Two years ago I read the article 23 things to do instead of getting engaged before 23 and drafted this frustrated response (note: after writing my response the original blog post was picked up by Huffington Post, and I am jealous, I admit it). I can tell that the original list is definitely written by a 23 year old. In fact, every time I read it, the list becomes more idiotic because so much of the advice is “Be a jerk! LOLZ” which (by the by) most people do naturally. This is fine, but perhaps not useful, since there’s a lack of perspective in place because the author was 22 when she wrote the list. If your life goals are as whiplash-ey as the Peace Corps and a Pinterest project (not multiple Pinterest projects, just the one) then honey, you have no clue what you’re doing with yourself. Basically, I’m saying that you really don’t know what you should have done to make your 20s efficient and amazing until you’re clearly out of them. Time to swoop in and fix this mess with a ton of unsolicited advice.
I tell my students this and it’s true: your 20s are a stressful decade. In general, you are doing all the work of getting your life together. Except maybe you aren’t. As I told someone last week (which they tweeted): “You can screw up your life, just not too much.” What I meant by this is that you can make mistakes in life and recover, as long as the mistakes aren’t colossal ones. The teens and twenties are maybe not a great time to have a child you’re unprepared for, or to nurture a serious drug problem. Crazy advice, right? I’m just getting started.
And so here is my list of 23 Things You Should Actually Do Before You’re 23:
1. Move Out of Your Parent’s House – Seriously, you need to move out. If your parents want you to stay at home indefinitely then they are working through some empty nest issues. You need to move out and start your own life.
2. Learn How to Budget – Why are you always broke? Because you never bothered to learn how to budget. Get an app or open up Excel, itemize your monthly expenses, and enter in your post-tax pay. Be realistic, too, if you need $100 a month for new clothes put it in the budget and make sure you can afford it and, you know, rent for doing #1. Tip: A good rule of thumb is that your rent should never be more than 30% of your post-tax (take home) pay. In your 20s it might be as high as 50% but that needs to be short-term, not long term.
3. Cut Down on Drinking and Drug Use – Five drinks at a college party and you are so freaking cool, five drinks at a company dinner party and everyone will gossip about your drinking problem. Also, even if it’s “just pot” (as potheads say) you need to cut down on or stop using drugs; they’re an expensive way to keep you from caring about wasting your life. You will wake up one day and realize you’ve done nothing with with your life and smoked the cash equivalent of your dream vacation, and then you will cry. Don’t do that to yourself.
4. Learn to be Alone – Bad relationships can go on for months or years before the inevitable breakup because people are afraid of being alone. Turns out that being alone is not so bad and can even be fun. If you make the fear of being alone go away you will make better relationship decisions, I promise.
5. Live Alone – This is so important it’s basically on the list three times. Having your own place is amazing and helps you figure out who you are independent of a parent, friend, or significant other.
6. Learn How to Cook – If you don’t you will get so literally and figuratively sick of fast and food it’s uncanny. Learning how to cook is a great life skill and never fails to impress people. Never. Fails.
7. Unravel the Mysteries of the Human Reproductive System – TMI. I know a lot of you will think this shouldn’t be on the list, but I cannot tell you how many young ladies in their mid- and even late 20s that I’ve talked to who really have no idea how their menstrual cycle works. Everyone (gay men uninterested in having children excluded) needs to know precisely how babies appear in bellies.
8. Apologize to Someone You Bullied – Oddly even people who are picked on tend to be bullies at least once. You were probably a dick to someone in High School so you need to look them up on Facebook (or current social media) and apologize.
9. Realize that Your Parents are Just People – If you hadn’t already done so before by your 20s, you need to realize that your parents are just people too. People who did the best they could (I hope) but who are people none the less. People who had hopes and dreams, some of which did not come true, possibly because you ate up all their resources and never moved out. Kidding! Really though, parents are flawed human beings just like you are, you need to stop judging them and accept them for who they are.
10. Thank Your Parents – They made huge sacrifices to get you where you are, even if they were not the best parents, they gave a lot to raise you. Of course if they were really awful people who abused you, you can skip this step and would be better off hating them. Especially thank your mother, her body got completely jacked up bringing you into this world and is it not the same anymore. It will never be the same. You’re welcome.
11. Forgive Someone – In moderation. Forgive someone for something you are holding on to that is not worth holding on to. It is time to start letting things go. This doesn’t mean you have to forgive and forget, but forgiving will keep it from eating you up inside.
