21 Lessons I Learned Before Turning 21

In my (nearly) 21 years on Earth, I’ve been privileged to have experienced some pretty unique things. Over the past two decades, I’ve gone through the American public school system, graduated and gone to two different universities while working on my Bachelor’s degree, been in more musicals, marching band shows, and choir concerts than I can count, had a few opportunities to travel internationally to visit family, and voted in a few historic elections. Through these crazy experiences, I’ve learned more than a few lessons and made a hell of a lot of mistakes. As I stare down the big 2-1, these are the lessons I find I reflect on the most and have been the most impactful on my life.


  1. Advocate for yourself. Ask for help, ask the questions you think sound dumb, and put yourself out there. Communication is incredibly important to your success.

  2. Never be ashamed of the things you’re passionate about. Take pride in the things that make you want to rant and talk for hours on end.

  3. If something scares the absolute hell out of you, it’s probably the best choice you’ll ever make. Pursue the things that terrify you.

  4. Follow your gut instinct and intuition. It knows what’s right or wrong often before you do.

  5. Changing your mind and deciding how you feel about things (whether it’s your values, political opinions, or other life stuff) is important to your development as a person. Don’t silence the voice inside you telling you something is/isn’t right – even if it means making different choices than that of your family, friends, or surrounding community.

  6. Say yes to as many things as you can, whether it’s a trip to McDonald’s at 1:00 a.m. with your roommates, going to the midnight showing of a movie when you should have been in bed at 10:30 p.m., interviewing for that job that you don’t think you’re qualified for – you never know what could come from them. In the worst case scenario, it becomes a happy memory from when you were “young and dumb.”

  7. Speaking of memories, keep a memory jar. Fill it with happy, positive, fulfilling moments, movie tickets, notes to yourself, etc. from the calendar year and open it on New Year’s Eve. Don’t cheat of course! This will remind you at the end of the year of the best moments from your daily life that might have otherwise been forgotten.

  8. Dye your hair, wear the lipstick, take the fashion risk. Life is too short to stop and worry about what other people think of you. Don’t let it get too deep.

  9. Pursue that thing that keeps you up at night. Even if it’s slow and steady-going, you’ll never regret attempting to do the thing you can’t quite shake.

  10. Speak up. Whether that’s politically, socially, or anything else that you’re passionate about, your voice matters. Be so loud that you cannot be ignored.

  11. Speaking of politics and social change, vote. The people that came before you fought for your right to do so. If you are able to vote, please, PLEASE do so.

  12. Make a playlist that could be the soundtrack to your life as a movie or is the soundtrack to your life as a rom-com. Fill it with your absolute favorite songs and listen to it when you need a pick-me-up. Let it provide a temporary escape to the imaginary world of your movie-life.

  13. In this life, there will be unfathomable happiness and there will be devastating loss. You will survive both. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it does help start the healing process.

  14. Learning to laugh at yourself can be one of the best relievers of stress.

  15. Chances are, your parents or guardians were right about 90% of the things they told you growing up, no matter how badly you don’t want to admit it.

  16. Keep a “Master Resume” that has a list of everything you’ve ever done. You can then make smaller resumes for the individual positions you apply for, unique to the things they are looking for. SAVE THEM ALL. You will absolutely use them again in the future.

  17. COVER LETTERS! Create a template for yourself that you can adapt to different positions and industries as needed. A few hours of work now will save you tons of time in the future.

  18. Treat yourself once a week. This could be anything from getting coffee with friends to going to the movies or petting animals at the local humane society, whatever you need that week. This can be a form of self-care and simultaneously help you to avoid burn out.

  19. You have time. So many of us feel in our 20s like we are running out of time. We think we don’t have time to figure out what we want to do, or switch career paths, or pursue that passion, but that just isn’t true. Hitting a certain age or life milestone doesn’t mean that you suddenly lose the opportunity to do something. You have the time to do whatever you want to do.

  20. College is not the deciding factor of the rest of your life. It just isn’t. If you go to college, that’s great. If you don’t, also great. You have the freedom to decide what you want to do, despite the things that are happening in your life right now.

  21. There is a school of thought that believes you are the product of the five people you spend the most time with; knowing this, think about the people in your life. If there are toxic, negative people around you, that influence is likely to rub off on you. Spending time with people you’d like to emulate can allow you to live more positively. There is nothing wrong with knowing and acting on what is best for you.


Everyone makes a big deal out of turning 21 because it means removing those last legal barriers to be a full-fledged adult. For me, that’s not really what turning 21 is about. It means hitting a milestone that always seemed so far away as a kid, and looking back and appreciating the weirdness that has gotten me to this point. These first 21 years on the planet have led me to some unanticipated but spectacular experiences that have completely reshaped the trajectory of my life. Cheers to the next 21!