{source: Pear Tree}

After reading Julien Smith’s 20 Things I Should Have Known At 20, I was inspired to write my own list – not just because I think Smith oversimplifies a number of things, but because, with my 32nd birthday only a few weeks away and a wedding only months away, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve changed since I graduated from college a decade ago.

So, without further ado: 21 things I should have known at 21

1. There’s no such thing as “the world.” It’s not us against them or me against you. Engaging with people based on what they represent rather than who they are – complex, contradictory, ever-changing – is a missed opportunity, an excuse to remain ignorant, and an invitation to all kinds of conflict.
2. Listen – skeptically. Every person, group, community, and institution has a history and a context. If you encounter someone or something that offends you, use it as an opportunity to learn; if you encounter something that fits right in with your beliefs and values, use it as an opportunity to exercise reflective skepticism.
3. Strive to achieve balance between input and output. Read, watch, listen, look, and reflect – and then make something. There’s nothing like using your own faculties to help make sense of the people, places, and things around you. Whether it’s writing in a journal or going for an impromptu hike in the woods, find a way to express how you’ve changed and what you’ve learned. Conversely, if you find yourself constantly running around doing, doing, doing, take a moment to read a few pages of a book, watch a movie, call a friend, or go on a drive around the neighborhood. The brain and body need all kinds of fuel.
4. Listen – genuinely. Come up with a trick to remember people’s names when you meet them. Use their names when you say hello, thank you, and goodbye. Ask them questions about what they do when they’re not working, where they grew up, and whether or not they like gin and tonic. Don’t worry about seeming stupid or guileless – if you have (and express) genuine interest in someone, you can never really look bad.
5. You’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never as great as your parents say you are. You, like everyone else, are somewhere in the middle. You’ll always have limitations and blind spots. You’ll screw up. Sometimes you’ll succeed through hard work, and other times through luck. Some people will like you, and other people will dislike you – sometimes for no good reason. But life isn’t about striving for perfection or pleasing everyone. On some level you already know that, so relax and do your best.
6. Breakups happen for a reason. Sometimes they happen for stupid reasons, but they’re reasons nonetheless. When things are right, you’ll know it – and you won’t break up.
7. Travel widely in your community. I learned this one from my dad. You don’t need to go far to meet people who live at different economic levels, have different religious and political beliefs, and have very different ideas about what counts as a square meal. Don’t be afraid of these differences – moreover, don’t be afraid of finding the similarities that underlie them.
8. Being cool doesn’t matter. Coolness is just a complex system of cultural codes, often involving buying things you don’t need and doing things you don’t really care about. Instead, focus on the people and activities that matter to you.
9. No, you don’t have to. You don’t have to straighten your hair. You don’t have to send your kids to summer camp. You don’t have to have flowers at your wedding. You don’t have to settle down. You don’t have to network all the time. You don’t have to live in New York someday. A lot of people will probably tell you all sorts of things about what you have to do – but just because they do it doesn’t mean it’s the right way, the best way, or the only way.
10. No, you don’t need that thing. It’s just a thing. Believe me, you’ll forget about it in two minutes.
11. Go to Sub-Saharan Africa. Everything you’ve seen on the news and read about it books is just one, small, often biased shred of what’s really happening on that continent. So go see for yourself. Talk to people. Visit some major cities and some rural areas. And understand, through your own experience, that a place can never be adequately represented as a series of problems.
12. Have a savings account. Put money in it every month. Someday, you’ll be very glad it’s there.
13. Don’t be afraid to be bad at stuff. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be good at it. Practice and perseverance can more than make up for a lack of natural aptitude. And frustration is just part of the process.
14. Exercise. Don’t say you’re too busy. You just spent 15 minutes watching cat videos online. That’s plenty of time for a walk or a few sets of push-ups.
15. Let yourself be hungry. Let yourself go without. Let yourself be uncomfortable. It won’t kill you. In fact, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and others in the process.
16. There’s no such thing as a normal schedule. Stuff always comes up. Your calendar will never be clear. You’ll never be able to focus, and you’ll never have an uninterrupted block of time. So learn to get things done regardless.
17. Have a project. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with your life goals, your job, or your hobbies. Just pick something and finish it. Prove to yourself that you can, and feel proud when you do.
18. Learn to apologize – even when you’re not in the wrong. Winning an argument often has very little to do with who’s right.
19. Learn the art of shutting up. Practice the subtle art of brevity. Finish sentences definitively. And try to be okay with uncomfortable silences while the other person comes up with a response.
20. Speak about others as though they were standing right behind you. As soon as you stop trash-talking other people, they will magically seem nicer, more interesting, and less annoying. And so will you.
21. You are not crazy. Anyone who implies that you are is really just saying that something you’re doing bothers them. Decide whether or not bothering them bothers you, and proceed accordingly.