I don’t remember a word of what was said at my college graduation. I had been at the bar drinking Bloody Mary’s since 6 a.m., was force-feeding water to my friend passed out on my shoulder, the sun was blazing and I just wanted President Zingg to pronounce my name correctly as I walked across the stage, to have lunch with my parents and party with my friends. In a matter of weeks, I’d be celebrating my 21st in Las Vegas and then heading out for five weeks on my own in Europe. Sure, I needed a job, but the real world wasn’t quite here yet, and I was grateful for that.
Three years have passed since I received my degree. I’m not sure where I thought I’d be at this stage, but I certainly didn’t think I’d be here: living at home for a few months while I prepare myself to go visit friends I made while bartending in Nice and then cruise through Croatia and road-trip across the USA. In many ways, I’m even more clueless now than I was then. Then, I had a boyfriend who I thought would become a husband, a plan for a successful career in PR, a quiet contentment with how evenly things were playing themselves out for me. Now it seems as if my future is an open book, a diary in which I only know how things will go as I pen my summary at the end of each day.
I’m still sweetly, irresponsibly young. “You might not have career success, but you have life success,” a friend recently quipped, a zinger that I’m sure came from the right place but bitterly reminded me of my utter lack of focus in the work arena. So while I can’t offer the latest crop of grads advice on how to land a job, here’s what I’ve learned about living:
Friendships aren’t necessarily forever. If you need to break up with a toxic friend, do it. A friendship is ultimately a relationship: you are choosing to spend bits of your life with this person, and if they are bringing you down, if you realize you disagree on fundamental issues, if you are no longer proud to be associated with them: break up with them. And if you’ve made the mistake that causes the end of a friendship: accept it, strive to be better and move on. You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, so surround yourself with encouraging, supportive, ambitious people (and be someone whom others want to be with). Make friends with people you want to be like, and cherish those friendships that absolutely nothing can touch. (Note: the photo above is my absolute best friend who thinks I’m crazy, but loves me anyway.)
End relationships with grace. You can fall out of love with someone, realize that your dreams are different–but don’t forget what made you fall in love with them in the first place. Treat them and the relationship with the respect it deserves; speak about them as you’d wish them to speak about you. Remember: you chose to date them, to bring them into your life and to keep them there for however long. A string of crazy ex’s and unhealthy relationships says just as much about you as it does about them.
Don’t let your life revolve around weekends. If you do, you’ll only be living 28% of your life. If you are dragging yourself from Monday through Friday just to drink into oblivion on the weekend: rethink things. Live your life so that every day matters, so that every day is worth remembering. If that means finding a job you care about, start searching. If that means traveling the world, start saving. Just do something: apathy will lead you nowhere.
Sleep under the stars. Spend time in nature: away from the internet, away from your iPhone, away from the noise of everyday life. Go for a hike, watch a butterfly, swim in a creek. Pay attention to the details that are lost in a world of concrete: the whisper of a breeze through the trees, the constant motion of a field of grass. The sun rises and sets every day: when’s the last time you truly appreciated one?
Don’t spend money you don’t have. “I am happy as long as I’m healthy, and rich as long as I don’t have debt,” a hippie on the beach in Vietnam once told me. Stop buying rounds of drinks and start paying off your loans and credit cards. Spend your money on memories that will last a lifetime, not a designer bag that will be out of fashion next season. Do the math, and don’t live beyond your means.
Be realistic about worst-case scenarios. I’ve moved halfway across the world twice, and each time, I’ve calmed my nerves by stating the obvious: if this doesn’t work out, I can go home. I have a credit card, planes leave every single day, my parents have a futon. Do I want that to happen? Absolutely not. But that’s my worst-case scenario, and honestly, it’s not that bad–which leaves me open and ready to take a risk.
Buy stamps. Send thank-you notes: paper-in-envelope, handwritten, throw-it-in-a-blue-mailbox thank-you notes. Say thank you for a gift, for lunch, for being a good friend. Send birthday cards so that they arrive before the actual birthday, proof that you can still remember important days without Facebook. Send postcards, even if you haven’t left your hometown. Be thoughtful, and practice your penmanship. Give and you shall receive–save the snail mail you collect: punch a hole in a corner, and snap it onto a binder ring for easy organization.
Vacation time is there for a reason. Stop feeling guilty and use it. Trust other people and realize that you are not indispensable, especially when your entry-level responsibilities consist of things a monkey could do. Understand that your mental and physical well-being is just as–if not more than–important as your job, that your commitments to friends, family and significant others are just as serious as your work responsibilities. Do not shirk your friendship duties for work duties.
Fear less, hope more. Eat less, chew more. Whine less, breathe more. Talk less, say more. Love more, and all good things will be yours. A Swedish proverb that pretty much sums it up.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned lately?