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16 Things I Wish I’d Known at 16


I was recently asked to speak with a high school junior whose parents had suggested that it might be useful for her to talk to a college student as she began the universally stress-inducing process of applying to college. The request gave me a moment of pause. While I would like to think that I possess wisdom beyond my years, the transitional period of life known as collegiate young adulthood (or, as one friend astutely put it, a “four year blur”) is notoriously riddled with decisions that can best be described as sketchy. Who am I to be telling anyone how to live?

Nevertheless, there is a lot to be learned from the unique vantage point that this stage of life offers, halfway between 10 and 30. Having just recently exited the turbulent teenage years, college-age young people have a natural empathy for those still stuck somewhere between 12 and 20. Yet the fact that we universally accept that negative phrasing- “turbulent, stuck”- should give the discerning reader pause: does adolescence necessarily have to be constructed as such a troubling time? Why do even the best efforts at guiding individuals through this stage of life often seem to fall flat? It’s a complicated cultural and institutional problem, but here is one reason:

When it comes to giving teenagers advice, many well-intentioned adults unwittingly fall into the trap of making these three assumptions about the new generation of unruly adolescents: they won’t listen, they’re not old enough to think critically, and our best bet is to tell them to prepare for a better future. While campaigns like the “It Gets Better” project for GLBTQ teens are admirable, the way our culture constructs adolescence as such an “expectant time” leaves a lot to be desired. Contrary to popular belief, teenagers are not controlled by raging hormones, and they are fully capable of being critics (if you have any doubt, consider their ability to hone in on parental hypocrisies). Furthermore, there is no reason that we should treat adolescents as if their chief purpose is to make it out of a 6-year period in a holding cell before being released into “real life” (whatever that means).

My aim is to avoid these tropes and clichés, and hopefully to offer advice that may genuinely resonate with adolescents and help them help themselves— not when they get to college, not when they leave home, but here and now. Here’s to the 16-year-old in all of us:

About Yourself:

1: Hold yourself to a standard of grace, not perfection.

Contrary to what I believed at 16, mastering the elusive academic, social, athletic, physical and material trappings of “perfection” ultimately provides neither lasting happiness nor strength of character: it is a hollow means to a hollow end. It is only by putting ourselves in novel situations, making occasionally questionable decisions and learning from the fallout that we develop trust in our abilities to recover from mistakes and draw strength from less-than-ideal circumstances. This is the backbone of a truly strong sense of self.

2: “Everything changes when you start to emit your own frequency rather than absorbing the frequencies around you, when you start imprinting your intent on the universe rather than receiving an imprint from existence.” – Barbara Marciniak

More than the trite “be yourself”, you have a privilege and a responsibility to make an impact with your personality. Authenticity is magnetic, and people are always more inspired by those who fearlessly embrace their individuality than those who spend their lives trying to conform to others’ standards for fear of being rejected.

3: If a friend treated you the way you sometimes treat yourself, how long would you allow that person to be your friend?

The most important piece of advice my mother ever gave me for dealing with difficult situations was this: Imagine yourself as your own big sister. We tend to believe our worst thoughts about ourselves regardless of whether or not they are actually true (they usually aren’t). Forcing yourself to imagine the situation from the perspective of an older, wiser person who cares can be a helpful thought exercise.

4: “So many young women treat life as a constant status update. It’s as if they’re more concerned with how their lives look than how their lives feel.” – Anonymous

There is a difference between being aware of how you are perceived and basing your sense of internal worth in public perception. Hold onto and value the things that you love to do, regardless of whether or not others others take notice and/or approve.

About Academics/Athletics/Extracurriculars:

5: “Best advice I’ve ever received: Finish.” – Peter Mayle

Done is better than perfect. This applies to any project. Don’t use the fear of not achieving some unattainable standard as an excuse to slack.

6: “Deciding what not to do is important as deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs

It is of the absolute necessity to invest your time and energy purposefully. Nobody can do it all or be everything to everyone. It is absolutely possible to be an open-minded person and still set limits. Doing so gives you a sense of direction and prevents you from feeling overwhelmed and resentful.

7: “Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.” – Doug Firebaugh

Tasks are less daunting when you break them down into manageable steps. Whether it’s an academic, athletic, personal goal or otherwise, find one thing you can do every day that will serve as an investment. Doing so will not only propel you towards achieving your goal, it will make you feel capable and purposeful, which enhances self-esteem and motivation.

About Friendships and Relationships:

8: People learn how to treat you based on what you accept from them.

If you don’t respect yourself, how can you expect respect from others? It is your responsibility not to associate yourself with anybody who violates your standards of basic human decency.

9: Your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.

As a young child, I somehow thought that I could figure out a way to make everybody like me. This sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but when you are praised for your interpersonal abilities (as girls, who are socialized to be agreeable, often are), being rejected by a friend or a romantic partner can seem like a slap in the face of your basic self worth. It isn’t! Once you accept the fact that everybody sees mainly what they look for, it becomes easier to understand that the way others perceive you typically reveals a lot more about them than it does about you.

10: How you make others feel about themselves says a lot about you.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you will help them become who they are capable of becoming”. This is one of the absolute most important lessons in sales and life.

11: If someone wants to be a part of your life, they’ll make an effort to be in it. So don’t bother reserving a space in your heart for someone who doesn’t make an effort to stay.

Respect yourself enough not to spend time, emotions and energy chasing people who don’t reciprocate your care.

About Mentors:

12: We all need someone who inspires us to do better than we know how.

You owe a lot to anybody who gives you confidence and believes in you unconditionally. Find mentors in your parents, teammates, siblings, books and movies; get inspired by everything.

About Growing Up:

13: “Forgive yourself for not having the foresight to see what now seems so obvious in hindsight” – Judy Belmont

Have compassion for yourself. Much of the dramatic behavior that we dismiss as “young and stupid” in actuality reflects the fact that trying situations are inherently most difficult the first time around. First heartbreaks, college rejection letters and job responsibilities can seem overwhelming, but it’s due to lack of experience, not because you are somehow “less then” by virtue of your young age. Once you make it through these “firsts”, you will develop coping mechanisms that will help you feel less shaken by future troubles. But don’t beat up on yourself for being (or having been) inexperienced.

14: “Ask yourself this question: Will this matter a year from now?” – Richard Carlson

In the small sphere of your hometown, situations often feel blown out of proportion. It’s difficult to get perspective when family, friends and high school are often your whole world. But unless you let it, this sense of feeling trapped doesn’t last forever. Remember that.

15: Wherever you are, be all there.

Yes, it’s important to prepare for the future. But that shouldn’t detract from your ability to engage with the present. Your life does not begin when you leave home, it’s happening right now.


16: Don’t do anything to lose the respect and trust of your parents. That being said, if you do decide to throw a 70-person house party, do not forget to check the disposal for beer cans and the liquor cabinet for stolen alcohol.

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Katy is the Her Campus Correspondent for Grinnell College. She is a junior psychology major and plans to go to graduate school for clinical psychology. In her spare time, she enjoys photography, skiing, shopping, expanding her music collection, traveling and of course, coming home to her dogs (and the rest of her family).
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