5 Lessons From My 20s That I Carry With Me

by Jessica Lee
Originally Published: 

I was running some errands the other day and flipped on the radio to the local classic rock station. I almost had a heart attack when I heard Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam belting out “Even Flow.” I have long retired my flannel shirts and Doc Martens, but when did the grunge music of the ’90s become “classic rock”? These stations are supposed to play Led Zeppelin, the Doobie Brothers and the Rolling Stones, not Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. I guess this means that baby, I’m so classic. It’s funny though—I don’t feel older, unless I indulge in too much wine and the resulting three-day recovery period, while my younger self could have metabolized it within six hours.

I’m nearing 39, which means that the big 4-0 is just around the corner. After my boyfriend left me crying on a barstool in New Orleans on my 30th birthday, I figure my 40th will be a breeze. Although I don’t feel older, I do feel wiser. Aside from returning to my twentysomething body, I would never want to return to the years of bad decisions and insecurities. There are at least five lessons learned during my late teens and early 20s that I proudly carry with me as I prepare to enter my 40s. Here are the five that stand out:

1. You Don’t Know Everything

In my late teens and early 20s, I was convinced that I knew it all, especially what was best for me. I understood relationships, marriages, parenting, careers and the accompanying consequences of each choice surrounding these areas. I was quick to judge myself and quick to judge others. I wish someone would have told me that no matter how much education I thought I had, there was no possible way to learn or know everything about everything. Indeed, informal education may be more important than a formal education—a notion I continue to remember as I complete my PhD.

2. You Don’t Have to Have It All Figured Out

We put loads of pressure on our teens and young adults to figure out their futures. Get good grades, find a good job, go to college, get married, have kids, follow the road most traveled for the easy life. Goals, short-term and long-term, are important tools for planning and motivation, but they are not written in stone. As I explored different career paths, I learned that it is okay to make changes, pursue other goals, and remain open to opportunities that present themselves.

3. Love Your Body

I have struggled with my weight for the majority of my life and had a poor body image in my early 20s. Maybe it came from my mother’s struggle with her weight or from Hollywood images of what the “perfect” woman should like. Regardless, I wish someone would have told me to love my body, instead of suggesting a gym or a new fad diet to try. Sometime in my early 20s, I began a ritual of staring at myself naked in the mirror before or after showering. Instead of picking out my flaws with a red marker like Dr. Christian Troy on Nip/Tuck, I study my naked body and find three things that I like about it. Sometimes this exercise takes 30 seconds, and other times, it takes 30 minutes, but I always find three things I love, whether it’s the curve of my breasts, the color of my eyes or the length of my legs.

4. Live as Cheaply as Possible

Like many others, I learned the value of a dollar when I was a teenager. I worked as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home to support my affinity for Girbaud and Guess jeans and Benetton sweatshirts, because my parents would not pay for designer clothes. When I moved out and got a better paying job, I figured that I had more money to buy more stuff. By age 25, I’m certain that I had nothing—except a closet full of clothes and at least 75 pairs of shoes—to show for all of my hard work. It turns out that I didn’t learn the true value of a dollar until I became a mother and learned the real differences between needs and wants.

5. Learn the Difference Between Taking Risks and Being Stupid

We all know the cliche: Without risk, there is no reward. Yes, but I’m certain that taking risks like walking around in large cities and foreign countries unaccompanied, getting behind the wheel after a few drinks, meeting that guy from some AOL chat room without telling a friend and quitting a job before getting a new one do in fact fall into the “stupid” category. I came out on the other side of the decade virtually unscathed—some may say lucky—but I am aware that others who made these kinds of choices did not find such happy endings. As I matured, I came to understand that taking risks means trying new things, meeting new people and choosing the road less traveled without putting myself in immediate danger.

After spending countless hours working with young adults in their late teens and early 20s, I’m positive that a parent or adult telling me these things would not have mattered. Certain lessons we have to learn on our own, with an extra-steep learning curve for some. I am positive that when my 8-year-old daughter turns 18, I will need to keep large quantities of Xanax and wine on hand until she approaches 30. But for now, I find comfort in the notion that becoming wiser is truly a gift.

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