25 Things I Learned On The Way to 25

In 2013, I turned 25, which means I am now old enough to rent a car, old enough to generally be considered an adult of some kind, and old enough to have made a lot of mistakes. I’ve tried to learn from them — tried to improve from them. And at the ripe old age of 25, I have just enough sense of self-importance to feel like I can make a post full of advice and most of it won’t suck. I mean, I don’t have a lot of things figured out, but there are at least a few things I feel pretty sure of.

So here, as we head into 2014, are some of the bits and bobs I’ve learned along my way. I hope at least one of them proves useful to you, whoever you are.

Open Bar sign

Not your friend.

1. Only get drunk on booze you buy yourself. I can’t think of a single situation I’ve been in where getting drunk on free alcohol was a good idea. If people are providing you with free liquor, it probably means you’re at a conference, where you need to behave professionally, or a wedding, where you need to behave in such a way that will get you invited to future weddings. Overindulge on your own dime.

2. Goals are hard to achieve without structure. “Set goals!” is great advice, as far as it goes, but achieving them is a lot harder than setting them. There’s this myth out there about self-motivation, as if the deciding factor between achieving a goal and falling short is whether you have the will to make yourself get there. There’s a kernel of truth there: you do have to make yourself get there. But you don’t have to do it alone or on sheer willpower.

Every major thing I’ve achieved has involved a structure of some kind. Earning my black belt was the result of years of regular classes, and then committing myself to an independent study course that let me work on studying for the written test every day in school. Getting myself in the habit of exercising regularly after college required getting a personal trainer in the form of a 5K training app telling me what to do, and finding people to commiserate with about said training. Writing novels is infinitely easier in November, with a clear schedule of 1667 words a day for 30 days and a community of people to encourage me. I am more likely to write and finish a short story or play if I have a deadline.

Even if you create the structure or schedule yourself, it will help. Having other people to help you stay accountable helps too. Ultimately you have to hold yourself to that structure, though.

3. You are going to meet people who treat you badly, and you need to remember a couple of thing for your own sanity:

3A. It’s almost certainly not a reflection on you personally. They are going through their own struggle. Every person I know who has treated me or someone I care about badly has had about six tons of baggage of their own, as far as I can tell. Sometimes I’m privy to that baggage, as in the cases of several downright toxic bosses I’ve had, or in the cases of friends struggling with life changes, health issues, familial stress, etc. Sometimes I’m not privy to that baggage, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s hard to live in this world, and we are all being constantly battered by it, and sometimes that makes us behave badly. And sometimes, it makes us behave badly over, and over, and over again.

3B. … But that doesn’t give them a right to mistreat you, and it doesn’t oblige you to stick around to be mistreated. Reasons are not excuses. Being in poor mental health doesn’t give you carte blanche to ignore other people’s feelings. Being abused yourself doesn’t make it okay for you to repeat those abusive patterns on someone else. If you’re around someone who is not treating you well, you don’t have to keep them in your life. You can, compassionately, recognize that that person is dealing with whatever heavy stuff they’re dealing with, but you don’t have to stay around, especially if their actions are impacting your health.

I spent way, way too long in several friendships and relationships and one job, telling myself that it was my fault that I was hurting — that I just had to be a little more patient with that person because they were so stressed and they’d start treating me better eventually, or that if I worked a little harder, they wouldn’t have reason to keep criticizing and belittling me, or that they were being honest and trying to help me and I was just being oversensitive. And while all relationships require compromise, there comes a time where you’ve changed enough, where you’ve cut enough slack, where the only thing left for you to do is gracefully bow out. It’s hard — it’s very, very hard, and often painful for everyone involved. But so is pulling out a rotten tooth.

And unlike tooth-pulling, ending a relationship doesn’t have to be permanent. There are some people I’ve gotten away from in decisive ways that I would welcome back into my life, sometime far in the future when both of us have a better sense of how to treat other people. I’ve seen other friends repair long-standing rifts in their relationships. But there are other people who I’ve tried to reconnect with and been met with nothing but the same hurtful behaviors, and ultimately, I don’t need those people around.

4. Always double-check your facts and cite your sources. In the era of Google, smartphones, and 4G access practically everywhere, there’s no reason not to check and see if that outrageous thing you just heard is, in fact, as outrageous as it seems. Remember: .orgs are usually slightly more credible than .coms, multiple sources are better than one source, Snopes is your best friend, and the Borowitz Report, the Onion, and the Daily Show are satire.

