Today, on my 27th birthday, I reflect on the lessons I have learned over the past decade. If I could go back in time, what would I tell myself at 17? What would be useful to know at that difficult age? Obviously, I cannot go back in time, and 17-year old Sarah is stuck right where she is! I hope, however, that some of these words will resonate with other young women growing up in Downeast Maine. Although I write this letter to myself using the personal pronoun “you,” it is really directed to anyone. I hope these bits of insight will be useful to a different “you,” whoever “you” might be!
1. Try not to worry
If I were to tell you anything in this long list of do’s and don’ts, it would be this: Try not to worry so much. Anxiety is a very powerful force, and, if allowed, it will consume your life. It has the potential to tear apart your relationships, stifle your mind, and, ultimately, deprive you of your happiness. Anxiety and worry are ever-present, so the trick is not to waste your energies attempting to banish them from your life. You have to learn to contain them, or –better still–channel these feelings in a way that is useful.
2. Build your resilience
One thing you will learn about yourself over the next decade is that you need to structure your time in such a way that you can recover from living. Like a runner, you get fatigued by the pressures of daily life. On a day-to-day basis, it’s not so bad. Toss in a few extra stressors, however, and your ability to cope nosedives. You know that when things are hard, you have your family and friends to lean on. One of the best things you can do for yourself, as well as your loved ones, however, is to learn how to achieve a sense of balance. In the long run, you will be healthier, happier, more productive, and more supportive of your loved ones if you can learn how to find a healthy way to recover from stress. You know you have a low tolerance, so use this knowledge to your advantage. Say “no” to projects that are out of scope. Take the weekend to turn off your phone and tune out. Eat good food, sleep a lot, and don’t fret if you perceive that others are achieving more than you while you let yourself recover. Everything in moderation. When it is time to lay on the speed and finish the race, you will be ready.
3. Learn to accept change
The only thing constant in life is change. Not a recent revelation, by any stretch of the imagination. The Buddha knew this, the ancient Greeks knew this, and your Grandma knew this. You are going to meet a lot of different people, live in a lot of different places, and work at a lot of different jobs. You will interrogate your perspectives and build them back up again. You will see your relationships with loved ones grow and change. Even your body will change (especially your failing knees!). As life goes on, you will suffer less as you learn to accept change more. Be grateful for what you have and humble when your plans don’t work out. Remember that you only have so much control over your life. The rest you just have to accept!
4. Take time to explore
Life will always present you with new adventures, a few that are great but most of which will be very small, even unremarkable. Whether they are travels abroad or unusual conversations or explorations within your neighborhood, let your curiosity get the better of you! The truth is that you can always find a reason not to indulge in your natural proclivity for exploration (for example, your homework, chores, lack of money, etc.). But I can tell you that in just a few short years, you will look back on your experiences with a sense of sadness and wonder, “Why didn’t I take the risk? Why didn’t I just do what I wanted to do? Why didn’t I fulfill that natural desire to learn more?” At 17, all you want to do is grow up – you want to be an adult so badly! So you have developed a very odd idea that exploration is a luxury you cannot afford. From the perspective of a few short years, I can tell you that stifling your own curiosity will only do you harm, since it is only through exploration that you develop your critical thinking skills and maintain an appreciation for this incredible world.
5. Let joy happen
Sometimes it seems as though you move through your life just waiting for the other shoe to drop. You don’t know what you are waiting for exactly, but, whatever it is, you fear it. It turns out that that which you fear is the pain and suffering resulting from the unknown, and, because this fear is always somewhere in the back of your mind, you have great difficulty being present. Because you are not present, you do not always feel joy, and, when you do, you somehow feel guilty. News flash: You are allowed to feel joy! Let it happen, let it wash over you and don’t feel like you “got away” with something that shouldn’t be yours. Just appreciate it and move on.
6. Moderate your inner voice
You’ve heard that phrase about “being your own worst enemy”? Well, sometimes in life you are your own biggest critic, and the strength of your own criticism is powerful in ways you aren’t fully aware. Sometimes having a strong internal voice telling you to try harder and do better next time is a great strength; after all, that voice drives you to fulfill your goals and stretch your own limits. But, a great deal of the time, that voice just drives you crazy, and it actually holds you back. It holds you back from enjoying life fully, and sometimes it has the effect of a pair of blinders on a horse, stopping you from seeing anything but your small life. As the years go on, try to learn how to recognize when it is time to tell that inner voice to shut the f***k up! There are lots of other voices out there worth hearing.
7. Seek perspective
One’s mind can be a very small place. At 17, you have already experienced this, the circular thoughts and the repetitive inner monolog that turns back on itself time and again. At some point, you will understand that you cannot learn without seeking outside perspective, especially concerning the questions that trouble you the most. You will have many opportunities to do this in life, and you shouldn’t be afraid. Within limits, ask questions of others who may have different points of view and experiences from your own. Listen to their answers with an open mind, do not judge them, and be thankful that they honored you with their response. Even if you do not agree, that is alright, because through the process of questioning you have gained perspective and wisdom.