12. Go to College – or at least trade school. If you do not you will realize – too late – that the people at the top who bothered getting an education work less and make way more than the people at the bottom who do all the work. Example: Dental assistants make between $12-$16 an hour and do almost all the work at 40-50+ hours a week, whereas the Dentist makes $100-$500K a year (depending on specialty) and works maybe 10-20 hours a week. This example is from experience. Try dental school first, then if you wash out become a hygienist.
13. Start and Keep Using Sunscreen – You will have no reason to at first, then you will hit 35 and people will ask you why you look so young. Sun damage is a killer and will make you look older than you really are. This is another good reason not to smoke cigarettes, unless you think looking like crap is attractive.
14. Find a Hobby – or hobbies. After many years I now know that I like to collect contemporary art, drink fancy tea, travel with my boyfriend, and make collages. A year ago it was yoga, nature walks, and dying my hair rainbow colors. Hobbies will change over time and you will lose interest in them occasionally so it’s always good to have a few on deck to rotate between. Having hobbies is 1) fun and 2) will help with #4 on the list.
15. Find Yourself – This is the hardest thing to do on the list. Item #14 will help as well as #4, but you need to know who you are and what your values are. This is especially important when looking for a life partner because, if you don’t know who you are, you might (accidentally or otherwise) become an extension of them.
16. Prune the Friend Bush – As time goes on there will be friends, even longtime friends, whose life and values change in a way that are not aligned with your own. It’s okay and even good to let those friendships go. Same goes for abusive family members; give yourself permission to terminate unhealthy relationships.
17. Try Therapy – Life is hard and things will come along that really mess with your head. Try out therapy once and if you like it keep going. It’s amazing to have an unbiased person in your corner. You tell them your goals and values, then they remind you of those goals and values. It’s also nice to talk to someone who doesn’t have an agenda. Even if your friends and family try not to be, they will always be a little biased.
18. Go for Your Dreams – Your early 20s is the perfect time to do things that might be a little risky, but also might be amazing. For example changing your major from philosophy to 19th century french poetry to film. If you don’t do these things now you will always have a “what if” floating around in your head and then you’re risking a mid-life crisis. Quitting your job to major in film is much more dicey at 50.
19. Have a Plan B … and C – While going for your dreams have a backup plan (or two) in place. Like a minor in library science, for example, that way if your philosophy major dreams do go south you aren’t left skill-less in a brutal marketplace. Also, inheriting your parent’s money is not an acceptable backup plan. You have no idea how many factors are in play, between prolonged illnesses to trophy husbands/wives that magically show up a few years before someone dies, there’s very little likelihood that you will inherit anything. I know that sounds awful, but elderly people get loopy and lonely at the same time, and that’s just how things go.
20. Love Something Unconditionally – I suggest a pet because I think babies can definitely wait. As a child and teenager you are profoundly selfish, sorry if that stings, but it’s the truth. Children pretty much only care about themselves, to the point that they’d rather have mum and dad stay miserably married than be happy alone (aka divorced) because then they wouldn’t be in the same house with baby (aka the child who is selfish). You need to get over this and love something completely unconditionally, which means putting it’s needs before yours without hesitation or regret. If your cat needs a $5,000 operation and you would max out your credit cards to save it and then not feel irritated by the bill, then you have achieved this goal.
21. Donate to Charity – In your 20s you need to realize that the world isn’t about just you (see also #20) and that you can help in some small way to make it better. Instead of selling things you don’t want anymore, perhaps donate them to charity. If you get a big tax return consider giving some of it to a local animal shelter. The world is larger than you and you can help make it better even if it feels like a drop in the bucket. This is also why you should vote.
22. Be Uncool – You are probably uncool already or you will be in the near future, trust me. That’s fine, because being “cool” is super overrated and is just external validation anyway, which no fully-realized person needs or even wants. Like the things you want to like, be uncool, because no matter how lame, someone else will share your interest with you.
23. Breathe – You will get through this, just take a deep breath. It’s so tempting to go online and see your High School friends successful, holding up a PhD. in one hand, the keys to their new house in the other, and think, “I’m a total screw up.” You’re not a screw up, you are a person who (almost certainly) made some mistakes and it will get better, and also I would stop looking up old friends online because that’s just going to make you sad. It’s trite, but it’s true, life is a marathon, not a race. Breathe.