5. You don’t owe an explanation for why you’re bailing on a social engagement. If you want to give one, that’s cool, but you are always well within your rights to cancel or decline with “I’m sorry, something’s come up.” Polite people will accept this at face value. Rude people will demand an explanation. Just repeat ad nauseum. What came up? “I’m sorry, but something’s come up.” Yeah, but what is it? “I’m sorry, but something’s come up.” Yeah but this is really important. “I’m sorry, but something’s come up.” An alternative is “I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling well,” especially if it’s last minute. (If you are the party being cancelled on, see #9.)

6. Always carry money for a taxi, and the number of the local taxi service. At the very least keep an ATM card on you so that if you have to take a cab unexpectedly and they only take cash and you don’t have any folding money, you can go get some. Seriously, if you’re going out somewhere that is farther away from your home than you think you can walk, have taxi money. There will come a night when you’re in an unfamiliar city outside a gay bar where you just watched a drag show and nobody knows how to get back to the dorms, and you will get to feel smug and heroic for having planned ahead.

7. If you’re eligible, donate blood. Speaking of feeling like a hero! Donating blood is one of the most direct, valuable contributions you can make to the world. There is no substitute for whole blood, period, and there’s a constant need for it. You literally save lives every time you donate blood. And they give you all the cookies you can eat. Here’s a website to find a blood donation center near you.

8. Don’t play solitaire on your computer in class/at work/while in a Senate meeting/etc. You will get caught eventually and it will be the most mortifying experience of your life. I’m serious. Don’t do it.

9. When in doubt, assume people mean what they say. You’ll occasionally end up in the awkward situation of not getting a joke that was delivered with a perfect deadpan, but you’ll avoid the even more awkward situation of laughing at something that you thought was a joke being delivered with a perfect deadpan but was, in fact, a completely serious statement.

This goes for things like setting boundaries in relationships and so forth, too. If someone says they want you to behave in a certain way, for instance, or that they feel a certain way about you, it’s not profitable to try and figure out what their subtext is — what they actually mean. Take people at their word; it’s their responsibility to communicate what they want or need from you, not your responsibility to decode their secret messages.

10. Your idols and mentors are people too. I wrote some about this previously in “Feet of Clay, Death of Author” — the fact that the people who shaped you, directly or indirectly, have foibles and flaws just like you do. How you deal with discovering the flaws and foibles of your faves is up to you: I know people who favor a scorched-earth approach, so if Stephen Colbert makes transphobic jokes (which he does), he gets booted out of their TV-viewing life. I tend to take a case-by-case approach and try to take the bad with the good (acknowledge Michael Fassbender and Christian Bale’s talents as actors; condemn their histories of domestic violence).

It’s a tough enough thing when it’s a celebrity you love. The moment you realize that your teachers and mentors are human and imperfect too can be even harder. All I can tell you is that if you get something valuable from someone, that value doesn’t go away if it turns out that person is a [insert negative descriptor here]. It’s going to be up to you whether you keep that person in your life; see point #3 again.

11. Get a credit card. Hold on, hold on, hear me out. Get a credit card when you open a checking account (ideally with a local credit union, not a big bank) and treat it like a debit card. When you use it to make a purchase, pay it back immediately. Make a purchase with it every month and pay off your bill in a timely manner, and you’ll build your credit score. This will make you look better when you’re doing things like applying for loans or rental properties like apartments.

I kind of hate giving this advice because the whole credit rating thing is evil and I’d love to tell you to never get a credit card at all — but for the moment, that’s the system we have to deal with in the US, so you may as well make it work for you as best you can.

Uh-uh. I don't tip.

Not a role model.

12. Similarly, always tip your food service workers. The tipping system is broken and terrible, but it is the current system, and you refusing to participate in it doesn’t make anything better. 15% minimum, 20% if you can. The math for 20% is easier: look at your bill, move the decimal point one digit to the left, and multiply by two. (E.G.: If your bill is $20.34, you should tip 2x$2.03, or about $4.) If you can tip in cash, that’s often a better deal for the servers than if you tip via credit card — but if you don’t have any cash, tip on the credit card.

If you don’t like tipping, agitate for an increase in the minimum wage. You get to do one or other, man. That’s it.

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