood be a novelty. Don’t let it start to feel routine and familiar. Learn enough to take care of yourself, but let things like cooking and walking the dogs feel like an everyday adventure. Don’t forget how you feel right now, with the possibilities before you and all of the little steps along the way that will make life feel like new.