Learning is pretty flipping important to me. I’m the irritating friend who nods sagely at screw-ups and considers them ‘life lessons’, because if we’re not making mistakes then how are we ever learning, really? These aren’t meant to be taken as ~life advice~, but rather a list of things I’ve learned in my twenty four completed years; things I would tell to my fourteen year-old self if I didn’t believe so vehemently in the power of learning through experience.
I got lost in this and wrote in excess, so I’ve made it a two-parter. Second part here!
1. It’s okay not to feel like a grown-up. For every day that I operate under the illusion of having my shit together, I spend two days eating ice cream for every meal whilst dressed in clothes I’ve ambitiously deemed ‘loungewear’ or crying in a sad heap because my tolerance for ‘things going wrong’ is approximately zero. Truthfully, we’re all just bumbling along; doing our best and trying not fuck up too spectacularly. Being a grown-up just means having an excellent game face.
2. There is no ‘wrong’ way to do this early-twenties thing. Some of my friends are already married with children, spending their weekends at baby classes or picking out dining room furniture. Conversely, some of my friends seem to live their lives with a drink in each hand and powder up their nostrils. Neither of these choices is necessarily right or wrong, nor are any others on the spectrum – they’re just choices.
There’s an exorbitant amount of pressure on us to be everything to everybody, living a perfectly Instagrammable twenty-something life at all times, and we’d be big fat liars if we said we’d never felt drawn into it even a touch. We’re expected to work hard but party hard and be promiscuous but also find True Love and any time you feel content with life there are ten people telling you how you’re missing out. It’s difficult, but enormously liberating, to remember that there is no set path to follow: you do you.
3. In fact, “you do you” is a pretty good rule to live by. Dance to your own funky music and let other people dance to theirs, mm’kay?
4. Mental ill health can be a hurdle, but it doesn’t have to be a roadblock. I don’t say this to be flippant. I’ve experienced the whole spectrum of mental ill health, from genuine contentment to suicidality, and if someone had put this point under my nose whilst I was at the latter end I may have regarded it with weary contempt. I wanted to include it because being unwell plagued so much of my teen/early adult life, and it’s only now that I’m beginning to keep my head above water for lengthier periods of time. I’m probably never going to be ‘cured’ but I’m learning how to cope; I can tell myself “this isn’t forever,” and now I can hear it, too.
That being said, I understand this is being written from a place of relative wellness. Seeking help was the best thing I ever did – if you’re hesitant, I would implore you to try in some way.
5. You can be happy both in and out of a relationship. At twenty-one, my three-year relationship came to an abrupt end. I was in my final year of University and had built my entire young adult identity around my boyfriend (tip: don’t do this), so my sudden arrival into singledom felt like becoming something less than a whole.
I have honestly never been less prepared for something in my entire life, and at times it was excruciating. But, after a few months, I learned that it was not only doable but also actually rather bloody nice. I could talk freely to cute boys and watch what I wanted on Netflix and be blissfully selfish for a little while. It was transformative. I’m in a new relationship now, three years on, but I realise it might not be this way forever – and that prospect doesn’t scare me quite the way it used to.
6. Vulnerability is a virtue – don’t let dating make you jaded. I have been ghosted and stealthed and kicked out of bed at midnight, coming home to sob on my housemate’s shoulder into a consolatory cup of tea. Similarly, I have had excellent sex and excellent adventures: dating is a mixed bag. Everybody is a little bit battered and bruised, and it’s easy to put up defences against ever being hurt again, but that also risks keeping out the great stuff. The stuff that makes your heart soar and makes you giggle like a teenager. The stuff that makes you feel invincible.
7. Things that are important in a relationship: trust, respect, and sexual compatibility. I don’t profess to be anything of a relationship expert, but I know any relationship without these three things is all but hopeless.
8. Any ‘secret to good skin’ is bullshit. I cringe to think about the £££ I’ve thrown away in the desperate pursuit of clear, healthy-looking skin. I’ve leapt on beauty bandwagons and been lured by the dulcet tones of too-convincing counter staff, all promising the complexion of my dreams, yet it’s only with (ongoing!) trial and error that I find what works for me. Hell, I have a pal who cured her persistent acne by washing her face with bottled water – that certainly won’t work for everybody. Say it after me, now: Your. Holy. Grail. Is. Not. My. Holy. Grail.
9. Alcohol doesn’t have to accompany you to every social event. You are (probably) interesting enough without it. I don’t drink a lot, not any more. I’m not teetotal by any means: I’ll have a drink or three, but my days of becoming well acquainted with the toilet after a night out are (hopefully) behind me. I’ve recently moved to the sort of industry where after-work drinks on a Friday are a Big Deal (last week I was booed in a bar after announcing that I was going home) and I’ll admit to covering up my relative sobriety on occasion. It’s hard to assert yourself when you’re going against the status quo, particularly when some people see it as a personal slight, but I’m trying to be comfortable with my choices and not falter when someone slyly suggests that not drinking = boring.
10. If you ever think, “huh, that seems pretty cool,” try it first and ask questions later. I have fenced and pole danced and rock climbed and not all of it was for me, but I’ve never regretted giving something a go. You don’t have to commit to doing it forever to have fun.
11. That being said: Don’t quit something just because it feels tough. Quit if you hate the process, not if you hate the effort. I’ve quit a fair number of things in my short lifetime: German, piano, dance, regular exercise. I often think I could have been a trilingual piano-playing ballerina if I didn’t have such feeble willpower. Alas, I invariably give up with most things once I realise that reaching a ‘not sucking’ stage requires both an extensive period of being mortifyingly shit and a lot of hard work. My new goal is to pick a small handful of things and stick with them, gritting my teeth through the initial cringeworthy “why do I bother” phase – if only to shed myself of my ‘perpetual quitter’ badge.
12. Money is better spent on experiences than material goods – but ‘feeling good about yourself’ can be an experience, too. As an absolute sucker for a new anything this is another thing I’m still learning. Every time I travel I feel myself criticising my material trappings, dreaming of a simpler life where I wander barefoot and own only four items of clothing. “All of my future earnings will be spent on seeing the world!” I declare in earnest, before returning to the rat race and suddenly remembering all of the ‘vital’ things I somehow ‘need’ (another pair of black boots, yoga classes, anything from Anthropologie…).
There’s something to be said for balance. I don’t want to experience an overwhelming guilt each time I buy a lipstick because, hey, that lipstick is probably going to make me feel bangin’. But I know that money spent making memories will always beat the feeling of acquiring new things – despite the momentary frisson of joy as the sales assistant hands over the bag.