20 Life Lessons I Want My 20-Year-Old To Know

by Deborah Copaken
Originally Published: 
Turning 40

My eldest son just turned 20. I don’t even know what to do with that number. It means I’m old, for one. Like, really old. And yet I also remember exactly where I was when I turned 20: in college, taking a Shakespeare midterm. I remember the shape of my bedroom, those who passed through it, the ’50s-era flowered thrift store blouse I was wearing that day because I was going through my ironic June Cleaver phase. I remember the show I was in. I could probably even still do those dance moves from muscle memory, if asked. You know why? Because it was yesterday.

But mostly I remember the hope. The hope of a 20-year-old, looking forward to the rest of her life. What amazing surprises would it bring? Would I find love, a career, mental clarity? What about that fuzzy tan sweater I lost in that bar? I miss that sweater. It had great buttons.

I found all of those things except the sweater, and then somewhere along the way I lost them all, too. It would be easy to blame myself for these losses, but as anyone who’s ever lost a sweater in a bar knows, sometimes shit just happens. You turn around to grab a beer off the bar, and then, boom!, gone. Bye bye, sweater. Bye bye, career. Bye bye, clarity. Bye bye, love.

And yet, looking back, I can definitely see where I made certain choices I should probably have reconsidered. No one’s life is immune to mistakes, but I figured I’d take a moment to give my no-longer-teenage son some advice from his crotchety, highly imperfect and slightly annoying mother.

Herewith, my darling son, are 20 random nuggets of maternal advice for your newly 20-year-old self:

1. Make your own coffee.

Take every penny you would have spent at Starbucks and invest it instead.

2. Girls who don’t answer your texts are not playing coy.

They’re playing games you will never win.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for more money than the amount being offered on the table.

None of this “Sorry, we don’t have the budget.” That’s a lie. If they want you enough, they will find the budget.

4. Roommates have their downsides.

Labeling their hummus, for one. Leaving their pubic hairs in the bathtub drain is another. It’s okay to live alone, to feel loneliness. In fact, I urge you to live alone at some point. It will teach you who you are, stripped of your tribe. Plus you have a guitar, for heaven’s sake. That’s what it’s there for.

5. Dance.

As often as life allows. Dance by yourself. Dance with others. Play the music as loud as you can without annoying the neighbors. Actually, sometimes just annoy them. “Blister in the Sun” is only 3 ½ minutes. The neighbors can handle 3 ½ minutes of Violent Femmes.

6. Condoms are your friends.

Nope. Nothing more to say on that topic. Moving on …

7. ‘Follow your bliss’ is stupid advice.

If I were to follow my bliss, I’d be sitting naked on a beach in Bali and homeless. (Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad, but you know what I mean.) Find a career that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and to lose track of time once you’re there. That’s the goal in every endeavor: flow. If you’re not feeling the flow, you might want to reconsider, start again. (It’s okay to start again. And again and again.)

8. Baths and naps, rinse, repeat.

Work them into your life now, because by the time you have kids, you will lose entire decades without them. Hammocks, too. Seriously, if you ever pass by a hammock, just sit in it. For as long as you can.

9. Speaking of seizing upon hammock-like opportunities when they present themselves, here’s one from my dad: ‘Never turn down an opportunity to use the restroom.’

It has served me and my bladder quite well over the years.

10. ‘I need more time’ hardly ever turns into ‘I love you.’

In rare instances, sure, but usually not. Cut your losses. Move on.

11. Spaghetti alle vongole is surprisingly easy and not too expensive to make.

Two big pots. Boil water for pasta in one. In the other: oil, garlic, pepper flakes, bunch o’ clams. (Wash them first! Cockles, Little Necks, doesn’t matter.) Put a lid on the pot with the clams. Remove the shells as they open. Add some white wine to that clam-juicy, oily, peppery brew once the clams are set aside: ¼ cup, ½ cup, who cares? Don’t pay too close attention to recipes. Find your own groove with food. It’s not that hard. Handful of parsley, too. Throw the al dente pasta in there, cook it a bit longer, add some butter or not, clams on top of that, prego. Dinner. If you forget any of these steps or don’t have any wine, it’s usually okay. Clams are like that. Can’t really go wrong.

12. White bread is the devil.

Avoid it at all costs. However, if you are in Paris, this rule goes out the window. French baguettes and croissants are their own religion. We are their loyal supplicants.

13. Doctors don’t know everything.

In fact, sometimes they give terrible advice. If you feel in your gut that something is off, it usually is. Seek out a second opinion. Or just call me. I’m the least hypochondriacal person you know who also happens to have a knack for Internet medical sleuthing.

14. Take your time choosing a life partner.

Red flags at the beginning have the potential to turn into giant red weights around your ankles that will pull you under. And don’t let real estate, loneliness or desperation dictate your choices either: Don’t move in with someone just because your lease is up. Wait until you feel like you really know them.

15. Don’t wait until retirement to travel.

Do it now, before you have kids. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Look for deals on flights. Figure out where you have friends who can host you and go there. Do a home exchange.

16. Buy a few nice pieces of clothing that will last decades instead of lots of inexpensive things that will fall apart and go out of style next year.

I still have several items of clothing I bought in my twenties. Yes, the black cashmere sweater has its second set of elbow patches, and your sister stole my green suede jacket, and I have to wear the Catholic schoolgirl skirt with tights these days, but the black leather pants are as good as new.

17. There is no roadmap.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. A lot of times you’ll be standing there at a crossroads, wondering which path to choose, totally baffled. Each road has its benefits. Plus it’s foggy. You can barely see 20 yards in front of you. You can ask for my opinion or the opinions of friends, but ultimately you will have to choose which way you go and face the consequences of that choice alone.

18. Don’t be afraid to use workarounds.

Toothpicks and glue can hold up a fallen shelf. Duct tape makes an excellent hem in a pinch. If you haven’t had time to shop, a peanut butter and banana sandwich is a perfectly acceptable meal. A grocery bag can double as wrapping paper. Wine glasses do not have to be stemmed. Richard and Ruthie Rogers, a world renowned architect married to a celebrated chef, both of whom could clearly afford stemware if they wanted, only have one kind of humble water glass in their house. I know. I peeked.

19. Name calling was not acceptable when you were 5, and it’s still not acceptable after 25.

If someone is calling you names, call them on it.

20. Call your mother.

I’m not going to be around forever. And I love you more than anyone else on this planet: a good thing to remember when you’re feeling sad, lonely, or lost, which you will definitely feel from time to time. When you were an infant and feeling that way, I used to hold you tight to my chest, and we’d dance to “Son of a Preacher Man,” which I’d sing off-key into your ear. You’re too heavy for me to do that to you now, but we can still do some sort of virtual version of that on the phone. Minus the off-key singing, of course.

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