woman smiling beside green leaves during golden hour

The 10 Most Important Life Lessons I Learned By 21

This might be a long one, so grab a cup of Joe and cozy up on the cushions for this.

A few weeks ago, I turned 21 years old.

When I sit back and think about the fact that I have been alive for two decades plus a year, there is a mixture of feelings that stir inside of me.

A part of me feels like I am still a 10-year-old child who doesn’t understand how the world works and wants to play on her Nintendo DS Lite all day. Another part of me feels like I should actually be turning 61 years old. My body is still young, but not as young as it used to be. I sometimes find myself preferring nights in with cozy candles and a movie on the TV. I blame the stress over the last four years at a University for this feeling, but I still wouldn’t take back my experiences I’ve had at Appalachian State University for nothing.

Setting aside how I’m feeling, when I reminisce over the last 21 years of my life, it’s incredible how much I’ve learned in such a short yet seemingly long chunk of my life.

1. You’re Not Everyone’s Cup Of Tea

When I was in middle school, there was a girl in my class that I knew didn’t like me. There were times she would go out of her way to either avoid me or to make fun of me. Whether it was because of the way I dressed, the way I spoke, the way I carried myself or my personality, it sucked knowing that there was someone out there that looked at me and curled their nose in disgust anytime I was around. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and say that it doesn’t still kind of suck when you learn about someone’s disinterest in you, even as an adult. However, here is the difference between middle school Megan and Megan now.

When learning that someone didn’t like her, middle school Megan would probably cry. She would go home and cry and try to figure out why she wasn’t good enough to be a part of the “cool kids.” She would go home and dwell on it for hours at a time and question everything about herself to try and figure out why she was not able to be liked. Now, Megan shrugs her shoulders and says, “I don’t care if you don’t like me.”

It may sound like it comes off as somewhat passive aggressive when you read it, but it’s true. I don’t care. I am living my life for myself. Not for you. What matters most is that I like myself, who I am, and who I am becoming. Your opinion of me does not matter. It will not affect my everyday life. That’s okay that you don’t like meβ€”I am not going to sit here and drown in the questions of why, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. If you do not like me, you do not have to be around me. Go be around the people you do like and stop spending so much time worried about you showing me how much you don’t like me. I like myselfβ€”that’s what means the most to me.

2. Real Friends Are Forever

I met my best friend, Maya, over 10 years ago in a small dance studio in Belmont, North Carolina. Most of the time, when you ask someone how they met their best friend, they can pinpoint an exact time, day, and moment. However, I can seriously look you in the eye (just imagine I’m looking at you through the screen) and tell you I cannot remember when my friend and I became best friends.

Back in 2017, when we both graduated from high school, I would be lying to you if I said there wasn’t a part of me that was absolutely terrified of both of us leaving our hometown and spending 100 miles apart at different schools with different schedules, meeting new people and starting new lives after spending nearly every day and every hour together back home. There was a part of me that worried I was going to lose my best friend and things wouldn’t be the same when we would see each other again.

I was dead wrong.

Even four years later, Maya and I are closer than ever. We make time to see each other when we can, and it’s like a day has not passed by where we have been apart. We laugh until our stomachs hurt and our cheeks are sore from smiling. We have car karaoke sessions to Bohemian Rhapsody in the car every time we decide to go somewhere. We still trust each other with our secrets. We tell each other about our wins in life and our struggles. We assure each other that life is going to be okay even when it seems like it won’t be.

I could go on and on about how amazing a friend Maya is; however, this post would be exceedingly longer than it already will be.

My main takeaway from this is that I’ve learned that your real friends will stick by your side. Despite your struggles, despite the uncontrollable circumstances, despite everything, your true friends will be sure to be there for you when you need them and when you don’t. So don’t take them for granted. Show that you love and appreciate them, because after all, they’ve dealt with your craziness and are still by your side. That deserves an award.

3. Life Is Not Love

I am a hopeless romantic. I love all things surrounding the idea of romance. I love the idea of receiving flowers after a long day. I love thinking about the simple touches, like holding hands. I love the idea of spending every day with someone I endlessly think about because I feel such a strong connection to them that it’s impossible to not think about them. I love thinking about a wedding with the love of my life. I love the idea of contributing to someone’s happiness by providing constant support.

However, in my 21 years of life, I’ve learned something about love.

