This past weekend we had an anniversary dinner at my house, to celebrate our best friends’ 10th year of marriage and my partner’s and my 17th year together. I was the youngest person in the room at age 37. Looking around at these people who I’ve known and loved for so many years, it struck me how incredibly different my life is than I expected or wanted, and how right it is for me.
Getting here was not easy. No, not at all. Is my life perfect in any way? Aw, heck, no. Do I have a whole lot that I’m aiming for? Of course.
But it’s a good life right now.
Like most kids and young adults, I just wanted to grow up. People kept telling me to enjoy my youth, those would be the best years of my life and I’d better soak them up while I could. I will never understand how anyone could feel that way. Yes, you should enjoy childhood and adolescence, because ideally you should enjoy every part of life as much as you can, but everything about being an adult is better. Everything.
Because here’s the thing, kids – you get to choose what sort of adult to be.
There are responsibilities inherent to life, of course, but you get to pick and choose whether to take on many of them. You can marry or not, and be in a stable relationship either way, if you want one (yes, yes, you do need to find someone, but that’s a whole different subject). You can have kids or not. You can have a career or a job, work for others or build a business. You can carve out a life that suits you, outside of the influence of all the people who clutter up the school years. Even if every single person in your life bugs you about any of your decisions, you actually can choose whether to listen or not. You have that power, even on the days when you feel like you don’t.
No matter what, though, you will always feel like you are waiting for that day when you “grow up” and become an adult like the Adults you saw through your childhood lenses. I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but those Adults are pretty much in the same category as unicorns, chimeras, and dragons – myths.
There will be days you will feel old well before you are, there will be moments when you realize that you truly believe the music that’s popular sounds like noise, and there will be times that talking to someone far younger than you really does feel like shouting across a gulf. Even in those moments, though, you won’t feel like a competent adult. You will always feel like you can do better, whether better for you means making more time for your kids, keeping your house in some form of order, getting better employment, spending less money on things you don’t really need, or whatever your brain puts on your Internal Adulthood Checklist.
Then, suddenly, there will be a moment when a young friend thanks you for sharing some of your hard-earned wisdom, and you’ll feel like, “Hey! I know something worth knowing!”
And it will feel amazing and totally make up for the sinkful of dishes or overflowing hamper you’re scared to touch but also embarrassed exists.
It’s a little less fun if that advice is about dealing with acne, and your information is fresh because you still get it. Because that is one of the greatest lies we tell adolescents – that acne is only for those years. True for some, but not for many. I’m sure that adults who prolong this myth feel they are doing a kindness, spreading some hope, but I am incredibly grateful to the lone adult who shared the truth with me back when I was young, because I’d be a heck of a lot angrier about being 37 and battling both more acne than I’ve ever had and facial lines simultaneously. It also taught me that I should take all the rest of her advice, and that has served me rather well.
An adult who tells you the truth about anything is a precious thing to a young person.
Speaking of skin, the best beauty advice I received as a teen was to start moisturizing young, especially the eye area. I’m 37 and often pass for 25 or even younger. Moisture, people! Trust the cliche on this one. The beauty industry is spending a fortune to make this even more true with each passing year.
My mother rarely made a point of treating me like a girl, but the lesson I’m most grateful she insisted on was how to walk in high heels on city streets. I have a sneaking suspicion that most girls and women aren’t taught to do this, and as heels get higher and higher, it gets more dangerous and, frankly, less attractive. I can run in almost any shoe, I can turn them into pretty effective weapons if needed, and I feel incredibly confident rocking any height on almost any surface. I regularly get compliments on how well I walk in all sorts of shoes, usually accompanied by complaints of how badly most women walk in heels. Do yourself a favor, if you can’t find an actual teacher, practice in your shoes before you go out. This is all even more important if you rarely wear heels. You can stave off a lot of foot damage if you walk properly in all shoes and switch up the heights from day to day, and your feet (and legs and back) will thank you as you get older.
While we’re on shoes – buy the highest-quality ones you can and break them in before you wear them out. Use shoe trees in any shoes they will fit in. Again, your feet will thank you for the investment. It’s far better to have a few really good shoes in neutrals than a rack of cool shoes that make you cry by the end of every night.
Foot pain and back pain will slow you down more than almost any other chronic pain. Do what you can to keep those body parts happy. Take care of them.
Pain, of course, comes in many forms, and I wish someone had told me how important the grieving process is not just for the loss of people, but in all situations where you feel a form of grief. Learn the stages, recognize the symptoms, and use your knowledge as a tool to get through.
Don’t go it alone. This is the hardest lesson for me, personally – to not only ask for help when I need it (and we ALL need it at times) but to accept it graciously. It’s silly, because it’s very common to be better at giving help than receiving it. Think about how you feel if someone rebuffs or ignores your offers of help, and then recognize that your loved ones probably feel the same way if you need help and don’t ask for it or refuse it. In other words, not only do we all need help sometimes, but we need to have the opportunity to help others. It’s a win-win. Why do we see it as a sign of weakness in ourselves, but a sign of strength in others? We’re social creatures, we’re supposed to depend on each other.
