The 9 Most Important Life Lessons of Your 20s
I’m old. At the ripe old age of 28, just shy of the dreaded 30, I’ve been looking back on a lot of shit and realizing I got a lot wrong, but I also got a lot right. If you asked me at 18, fresh-faced and Hollister-clad what I’d be when I was here, at this point in life, I’d probably have said an editor or PR person or Erin Andrews because I really had no idea, even though I pretended like I did. We all did at 18. We all pretended we knew exactly who we were and what we’d be. What we didn’t realize is life doesn’t give a fuck about what you think you know and more than likely, things changed.
Here are the nine most important life lessons I learned between 18 and 28.
9. You are not who you were in high school. And neither is anyone else.
When I was in high school, I was neither popular nor unpopular. I just “was.” I got made fun of sometimes, but played sports with some of the “cool kids” so I meshed. My high school was not one where cliques were really in a hierarchy, more like in Mean Girls where lunch tables were just designated. I never dated a guy from my own high school, though. And the guys who were considered “dateable” then wouldn’t have given me the time of day. Not because I was ugly or weird (I don’t think) but just because I wasn’t in those cliques that dated.
Flash forward ten years later, and a kid who I didn’t speak two words to in high school (despite the fact that we went to school together for six years)–who happened to be captain of the football and lacrosse teams, homecoming king and won every good senior poll you can think of–has become one of the best friends I could imagine.
For the longest time I think I disliked him merely on the basis that we never spoke, and I assumed he didn’t think I was cool. Or even knew that I existed at all in high school. But when you “grow up,” shit changes. If you’re smart, you learn to judge people by how they treat others, not how others treat them. C treated me with respect and kindness when we finally hung out after all those years, and that’s all I needed to know that he was a good person, not whether he spoke to me when we were all still drinking beers on the baseball fields at Adelphi underage. If you asked 18-year-old Stef if she’d ever be able to call C at 7 in the morning crying needing a place to stay in LA, she’d have laughed and told you to fuck off. But 28-year-old Stef was able to do that because shit changes and high school dies, thank God. The people you thought you knew then are worth a second look now.
8. You can die.
In college, I was invincible. The shit I did would make any parent cringe and want to lock their child in a basement for the rest of their lives. How I didn’t die from alcohol poisoning or getting hit by a car on Route 1 in College Park or get mugged and raped wandering around College Park at three in the morning, I will never know.
But now, at 28, you realize you can die. And you start to get more aware of the fact that you can die. Your doctor tells you things and you listen because you’re suddenly faced with the option of not being here. Take care of yourself. Be aware. Your 18-year-old self might have been made of steel, but your 28-year-old self realizes there’s a lot of shit that can wreck steel. Take care of your body and be careful. Use condoms. Eat healthier. Don’t drink full kegs of beer. You’ll get chlamydia and die. Just kidding. But yeah, you can die.
7. Your parents can die.
I swear, there’’s more to this article than death. But as someone who lost their dad at 16, I learned this way before I even hit college. But as I graduated and got older and my life was kind of a mess in my early 20s, I leaned on my mom heavily. My mom was my support system and I probably would have been on the street begging for scraps and Xanax had she not helped me get my shit together and supported my ideas and dreams.
My mom is 60. And when your parents hit a certain age, you begin to realize they aren’t immortal. I think I woke up at like four in the morning recently after a dream that my mom had died and I called her hysterical. She was pissed. But it made me realize, fuck dude, who knows? You learn in these years to cherish your parents if you didn’t already. You realize they are the only people in life who will ever love you unconditionally whether you kill someone or fail out of college or go bankrupt.
And you realize that one day you will look back and regret going to that stupid after work function with people you hated instead of going out to dinner with your mom or dad when you don’t have the option anymore. You’ll regret missing Thanksgiving (I know I do over a dumb fight). You’ll regret not calling. Hang with your parents. They’re so much cooler than you thought when you were 18.
6. How someone treats others is more indicative of who they are than how others treat them.
I learned this one from, what else, dating athletes! But it goes for all people in life. When you’re young, you like people because other people like them. People are popular because of reputation, not because of what they actually do. And as you get older, shit changes.
You learn to make your own opinion of people based on what you actually witness them do. How you see them treat other people, how you see them treat you. A person might have a million Twitter followers and random people telling them how great they are, but the older you get, the more you realize you can listen to a million people who don’t know, or watch someone interact with another person for five minutes and make a far better judgement. People are only as good as they are when no one’s watching. Judge people by who they really are, not what their reputation says about them.
5. College is only really fun when you’re in college.
The second you graduate, you’re done. Life is different. Changes forever. And there are certain things in life, certain places that are never the same once you leave.
I used to always think I would love going back for homecoming and alumni weekends, but when you realize you have to pay for a hotel, and you’re older than everyone in the bar and you’re going to be trying to keep up with a 21-year-old who doesn’t work five days a week chugging beers, it’s just not as fun. I mean, I want it to be every time I do it, but every time I do it I die a little inside and miss my adult life because i just don’t belong anymore.
College is four years for a reason. Because eventually your liver threatens to quit that bitch and because eventually you have to learn to drink at a rate that doesn’t make it impossible for you to show up to shit the next day. I will love Maryland for as long as I live, and I will always go to tournament games and stuff at stadiums and whatnot where I’m not reminded that I no longer have an apartment on campus, but my days of taking SoCo and lime shots at RJ Bentley’s are behind me and that’s okay.
