The 11 Most Important Lessons I Learned In My Early 20s

I turned 27 in April of this year. I normally don’t care about my birthday, but for some reason, this year brought about an intense period of introspection. It’s also the first year I’ve ever felt ... let’s not say old, let’s just say “seasoned.” Though I’ll likely never lose my affinity for Sour Patch Kids, my love of animated movies, or my tendency to leave the bed unmade, I’ve been forced to face the fact that I’m no longer in my early twenties (even if I sometimes still wear band t-shirts from high school).

Over the past decade, I've held about nine different jobs, been in three major relationships, and lived in eight different apartments in two cities. I have mastered the art of taking classes that don't count for my major, have learned how to cook perfect eggs every time, and have also somehow avoided jury duty. I finally bought a vacuum a few weeks ago, I do the dishes more often than not, and I usually go to bed at “a reasonable hour.” I finally feel like I’ve been through enough trial and error that I have some wisdom to offer. However, because I’m also a Millennial, I’ve compiled the best of that wisdom into a handy list.

Here are the 11 most important things I’ve learned in my early 20s.

1. Making lists works.

It's appropriate that this article itself is a list, because in general, I’ve found that making lists helps quell my anxiety and is the first step toward productivity. When I’m feeling overwhelmed because I have work and school and things I want to write and books I want to read and friends I want to see (oh my god, I’m feeling dizzy just thinking about it!), spilling those thoughts on paper helps tremendously. It helps to see everything that I need to do, right there in front of me. That way, I can check things off as I go — and there’s no better feeling than checking off the last thing on a to-do list.

2. Say “no” more often.

I have felt drained for so much of my twenties because I said “yes” to things I didn’t have the energy for. I often feel obligated to do something just because someone asks, and why? Do we expect our friends and loved ones to drop everything that matters to them just because we need a favor? Especially as an introvert (INFJ, y’all!), I need time to recharge. If I don’t get that time, I become a completely different person.

3. There is no such thing as TMI.

There is a time and a place for every conversation, sure. You don’t necessarily want to get into your views on abortion or talk about that time you got a tapeworm while you’re on a first date (or do you?). But I am a firm believer that those who deserve a place in your life will accept you for for all of your thoughts and experiences. As long as you’re sharing and they’re listening with good intentions, there is no such thing as “too much information.” If someone can’t handle all that you have to offer, they might not be the friend you thought they were. Let them go, and make room for others.

4. Don’t give into romantic inertia.

I’ve seen many people stay in awful relationships (I’ve done it!) for equally awful reasons. Sometimes, people stay together out of perceived obligation. Sometimes, people are scared to be single. Sometimes, people just want to avoid apartment hunting — but no apartment is worth being unhappy. If your relationship makes you feel bad about yourself, it might be better to get out of that mess and love yourself for a bit.

5. Dress however you want.

Trends come and go, but our bodies stay (more or less) the same over time. When I say dress however you want, I mean a few different things: don’t feel like you have to participate in certain trends if you don’t feel comfortable (for me, that trend would be bodycon dresses, as I have never in my life had occasion to feel like a sexy mummy), and don’t shy away from certain styles just because those who typically wear them are shaped differently than you are. Just as there’s no such thing as a bikini body, there’s also no such thing as a crop top body or a cut-off shorts body. Wear whatever you feel your best in.

6. Say “thank you” instead of “sorry.”

When you say something like, "I'm sorry I've been such a jerk lately," it either forces the other person to say that it’s OK, or to agree with you that you are, in fact, terrible. Neither is very constructive. Instead, say something like, “Thank you for being so patient with me lately” — this gives the other person an opportunity instead to offer love back, and opens up the conversation.

7. Treat your body like you would treat your best friend's.

I always give my friends good, gentle advice, but I’m incredibly harsh with myself. I was in a dressing room yesterday with unflattering lighting, and needless to say, I was forced to revisit this topic. As I sat on the dressing room bench in my underwear, nearly in tears over the image of my body (or rather, the five images of my body, all from different angles), I realized that no one else looks at me with as much scrutiny as I do. I think all my friends are beautiful, regardless of the imperfections they see when they’re trying on jeans under fluorescent tube lighting. I firmly believe that beauty does not mean one thing, and I need to extend that belief to my own body.

8. Make people explain their racist/misogynistic/homophobic jokes to you.

I used to get furious when people made tasteless, harmful jokes. I’d explain to these people who they were marginalizing with their “humor” and just why that kind of comedy is lazy and hurtful. That plan of attack always backfired — I was always told I have no sense of humor, or that I'm a buzzkill and a prude.

Now, I make the jokers do the work. If you hear someone make a cringe-worthy joke, just look 'em in the eyes and ask these four words: “Why is that funny?” They’ll be forced to explain their terrible punchline, and because there is no right way to say, “it’s funny that women/people of color/trans people are marginalized because...” their lazy brand of humor will be revealed.

9. If possible, dip your toe in the water before jumping in all the way.

Before making any huge life decision, if you have the time and luxury, dip your toe in the water for a bit first. Foster (or borrow) a dog before you adopt one — adopting my pup was the best decision I ever made, but they also require a lot of time and love. Buy only two days worth of produce before getting Costco-sized amounts of fruits and veggies for a juice cleanse you’ll never do. They'll go bad in your fridge while you eat takeout and watch Netflix. And lastly, do a test run before signing a lease with anyone. Just ... trust me.

10. Be your own health advocate.

If you think something is wrong, go to the doctor and speak up. Make a list (sensing a theme?) of things you want to mention and don’t let them leave until you’ve gone over all of your concerns. If you’re diagnosed with something, look it up and make sure you understand your options. When I tested positive for the BRCA2 gene, my doctor told me that I immediately needed to have my kids and get an oophorectomy, and I’m so thankful I’d researched my options independently so that I knew that wasn’t my only choice.

11. Don’t worry about other people's timelines.

Timelines are not universal. I felt bad for a while that it took me so long to get through school. I still hear a clock ticking somewhere when I see Instagram photos of friends (or younger siblings of friends!) getting engaged and having children. But I'm so glad I took the time to figure out what I wanted to do, because I finally feel like I’m on track to building a fulfilling future. It's perfectly acceptable to do things differently, for whatever the reason — because socioeconomic circumstances force us to, or because we just don’t like the map that’s been put in front of us. You do you.

Images: Splitshire/Pexels;, Giphy