21 Major Life Lessons I've Learned Before Turning 21

So. Many. Feels.

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By Erin McKelle

As I write this, it’s the eve of my 21st birthday, or the last step in my journey to adulthood. So. Many. Feels.

I’m going to give you a list of the 21 things I’ve learned before turning 21, to look back at what I’ve learned and done so far: 

1. Life is not a race.

One of the worst habits I used to have was comparing myself to everyone else...and I mean everyone. Anytime I would get a new, successful co-worker or read about someone inspiring online, I would start asking myself why I wasn’t as smart/educated/rich/funny as that person was and waste hours spiraling into a self-hate storm.


By conventional standards, I am actually one of those people who falls into this category, who is successful and has accomplished a lot, but for some reason it didn’t feel as true to me. But, it’s robbing me of my own Erin-ness if I am asking myself why I’m not more like _____.

Everyone goes at their pace and life isn’t a race to the finish line.

2. Relationships don’t define you.

I used to feel that if I wasn’t dating anyone, I must not be worth loving. Never believe that! You define you, not anyone else.

3. Your childhood doesn’t have to determine the rest of your life.

This is a really difficult lesson that I’m still learning. There are so many habits we pick up as children, often from our parents, that we don’t realize we embody until it’s too late. But you don’t have to live your life in the same way as your parents, and you can consciously choose something different as an adult.


Don’t live your life pitying what could have been.

4. It’s OK to change your mind.

I still carry a lot of shame around changing my mind, as I see indecisiveness as a negative. But, there’s actually nothing inherently bad about changing your mind. People change! Why shouldn’t your mind follow suit?

5. The word “No” needs to exist in your vocabulary.

I can be a bit of a people-pleaser, especially in work relationships. Consequently, I used to take on every project without a second thought. I didn’t want to let others down, so I would say “Yes,” even if it meant saying “No” to my own sanity.

Now, I only take on opportunities if it will help me to advance, if I have time for it, and if it feels right. Otherwise, I am no longer afraid of saying “No.” Women, we really need to start saying “No” more often, and saying “Yes” to ourselves.


6. Rigidness is almost never good.

I tend to see things as being very black and white, but find that this usually leads to a lot of limiting beliefs. Being too rigid will usually narrow your vantage point and cause you to miss all of the beauty that lies in the gray area. Be willing to expand your horizon!

7. There’s nothing more important than your health.

So take care of yourself! But really, it’s amazing how even a mild cold can show you how trivial so many of the things you spend your time and energy on.

8. Money feels so much better to spend when you’re the one making it.

This is a very important lesson that everyone needs to learn. Buying a pair of shoes will always feel more grounding if you’re doing it with money you’ve earned.


9. Money is important, but not everything.

I am guilty of getting so obsessive about money that I’ll prioritize it over all else. It’s true what they say, though — money can’t keep you warm at night. So while it’s fine to make making money the main focus of your life, don’t make it the only focus.

10. Everyone has issues.

Seriously. There’s no one who has reached the Pinnacle of Humanhood and is somehow better than the rest of us. Even your therapist, coach, or spiritual leader are imperfect.

11. No one is better than you.

This goes along with the last lesson, since those who try to make themselves superior to you are just insecure. Never listen to anyone who says they are better, more worthy, or superior to you. Everyone is equal.


12. It’s OK to care about what people think.

This is contrary to almost any other source of advice, ever, but it’s actually completely natural to care what others think of you — humans are social creatures, after all. Instead of beating yourself up over caring in the first place, just ask yourself if you need to regard their opinion. Sometimes, the answer might be yes.

13. Only you can make yourself happy.

No material possessions, job titles, vacations, or people can give you a sustainable feeling of happiness. Happiness starts with you.

14. Being different is your greatest asset.

We spend so much of our lives trying to fit in that we often lose sight of how our individuality can set us apart in good ways. Look at people like Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga, or Oprah — they certainly aren’t carbon copies of ‘everyone else.’


15. There is no problem love cannot solve.

Think about it: When has love ever made things worse? Any solution has love underlying it.

16. Success takes hard work.

If you think you can go from living on the streets to rolling in millions in a matter of weeks, you’re kidding yourself. Any success takes hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. Although there’s always a new whiz kid that appears to have “come out of nowhere,” any research into their background will reveal years, and sometimes decades, of hard work. There are no shortcuts to working hard.

17. Failure is good.


I can’t tell you how many reasons there are to back this one up! Failure will humble you, make you see what doesn’t work, give you perspective, perhaps give you motivation...failure will only help make your successes in life that much sweeter. Don’t fear failure — embrace it.

18. Being single can be fun.

For real! I used to think that all single people had failed at dating and relationships, but I’ve found that the reverse can actually be true, too. Being single gives you so many opportunities for growth!

Don’t spend time wishing you were in a relationship: Go out and better yourself instead. Be the best version of you and you’ll surely attract some pretty great people who also are being the best versions of themselves.


19. All’s not fair, especially in love and war.

Life isn’t fair. It just isn’t. Better to accept it now and see how you’ll overcome those barriers, rather than whining about how life’s not fair and use it as an excuse to do nothing.

20. If you enjoy what you do, you can’t “waste” time.

I used to feel really bad when I would binge watch a TV show on Netflix or spend an afternoon Googling the Kardashians. I thought I was one of those people who “waste” their time and should be using my time for more fruitful measures.

While I wouldn’t suggest quitting your job to spend your time analyzing episodes of Scandal, I would say that if you’re enjoying what you’re doing with your time, there’s no way you can “waste” it.


21.  It’s not as bad as you think it is.

This really goes for anything, including this birthday for me! I know it’s not going to be as awful as it is in my mind — in fact, it will probably be fun and involve lots of champagne. Whenever you think your life is over or this is the end of your happiness, it isn’t. You’ll only look back and wish you didn’t spend so much energy on worrying. Live in the moment!