Dear 20-year-old self,

The first thing I have to say to you is that nobody else has to live your life.

You already know this in your head. Still. I worry about the friends you’ve collected who treat you like a younger version of themselves. (I am allowed to do this because it’s true.) By the time you turn 25 you’ll have heard the expression “when I was your age” so many times it will have lost all meaning. I mean, it really will have. Through the latter years of your 20s, as you reach the ages these friends were when they first met you, you’ll notice yourself on a very different arc from theirs. The predicted marriages and children and rehabs and their attendant epiphanies are not as inevitable as everyone says they are. Nor is anything anyone tells you about your career. When I sit down to work on my resume, I think about you sitting on the floor of your study room with a magazine, some cardboard and an X-Acto knife, obsessed with collage, thrilled at trying to turn an about-to-be-recycled mess into some sort of cohesive image.

You’ll figure out soon enough that the things you’re figuring out are rather different from the things everyone told you you would figure out soon enough. Stop trusting those people. I also don’t recommend taking too seriously the advice of anyone who treats you like a slightly goofier or more glamorous or meaner or quieter version of themselves. Not that it isn’t flattering and charming of them to see you that way. Not that you can’t be friends with them.

Just remember that if someone sees you as a younger or dumber or cooler version of themselves, when they talk to you, that’s who they’re talking to: themselves. They’re just doing it in a context that makes them get to feel insightful and sound like an oracle. And they’re not oracles. They’re just people talking. And you, by the way, have a better handle on your life than you think.

That said? When I think about you and the next 10 years of your life, I think about the Aesop’s fable about the dog with the bone in its mouth, who crosses a bridge over a pond, sees his reflection in the water, and decides to go after its bone, losing everything. Try to be a little more patient with yourself and with the universe. Stop being so willing to chuck everything just because something else seems like a slightly better idea, because things aren’t exactly working out right now.

Conversely, don’t let your pride boss you around. Don’t stay in terrible situations for stupid reasons. Don’t say, “Well, this job is a nightmare, but I can stick it out for another year and then get the hell out of here.” Take the job if you have to (by the way: you have to, and don’t ever kid yourself that this is not the case) and start sending out resumes anyway. When you see the storm clouds rolling in, don’t stay outside and get soaked to prove a point. Buy a fucking umbrella. Get under a tree.

Don’t stay in relationships or pursue them just for the sake of making something stick. Don’t worry so much about your inability to make things stick: it’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. Make friends constantly, even in places and circumstances where you don’t intend to throw down roots. Take a year off in the middle of college to establish residency, work and travel. Drink a little more now and a little less later. And stop making yourself so busy that you don’t have time to clean your own goddamn room.

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