In its shiny glow of loveliness, it also kind of sucks. There’s challenges. There’s hurt. There’s betrayal. There’s unrequited feelings. The list can go on.

There have been moments in the last few years where I have found myself so caught up in the idea of love that I forget that other aspects of life exist. I get so caught up with thinking about finding a potential partner to spend the rest of my life with that I forget to actually live my life. I spend too much time thinking about the times I’ve been rejected or I spend too much time chasing a relationship that will most likely not work out.

I find it so easy to get caught up in this idea of finding love that you forget to find other things in life. Your career. Your friends. Yourself.

Although I can’t speak much on the subject, as I am still young, I’ve come to realize that life is not about love. Yes, finding love is a great part of life that will bring you incredible experiences but it is not all of your experiences.

4. Dream Big, But Also Dream Small

When I made a decision to pursue a career in writing, I had fantasized this idea of becoming a huge writer who would publish tons of books and live in a nice New York City apartment. It was my dream. I loved the city. I loved writing. What would go wrong, right?

The answer? Everything.

I’m a strong believer in thinking big. I look at the whole picture rather than its parts. Some may say that is a good thing, to focus on the whole thing instead of the tiny pieces, sometimes though, I disagree.

When I established my dream of becoming this amazing writer who lived in New York, I only thought of the big picture. I only thought of the reward and what could be. I didn’t think about the challenges I would face, the dedication and sacrifices it would take, and how hard it actually is to become a successful writer.

I panicked when I figured it out and immediately threw my grandiose dream out the window.

“I could never do that,” I told myself.

Looking back on it now, I want to throw myself out of the window instead. How foolish of me to think that I am not capable of amazing things. How sad of me to think that I am not good at what I do and what I am learning. How disappointing of me to not have the confidence in myself to push myself for my dreams.

Recently, when I talk about my dream as a writer, the image is different. Why? Because I altered my vision of my future to start looking at the little pieces rather than the end result.

My goal to become an excellent, New York-living writer still sits in the back of my mind. However, I’ve begun to think of the journey to the destination rather than just the destination itself. I’ve put the ‘how do I get there’ ahead of the ‘am I there?’

It’s okay to dream big. I encourage it. Push your boundaries and your limits. But don’t just look at the result. Sit back, think about how you’re gonna get there, and start trekking.

5. It’s Not The End Of The World

Bad things happen. We know this. We’ve been over it time and time again.

So why do we act like it is the end of the world when something goes wrong in our lives?

Is it because something happened at the wrong time? The wrong place? Is it because whatever went wrong interrupted an important part of our lives?

Well, here’s something I’ve come to learn.

IT MOST CERTAINLY IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD WHEN SOMETHING GOES WRONG IN YOUR LIFE.

Yes, it may be terribly inconvenient. Yes, it may take a part of your heart and soul. Yes, it may impact you financially. Yes, it may take something out of your life.

But the world is still turning, isn’t it? I know you can’t see that it is, but it is. I promise.

The amount of petty mental breakdowns I have had over things going wrong in my life is an uncountable number. Half the time, the stuff I cry about isn’t even worth crying about. Why?

It was not in my control.

I cannot control what happens to my car when it breaks down on the side of the road. I cannot control what other people in my life decide to do about their relationship statuses with me, whether it be family, friends, or a new guyβ€”I can’t control their decisions regarding how they treat me. I cannot control my crappy immune system that gets me sick all of the time and pushes me out of work for a week or two, which means I have less money than normal.

It is not in my control.

I’m still learning this as I write this statement. I’m still learning that it’s not the end of the world every time something bad happens in my life. Yeah, it may suck and put me in a down mood for a few days, but it’s temporary. Things can be fixed. Relationships can be repaired if you decide you want them to be. I can take enough Emergen-C to make my immune system a fortress made of diamond.

However, just because I do these things isn’t going to stop inconveniences from happening. So what’s the point of dwelling on them?

Sit down, buckle up, and take a deep breath. Ask yourself: Is the world still turning? It is? Okay.

Carry on.

6. Perseverance Prevails

During my freshman year at Appalachian State, I was a member of the Appalachian State University Dance Team. I spent a whole year on the sidelines doing what I loved with the people I loved. I spent the year celebrating a school I adored and a team I admired. I grew connections with girls who are still some of my closest friends today.

During my sophomore year at Appalachian State, I was not a member of the Appalachian State University Dance Team. I was cut.

