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Things I Wish I Knew When I Was 21

My 21st birthday was exactly half of my life ago.

I went to the hairdresser’s after my shift at Woolies (yeah, I worked on the record counter, which was CDs and videos at the time) and asked for “bubbles”; an up-do that made your hair look like a huge pile of super neat circles. My hair was so thick, it took the stylist twice the time, so she charged me twice. Happy birthday! To be fair, there was so much hairspray used to keep the bubbles in place, you could knock on it like wood. It stayed in for three days, so I guess you could say I got a bargain.

My mum and dad had hired a small marquee for the garden. It was January and blowing a gale, so they also hired heaters. Once inside, the tent flapped so wildly in the wind that the tent was on track to blow away to Oz, but at least everybody could wear shoestring strap tops revealing belly-button piercings without freezing. The party was noisy and happy, with lots of dancing. I stood on the dining room table and made a speech. It felt like a massive deal. 21. I was a proper, proper grown-up. Surely this meant I was sorted. I’d be graduating from uni soon and qualified to waltz straight into a good job. I could move to the big, big city. Get a trendy flat. Make pesto pasta. Get a cafetière. I would spend Sunday afternoons in the gentrified local reading all the papers and magazine supplements and stick around long enough to join in the pub quiz.

Well, that bubble burst. No amount of hairspray could keep that one intact.

Because being 21 is just three years into adulthood. Three years! After spending eighteen years growing, from baby to toddler, to child, to teen, you’re encouraged to believe that you’re all perfectly cooked by the time you reach 21. Off into the world, you go then… And when life - as you’d predicted - starts throwing a million curveballs your way, suddenly, you start to doubt yourself. You should know how to handle career stumbles and difficult managers because you’re an adult. You should be able to pay your rent on time because you’re an adult. You should have the emotional maturity to deal with romantic failures because you’re an adult. But adulting is brand, spanking new. It’s a completely different game from the one you played before. Three years into your childhood, you’d only just about learnt how to use the toilet. You had to ask for help inserting a straw into a carton of juice. No wonder, just a mere three years into adulthood, you’re not in a senior role, you’re asking your parents for a loan and crying over being dumped!

When I first moved to London, I signed up with a temping agency to do tedious admin roles and reception work, while I waited for auditions to come my way. These temp jobs were a means to an end. I’d land an acting gig soon enough. I was a drama school graduate. I was trained. I was a professional. But the whole means to the end felt endless. I’d get on the tube every day, going in different directions multiple times a week, off to work in whatever office needed their dusty deeds filing or their switchboard operating. I’d be wearing a cheap black trouser suit that didn’t quite fit right, and for somebody used to dance-wear or dresses, I felt I’d lost my whole identity. I was jealous of everybody else on the tube. They were on their daily commute too, but unlike me, they were clearly fulfilled. Passionate. Competent. Earning a decent wage. Oh, how I just didn’t understand. How I believed the world was against me. Because, in terms of being the grown-up that I thought I was, I was actually only three years old.

I wish somebody had told me this.

Ha. Maybe they did. But I was just too stubborn to listen.

When I tell my three-year-old daughter not to run when she gets out of the bath because she will slip and hurt herself, does she just go ahead and run and slip over and then cry because she’s hurt herself? You betcha. Every darn day. But soon she will understand that if she just wipes her feet on a towel before darting across the room, she won’t slip and she won’t get hurt. She’ll get there. Because we best learn on the job. Even if it takes a while.

So with more than two decades of experience as an adult, what else do I wish I’d known when I was 21?

  1. Big mistakes are good. You suddenly learn never to do that again.

  2. You will make new best friends, and love them insanely.

  3. Doing a yoga class once a week won’t make you skinny.

  4. Learn about how to spend your money. It’s not boring. It will give you freedom.

  5. You’ll remember a big night out rather than a quiet night in.

  6. Your dreams will come true. Don’t wish for them ALL to come at once.

  7. Pass your driving test. Even if you don’t need a car. This also will give you freedom.

  8. You can’t force somebody like you, so don’t waste your precious time on trying.

  9. Ask questions. Listen more than you talk. You’ll be amazed at how this shapes you.

  10. Smoking is stupid. Like, really stupid. And no amount of chewing gum will mask the smell.

  11. Become really good at ONE thing. Don’t be a jack-of-all-trades.

  12. Add exercise to essentials like eating, drinking and sleeping. You’ll never ever regret this.

  13. Stop worrying about what others think. Their opinion means zero.

  14. In fact, stop worrying full stop. Worry is wasted.

  15. Nobody will ever care about your career as much as you do.

  16. You can change your career at any time. What you’re doing now doesn’t need to be forever.

  17. Your worst case scenario is never that bad. So what if you have to move back in with your parents for a while?

  18. It’s YOU vs YOU. Stop comparing yourself to anybody and everybody.

  19. Hanging out alone is brilliant. One day you might have kids. You won’t even get to poo alone.

  20. A simple compliment goes a long way. People remember those who made them feel special.

  21. Love yourself. Please. There is nobody on this planet remarkably like you.


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