21 Life Lessons at 21 years old
Not-so obvious insights that I’ve learned as a young adult who can legally drink now
1. Stop being so hard on yourself
Being tough on oneself is a motivating mindset useful for self-improvement, though while dialing up the intensity, a line gets crossed at some point that flips it into an incredibly demotivating (and painful) one. Perfectionism and a tendency to feel guilty a lot is the reason why I shut down in the face of some personal challenges, procrastinate on important tasks, and have a rather constipated creative process. Knowing this, it’s an important challenge to learn how not to be my own worst enemy. I always think, if we are only half as compassionate to ourselves as we are to our cherished friends, the world would be so much of a happier and more productive place.
2. How to be a good listener? Be interested
Listening well is an underrated skill! Aye aye. I feel as though some sources instructing us on how to be good listeners can sometimes focus a little too hard on the mechanics, though. Nod in agreement to the person as they talk to show concern? Subtly mirror the person’s body language? Paraphrase what they say back to them to demonstrate understanding? It feels a little overcomplicated and calculated to me. The way I see it, consciously putting my head into the mindset of fully caring about what the other person has to offer in conversation takes me 90% of the way in most situations. As a way of facilitating this, I try to think about (1) diminishing the mental and physical distractions that compete for my attention, (2) withholding my brain’s urges to make snap judgments, and (3) approaching the conversation with a certain reverence for the other person’s perspective. Once I fully commit to that in my head, all of the body language motions and encouraging speech patterns seem to follow naturally, exuding that kind of energy. I’m pretty sure we all do the same thing when we dive hungrily into a book by our favorite author. So I know we’re all capable of bringing that energy into our conversations.
3. Ask for help more often
There’s no shame at all in admitting that you’re struggling with something. The process of learning from others and asking for feedback demands a degree of both self-effacement and self-esteem, something my ego doesn’t always make easy for me. The reality, though, is that the world today is way too vast and complicated for anyone, no matter how savvy they are, to make it solo.
4. We learn about ourselves from the people around us
I learned in my sociology class about Charles Horton Cooley’s “Looking-glass self” theory. According to the theory, we form our senses of self from the feedback we get in our interpersonal relationships and interactions. If you spend all your time as the shortest person among your 6’5’’ pro-basketball player friends, you might forget that even as the “short guy” standing at 6 ft, you’re still tall. I’m immensely fortunate to be in a place where I’m constantly surrounded by peers who are extremely bright and accomplished, though without realizing it, all of this prolonged exposure has made me seriously undervalue myself at times. Imposter syndrome fuel. It’s not a bad thing to have humility, but what is harmful is having a distorted self-perception that leads me to sell myself royally short in life. I am forever thankful for my study abroad experience in China because meeting completely different people allowed me to see myself from a completely different perspective. I learned that, actually, I’m pretty bookish and more scientific in nature than the average person. It has given me the validation I needed to not feel like a total quack for wanting to seriously pursue a Ph.D. after college. Gloria, you owe it to yourself, in your years of youth and malleable identity, to seek new environments whenever possible. It’s not just about understanding other people better, but also yourself.
5. Savor the basic necessities in life
We all need to eat, sleep, work, and commute and such. If these activities must consume such large chunks of our lives, it’s worth the effort and mindfulness to really savor these routine experiences and make them good. It’s easy to have a blast on some spontaneous vacation, but not always easy to taste all the flavors in our regular home cooked dinner. Making our mundane experiences enjoyable has the greatest return on investment for our long term happiness.
6. Think about YOLO differently
Most of us in our generation use YOLO as an excuse to do something indulgent or regrettable. Robert Greene spun the idea on its head in a way that has stuck with me. At the end of his book, Laws of Human Nature, he wrote a grave chapter insisting that, through life, we should always keep death at the back of our minds. Not as some kind of yee-haw slogan before doing something dumb and self-destructive, but as motivation for us to live purposefully. Being a living, breathing human on this earth is a special kind of privilege, but our days are limited. We kind of owe it to ourselves and to Team Humanity to try and fulfill our potentials and to contribute something good.