I remember sitting in my freshman year dorm room after being told there was no longer a spot on the team for me, letting out sobs so loud from my hyperventilating chest that my neighbor in the room next to me knocked on my door and asked if I needed a hug. I didn’t even know her name but I was just in need of someone to hold me to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

For weeks, I battled with my mind about why I was not good enough to be on the team for another year. I questioned everything about myself.

Was it actually because my technique wasn’t good enough like they told me? Or was it because I wasn’t skinny enough? Was it because I didn’t have “the look?” The questions waterfalled into my brain faster than I could answer them.

Then one day, I stopped questioning. I put on my big girl pants, told myself I was grateful for the opportunity I had been given my freshman year to dance, thankful for the friendships I had made, and I continued on with my life.

I turned my focus to another passion I held near and dear to my life. Photography. Being a journalism major, I got involved with the student paper, The Appalachian, working as a photographer. I learned about being a photographer in my field. I spent time exploring Boone, North Carolina as I covered stories about people, places, and things related to the small town. But what I loved most is I was able to take photos for sports, meaning I was still able to spend my time at my favorite place: the sidelines. However, the view just looked different. Instead of looking at a crowd, I was looking at the field through a camera lens. I felt happy and grateful for a new opportunity.

Fast forward to the end of junior year.

I knew auditions were coming up for the 2020-2021 App State Dance Team. I turned the thought over and over and over in my mind on whether I wanted to try and audition again for my senior year. I still loved dancing. I still loved cheering on the Mountaineers. I still loved the girls on the team. Yet something kept holding me back.

“I’m not technically ready,” I told myself. “My body is not where it needs to be. There are so many girls that are amazing dancers trying out, there is no way there would be a spot for me.”

Then I realized what was holding me back. Myself. I was holding myself back from just diving headfirst into something I wanted. And so, I talked myself out of my head and I did.

I spent hours on end for weeks at a time at my hometown dance studio, stretching and training my technique. I spent time at home in quarantine pushing myself to do vigorous at home workouts. I maintained a strict diet for myself to get myself into the best shape I possibly could within the few weeks I had before the virtual tryouts were due. I did absolutely everything I could do within my power to push myself towards my goal of making the team again.

Then I sent the video off and I didn’t think about it. I didn’t question if it was good enough. I didn’t question if my toes had been pointed in my jump. I didn’t question how my body looked as I stood there answering the audition questions. I didn’t think about it. Whatever was meant to be was going to happen.

A few days after the videos were due, I received an email from the dance team captain. When I clicked on it, I remember my heart absolutely leaping from my chest as I read the first word on my screen: “Congratulations!”

I sat in complete awe next to my dad as I vividly remember saying “Oh my God” over and over again. I looked him in the eyes and I said, “Dad! I made it!”

And I cried.

My hard work, dedication, training, and perseverance had paid off. All of the time I had spent driving down to my dance studio and repeatedly going over technical skills until I felt confident had worked. The dances I had made up for my audition were good enough. I was good enough.

For the first time in my life at this moment, I truly understood what it felt like for my hard work to pay off. I felt a sense of pride in myself I had never felt before. I still do to this day when I think about it.

So next time you think about giving up on whatever you’re working hard to achieve, keep pushing. It will work out the way it is meant to be. Whether it is good or bad, you will end up where you belong.

7. Just Eat The Brownie

I grew up very self-conscious about my body.

I don’t remember when it happened exactly, but I entered this point in my life where every conversation, every thought, and every concern was about how my body looked and how much I weighed.

I was eating salads for every meal by the age of 11. There were times my mother would hide food from me around the house to prevent me from eating it. I was consistently compared to the girls I danced with because my thighs were a little bit thicker and my breasts grew a little larger than others.

It got to a point where I would scold myself and feel this overwhelming sense of guilt just for enjoying something that was the slightest bit unhealthy.

Oh? You ate two cupcakes today at a birthday party? You need to go for a three mile run and come home to do 100 sit ups. You had a slice of pizza at lunch? You can’t eat anything for the rest of the evening.

It sounds mental, I know.

As I’ve grown older and since moved out from my parent’s home, I still try my best to maintain a healthy diet. However, I also try to not let myself feel this guilt for enjoying greasy or sweet foods.

This is something I still struggle with to this day. I tell myself I should not eat the fresh baked brownies from the coffee shop. But you know what? It’s okay to.

