Now that I’m fairly far removed from 21-year-old Aliya (I’ll be 33 in August) there’s so much I wish I could tell her. Plenty of small things (wear your retainer! Stop spending so much money on jeans) but there are some big things, too. When you’re 21 and living out of state on your own like I was, you can get the false impression that you got things all figured out. But surprise, surprise: I did not.
So what would I tell little, 21-year-old Aliya?
I was too intimidated to study abroad. Too insecure to put myself out there and join a random club on my college campus. Too nervous to pitch certain ideas at my magazine internships. There were a lot of things that I let pass me by because I wasn’t bold enough. Now, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes my boldness would catch me by surprise and I would jump on an opportunity. But if I could chat with 21-year-old Aliya, I would tell her to embrace that energy more consistently.
Spoiler alert: I survived my college years and my early 20s. But now that I have kids, I begrudgingly admit that my mom was right about more than I could ever imagine. There were many nights I would get reprimanded for not calling, not coming home on time, for having one too many drinks, and I would think “what’s her deal? She’s so strict.”
Now I only have to briefly imagine Avery or MJ doing the same thing to me while I nervously wait at home for them to return, and my blood pressure goes up.
(I volunteer as tribute for ALL chaperoning duties!)
No one knows what they’re doing
When I was in my early 20s and just starting out in my career, I would come across so many people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s and marvel. Look at them, with their ironed shirts, long fancy emails, and healthy lunches. Now that I’m older and dare I say, one of those people that younger folks look up to in an office as a 30-something professional, I know that most of that is a façade. I still have no idea what I’m doing. Yes, I wear nicer clothes and am adept at sending emails, but I’m far from having it all figured out. And I know that a lot of my peers are in the same situation.
How should I address that snarky coworker? Should I lease or buy my next car? What will it take to buy a house? Are my kids in the right school? Answer to everything: *shrug* But I’ll figure it out along the way.
Don’t tolerate toxicity
There were a few friends and family that I tolerated for much longer than I should have because I felt I was being a good person by continuing to be there for despite them treating me badly. I wore my loyalty like a badge of honor. Nothing that person could say or do would make me walk away.
33-year-old Aliya knows better. Accepting toxicity in relationships is not honorable, it’s draining. And you’re not betraying someone by saying “I care about you, but for the sake of my well-being, I can’t continue in this relationship anymore.”
21-year-old Aliya would have saved herself a lot of future heartache if she knew that from the jump.
It’s ok to not know what you want
When I was in college, everyone in my family had their lives mapped out. Lawyers, doctors, and Ph.D.s – it was clear what they needed to do. One step led to the next, and through a lot of hard work and dedication, goals were reached.
Me on the other hand, I didn’t know. I knew I loved to write and to connect with people, but wasn’t sure how that translated into a career. After my college graduation, I got asked by everyone “What will you do next? Grad school? Do you have a job lined up?” I had an appeasing answer at the ready that I gave everyone who asked, but in reality I had no idea. In 2008, I was just a 20-something with a journalism degree graduating in the middle of an economic crisis and severe decline of print media. Not long after graduation, I got laid off of my job at a media publishing company and moved back home to California with my tail between my legs.
But it all worked out. And even though I didn’t have my life mapped out, I ended up with a great job, and most importantly, I’m happy. Is this where I thought I would end up? Absolutely not. Am I grateful? You betcha. Do I hate people that ask and answer their own questions? Without a doubt.
Bad things will happen – but you’ll get through it
Part of young Aliya thought that if I did everything right, things would go right. And if something was going wrong, it was a sign that I had done something wrong. When I got cheated on, it was because I wasn’t a good girlfriend. If I got into a car accident, it was because I was a bad driver (was I?).
But what I’ve learned, is that sometimes, things go wrong. You can do everything right, and still end up with devastation. It’s unavoidable. But now that I’ve been through some of the lowest lows and have come out on the other end, I've gained the confidence I need to know that I can survive the next thing that may come my way.
And on that note...
I asked my friends and family on Facebook and Instagram what they would tell their 21-year-old selves, and there was some great advice:
“You’re not fat”
“That failure is okay”
“Relax! I was so concerned about doing things perfectly”
“It’s ok to say NO!”
“Apply for that study abroad program! Travel now before a 9-5 gets in the way”
“Whatever you do, make sure you love it and the money will follow”
“Listen to your intuition. It’s always right”
“Take a break before grad school and travel”
“Slow down and don’t rush to do everything. You have time. Enjoy these years.”
What would you tell your 21-year-old self?