My dear twenty-year old self,
It’s Oct 11, 2020. You are turning thirty today; the age when you think ‘life’ is officially over. In a way it’s true. Because life, like a confusing modern art piece, is something that you claim to understand but can only really see at a surface level. I know this because ten years later, I am farther away from understanding it than I’ve ever been.
As you navigate through this first decade of adulthood, you will look back constantly and go “What was I thinking?” It’s going to be equal parts exciting and perplexing. Here are twenty pieces of advice I can give you to make this treacherous decade a tiny bit easier to navigate.
1- You’ll get everything you want but that won’t be enough.
The image of the perfect life you’ve conjured – lazing around on the bed on a Sunday, a brief reprieve from the nice job that pays your bills, a laptop dangling on one end charging after your marathon binge-watching session, with a couple of battered books you return to every once in a while, in your two-bedroom apartment that you share with the person you love – will come to pass and you won’t bat an eye. Your current wants will be replaced by bigger wants and the contentment you thought you’ll finally feel when you get all this will be elusive. So stop putting a pause on your happiness and be grateful for your life right now.
2- Do not apologize before you analyze.
If you make a mistake, by all means own up to it. Do not let your ego hold you back. However, it means nothing if you simply apologize because that’s what the other person wants to hear. Don’t apologize to gloss over an awkward situation or for the fear of losing a relationship or even to be a bigger person. Definitely don’t apologize because you’re worried they won’t like you otherwise. Apologize only after you have answers to these questions:
- Do you really understand why the thing you said or did hurt the other person?
- What steps are you taking to not repeat such a mistake?
3- You can’t find yourself if you don’t go looking.
They say twenties is about finding yourself. Entering adulthood with a vague idea of what it means, you’ve placed an enormous amount of importance to your interests, likes and dislikes, and experiences from your teenage years. You assume they will guide you towards your passion and ambition. But the truth is, finding yourself is a conscious quest. You’ll never know who you are until you ask yourself and be patient enough to wait for the answer.
4- You are not a side-character. It’s your story.
I know that it feels comforting to hide behind your more accomplished, braver friends. You watch them step out of the line while you are safely behind it. Why turn the spot light on yourself when being in the shadow means that you can’t make mistakes, right? Right? Sadly though, living so cautiously means that when you look back at it your highlight reel is going to be filled with other people’s accomplishments, not yours. Remember that living vicariously is not living at all.
5- Don’t label yourself early on and restrict your experiences.
Right now you think you are different than the others around you. Everything about you – from the books you read to the principles you value – are at odds with your upbringing. ‘Unconventional’ is the first label you’ll put on yourself. ‘Introvert’ is another label you’ll use to withdraw from situations where you are expected to be interesting. You think you’re ‘not like other girls‘ because you don’t worry about your looks when in fact you worry about it so much that the self-hatred has become a part of your personality.
Some of these labels are just inaccurate. For example, marriage, the most conventional thing according to you right now, is going to bring you so much happiness. Some of these labels will stunt you. You’ll internalize them and they’ll end up becoming shackles. You are going to pass up on an amazing work opportunity because talking to people is ‘not your thing’. You will underestimate amazing, intelligent women and lose out on their friendships because they care about how they look. So be wary of putting yourself in a box.
6- Get rid of unhealthy friendships.
Once you get out of college, making friends is going to be hard. So you’ll be tempted to hold on to the friends you already have and the friends you make. But some friendships are bad for you. Your misplaced sense of loyalty towards bad friends is going to cause you so much trouble. My simple advice – drop them. I know this seems blasphemous to you who learned friendship at the alters of Harry Potter. But remember, Harry Potter himself turned down Draco Malfoy’s friendship the very first day he landed in Hogwarts. Some people are just meant to be villains.
7- Don’t dismiss experience.
As someone who has seen older people be wrong frequently, it’s natural to dismiss anything they have to say. But your perceived assumptions about how the world works does not compare to their lived experiences. Their instincts about what has the potential to derail you can sometimes be spot on. Use it. Consult with them but you take the final call on what’s right for you.
8- You are not the most amazing/terrible person ever!
You love drama (I mean, who doesn’t?). So you like to exaggerate your emotions. When combined with the pendulum that is your self-worth, you are prone to excessive theatrics. One day, you are so overconfident that you look down on everyone around you. It all comes crashing the next day when you make a faux pas and suddenly, you are the worst person in the world. It’s a tiresome cycle that affects your mood in a way that no real-life event would and it’ll drive your loved ones crazy. Stop living in the extremes; hold yourself accountable but also treat yourself with compassion like you would someone else.
9- Standing up for yourself is not being selfish.
The society, in the form of your parents, educational institutions, and the nosy old man upstairs, has lots of rules. It expects you to live your life a certain way for no reason than to assert some control over it. You feel guilty when you stray away from it. ‘I’ll just give in, life will be easier’ you think. But it’s not going to be easy.
