On July 4th, I celebrated my 21st birthday. I managed to make it there in mostly one piece, and figured I should work out exactly what I’ve learned from those 21 years of living so that I could make it 21 more — maybe.
1. Be comfortable in your own skin.
I was a fat kid in middle school. I was 5’4” and weighed 140 pounds. Because of lacking self-confidence, I kept to myself. Since we’ve all been through that awful stage of purgatory in our lives called middle school, we know that being the quiet, fat kid equates to being the one who gets picked on. And I did. A lot.
But enduring that taught me a lot about myself, and it taught me a lot about the different and never-endingly inventive ways people can criticize you. Above all, it taught me to accept who I am, regardless of what others think.
2. Tip well.
Seriously. Just always make sure to leave at least a 20 percent tip. Waitresses and waiters depend on the kindness of strangers to make up the difference of only making $2.13 an hour. If they seem to be having a rough day, leave a brief handwritten note on the receipt. Any positive sentiment will do.
3. Say thank you — a lot.
The world and the people around you owe you absolutely nothing. So that makes everything you receive a gift.
Did your roommates cook dinner that ended up tasting like the south end of a northbound mule? Say thank you. They made an effort to feed you. Thank them for that. Then you’re welcome to step up to the plate and cook next time.
4. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.
If you are going to use your time to perform a task for someone else — as we often do in our twenties — don’t be sloppy and lazy about it. This isn’t to impress the person you’re doing it for. It’s because if you do it right, you don’t have to use even more of your time to go back and correct the mistake to the task you didn’t want to do anyway.
5. It’s almost never worth it to be angry with someone.
My father was an alcoholic. He died when I was 18 from cirrhosis of the liver. About six months after his death, I found out that he had plenty of time to get a liver transplant. But when he found out he had cirrhosis, he refused to quit smoking and was therefore never put on the transplant list. If he would have quit he would have gotten his transplant by May of 2010 – he died in August of 2010.
Of course this made 18 year old me incredibly angry. But the more I held on to my anger the more I realized: anger is a hot coal. Holding on to anger only hurts you, and never does the same amount of damage to the person you are angry with. I was angry with a dead man, for crying out loud. But even if you’re angry with someone who is very much alive and you do manage to successfully take out your anger on the person that wronged you, you now have two people who are hurt and angry instead of one.
6. Don’t criticize others.
It only makes the person being criticized feel like sulking into their bedroom and watching The Notebook on repeat while guzzling down multiple pints of Ben & Jerry’s. You can correct someone without criticizing them.
7. Hold the door.
This takes a whopping five seconds to do, thirty if you’re holding the door for a person who is slightly too far away who will then awkwardly jog towards the door you’re holding.
8. Blowing smoke rings is almost like having a superpower.
9. Do what you love.
I’m a reporter, which means the pay is moribund and the hours are long. But I love every moment I’m working. Don’t pick a safe job that provides you with a steady income in hopes that you can buy happiness — you can’t, you won’t and you shouldn’t try.
10. Let it go.
Remember what your high school girlfriend did that angered you so badly that one time? No? Nobody else does, either. My life has not even remotely gone the way I suspected it would, yet I managed to hyper-analyze nearly every situation I was in because I thought each one mattered. Spoiler alert: Most of them didn’t. Take a breath, forgive and let it go.
11. Grandparents are wise people.
The conversations I’ve shared with my grandparents resulted in my learning more than half of the things on this list. They both were born during the Great Depression, and have both overcome incredible odds and adversity in their lives.
So I absorbed their wisdom and then applied it to my own life. They might not be able to text, FaceTime, operate social media or work a DVD/Blu-Ray player, but they have the one advantage that you don’t: They have lived their lives.
12. You are what you do — not what you say.
You can talk a big game but if you don’t play a big game, you’ll just be known as a show-pony with more mouth than sense. Let your actions do the talking for you. Do what you say you’ll do. Actions and words should not be mutually exclusive.
13. Don’t take life so seriously.
It’s not like you’re going to make it out alive.
14. Have a firm handshake.
Make eye contact. Smile. Extend your hand. Connect with the web of their hand. Grip and shake. No limp fish handshakes. No death grips. That simple.
15. Never interrupt another person when they are speaking.
Conversations aren’t a contest. Let them come freely. Don’t try and one up the other person. Don’t name-drop. Listen intently and respond in kind. Interrupting gives the impression that what you have to say is more important than anything the other person was saying, and that their ears are simply containers for your bombastic babble.
16. You only get one chance to notice a new haircut.
Or anything else people change about themself. Attention to detail, people.
This is as good a time as any to remind you that you should, in fact, be reading. Try not to get too absorbed in “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and your social media feeds. It doesn’t matter how you read, it just matters that you do.
18. It’s okay to be spontaneous.
Do what you want, when you want to do it, within reason. You’re not as tied down or pressed for time as you think you are.
19. Don’t underestimate the value of a good pair of jeans.
One pair of jeans I owned traveled 23,000 miles, built three houses, lived through the life of two cars, built dozens of bonfires, held an array of items in the pockets and survived an incredible amount of wear.
Five years later, when I went to snap a log with my foot, those jeans ripped the entire way up the right leg. I paid $40 for them and got five years of wear and tear and memories out of them.
20. Moderation is key.
Moderation is key — with cologne, alcohol, and sex, especially. When it comes to cigars in particular, I have a very effective policy on moderation — one at a time, gentlemen.
21. Appreciate what you have.
I learned this from my grandfather. I learned how to use every penny in the best way possible. I learned to be appreciative of waking up in the morning. One simple life event with my grandfather taught me this.
I was young and he was having a bout with colon cancer. We walked into the hospital room and he looked haggard.
He turned to us as we greeted him.
“Hey!” he piped up. The strength in his voice startled me. We asked him how he was doing.
“I’m doing great,” he said.
Wait, really? I thought. The man’s stomach had been cut open, operated on and packed shut with gauze. And he was great?
I asked him later, when I was older, how he managed to stay so strong. This is when he delivered the line I would never forget, and which taught me this lesson. He leaned in after my question, as if to emphasize what he was about to say.
“Son, I was raised on a farm. I’m not scared of hard work. I’ve worked hard every day of my life until my hands were worn to the bone. In that hospital, I was winning the fight. My family and those I loved surrounded me.”
He leaned in a little farther.
“You’ll learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are. It’s okay to get down, but you can’t stay down.”
You’ll learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are.