21 Things I’ve Learned at 21

Credits: Isa Zapata for Torch Zine


I’m 22 today! This year, my birthday has fallen pretty neatly in-between graduation and the beginning of my adult life, which means extra introspection upon another year of age. I’m spending the weekend up north in Michigan, but thought I’d take the time to write up a post on some of the things I’ve learned thus far in 21 years.


  1. You don’t need to convince anyone of your worth. Unlike the free market, you are not a good that someone needs to be persuaded to buy. As it turns out, human beings are born with a lot of inherent value to each other. I used to think I had to prove that I was good enough, and I ran myself ragged doing it. It took me a while to realize that if someone doesn’t see it, no amount of laboring will ever change their mind. Which takes me to number two…
  2. You are enough. Inherently. Just by merit of existing. I know this might sound all kooky and millennial, but I’m not saying you can be a complete drain on society and be happy about it. I’m saying that if you are a good, decent person, that is more than enough to deserve other good, decent people. A lot of us have been taught that we’re only worthy if we get straight As, if we fit into size 2 jeans, if we make six figures and have all these annotations on our resumes. It can be hard to break out of that utilitarian mindset, but I think once you hit a breaking point, you start to explore the absurdity of other ideas. Why is it such an alien concept to accept that we are worthy just because we are human? It doesn’t mean you should stop trying at things and just coast by. It just means that you should stop doing things in desperate hopes to fill up what only you can give to yourself. 
  3. Don’t wait until you’re fully ready to do something–do it now. In retrospect, the decisions that transformed my life the most were always things that caused me a lot of discomfort at first. Don’t be afraid to fake it until you make it, because most people don’t know what the heck they’re really doing at first anyway.
  4. “The universe has three answers for you at any given time: ‘yes’, ‘not yet’, and ‘I have something better for you’.”
  5. “The universe is not in a hurry; you are. It’s why you feel so tired, stressed, and anxious.”
  6. Speaking of the universe: you need to become comfortable with uncertainty. As an atheist, I’ve definitely gotten a lot more spiritual this year. I’ve always been pretty leery of religion, but I find that as a deeply introspective and existentially despairing type of person, I need to have some sort of faith in the unknown. Whether it’s a coping mechanism or a veil over the godless truth is another issue entirely. In the end, spirituality for me increases utility and leads to a happier, calmer mind.   
  7. The entree your friend orders always looks better. This is my way of refreshing the ragged “grass is always greener” aphorism. Comparing yourself to someone else is just so shitty because 1) you don’t even know the whole story to compare, 2) life operates in ebb and flows, and 3) why do we have to be the same person anyway?
  8. Continuing that thought: everyone is on a different timeline. One of my worst fears in life was/is “falling behind.” I didn’t really know what that looked like, but I just knew that I could not stand to watch all my peers surpass me in the racetrack of life and feeling like doors of opportunity were closing on me, or that I was too late to do something. But the concept of “falling behind” assumes there is some sort of universal blueprint that everyone must follow in the first place. Go to an Ivy League school. Date your first serious boyfriend for four years in college. Get a well-paying job in New York. Collect a graduate degree. Get engaged by 28 and married by 30. When did I get the idea that I needed to do that, and more importantly, whose timeline is that anyway? It seems strange to say, yet a lot of us haven’t actually thought about what we want. It’s easier to just go along with the status quo, not realizing that it sets us up for inevitable failure while distracting us from taking active control of our lives.
  9. Learn to accept and give compliments freely. A lot of us can’t accept compliments very well. Next time someone tells you they love your outfit, don’t downplay their compliment or negate it, forcing them to perform additional emotional labor. Just smile and say thank you. It doesn’t make you vain, or presumptuous, or peacock-y. In fact, the opposite.
  10. Practice gratitude. I spent a couple months writing down five things I was grateful for a day, and it always left me in a better mood. I haven’t reached the level of enlightenment necessary for meditation yet, but I find mindful reflection to be a baby step towards it.
  11. What’s for you will not miss you. This applies particularly to people. Sometimes we’re so busy chasing them that we don’t stop to wonder why we want so badly that which does not want us.
  12. That being said…no good thing comes easy. Pain is inevitable—so which kind will you choose? We spend so much energy trying to avoid pain, but actually, the harsh truth is that you are going to be in pain anyway. Read that again: you are going to be in pain anyway. The real question is, are you going to choose the type of pain that’s good for you? Being in a toxic friendship is painful. Cardio is painful. But there is a difference between challenging yourself to become better (good pain) and living an endless cycle of suffering (bad pain). Remember: short term losses, long term gains. In other words, the sooner we accept that pain is inevitable, the better we can stomach the good kind that will lead to a ton of happiness and self-fulfillment down the line.
  13. Always keep your passport in a safe, zipped place. This year I lost my passport temporarily in a stack of library books, and then spilled half a bottle of hand sanitizer over it in my purse. Yikes! In both instances, it could have been avoided if I had just kept it in a safe, designated holder.
  14. “People underestimate how much they can do in one day, and overestimate how much they can do in one year.” 
  15. Know how to isolate and listen to your intuition. I think it took me like 20 years to learn where my quads and hamstrings actually were. Similarly, I was also wildly out of touch with my intuition. It is, as I discovered, not just some floaty, random feeling that resides in your gut and comes and goes like a petulant muse. It is actually your higher brain recognizing the patterns your conscious mind struggles to see. It’s like, Yo, this is the sixteenth slightly different permutation of the same problem you’ve been experiencing your whole life. Cut it out. But no, your reptilian brain convinces you it’s really different this time, and so onwards you stumble. It’s taken me some time, though, to not only acknowledge the existence of intuition, but understand its power. Just because you can’t see the reason right away for it, doesn’t mean it should be discounted. If you sit with yourself for long enough you will realize that intuition is actually highly sharp and logical: it just takes into account the entire iceberg that you can’t see right now. 
  16. Reapply your SPF (like, every two hours). I use facial sunscreen religiously, but I only found this new tidbit out like a week ago. Maybe I shouldn’t put it on the list until I’ve confirmed that this isn’t just the work of sunscreen industry lobbyists, but I’ve definitely sweated off all my protection before and neglected to reapply. By the way, if you don’t wear sunscreen everyday, do it. 
  17. It is essential to have boundaries. Having limits are the cornerstone of self-respect. Without boundaries, not only do you open yourself up to be taken advantage of, but you end up risking everything else good in your life. If you don’t stick up for yourself, nobody will.
  18. Try a diffuser. They seem unnecessary. They seem like the adult version of lava lamps. But I bought one on sale at MUJI this year, along with a little vial of lavender essential oil, and that stuff honestly brought me so much happiness. I’m not even that big on my sense of smell, but retiring every night to the jovial little bubbling of an aromatherapeutic soft sphere of light by my bedside was…delightful.
  19. The difference between loneliness and aloneness. It’s okay to fear loneliness, but you will never be alone. Loneliness comes from a disconnect in the self. Aloneness comes from when you’re standing on an ice cap in Antartica and there’s nobody around. Learn that no amount of people can be the antidote to the work you need to do within, but that just like you, everyone else is going through it. 
  20. A couple months ago, I was on vacation with a group of friends when one of them asked during a late night heart-to-heart: “What are you addicted to?” That question really made me think. I believe everyone is addicted to something, and that our dependency on these things, people, or concepts makes us fundamentally unhappy. Figuring out what those weak spots are, why we have them, and how to break their control over us is a powerful form of self-care. So what’s your vice?
  21. Drink more water. 

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