21 by 21


Recently HuffPost featured a piece that Glamour Magazine published years ago declaring thirty things every thirty-year-old needs to know. They also published a compelling list for an older audience of women who are fifty and fabulous. Reading the wisdom of these pieces inspired me to compile my own list of twenty-one things every twenty-one year-old needs to know as her twenties begin.

With a little help from my friends, I’ve put together quite the completion. Though certainly not exhaustive, here are a few “pearls of wisdom” to put to good use:

1.  First thing’s first. Since this is the year of legal drinking, let’s tackle that first. At the risk of sounding like your mother, drink responsibly. Know your limits and be safe. Take turns with friends being the designated driver or take a cab. Save yourself from the pain of drunk driving and DUIs. Besides, nothing is more unattractive than a girl who’s wasted. And, the morning after isn’t any prettier. Who are we kidding though? Chances are, you’ll probably have a few crazy nights like this to prove me right. Here’s hoping the learning isn’t too risky or life-altering. Okay, lecture over.

2.  Speaking of drinking and not driving, learn basic car maintenance. Know how to check your oil and change a tire. Or, consider joining a service like AAA and experience the assurance of being prepared. You’ll drive more confidently when you know you can save yourself in a jam. While it may feel like you live out of your car during these years, you don’t. So, learn to maintain a home too. Become familiar with a screwdriver and a hammer. Know how to fix what breaks or call a service provider who can lend their expertise if you need. Own tools, know how to use them, and have a few do-it-yourself books nearby. Want to be really prepared? Consider taking an automotive or household maintenance class at your local community college.

3.  While you’re signing up for class, add a self-defense course to the mix. Every woman is better for having the knowledge she can defend herself if needed. While you may skate through these years without risk or harm, you also might not. Grab your girlfriends and explore a tactical defense workshop. Perhaps explore weaponry or gun safety too. Whatever options you choose, you will feel more confident and less vulnerable by knowing how to protect yourself in the world—a true mark of a self-sufficient woman.

4.  Travel as much as you can. See the world. Create adventure, learn about the planet, and discover its beauty. Push yourself to explore beyond the comforts of home. Fly somewhere that makes you uncomfortable. Come face-to-face with global poverty and suffering. Let the world change you. Find places that haunt you and compel you to global action. Travel to play and experience beauty too. All are important destinations to journey toward: places of pleasure, places of discomfort, places of need.

5.  And as you travel, whether at home to surrounding communities or abroad, let your heart be captivated by a social cause. Impact your community for the better and create a life that leaves the world changed. When your life becomes less about you and more about others and the needs of the globe, you will find fulfillment most will never know. Volunteer. Find greater purpose in the world.

6.  Since we live in a material world (as Madonna told us in the 80s), know how to handle money. Budget wisely and know how to reconcile a checkbook or your accounts online. Keep good records and avoid getting into debt. Stuff does not define you. Debt is not worth buying an image or purchasing the acceptance of others. Invest in yourself and your future. Take time to learn about financial matters. Educate yourself and make informed decisions about money. Need a teacher? Allow me to recommend the infamous Suze Orman. In fact, she’s written a book just for you!

7.  Begin saving for retirement now. The early bird really does catch the worm. The longer you wait to begin investing in retirement savings, the more you’ll have to invest as you age, often a time when you have more expenses and less extra cash. Even the investment of $50 each month can make a big difference over time. Time is money. Invest now and watch your savings accumulate. Make your money work for you, not the other way around. Don’t believe me? Take a look at how your money grows and how waiting even a few years can make a big difference. Check out these financial resources and calculators.

8.  Education and professional skill will be your biggest asset. Beauty will fade and a rich husband isn’t a good plan for financial providence and stability. Your intelligence and ability will be two things that can never be taken from you or decrease in value. Every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears are worth a woman’s education, her professional ability, and the confidence in knowing she can provide for herself. But know this journey toward self-sufficiency takes time. Be patient with yourself as your professional identity takes shape. Find something you love. Study it and stick with it. I promise it will pay off.

9.  Find mentors. Whether in educational or professional domains or simply in the “game of life,” find women and men who have wisdom to impart and invite them into your life. At twenty-one, you know a lot but not as much as you will, not as much as you will need to know someday. Let your elders teach you. Let them model life-lessons for you. Let them invest in who you are becoming. Generations need each other. You need them, and they need you. Honor them by “sitting at their feet” and listening.

10.  Spend time alone. We need people in our life, but we also need to have the certainty we are okay and sufficient on our own. Create habits of being alone with yourself. Turn off your phone and step away from social media. Go out on a date with yourself or have a quiet night in. Be still. Become comfortable being still and being alone. Get to know yourself. Discover the places you enjoy about yourself as well as the places you wrestle with in your life. Practice this discipline often. You will never regret building a meaningful relationship with only yourself, for it’s the foundation for everything else.

