On Figuring Out How to Be Less of a Dummy

The road to adulthood is weird, and sometimes I think we never really get there. I mostly have it together, but I also grab a bag of gummy worms every time I’m at CVS and I still have a Hotmail account.

Introverts are nothing if not thinkers, sometimes to our own detriment. But for all the hours I’ve spent staring at my ceiling wondering how to build my empire or if I should be exercising more, I’ve also taken notes on what works in my life and what doesn’t.

If I could write a field guide to 20-year-old me and tell her how to get through the next 16 years in one piece… I’m not sure I would. Some lessons are better learned the hard way. One thing I do know is this: Writing down what I could tell a younger version of myself is a helpful tool for evaluating what I care about and what type of person I want to be. Here goes:

Don’t burn every bridge. People are complicated. Even the mostly good ones. Especially in their early 20s, when no one really knows who they are but they feel an inexplicably intense pressure to have their master scheme figured out. That kind of dichotomy creates a lot of insecurity and often manifests itself as misbehavior. But really, at any age, even the beloveds in your inner circle will disappoint you from time to time. Disappointing behavior does not a villain make. Don’t strike a match on a bridge that just needs a bit of duct tape. However…

Don’t be afraid to walk away from bad eggs. You’ll know the ones. There will be roommates who make cruel comments and sell it as a brand of humor. Your “friendly” manager will gaslight you. You will notice moments, however fleeting, where your engagement with these folks leaves a knot in your stomach. A ball of energy that sits, heavy, like a bad sushi roll. Notice it. You could make excuses for this type of person, but don’t. In these cases, and only in these cases, where maliciousness or conscious neglect are at play: Ignore the previous bit of advice. Light the match and watch the bridge burn.

You will never know everything about anything. Most things are more nuanced than they appear at first blush. Just when you think you’ve peeled back the last stinky layer on an onion, you’ll look down and see you’re not even halfway to the core. Or maybe you’re actually holding an orange. If you’re sure you have something all sorted out, be dubious. At the very least, be open to new angles. Even when new information doesn’t change your stance, it will help you to better understand why you believe what you believe — so seek out new data as often as possible. The world is an unsolved Rubik’s cube. Don’t hone in on a green square and argue with anyone who swears they spot some blue and red out there.

Speak up for other people. More than you speak up for yourself, even. You’re a pistol so you may as well use your chutzpah for good. Keep an eye out for people who don’t have the luxury to pipe up because they have more to lose than you do. Be their champion if it doesn’t put them in a compromising position.

Surround yourself with people who get it. You’re gonna know people who don’t understand you at all. That’s fine, as long as they’re also supportive. It’s not fine if they poke holes in your dreams or tell you you’ll regret your decisions because they made different ones. Constructive, meaningful feedback, that’s one thing. If you’re about to quit your job, a devil’s advocate is your friend. But some people never had the guts to go for their own home run so they’re gonna tell you to bunt no matter what. Find a solid group of friends who celebrate your successes. Creative souls on a path of self-discovery and self-improvement usually “get it.” Thems your people.

Don’t dim your own light. Resist throwing your achievements in anyone’s face (no one likes an arrogant asshole), but don’t pretend they didn’t happen to make someone else feel more comfortable.

Be humble. You could be wrong.

If you don’t quite feel like an adult, it’s not the end of the world. At some point, a small child in your care will fall down or swallow something plastic or hit her sister. There will be a split second where you turn your head to look for the grown up before you realize that’s supposed to be you. I still can’t be sure, but I think everyone feels this way.

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