The anniversary snuck past me last week so fast I didn’t even notice it! Ten years since I walked across the sweltering gymnasium of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia.
While it doesn’t feel like ten years have passed, when I think of that girl I once was I can hardly recognize myself. I was excited, but also scared and totally clueless (I was also apparently super skinny these photos seem to suggest- definitely news to 18 year old me).
In the past ten years I’ve spent four years studying at university, been a receptionist, been a paper pusher, been a freelance travel writer, lived in London, lived in DC, lived in China and Argentina and lived out of a backpack for months on end. I’ve fallen in and out of love multiple times, had my heart broken, made friends all over the world, gotten engaged, gotten my appendix removed. I’ve been to nearly 40 countries in the past 10 years, walked the Great Wall of China and snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s been a good ten years. I wish I could go back and let past-me know that. I was pretty clueless back then, but here are ten things I’d like to think I’ve wisened up to over the years:
1. Life Happens, Just Go With It
I still look back on high school as the most stressful time of my life. My parents were divorcing, I was crazy busy and mI was convinced that if I didn’t get into a really good college my life was basically over. Senior year I was so stressed out that I ended up in bed with Mono for a month. Which of course only made me more stressed.
Well all that hard work did get me into a good school, it’s true, but I’m not sure it was worth the 7 AM extra classes, the extracurriculars and the tears. College wasn’t even a quarter as stressful. Thank goodness in the past ten years I have learned to relax, that life is about more than just achievements and that everything generally works out okay whether you stay up all night worrying about it or not.
2. Heels are not Your (my) friend
I tottered around my high school graduation in bright pink high heels that I bought at Goodwill for $5. I thought they were so cool, but by the end of the night my feet felt like burning. This would be repeated many nights throughout my twenties, when I would end up walking home through the dirty streets of London barefoot, shoes in hand. I’m lucky I never got tetanus.
Some people are awesome at high heels, I’m not one of them. I know my limitations now and I’ve invested a lot of money in super cute flats over the years. My feet are so thankful.
3. Pick your Partner Wisely
While most high school couples were breaking up and going their separate ways for college, I clung desperately to my high school boyfriend for years and years. We loved each other but we were totally incompatible in almost every way: he was analytical, I was creative, he wanted to settle down, I wanted to see the world. I spent three years of college trying to force myself to change what I wanted, to fit myself into that mold, before I realized I needed to break free. I broke it off, went to study in London and never looked back.
Your partner should compliment your strengths and encourage your dreams, not inhibit them. You should be a team, not adversaries. It took me awhile but I’m so happy I found someone who will take on the world with me.
4. Being Alone Isn’t So Bad Either
After that relationship ended I was single for two years- probably the two most definitive years of my young life. For the first time I was actually able to ask myself what I wanted to do, what I liked and what I needed. I learned I loved to travel, that I know how to flirt with a boy in a bar, that I’m not actually so cowardly and that taking risks is kind of a thrill. Those years turned me into me.
So being alone is okay. It’s actually way better than being in a relationship that is shitty. I swear I know so many twenty-somethings and older who have not figured this out yet.
5. It’s okay to not do what everyone else is doing
I actually had the tiniest inkling of this when I graduated but it’s something I still sometimes struggle with.
I went to college in Atlanta because I wanted to go somewhere I didn’t know anyone. I majored in English even though people told me it was a useless major (ACTUALLY, I think English is an incredibly useful degree, but that is a rant for another day). After graduation, when everyone was scrambling for an entry-level job (this was pre-financial meltdown remember), I decided to move to London and be poor. I got that entry level job eventually and at 25 years old I quit it to be an itinerant self-employed writer.
All of these decisions got me to where I am today, but they were all REALLY hard to commit to. Going against the grain is really, really hard. Even now, when all of my friends are moving into cute apartments and putting down roots and I’m planning to move abroad yet again, it’s hard. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it though.
6. There are Different Kinds of Friendship
I’m actually pretty lucky/weird in that I am still very close friends with many of my high school buddies. These friendships have deepened over the years into life-long bonds. Other relationships have fizzled out, lasting only summer, or a trip together or even one really great evening. They were all still valuable though.
7. You’ll Never Know How Good Things Are Until Later
Sigh. I hate that this is true, but I know it is. At 28 I’m already profoundly nostalgic for my early twenties, that time when I had almost zero responsibilities, dozens of friends and the energy to go out dancing on a Tuesday night and still get up for work the next morning. At the time I’m pretty sure I felt lost and stressed and ready to be anywhere else on the planet, but now you know, I miss it a lot.
I miss college, pulling all nighters in the library with Kim, and I definitely miss living in London and being so poor I struggled to make rent. Will I miss this current period of my in about 5 years. Almost definitely. There’s no way to full appreciate the moment you are in- it’s one of life’s great tragedies.
8. Don’t Eat Crappy Food
You guys know that I am obsessed with food now- both the cooking of it and the eating of it. It makes me so sad to think of all those years I wasted totally not even caring about what I put in my mouth. For years I was a picky eater, what a waste! For most of my early twenties I lived primarily off of Lean Cuisines. Now I am totally disgusted with myself that I ever put those gross, gross tasting, chemical infused “meals” into my mouth.
Related: you’ll never appreciate how skinny and beautiful you once were until so much later.
9. Pretending to Be Brave Can Get You Really Far
In my line of work and living I run into a lot of people who tell me “You’re so brave!” Dude, I am so not brave. I am scared about something or other about 100% of the time.
What I am good at is pretending to be brave. Acting confident when I’m not, leaping without knowing exactly where I’ll land. Whether it was moving to London without knowing a soul, quitting my job in the midst of a recession or jumping off an actual bridge, it has somehow always worked out okay for me. That’s because the hardest, most agonizing part of any decision is just making it. Living with it is usually pretty easy.
10. You Can Not See the End Goal Yet
If you asked 18 year old me where I would be in ten years, I would never ever in a million years have guessed this is what my life would look like. The getting married part maybe, but the writing, the traveling, the constant thrill and struggle of self-employment? No way. I wanted to be either an archeologist or a librarian.
No matter how many plans you make, it is impossible to see where you’re going to end up. That prospect can be really scary, or it can be really relaxing. Since you can’t control the future, the best thing to do is enjoy the ride.
I think I’ve been doing an OK job so far.