At least until Terps lax win a fucking championship, in which case I will be burning down College Park in a drunken stupor with Scott Van Pelt.
4. Life is a work in progress for everyone.
When I got fired from my first job at 22, I thought I was fucked. And when I was going into my fourth year working at a restaurant, I thought I was even more fucked. Here I was, 26, a college graduate and I was working in a bar.
Meanwhile all my friends were solving world issues working in finance making the big bucks and living life like a Jay-Z video, right? Wrong. It took me a long time to figure out very, very few people have their shit together before 30. My friends who all worked in finance or PR or marketing who seemed to have he charmed life? They hated their jobs, and they ended up either quitting or taking a completely different career path in their late 20s.
My buddy who worked at BofA? Crashed, hated his job and left for the West Coast to figure shit out. My buddy who worked for Alliance Bernstein? Runs a successful cooking blog now. I’m pitching TV shows. Everyone is figuring their shit out and you learn not to compare yourself or your life to where others appear to be. You learn that not everything is as it seems and there are no bullet point life events you have to hit in order to be “on track.”
As easily as it can all come together, it can all fall apart. Life doesn’t all fall into place the second you step foot off campus. It might take five, ten, fifteen years to figure out what your life should be and by the time you get there, you’ll appreciate how hard you had to work to achieve it. It’s a lot more gratifying to bust your ass, feel lost, get found, and have that eureka moment than just having it handed to you, I promise.
3. The people who surround you will help define you.
Pick your friends wisely, people. When you’re younger, friendship is determined by weird things like the way your neighborhood is set up or who sat next to you in chem class.
As you get older, friendship is determined by things like how long you can go without speaking to someone and still know them inside and out. And who will show up when shit hits the fan and you need to be bailed out of jail or put into rehab. All joking aside, friendship is important to your success in life. If you surround yourself with fake people, you’re going to be fucked, whether you make it or not. If you make it, you’ll have people mooching off your success and selling you out to make their own, and if you don’t, you will be left to figure it out alone with no one who really ever gave a shit.
Loyalty, trust, support, and a genuine love of who you are and appreciation for what you bring to the table, that’s what a friend is when you get older. Life is full of people who want to be there when you succeed, but it’s the people who are there while you’re struggling, helping to remind you what you’re capable of that will matter the most in the end. Who you pick to share parts of your life with will determine your success because you need a support system in order to succeed. The friends who will help you bury a body? Always thought it was a hyperbole? Nah, trust me, I have friends that without a doubt keep shovels and tarp ready just in case.
2. Your heart can be broken and fixed more times than you think.
I’ve been in love–like really hard core head over in love-four times in my life. All four times I’ve had my heart broken. Like savagely, disastrously, thrown into a meat grinder and served to wild boars, broken. Each time I thought it was the end of the world. That nothing would ever be good again. But the older I got, the more times I went through it, the easier it was to tell myself “you’ll heal.” You’ll be okay again. And eventually, although it feels like you never will, you’ll love again.
I’m there right now, trying to mend this shattered, dysfunctional, beating thing in my chest after watching someone take it and stomp on it this year. And it’s hard for me to even want to ever feel this way again. But loving people is important. It teaches you how to be selfless, genuine, sincere, grateful. And the more times your heart gets broken, the more risk you take in giving it to someone again. And you learn the reward can always be worth the risk even if you don’t end up getting married, or shit, ever speaking again. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance. Don’t be afraid of hurt or heartbreak. Don’t be afraid of what’ll happen when someone’s gone. Life goes on. Your heart will heal and in fact be a little bit stronger, a little bit smarter, a little bit more discerning.
1. Treat others how you want to be treated.
The golden rule. Something we all think we learn as kid but fuck all man, you don’t learn this until you’re older. I’m convinced of that.
When you’re 18, 19, 20, the world is about you. College, drinking, parties, grades, you are the sun and life is yours to take. You are going to be the next big thing the second you get that degree. You’re going to cure cancer, solve the economic crisis and deal with Iran all after you take your ECON200 final.
And then you get out into the real world and you realize no one will ever care about you as much as you do. So the second best option is to put out into the world what you want to get in return. Treat others kindly, with respect, even if you don’t think they are worthy. Trust me, they are. Don’t think you’re above saying please and thank you, treating people respectfully or appreciating what they do. Holding doors or helping people carry things. That shit doesn’t just exist in viral videos, it isn’t just a feel good BuzzFeed list. You can do all of that if you just remember to treat others with kindness.
Stop for a moment on your way to your very important job or that meeting that will save the world or the best night out ever and realize we are all on this journey and the only thing I am sure of is that in life, you are only as good as you treat other people.
It took me a long time to realize that even if people treat you shittily, break your heart, disrespect your feelings and hurt you or make snide comments about you, you should be kind to the world. Be better than those who do those things. Being a good person isn’t hard and I promise even if you think it will, it will never made life more difficult. That moment you realize that your actions might change someone else’s life for the better, no matter how small those actions might be, comes long after college in my opinion. And for some people, I learned, tragically well after you turn 28. And when you get there, sometimes you’ll look back and regret things you said or did to people. I know I do.
But you learn from those moments and move forward with a consistent knowledge that we’re all fucked in life and the best way to help each other is to be kind to each other. Karma exists my friends, and the sooner you learn to abide by her rules, the better your life will be.
[Image via Shutterstock]