Yesterday was my 21st birthday. 

While my friends celebrate their birthdays with mimosas over brunch or a Stage Rage, my “special” day is nestled in an over-scheduled, hyper-stressful season. With exams exclusively occupying our headspace, and holiday parties and family traditions overshadowing the social calendar the second we get home, my birthday gets pushed to the back burner. Even I struggle to make time to celebrate: this is the third year in a row I’ve had an exam on my birthday.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t need the stereotypical indulgences; I use this date as a time to reflect. Reflect on my year, my life, and what is ahead. What do I want to do now that I’m X years old?

As a kid, I never really thought about who’d I be at 21, but I’ve always been restless to grow up and start “real life”. I’ve dreamt of adulthood in London, England, living in a white walk-up, adopting the posh accent I envied my entire childhood. That’s been my goal – my thing – since I was 8 years old. But now, a day into twenty-one, I feel an amassing pressure to actually bring this distant dream into a tangible reality.  

I’ve been pulled from my teenage years, prompted to think about budgeting and investments and real estate and logistics – all the minutia you get to skip over as a kid. No matter how young and naive I still feel, all of a sudden, I’m an adult.

And while I still have another year of school, and plenty more years of dependency (oops!), I can confidently look back at my childhood as it’s own entity. You see, I’ve done a lot in my 21 years. I’ve tried, I’ve triumphed, and, most importantly, I’ve failed.

I’ve come to learn that in those failures is where I’ve found the biggest growth. It’s just as one of Rihanna’s tattoo reads: “Never a Failure, Always a Lesson.” 

So, these are 21 lessons I’ve learned in my 21 years.  

  1. Always be reading something. Read a lot. Read for fun. Read every day. Actually do your readings for school. It’s meditative, informational, and will broaden how you see and understand the world. Plus, maybe you’ll learn a cool new word or two.
  2. Physical activity is more healing and freeing than anything you can buy. As much as you may dread it, a long walk or a good run will invigorate your body and soul. There’s a reason Nike says just do it.
  3. Proper skincare will change your life. Oily skin? Cleanse with an oil-based cleanser. Dry skin? Use a thick moisturizer. Pigmentation, acne or bloating? Clean up your diet and invest in a serum.
  4. You are not responsible for other people’s emotions. Don’t take them on. Be compassionate, but don’t feel compelled to make someone happy or fix their problems.
  5. Just because you’re not in a relationship doesn’t mean you aren’t loved. Or can’t be loved. Or incapable of love. Or are doomed to be single forever. It just means you are not in a relationship. Don’t force something if the timing – or the person – isn’t right.
  6. Happiness is not concrete. It doesn’t come with losing (or gaining!) weight, or receiving that grade, or going out night after night. We’ve long associated this fluctuating emotion with a permanent state of being. Strive for it, seek it out, but never think that if it’s not constant, something is wrong. 
  7. Parents know best. They’re on your team, know you inside out, and, as much as it may seem unfathomable, they are humans who probably lived through something similar. Their advice – as much as you don’t want to take it – is probably worth listening to.
  8. Learn to be alone. The first time I experienced a deep gratitude for my life was when I went to Lugano, Switzerland. I went alone, got lost, hiked up a mountain, and saw the world with a new pair of eyes. Learning that you can fend for yourself brings a new sense of comfortability in your skin.
  9. The internet is not real life. Read here if you missed my article about it. Don’t get entangled in what to post, or who sees it. Don’t tweet out every petty thing that crosses your mind. Don’t let your entire life be online. Be a human. Ride a bike, look at trees, learn CPR. Instagram is NOT as important as you think, I promise. 
  10. Always, always, always vote. Democracy is not universal. We are privileged to live in a society where it is a right. Civic engagement is crucial in order to see our opinions, values, and rights represented in our government system and agenda. Whenever you have a chance, vote.
  11. Some friends aren’t forever. That’s ok. We all grow, we all change. If we didn’t, we’d still be who we were in kindergarten…and no one wants that.  
  12. Make one meal really well. Channel your inner Jamie Olivier and master a gourmet dish. Make sure your fridge and cupboards are always stocked with a variation of the ingredients. You will be thankful you can make more than a bowl of cereal when someone important unexpectedly stays for dinner.
  13. Home is a feeling – do your best to find it wherever you go. I’ll admit it: I get homesick. Over the past 3 years, I’ve struggled to feel stimulated and sustained in Kingston, the few blocks of downtown transitioning from quaint to mundane in a matter of weeks. Homesickness, for me, is feeling out of place in my environment. While some places evoke a certain magnetic familiarity and it’s easy for me to snap out of that headspace (for me, these are Algonquin Park, London, Milan, and, of course, Toronto), feeling “at home” is rooted in the unconditional inclusion & support family and friends give you. So find a friend, grab a coffee, receive that warmth. Home can be wherever you are.
  14. Fake it ’til You Make It. If you feel insecure or out of place, remember that everyone has to start somewhere. Just hold your head high, hype yourself up, and pretend to be confident. Pretend that you are supposed to be where you are and you know what you are doing. Eventually, you won’t be pretending anymore. 
  15. You don’t need to be embarrassed by what you want to do. I’ve been questioned countless times – including by my own boss! – why I am pursuing a career in media (specifically, fashion journalism) when it is widely seen as a dying field. I thought that meant I couldn’t pursue it; that I shouldn’t pursue it. But I love it. To me, both fashion and writing are extremely fulfilling. And realistically, it’s not a dying field: it’s just straying away from traditional structures to adapt to a digitally driven readership. So here I am.  (*pls hire me*)
  16. Invest in good apparel. We’re talking clothes that actually fit (no, you won’t lose the weight. And no, you won’t have time to go to the tailor to have it taken in) & shoes that you can actually walk 10 miles in (without getting blisters or having the soles wear through). It might mean you can’t buy every trendy item, but hey, at least that qualifies as sustainable shopping.
  17. Ask for what you want and say what you mean. Dancing around the subject is counterproductive for all parties. Be direct and realize that the response is seldom in your control. 
  18. Actually put in the time to prepare. It’s impossible to learn a syllabus overnight. You can’t make up suggestions for a company’s strategy during an interview if you don’t know anything about their business. If you want a great result, you have to put in the work.
  19. Ask for help. Whether it’s on an assignment or when you are having a bad day, don’t let stubbornness to be self-sufficient be the reason you struggle. 
  20. It is ok to fail. This the most poignant of all my experience. I used to have panic attacks, so terrified of failure that I wouldn’t even try. I’d isolate myself, a tendency to back out last minute because I couldn’t leave my sphere of control. But then I failed. And I failed again. And I failed again, and again, and again. And I’m still here. Resilience is an intrinsic human trait – trust it. If you fall down, you have it in you to bounce right back up. 
  21. Chill the f out. This one is easy to say, hard to do. But hey – you’re only 21. You have decades left. You can’t do it all at once. Take it step by step, day by day. It’ll be ok – just breathe.