HAPPY BIRTHDAY to all of my April-born readers!
Earlier this week I turned 27, which prompted a lot of introspection as to where I am at in life. Most notably, I’ve come to realize certain life lessons that I wish I could have learned a little earlier. Therefore, as part of this reflection, I decided to write a letter to my younger, 22-year-old self. If you are at a similar transitional point in your life, I hope that some of these might resonate with you.
Dear 22-Year-Old Me,
I know how you’re feeling right now. Everything in your life is both filled with endless possibilities and yet darkened by terrifying uncertainty. You want to set off and rule the world (at least your little piece of it), but your faith in humanity and the truth is pretty shaken.
Over the next five years, you are going to learn several life lessons. Most of which are going to be learned the hard way. I wish we could have learned these things a little earlier in life. Maybe then we could have managed our expectations. However, I’ve picked out a few that I’ve come to realize are the most important. Some of them I learned a little too late to change anything. Some of them I’m still working on.
Empathy is not your weakness.
You have spent your life up until this point being immensely attached to the characters in your books and television shows. Several of your friends come to you to vent about their problems seeking advice they will probably never take. I know you find the latter instance incredibly frustrating at times and the former difficult to explain to others. It’s called empathy, babe.
You will struggle with it for a while, but eventually, you will realize that it can be one of your biggest strengths if you just accept it. Being the person that others trust with the painful moments in their lives is a great honor. It means they trust you and can rely on you for support. You can even make it work for you professionally. Empathy can help you foresee the needs of others and anticipate what’s to come. Maybe you’ll embrace it so much that you even tattoo it on your forearm. Who knows…
Moving doesn’t fix everything.
I have no idea where we got that naive idea that packing up and starting over somewhere new would fix everything we were unhappy about. We were convinced that if we could just make it to graduation and move out of state for college, everything would suddenly pull together and be everything we wanted it to be.
Spoiler alert! As you are probably already starting to figure out, this is not what happens.
Moving from Michigan to Chicago at 18 (and later back to Michigan) did not magically make us happier. Driving out to California to intern is not the year of glamorous grand adventures that you have made it out to be in your head. Switching coasts to Boston does get us a little closer to happiness. In fact, you will meet a few genuine and incredibly kind friends who I hope to keep. However, there will be times in those cities in which you will never feel more alone. I wish the 18, 22, and 23-year-old versions of us could have prepared for how painful that loneliness could be.
Now here I am back in Chicago at 27, but I have learned my lesson this time. The same lesson that I wish you knew at 22. New cities and new apartments do not automatically equal happiness. The people we surround ourselves with and the passion we find in our work do.
I have seen our family more times in the last three and a half months than I have in any given year since we graduated college. Bouncing from state to state made me realize that as cool and unaffected as we like to pretend to be, we really do want to be more involved in their lives. Looking for a job while being unemployed is more frustrating than I ever believed possible. However, the work experiences you are about to encounter will help us learn what it is we are looking for in professional happiness.
As it turns out, it doesn’t matter what state we’re in. Our happiness is completely up to us.
Don’t let anyone give you crap about moving your books.
This little lesson is also related to moving, albeit slightly less philosophical. I can probably count on one hand the number of people we know in person that love to read as much as we do. Therefore, you will encounter SEVERAL comments from others about the “pointlessness” of hauling that ever-growing collection of books with you.
Don’t. Listen. To. This. Nonsense. Don’t let anyone give you crap about moving your books back and forth across the country. Those books calm you and make your apartment feel like a home, so ignore all the book haters. Let them make their dumb comments while you ship a few boxes via media mail to your new address. The reassuring presence of your books in your new place will more than make up for the annoyance of those comments.
You don’t have to go to that party.
Deep down, you know you’re introverted. You may not realize what this truly means yet, but let me offer you a helpful tidbit of advice…you really don’t have to go to that party.
I know, I know, I know…you want to make your acquaintances and colleagues believe that you’re a blast to be around and get invited to their get-togethers. But you and I both know that you don’t actually want to go. You’ll accept the invitation and be kind of excited to tell people you have weekend plans. However, the closer it gets to the weekend, the more your anxiety will kick in and the more you will wish you had never agreed to go in the first place.
Cut yourself some slack! College (and later on life) is stressful enough. It is okay that you don’t have any desire to go to a party where you will be uncomfortable. It is okay to politely decline. Besides, you need that downtime to recharge so that you can be your best self come Monday morning.
That party won’t make you happy, but the other plans will. It is okay to instead spend your weekend with a good book or with your sister (or a close friend) whom you actually enjoy being around. To be honest, I don’t really remember the parties I forced myself to go to. What I do remember are all the nights I spent with the people that still matter to this day. And I don’t regret a single one of them. Your life will change when you learn to say “no,” trust me.
You are allowed to grieve your choices.
I read an article recently about reducing stress during major life transitions, and my immediate reaction was, “Where was this article when I was 22?!”
When you get to 27, you’ll look back and realize that your choices have made most of your life a “major life transition.” However, those transitions would have been so much easier to navigate had I known that I was allowed to grieve what I was leaving behind. The three years I spent building a life in Boston mattered. And even though I chose to move on and find something new, the things I left behind are still a big part of me.
Sweet, naive, 22-year-old me – please let yourself grieve the things you leave behind. All those “new beginnings” don’t wipe the slate entirely clean. You are allowed to miss things from times in your life when you were unhappy. Those friends you make are what will get you through those times. You are allowed to miss them and you should, as long has you know that you have the strength to move on and be happy.
Stand up for yourself.
You have spent your life watching your two entrepreneurial parents build a successful business. From them, you have learned how important it is to work hard and to take pride in that work. These are excellent qualities that have and will serve us well! However, at a certain point, your tendency to avoid conflict will make you believe that working hard also means keeping your head down. Even when doing so allows others to take advantage of you.
I’m not saying that you should cause a fuss every time something unfair happens. Sometimes the “right” thing to do is to smile and work around those obstacles. In fact, this is another skill that’s imperative to learn. However, if you never speak up when it’s important, your hard work will never be yours. You will always be helping someone else do their job or achieve their dreams. You need to make sure you leave room to achieve your dreams too.
It’s a very fine line to learn. At 27, I’m still learning when to speak up and how to do so with grace. Just make sure that you fight for what matters, even when it’s difficult or terrifying. Even when it causes uncomfortable conflict. The same sentiment goes for all of these life lessons. While I wish we could have learned these sooner, I also realize that life is a work in progress. I’m trying to navigate it while holding on to the things that make me “me.” It can be frustrating, but it’s getting easier. I just want you to know that it’s going to be okay.
Your older (and hopefully wiser!) self