When I was in high school, I can distinctly remember my psychology teacher asking us what age people are the happiest. So certain that we knew the answer, we all raised our hands and guessed that it was 21. I mean… why not? You’re out of your parents house, you have freedom, you’re young and the world is your oyster. Right? But we now know that it’s not always that easy. And our answer actually wasn’t right.
As I approach 30, an age that not too long ago seemed impossible to me, I still feel like my college days were just yesterday. I have so many ridiculously fun, amazing, whirlwind memories from that time in my life. But beautiful young person, before you stop reading and turn back to your smartphones, let me share with you the 10 things I wish I had known when I was 21. I hope that they save you some pain and regret, or at the very least, help you to realize that you’re not alone.
1. Don’t compare yourself to others. This was a BIG one for me in college! I went to a small liberal arts school where everyone knew everyone and gossiped a lot. Girls drove fancy cars and carried Louis Vuitton bags. Greek life was big at my school and there was this looming feeling that you needed to fit in at all times. I was someone who kind of marched to the beat of my own drum, but I found myself in constant comparison to others. Which of course made me miserable! I wish I knew that life wasn’t a competition and it is better to just be yourself than to blend with the crowd.
2. Don’t feel like you have to have it all “figured out.” What’s your major going to be? What’re you doing after college? Where are you going to live? Ahhhh! These questions drove me nuts! Every time I’d go home for a holiday it seemed that everyone just wanted to ask you if you had it all figured out. Pretty much up until I went to college I had nothing figured out, and now there was this crazy pressure to get my ducks in a row for the rest of my life. Every choice suddenly felt like a major life-ending decision, which only added to the pressure. I would have told myself to relax. You don’t need to have it all figured out right now because you will never have it all figured out. Life is a series of trials and adjustments. That’s the fun!
3. Listen to your mom when she tells you that having more than five drinks in a night is not healthy or normal. Ohhhh, college drinking. The weekend parties, Tuesday bar night, Thursday $2 pitchers night, Sunday something. It was like every night of the week had a theme around drinking. Me and my friends now cringe when we remember what a “normal” night of going out looked like. And the hangovers were terrible! But that seemed to just be the way it was if you wanted to fit in. I can remember my mom one day saying “Lexi, I’m a little worried about you. I saw on Oprah that having more than five drinks in a night means you’re an alcoholic.” An alcoholic? Wait, what? But everyone does it! Mom, but it’s fun! Besides, what else am I supposed to do? Looking back I realize that this is not normal or healthy. And that there are lots of other fun things to do. No wonder I ballooned up 20 pounds sneak-eating peanut butter out of the jar at 3 am when I was in college.
4. You can relax a little; you don’t need to do it all. When I was 20 there was enormous pressure to do it all. This theme actually hasn’t changed much as I’ve gotten older. It seems that as women we feel like we need to be the perfect wife/girlfriend, get straight As, be a good daughter, have an active social life, exercise daily, look hot, participate in every club or organization or job… it’s exhausting just writing it. It felt like to be “perfect” you had to do everything, all the time, all at once. I wish I knew that I could relax a little. That the world would not collapse because I took a break. To look at what I actually enjoyed doing and do more of that and less of the stuff I felt like I should do.
5. You are smart. Growing up, my sister was always the smart one. I was always the one who just seemed to get by. Don’t get me wrong, I was smart, but I didn’t apply myself like she did. Therefore in college when I started doing well in school, being selected as top violinist, writing papers like a whiz and ace-ing my tests I was like WTF? Something must be wrong here. I must just be really good at cheating the system. That’s seriously what I thought. That if I could write a 15-page paper in one sitting and get a good grade that I must be working the system because I wasn’t really applying myself. Then I went to Harvard and I did start really applying myself. Because I wanted to do my best. But hey, it turns out I wasn’t cheating, I actually was just smart. Or at least good at certain things. We all have abilities and talents unique to us. Play up those talents and own them.
6. Don’t straighten your hair and wear fake tanner every day. The majority of girls at my school seemed to look like Barbie. They were pretty, tan, with straight silky blond hair. I was a bit of a late bloomer and did not consider myself very attractive in high school. Plus I’m extremely pale (I prefer fair, but I’ll go with pale here) and have super curly hair. But I wanted to fit in to be considered pretty too, so I started straightening my hair every single day and wearing fake tanner. That’s all fine. But now I realize that curly hair is kinda cool. And so is fair skin… like Nicole Kidman or Scarlett Johansson. Rock your own beauty.
7. Enjoy young love, because it’s so sweet. But don’t put everything on that relationship. When I was 18 I fell in love for the first time. And it was so sweet. In a young and innocent sort of way. We both thought that for sure we were “the one” and we’d be together forever and get married. Summers apart felt like a lifetime. Then as things seemed to falter in the relationship it was really hard to let go. Like so many relationships, we held on longer than we probably should. And when you’re going through heartbreak, its so easy to look back on a relationship (especially your first) with only fond memories instead of any bad ones. At that age you’re really learning what love is for the first time. And enjoy it! Because it’s beautiful. But you’re both still learning who you are and how to be in a relationship. So if it doesn’t work out realize that it isn’t the end of the world. It was a wonderful thing that you learned a TON from and can take that learning with you down the road.
8. Practice saying no. This came up a lot with the young women I spoke to at Harvard. One girl asked, “If a guy offers to buy me a drink or a gift, and I know they’re expecting something out of it, should I say no?” Good question! When I was 21 I struggled a lot with saying no. To anyone, including myself. I had this strange inner-feeling that if I said no, I somehow wasn’t being kind, or nice, or loving and that I’d be letting them down. Turns out quite the opposite is true! It’s not kind OR loving if you don’t say no when you know in your heart what’s right for you. Tune in to what feels good to you, and if it doesn’t feel good and you don’t want to do something, practice saying no. It feels awesome.
9. Don’t take your parents and family issues onto yourself. When I was 18 my parents drove to my college to tell me they were getting a divorce. It came as a big shock to me at the time, although looking back it’s really no surprise. But I suddenly felt like I needed to take responsibility for my parents and their feelings, that I had to be there for everyone and make sure that no one’s feelings were hurt or that neither of my parents felt left out on a holiday. I’m not sure why I took this on myself, as though I were the parent, but I did. Inside I felt like a five-year-old child, and my heart was breaking and I just wanted to go back to how things were. I wish I knew that — that I was still the child and they were the parents and their decisions were their own. And that I couldn’t learn their lessons for them.
10. Stop obsessing over guys. Claim your own self-worth. This is another theme that kept coming up the other night, and if I’m being honest with myself it doesn’t really ever end: this obsession over guys and ” oh my god, did I say the right thing, he didn’t text me last night, do you think that he’s not into me and holyf–king shit I just know he’s going to break up with me . One simple thought would snow ball into this barrage of craziness that I was making up in my own head. And then if the guy I liked did text me back or did ask me to that “exclusive” date party it was like “Yes! Thank you, God! I am loved!”
Almost addictive. But this is a dangerous thing because when your self-worth teeters on an external source (like a relationship/job/grade) than what happens when, as it will in life, something doesn’t work out? I wish that I reclaimed my own self-worth and validation — that I knew how loving, kind, smart, sexy, beautiful, etc. I am simply for being me. And that goes for all of you too! You are perfect exactly as you are, without needing anything or anyone else to validate that for you.
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