I should not have to put the foods I love and enjoy on the back burner in fear of gaining 10 pounds from a single muffin. It’s okay to occasionally eat it. Savor it. Enjoy it. I am not a rabbit. My sole diet isn’t raw carrots and celery. I am a human who craves sugar and salty things. I should not feel guilty for eating something with higher calories than a piece of broccoli.

8. Save Some Of You For Yourself

I’ve done things I regret. I will continue to do things I will regret. Everyone has and everyone will.

I have given parts of myself to people that I cannot get back. They have taken those parts of me and crushed them under their heel into smithereens so fine that they are not able to be placed back together.

Yet I continue to give people parts of me that they do not deserve.

I am a giving person. I have a big heart that is very vulnerable and fragile. I trust without question. I desire to fit in. I desire to be wanted and loved so badly that I will do whatever it takes to obtain that approval.

And then I sit. I wallow in the guilt, sorrow, and heartache of continuing to give others pieces of myself just to have them take it into their hand, look at it, laugh at it, and throw it over their shoulder and never look back.

The reality is, the odds are the life you are trying to live isn’t going to be the life you actually live. That would mean you’re perfect, and Lord knows we all are not perfect.

I have grown so sick and tired of continuing to rip off pieces of my heart and morals for people who don’t want to take care of them. So I told myself it’s time to save some of me for myself.

It is time to be more careful with who I trust. It is time to be more careful with what I am doing with myself. It is time to be more careful with choosing the people I allow to see parts of my heart and soul.

It may be time for those fragile parts to only be seen by me for a while as I learn more about them and grow to know myself more.

I am a person who lives with very little walls, so I think it’s time to build some more. Not ones that cannot be broken down, but ones that have doorways to which only some may enter. Some that, even if they are destroyed in war, can still be repaired again.

9. Choose Happiness

What does it mean?

For a while, I struggled with this. It was very hard to choose what made me happy because I was so concerned with what others would think and how my decision would affect others. Then I came to realize, Why was I so concerned about what others would care about my decision if it is a decision for my own life? Why was it so hard for me to put myself before others?

Their opinion should not matter, I should do what makes me happy.

I would tumble thoughts over and over in my mind because I’m the world’s #1 overthinker. I think about every possible scenario, its result, its effects, everything. I would spend so much time thinking about the logistics that I wouldn’t think about how it would affect me emotionally, mentally or physically.

Every day you wake up, you do not choose how your day will go. You do not choose what decisions you will have to make. You do not choose what decisions others will have to make.

What you do choose, however, is how you react to those everyday occurrences. You choose how you react to people who are being rude to you. You can either be rude back or kill them with kindness. You choose how you react to your terrible day at school or the office. You can either let it ruin the rest of your day as you wallow in the annoyance and frustration or you can move on, tell yourself tomorrow is a new day, and take a hot bath. You choose how you react to everything.

I understand the frustrations of life being inconvenient and heartbreaking. That’s how life works.

But I promise you, if you just decide to look at things in a positive manner every once in a while, you’ll come to realize your ‘horrible life’ isn’t actually horrible. Your outlook on it is. You can’t change where you come from but you can change where you go from here, and I would rather go up than down.

10. God’s Got You

God has always been a part of my life, dating back to my childhood.

I’ve had my fair share of times where I’ve questioned Him, been angry with Him, pleaded to Him, cried to Him, and praised Him.

There have been times where I have felt truly alone. I felt as if no one understood where I stood or how I felt. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized, yes, someone did.

God did.

I know it’s hard to have a positive outlook on life, because yeah, life can suck. However, you have to realize, despite it all, God’s got you.

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” – 1 Corinthians 10:13

So stop thinking the world is after you. Stop thinking you are alone.

You are not.

He will not let you down. No matter if you are young, old, big, small, I promise you, He will hold you with His righteous hand and be there at the end of your struggles to hold you. He will be there for your wins and your losses.

As I continue to have birthdays, I continue to learn. I will learn something new every day until the day I take my last breath. But for now, I wanted to share with you all what I know and what I am coming to know and I hope it makes you sit down and think a little more today.

About the author
I use writing as a way to say things I am scared to speak out about. Follow Megan on Instagram or read more articles from Megan on Thought Catalog.

Learn more about Thought Catalog and our writers on our about page.

Related