7. Practical things matter
I have a bad habit of downplaying the importance of practical necessities or dismissing them as uninteresting. If I could, I totally would waltz off into the meadows and occupy myself with intellectual stuff without giving a damn about how my bills will get paid. People in privileged positions like myself often take for granted all of the fundamental (and fragile) pillars that are needed simply to support the right headspace for caring about superfluous things. As I remember somebody wrote in a youtube comment: “Money won’t necessarily make you happy, but having no money will definitely make you very unhappy.” So in the spirit of not forgetting about the bottom line, let’s all get a solid handle on our personal finances, protect our health, and maintain our close relationships.
8. Know the difference between conviction and truth
In my experience, conviction and sureness in belief is a sensation — a compelling one, but not always reliably reflective of the truth. At times, I can feel ferociously passionate about an idea or convince myself after some revelation that I need to make some change in my life. But occasionally after sleeping on it, I would cringe about how silly I was. Careful with the decisions you make during those periods when you’re in a funk. Ideas that seem so unequivocally true in the moment might not be. Don’t make big decisions until you’ve had time to sleep over it.
9. What having “Unhealthy relationships” with certain things means
You develop an unhealthy relationship with money when you expect money to buy you something that money cannot buy. Money cannot buy you a sense of self-worth or a fulfilling relationship. By the same token, an unhealthy relationship with food happens when you associate it (or the avoidance of it) with self-esteem and social validation. It’s important to be honest with ourselves about what we expect from the “things” in our lives and to analyze why we’re drawn to them.
10. Develop multiple perspectives on everything
Like when wearing 3-D glasses, looking at the world through not one, but two different lenses at the same time create depth and perspective. In the same spirit of point #4, it serves us well to develop as accurate of an understanding of the world as we can manage. What happens when you add even more lenses? Maybe you get mantis shrimp vision? Who wouldn’t like that?
11. Passion is the willingness to suffer for what you believe in
This is my favorite perspective on the idea of passion. A satisfying life isn’t necessarily a painless or pleasurable one. Real passion can carry with it a lot of suffering, and through some emergent manner, happiness comes out of it. Think about the distances and trials lovers endure to preserve their love. Or the long ass hours people pour into their professional callings. I’d like to think that the challenges and the apparent suffering that occur along the way can be what makes life worthwhile. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek gave his two cents on the matter when he went on Big Think.
12. Be comfortable with solitude
An authentic path through life is a scenic one, but can be lonely. Being more okay with independence makes you less fearful of taking social risks and is a nifty antidote for the harmful kinds of FOMO and herd thinking. Getting comfy with yourself is cool, and I think it’s worth every effort to achieve.
13. Do things in good faith
Do good when no one is watching, and invest your time into things even if it doesn’t always look like there’s an immediate or clear payoff. Cultivate habits such that you’re making productive choices all the time, no matter how little they seem to matter. The little things that seem inconsequential are the real game changers. The payoffs seem invisible and are hard to measure. But before you see any real “results,” you just have to trust the process and do good in good faith.
14. Be generous
Be generous and sincere with compliments, and with showing gratitude. It costs you little but has so much value. Feeling extra reflective one day, I wrote an email to my high school calculus and chemistry teachers thanking them for the impact they’ve made on my life. The amount of satisfaction I got from typing all that good stuff out probably can’t measure up to how I imagined they must’ve felt by reading it.
15. Nonconformity, for the sake of, is meaningless
I used to think that by rejecting the status quo of the herd I could prove to myself that I wasn’t a sheep. If I was the contrarian who did things differently than my peers, I was enlightened. But I’ve learned that this constant pursuit of nonconformity is a misled strategy for true independence.
In school, when I felt as though everyone was feverishly studying for exams or obsessing about their futures, I tried to rise above the fray and reveled in the feeling that I could take myself less seriously. Later, when I started to see a trend of people parading around with annoying airs of apathetic nonchalance, the idea of throwing myself passionately into my work suddenly became more attractive. In reality, it’s impossible to one-up people on their lifestyles, personal philosophies, or music tastes—what’s popular with “everybody else” is a moving target.
