I have been thinking a lot about how I can live the life I want right now (full of travel, rich in love), and the life that I need to live in the future (stable enough to manage student loan payments, building an enriching career). When I was younger I had many plans for myself: become a marine biologist, have a career of discovery and stability (probably also renown), buy a house, travel the world, fall in love, get married, have adventures with my partner. I didn’t really imagine that I’d come upon 26 with no desire to get married, or own a house.
I didn’t expect that I’d find myself enjoying, even needing, to be single at this part of my life in order to dive into my own pursuits. I didn’t expect I’d be excited by the prospect of consulting and freelancing as a career, as opposed to the traditional pathways for City Planners in the public, private, or non-profit sector. My life is so much more than I imagined it would be when I was a teenager, and while I am not entirely a person who gives no fucks about what others think about how I am living it yet, I am working on being fully myself.
My little sister, who I remember anticipating with so much glee that I flat out bawled when I actually held her for the first time (so much so that they threatened to take the baby away for fear I might drop her) is flat out astounding. She possesses a maturity, level-headedness, and creativity that is shocking for a 12 year old girl. She is certain in her decisions to pursue STEM education, and speaks with conviction about both its practical worthiness and the thrill of its challenges.
She gives absolutely no fucks about what color her hair is (blue), or the style she wears it in (kind of a sock bun plus colored waterfall effect) and if someone tells her its not cool it is “like, their problem, seriously.” She is a leader in our house, and a wonderful role model for our little brother (in his own right a remarkable free spirit). She may not know it, but she is teaching me a thing or two.
I was a bumbling idiot looking for a lot of approval at 12. I did some silly things with my hair and butterfly clips, but I genuinely don’t think I had that head on my shoulders yet.
That being said, there are some things I want to say to her, that I would say to my younger self, if I could. These are things I would say to all young women who are going to be teenagers soon, and much of the advice will be helpful for my younger brothers as well. In many ways, this is advice I am only learning to take now. In others, it is what I wish I had heeded 10-15 years ago:
1. Don’t let anyone dictate what you look like. Don’t let them tell you that you can’t wear xyz, or do that thing with your hair, or have that style. Body policing is a racket, and you are the one who is fully in control of yours, nobody else.
2. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too much of anything. I promise that anyone who needs you to be less of something is someone you don’t need more of in your life. Don’t worry about being too loud, too bossy, too independent, too free spirited, or too smart. You are exactly the right amount of those things for yourself, and the people who say ‘be quiet, be more pliable’ are going to hold you back.
3. You do not need to force relationships: when it doesn’t feel right, it is probably for a good reason. This is as true for friendships and family as it is for romantic relationships.
4. When you are the one working so hard for your future, you get to have the final say of what that looks like. Don’t feel pressured to go to this or that school, to take this or that career path/job/salary. Do what makes you thrive.
5. That being said: learn the value of money and be careful about your debt. I didn’t know the meaning of what I was undertaking at 18 when I signed my student loans, and while I don’t regret the experiences they brought me, learning how to manage them before you have to will be important.
6. Learn how to recognize people who are manipulative and abusive. Though it can hurt, cutting their damaging behavior out of your life earlier will serve you well in the long run.
7. Never let others teach you to feel badly about doing what you like because they would rather you do something else. Your life, your rules. Though the feeling of obligation can come in many forms, your time is best spent (and most fulfilling) freely, doing what you love when you want to do it.
8. Learn to talk about sex. Learn to talk about what you like or don’t. Learn about what consent looks like 100%. Ask me about it, lets talk! Learn to plan for it (or not), and learn how to be safe about it. Though it can be scary and feel gross to bring it up with other people, the more we talk about sex the more we learn about how we can be healthier and happier.
9. Learn that every relationship requires care and maintenance to be healthy and fulfilling. Be patient with yourself and your friends/family/partners as you learn what each one needs. Like individual plants, some relationships need constant attention (water, sun, food), and others can hang out in your space without needing much from you.
10. The same can be said about your relationship with yourself. You may not see this yet, but it requires cultivation too.
11. Speaking of: cultivate a sense of independence. Feed your desire to do things on your own, or for yourself. I was praised a lot for this growing up, and I know that you are too. Its amazing, and freeing, and wonderful. It gets better too! As you take more responsibilities under your wings, you also have more freedom to sink or swim. The satisfaction of knowing that you can do things on your own, doing the things you want to do on your own, and still feeling fulfilled and happy is worth every single drop of anxiety I have had about being financially and emotionally responsible for myself.
12. Learn about your anxieties, and what works to calm/soothe them. For me it is often taking direct action to combat their roots. For others it can be self-care and quiet time to reflect and recharge. Every person works differently, and it took me a long time to be deliberate and diligent about exploring how to feel better when I was feeling anxious: I wish I had done this more in high-school and cultivated a better routine for taking care of myself, it would have been less of a struggle in my 20s.
13. Learn the value of your time, and how to not waste it. This counts for how you spend your money, and your emotional energy as well.
14. Learn to find satisfaction in thing for their own sakes. After school and goal oriented achievements go by the wayside, the barometer of ‘is it worth it’ can go down unless you are committed to pursuing things simply because you want to.
15. Don’t look down on anyone because of their job. You will want to do a job that someone else does not, and vice versa. You may have to take a job you don’t want. There are no ‘big girl’ jobs; there are only big girls in jobs.
16. In the same vein; you are not your job. Work is not your whole life, even if you are passionate about it. Remember that. I have often forgotten it, and it has led me to some dark places. If you forget it and find yourself despairing: I suggest an adventure, getting out of your element, and resetting.
17. Travel. Spend your money on experiences, because those stay with you forever and things (more often than not) don’t stick around nearly as long.
18. If you have money that is yours because you earned it or it was given freely, spend it how you please. You will learn financial values and skills from many resources; none of them get to tell you what to do with your finances. That is for you to decide based on what you need and what makes you feel fulfilled (and stable, this goes back to the thing about independence).
19. Learn how to not sweat the small stuff. This might be one of the hardest things I have had to learn, but parsing out what merits freaking out and what doesn’t is a valuable skill, and will help you stay levelheaded in times of great stress (protip: bad dates, bad grades, bad people count as small stuff).
20. Accept your flaws, and be patient with yourself about your insecurities. Know that we all have them, and are all vulnerable and soft sometimes. They are part of who we are, and they shape how we move through the world. Speak them, if you wish, and know that despite many of the odds they help make you stronger.