8. Cherish your family, your friends, and your loved ones
This dictum never sinks in until you have experienced a loss. You hear it constantly, in myriad saccharine refrains. But, oh, how true it is. At 17, you haven’t lost anyone yet, but it will happen very soon. Some of your loved ones will pass after long and fulfilling lives; others will leave this world far too soon. I cannot overstate this point enough: When your family and friends need you, drop what you’re doing. Put everything on hold and go to them. Answer the phone, write that email, jump in the car and drive. Now is the time to listen to that inner voice, the one telling you that nothing in life–not your homework, not your job–is as important as the relationships in your life. Cherish them, nurture them, and do not forget them.
9. Ask for what you want
Ask for what you want, because no one else is going to do it for you. There, I said it. Ugh! I almost hate this piece of advice, because it sounds so bossy, doesn’t it? Well, bossy is not always bad. Fortunately, you’ve had many great advocates in life who have miraculously determined what you needed before you had any inkling. You’ve had that great advantage. In the years to come, however, you will be more or less on your own. Don’t assume that likability or work ethic will be enough. Don’t assume that good manners will be enough. You do not live in a meritocracy, so don’t automatically expect good things because you did a good job. Essentially what I am saying is: don’t be so damn entitled. As you carve your career in higher education, you will learn that it is very much a business. This will disappoint you immensely in the beginning, but soon you will identify the role you wish to have–and it is a good one. Stick to it, persevere and remember to ask for what you want.
10. Take pride in your work
If you don’t take pride in your work, you are probably in the wrong field. The “pride” test is a good litmus test for whether you are on the right track in life. At the end of the day, does your work match your values? Do you feel that you have acted with integrity and achieved something that makes your little chest feather stick out? If the answer is “no,” then it is OK to quit what you’re doing and change tracks. Trust that gut instinct. To reallocate your energies in life and start down another path does not make you a quitter – it makes you strategic. Not every pursuit in life is equal to another.
11. Practice compassion and empathy whenever possible
Compassion and empathy are very different emotions from sympathy. Take a page out of Dr. Brené Brown’s book and learn the difference. You are naturally a very compassionate person, so, again, learn how to use that knowledge in a way that is meaningful. Let your empathy guide your interactions with everyone you meet – including animals, for they, too, have their truths. Recognize that there are going to be times in life where those around you say, “Whew, you got too involved” or even, “You let that person take advantage of you!” True, these are pitfalls. Like all things in life, you are bound to have failures! Just don’t let them harden your soul. Life is hard enough without failing to recognize the dignity in all those around you.
12. Don’t forget where you come from
In point number three, I told you to learn to accept change. You must do this. It is going to hurt as you gradually become a different person from the one who spent the first 17 years of her life living in the same place. But as you grow and change, don’t ever forget from where you come. Don’t forget your childhood friends, your teachers, your family. Don’t forget that granite rock that you used to sit on and watch the tide change. Don’t forget the people who supported you during those formative years of your life, and never think that because you changed you can’t go back.
13. Stop being so sorry
Stop saying, “I’m sorry” so much. Really. Those words have a tremendous amount of meaning, and they should not be used carelessly. You will learn in your life not to give away your own power so much and not to make every situation about you. Every time you say that you are sorry for something that is not your fault or which could not be helped or which does not really need an apology to begin with, you may be trying to make yourself feel better but you are really detracting from your own inner sense of self worth; you give away your own power. When you say those words needlessly, you also make the situation about you when it does not need to be. This is a selfish and self-serving thing to do. You say those words because you are seeking attention, you are trying to be flawless, and you think that when someone else says, “It’s ok” you have successfully erased some kind of karmic smudge. Well, you probably haven’t. Reserve those powerful words not for making yourself feel better, but for truly making someone else feel better. Reserve them for times when you are truly in the wrong and need to make amends. And when you say it, you must mean it with your whole heart.
14. Take care of yourself
Looking back over the past ten years, I cannot emphasize this point enough. For all the beauty and goodness in the world, there is also darkness–and, by the mere fact that you are a woman, you must be vigilant. You know what I mean. You’ve felt it before, that visceral fear of the hunted. Sometimes it is instantaneous, other times you discover it incrementally, like a frog in a pot of water as it gradually rises to a boil. At a certain point, you must abandon that fear of offending and instead protect yourself. Trust your gut instinct –walk away, end the conversation, cut off contact–and do whatever you need to do to protect yourself. You can later analyze the situation from a distance if you feel so compelled, but secure your safety first.
15. Be good to other women and their allies
With time, you will learn to take pride in being a feminist. It will feel like a dirty word at first, especially because it has been so maligned by those who fear what it stands for. Your feminism, however, is a core value, and it will rise again and again, even in ways for which you are unprepared! One of the most powerful lessons you will learn along your journey is to be good to other women and their allies. All too often, women tear down other women. We call each other names, we compete tooth and nail, we criticize each others’ life choices, we call each other “bad feminists.” Why do we behave this way? Let’s not over complicate this: the simple answer is that we do this out of fear. Fear of our inadequacy, fear of labels, fear of being found undesirable. No, not all feminists are going to agree with each other on everything all the time. Learn to embrace this, and remember to be good to other women and their allies. Be gracious, be humble, be supportive, and remember to practice compassion and empathy whenever possible.