Constantly looking to those around me so that I can purposely do the opposite thing is not being uninfluenced by the crowd, it’s being completely controlled by it. What I really crave is the feeling of independence and a solid sense of identity, a desire I think a lot of young people can relate to (especially those going through their teenage emo phase). With ample self-work and life experience, I can eventually get to a point where I know who I am, what I value, and what I want in life. I’ll repeat it. It’s through self-work and life experience, not the nonconformity-for-the-sake-of-being-different BS.
16. Mind won’t win over matter in a 1-on-1, but it’s smarter
For this, I take a few notes from Odysseus and the nifty bit of foresight he used to escape the sirens in the Western sea. The body’s preferences for sloth and indulgence are powerful but aren’t that hard to outsmart with some clever trickery and executive function. How to avoid snoozing my morning alarm 10 times in the morning? Keep my alarm on the other side of the room so that I’m forced to climb out of bed to turn it off. How to haul my butt to the gym when my motivation is low? Squeeze my willpower muscle just enough to get changed into my workout clothes and step outside the front door. If I get to that point, might as well do leg day.
17. Our fears require interpreting
Fear had kept our ancestors out of danger and discouraged behaviors that would have risked our physical and social safety. Since modern society has changed some things about what safety concerns are consequential today, fear has become somewhat of a noisy signal. We fear skydiving because we don’t like plummeting to our deaths. Fair. We also fear to communicate our emotions clearly to our romantic partners… because it’s actually the healthiest thing to do? Not all of our fear responses make sense or are beneficial to us. It takes executive control to be able to read into our fears, know what they’re telling us, and decide when to ignore them.
18. Happiness and sadness are not too far apart from each other
I used to think that these opposites shouldn’t mix. But it turns out that many of the most heartwarming and overwhelming experiences of happiness in my life have sadness living in their shadow. Graduations? Weddings? I see people tearing up all the time at these events, and I’m never sure what kind of crying they’re doing. For the same unintuitive reason that recipes demand you add salt to a sweet baked good to enhance the flavor, it’s interesting how happiness and sadness can sometimes intensify each other in unexpected ways.
19. You’re not as unique as you think
As a Chinese-American, I am an ethnic minority in the US. Even though I grew up in a town that’s quite diverse, I always felt a strong sense of uniqueness given my background. All of that got torpedoed as soon as I went to China, however. I still remember my first few days in Shanghai, completely floored by the oceans of Chinese people swirling by me at every second. Sometimes, when I scrutinized the faces within these giant crowds, I felt as though I could spot doppelgangers of all the Asian people I’ve ever known in my life. I could’ve sworn I saw at least 4 people who looked creepily similar to my mom when I visited my parent’s hometown. I guess it makes sense — crank a slot machine 1.3 billion times and you’re bound to end up with some repeated outcomes. Anyway, this humbling experience did teach me how unspecial I really am in the grand scheme of things.
20. You invest more when you feel like you’ve been invested in
This is actually adapted from a quote I remember from Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming . I didn’t start to fully appreciate the meaning of this until I began my research internship last month. I still remember how they held an all-hands lab meeting just to welcome me on my first week, and to present to me all their ongoing research. They’d also pull me into projects and give me challenging tasks and responsibilities I’ve never had before, trusting that I’ll push myself to meet them where they are. Maybe it didn’t mean much to them, but it has made my commitment and motivation at the lab soar. I’m so deeply grateful for their support and investment in me — I don’t want to let them down!
21. Being “real” does not mean being cynical
I want to challenge the idea that being realistic requires taking the jaded point of view on things. It’s all true: the years we each have on the earth are limited, our individual contributions to the world as a whole will be tiny, we are a product of our environments, and injustices are everywhere. But I think it’s possible to understand all of these things yet still find meaning in trying one’s best and believing in people’s goodness.