Advice to My 21-year-old Self

I had the pleasure of attending a birthday party, which upon arriving, I sheepishly discovered was a 21st birthday. Having recently forfeited my own “twenty-something” designation, and being a non-drinker and married to boot, I found myself the odd duck among cocktail-swizzling twenty-something singles.

So what does a sober 30-year-old do during this uniquely American coming-of-age ritual? I reflected on what advice I’d give myself at age 21.

I couldn’t bring myself to write a listicle, so here it is, un-numbered.


Figure out your own measure of success.
The “success” that you hold in your head is largely defined by others—a hazy notion of money, recognition, status. If you don’t stop often to take stock of what success means to you, you will sacrifice much to attain a goal, that even if you reach it, won’t be yours. Finding your own meaning in living is not an empty ivory-tower pursuit, it’s necessary for living a fulfilling life. Leave yourself time and room to think and reflect.

Keep reading books out of pure interest.
Don’t give up what you love to do because you don’t think it’s a “productive” use of your time. Instead of becoming more productive, you’ll really be stunting your intellectual growth and curiosity, not to mention becoming a bore you wouldn’t invite to your own dinner party. It’s in the melding of ideas from different domains where creativity thrives, and the source is often in the unexpected.

Don’t take relationships for granted.
You’re going to have this stupid idea that you need to value work above all else, at least for some sustained period of time. Who is going to be there when your work ends? Who are you working for? Don’t make the mistake of valuing money, or semblances of money, over people. It never pays in the long run.

Fight-or-flight is not a long-term relationship strategy.
Right now, relationships feel dispensable to you. If your first instinct is to blow up or fly away whenever things don’t go your way, you’ll never discover the deep enriching love that will become a source of strength as you encounter life’s hard parts. Luckily, you’ll meet someone patient enough for you. Don’t try to break up with him.

Don’t bother buying things to impress other people.
Most people won’t notice because they’re self-absorbed, and the few that will notice already like you enough to notice. In either case, it doesn’t make a difference. Buy (and do) things because you find them to be intrinsically worth it, not because other people might. Bonus, you’ll save a lot of money (and time) this way.

It’s okay to trust your own gut.
When you’re young, you’re going to lean a lot on the advice of those who are more experienced, sometimes solely because they have many more years on you. But remember that you know more about your own situation than anyone else. Learn how to arrive at your own decisions, take responsibility for them, and in the process, learn to trust yourself.

Making lots of money is not a prerequisite to living your life.
Somewhere along the line, you started to believe that you first have to make lots of money, before you can do what you really want to do. Instead, figure out what you want to do, find ways to do it, and earn money to help you do it. You’re much less likely to go astray this way than the other way around.

“I don’t make movies to make money, I make money to make movies.”
—Walt Disney

The world is not black and white.
In school, you’re rewarded for getting the “right” answer and you’ve always been pretty good at that. But the real world is messier, and things you believe to be categorically right or wrong can hold much more nuance the deeper you look. Resist the pervasive tendency to reduce complex issues to fit neat labels. Be flexible with your mind, temper your judgment with tolerance, and beware of false dichotomies.

Above all, make mistakes and learn from mistakes.
I wouldn’t have any meaningful advice to give if I didn’t have the experience of my twenties. To naïveté, happy birthday.