11.  Get to know your family. Whether you’ve lived with them your entire life or not, these years are new and rich opportunities to know your family tree in a whole new way.  You are an adult now and have the ability to be curious about your family like never before. Spend time being inquisitive about your family’s patterns, ways of communicating, medical and mental health history, stories of significance, places of struggle and overcoming. Taking a closer look at your immediate and extended family systems will be your greatest teacher in learning about yourself and the experiences or patterns of your own life. On this note, these are rich years to invite a trusted therapist to explore these powerful places with you. Want help knowing where to start? Click here to find a therapist in your area uniquely trained in family systems.

12.  Maybe I’m just inspired by the surge of Downton Abbey sweeping the nation, but every woman needs to know how to be a lady. I’m not talking about stepping back into the dark ages, but I am suggesting the importance of knowing and practicing good manners and proper etiquette. Display grace and poise and know how to handle yourself at a nice restaurant or a formal evening out. And, while we’re at it, it’s a good idea to have a classic dress tucked away just in case such an occasion presents itself— hopefully, with a gorgeous date!

13.  Speaking of a night out, it’s important every woman know how to lead, how to step back, and how to tell the difference between the two. Carry the certainty you can lead and care for yourself just fine, but have the gracious confidence to allow your date to care for you as well. Step back. Let him open doors for you and be kind and thoughtful of you. Let him pay for dinner if he’s trying to impress you and earn your affection. Step back in a way that lets you watch him rise to honor you. Step forward to lead so as not to become a doormat in love. Practice makes perfect, and this tricky dance is no exception.

14.  While we’re on the topic of dating, know the difference between a man who loves you and a man who only wants to sleep with you. In a culture of casual sex, I’m about to say something pretty unpopular. The way to tell the difference is to wait. Give the relationship time. Get to know each other. Study how he shows up, how he honors you, how he invests in your life. Do you feel like a person or only an object of desire when you’re together? Time is a great teacher. A leopard can only hide his spots for so long. And, just for the record, you deserve a man who really loves you. Besides, sex is better then anyway.

15.  Know how to say “no.” While it’s good to practice the art of developing boundaries in general, I’m specifically speaking about saying “no” in the bedroom. Learn how to be comfortable setting limits with your body. Say “no” or “yes” because you mean it and want it—not because you feel pressured. And on that topic, never let a man pressure you into unprotected sex. Become comfortable protecting your body and your life. No disease or unwanted pregnancy is worth a night you’ll regret in the morning.

16.  My last word of advice about dating: know how to break-up well and handle a broken-heart. At twenty-one and in the years after, you’ll most likely have a handful of relationships that won’t work out. You’ll have loved and lost like the best of us. And, while you’re drowning in heartache, I promise you’ll be better for the pain. Enduring the journey of loss and survival is a profound teacher, one you most likely will be thankful for someday. End well and with kindness. Give dignity and grace to you both.

17.  Be good to your body. Often, these are invincible years at the peak of physical strength and optimal health. That truth will change over time. Trust me. Look into the future and invest in your health. Take time to learn about nutrition and healthful eating. Make dietary decisions that minimize disease and maximize wellness. Stay active and exercise often. Avoid drugs. Minimize stress. Sleep well.

18.  Dream big, but hold your dreams loosely. Give yourself the freedom to chase the visions you have for your life, but also the permission to let them go or correct them as needed. You will change in the coming years, and so will your dreams. Sure, some things you will long for your entire life, but other things you won’t want like you do right now. In time, you’ll know the difference. Changing your dreams isn’t a sign of failure; it’s the mark of creating a life that matches who you’re becoming.

19.  Get to know your value system. Why do you believe what you do? Cultivate your beliefs and values well during these years and make adjustments as needed, for they should drive the decisions you make. Take time to open yourself up to new and differing perspectives. Be curious. Ask questions. Be a learner. Your own beliefs and values will be stronger for the ways you seek to understand others and the world. Don’t bypass the importance of this step. Make the decision to let your values and beliefs steer the often overwhelming and ever-changing emotions of these powerful years. Search and know the compass that guides you.

20.  Be patient with yourself. You are growing and changing quickly during these years. You will know lots of living and lots of learning. Trust the journey and the tender refinement happening inside you. Embrace your mistakes. You will make many. Learn to make peace with them. Learn from them. Befriend them. And, if you’re lucky, some of these mistakes will also be your favorite memories years from now. I guarantee they will be among your greatest teachers. Be patient in this classroom of life, this classroom of you.

21.  YOLO. Well, it’s true. You only live once, so be present in your life. Don’t spend too much time looking behind you or in front of you or you’ll miss out on the magic of today. You can’t change the past and you can’t predict the future. Don’t rush these years or be in a hurry to grow up. You have plenty of time to be successful, to get married, or to have a family. Once those days arrive, you’ll miss the richness of these youthful years and the adventures of getting to know yourself and the world. Play hard and plan well and trust everything to unfold just as it should. YOLO, so savor twenty-one and the sweet, timeless years that follow. Cheers to you and your twenty-one year-old self!

Originally published on April 10, 2013.

SHANNON WEST

is the owner and founder of Speaking Pink, a private therapy and consulting practice devoted to teen girls and twenties women in Seattle / Kirkland, Washington. Shannon is a licensed family therapist, a private consultant, and a writer about all things on the journey from girl to woman. Follow on Pinterest and Twitter or send an email to Shannon@speakingpink.com.