The society is like an insatiable monster. You’d think it will leave you alone if you feed it. But it only makes it grow bigger and hungrier. It can devour you entirely and still be ravenous. The best way to deal with it is to stop feeding it. By standing steadfast in what you believe and ignoring the voices that say that you are being selfish.
10- A man’s opinion is not the most important thing in the world.
This goes against everything you’ve been taught since you were a child. You’ve been trained to respect a whole bunch of people in your family simply because they are men. You could never laugh loudly because it might offend the sensibilities of this species. On the one hand, you were expected to dress and speak a certain way so as to not draw unwanted attention from the boys in your class. But oddly, the coolest girl in class was the one who had the attention of most boys. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The simple truth is, a man’s attention or lack thereof does not determine your value. You’d be surprised but most of these men are as confused and messed up as you are. Can you believe it?
11- Surround yourself with people you respect.
You should never be the smartest person in the room, they say. I want to expand it to more qualities than just smartness. If you always try to be in a room where you are the most accomplished, it is going to be a pretty small room with nothing to offer you. Make friends with people who challenge you and help you grow, people who have different interest and beliefs, people who can call you out on your bullshit. Make friends with people you respect.
12- Adventure is overrated. Stability is underrated.
You need both the adventurous and stable phases in your life to learn and grow. While adventure teaches you something and opens up your world view, stability helps you assimilate what you learned and transform it into something creative. Valuing one over the other for its ‘cool’ factor is just plain dumb. And another thing about ‘being cool’…
13- Your definition of what’s cool and what’s not is going to change drastically.
At fifteen, you thought you were so cool because you read Sherlock Holmes when others were into a fantasy series (shudder) called Harry Potter. Then you became a potterhead and judged people who haven’t read it. Later, in Big CityTM, you’ll find that everyone and their mother has read it so you’ll move on to serious literary works by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa. Eventually you’ll give up fiction altogether. All the while, you will try to determine what’s cool and try to hold yourself up to an impossible standard. I’ll save you the trouble. Nothing remains cool. Nothing remains uncool. And trying to do what’s cool is the most uncool thing ever.
14- What you consume doesn’t make you interesting.
I hate to break it to you but what you watch and what you read does not automatically make you an interesting person. Sure, they are great ways to make connections with people. But defining your personality by the media you consume and judging others for their choices only makes you an asshole. What you watch/read doesn’t make you interesting. What you think about what you consumed does. What you learn does. What you create does.
15- As a woman, you will be underestimated.
Even the most well-meaning men and women will underestimate your capabilities because of your gender. Being angry and frustrated about it is not going to help. They set the bar so low that you might be tempted to do the bare minimum. Don’t. Do your job, and do it well. This way, you will set the bar for the women and men that come after you.
16- Adulthood is a process.
The word adult includes all ages after 21. The way decades of experiences are clumped together in one word makes it seem like once you are 21, you have achieved complete growth. This is why you will expect to know all the answers and have your life figured out as soon as you become an adult. But adulthood is not a state where you’ve reached the pinnacle of maturity. It another learning process with numerous tests – just not the standardized kind you are used to. The only way to fail it is by holding on to who you are at the cusp of adulthood and being afraid of change.
17- Empathy >>> Intelligence
You take a lot of pride in saying ‘I know’. But you are not better than someone just because you know more things than them or because you can process information better than them.
Besides, you don’t know everything. You will judge a lot of people because you don’t know yet that knowledge is a privilege. What you know is a sum of all your experiences. When you learn that, you will learn to be empathetic. You will learn that not everyone has lead the same life you lead with the same exposure you’ve had. Then, you will take pride in saying ‘I understand’.
18- You will never be 100% comfortable with who you are.
And that’s fine. There are parts of your personality that you wish you could change. Some of these, you’ll change. But you’ll acquire more embarrassing traits along the way. For example, the condescension in my tone as I write this article bugs me. I hope to work on that in this decade.
19- Continue being a dreamer.
You day dream a lot. Then you censor yourself for having unrealistic dreams and setting yourself up for failure. But like I said, some of these dreams turned out to be not-so-unrealistic after all. I believe that the more you dreamt, the more conviction you had when you set out to achieve them. So continue having big impractical dreams, for the both of us.
20- Life will be okay. Stop hyperventilating.
Honestly, this is something I am still working on. I often let the anxiety of what’s going to happen in the future consume my present, just like you do. So this advice is for the both of us. STOP WORRYING. It serves no purpose. In fact, your worst fears have come to pass and you’ve come out of it okay. I hold on to this thought hoping that it gives me strength to deal with my latest fears.
Hey, what do you know, hindsight is 20-20!