Raising kids isn’t the only thing that takes a village. Life does. Find your village. It might be your family, it might be a group of friends, it might be your actual neighbors, it might even encompass the globe, and it will likely be a big mess of all of the above. It will change form and shape and membership over the years, as all villages do, but a good one will last through thick and thin. Communications tools have given us the opportunity to create far more diverse communities and hunt down the right fits in whole new ways!
Fit. Ahhh, fit. Fit is the most important aspect to just about anything. You have all these ideas when you’re starting out, who you want to be, what you want to do with your life, who you would like to be with, and on and on. It’s good to have these ideas, they are great motivational tools. It’s also important to hold them loosely.
There will be moments when you realize you finally have something you really wanted and worked for, but it just isn’t the right fit.
There will be times when you look around and realize that some aspect of your life is pretty much the opposite of your goals, but it fits like a bespoke pair of gloves.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is in college about majors and career paths. She’s lucky enough to be a young woman of many talents and interests, but that means she has some pretty difficult decisions to make and she keeps hearing from all sides how important this choice is, how it will define the rest of her life. First of all, that’s only true if she lets it be true. We live in an age of reinvention, and if we have learned anything from recent years, it’s that the career you start with is unlikely to be the one you end with, and most people have careers outside their majors. That’s a wonderful aspect of modern times and should make things easier on 18-20 year olds who are in school, but instead, we put increased pressure on every little decision they make. Of course it matters, but your major only defines you in narrow ways. College should be more about learning how to think and communicate than what to think.
On Real Time with Bill Maher a few weeks ago, Ana Marie Cox said, “Feminism isn’t about making women happy, to begin with, you know, living is not about being happy… it’s about being fulfilled.” It’s an important distinction. “Fulfilled” is a very personal state. For example, I always thought the only fulfillment I would need was professional, but since I wound up in a very good romantic partnership, I found I feel a bit empty if we don’t have time to nurture our relationship, no matter what else I might accomplish. On the other hand, if I gave everything up for my partner, I’d be utterly unfulfilled. Balance doesn’t mean equal, it means not neglecting any aspect of your life. Back when I interviewed Shannon Moore for this site, I was struck by how completely turning her focus around gave her the right life almost by accident, a life that is fulfilling on multiple levels and prioritized in the ways that suit her needs. That’s the real version of “having it all” – not a new role that society pins on us, but being able to choose what our own priorities are and find ways to make them work together.
Lifestyle matters. There is no one right lifestyle. Try them on until you find the right one for you.
The thing is, you have to work hard and aim high, but you also have to watch for the completely unexpected opportunities that might lead you in a whole new direction. Taking a sudden sharp turn doesn’t negate anything you did in the past, not at all – it’s using what you have learned in ways that make you feel more fulfilled. You’ll constantly be surprised at which skills translate to a new area.
From the age of about 3 until I was settled into my first career I was constantly asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up? What are your plans?” Well, I still don’t know or really have any. Plans are pretty much pointless and I’ll never truly grow up (see above). I may personally be an atheist, but I adore the spirit of the old line, “Man plans, God laughs.”
I do know that I have had a pretty incredible life, I’ve gotten to do all sorts of completely unexpected things that make other people drool and have stockpiled enough great stories already to just kick back and tell them for the rest of my life. This isn’t a brag, it’s a message that you can have your own version of the same thing if you open yourself up to broader experiences and aren’t afraid to veer off your current path. The only reasons I haven’t collapsed from the insanely bad times are certain people in my life and the realization that the best opportunities come when you least expect them and from the strangest sources. That’s why survival is actually worth the effort.
The most overwhelming, all-encompassing lesson I’ve learned so far, though? It’s very simple – say “yes” as much as you can. Being able to give a firm “no” is very important, too, but it should only be used when saying “yes” would be damaging. I have never regretted trying something new or leaving my comfort zone, but I have missed out on some cool chances to do those things, and that bugs me sometimes. Trust me, your comfort zone will be waiting for you if you wish to return, a little foray out is almost always a good thing.
The word “go” is the most beautiful word in the English language. I started saying that based on pre-launch checklists for rockets, but I’ve found that it’s true in every way. “Go” encompasses both starting and continuing, but always movement up and forwards. Which, in the end, is all we can really do unless we figure out not only how to travel in time, but how to handle paradoxes.
Don’t forget the macro view. It’s so easy to get caught up in details and weighed down by the past, but if you step back look at the entirety of something, be it your life or all of human history, you can see that the jumpy graph usually keeps going up.
Plan for the worst and hope for the best at all times.
Be yourself, even if you don’t yet know who you are. Finding yourself takes a lifetime and is accomplished far more easily if you look, but not too hard.
Teaching someone else is the best way to find out what you know and what you need to learn next.
Listening to someone else with an open mind is the only way to learn, even if you disagree with everything that person says.
Burst every bubble you find yourself in. Meet more people. Trust yourself and your instincts. Look for both the good in people and the warning signs. Fight the fears that slow you down but trust the fears that keep you safe. Don’t trust anyone who seems to agree with you on everything or quotes any one person or book or anything too frequently. Do trust the people who have earned it. Show your love through actions, not words. When you fail, and you absolutely WILL FAIL, use the lessons and, instead of beating yourself up, use that energy to try to improve yourself and avoid making the exact same mistakes. That’s all we can do, all anyone can do.