21 Life Lessons I Learned Turning 21

And it’s not just that white wine is the best kind. ?

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There are a few birthdays that stick out in the course of a lifetime. The first year, the first decade, the year you reach legal adulthood, and the year that really matters — if you’re into happy hour and Las Vegas, that is.

This Thursday, I hit that milestone birthday. Twenty-one.

At 21, I am completely in control of my own decisions, including the purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Though science tells us that the brain isn’t fully developed until at least the mid-twenties, I can participate in a slew of legal activities and be treated as a full-on adult. (An adult who will occasionally use the word “adulting” to describe basic food prep, but an adult nonetheless.)

Naturally, I got a little philosophical, and a whole lot emotional, when faced with this huge life change. And, naturally, as any college blogger is apt to do, I dealt with it by writing a whole post about my feelings. If you can bear to deal with the presumptuous of a 21-year-old sharing life lessons with you, here’s what I have to say.

{RELATED POST: Our Favorite 21st Birthday Ideas, Ever}

1. Kindness is underrated.

Sprinkle love wherever you go. Hug your special someone, dole out genuine compliments with no ulterior motive in mind, and treat others the way you want to be treated.

2. If at first you don’t succeed, try again… and then some. 

I didn’t get a summer internship at Marie Claire U.K. by twiddling my thumbs and lying in bed all day. Instead, I emailed contacts at every fashion magazine in London again and again until I carved an opportunity out for me. It was a grueling experience, for sure, but well worth the effort.

3. Never settle for mediocrity.

Give an A+ effort in school, work, and personal relationships. Go the extra mile because you’re young and alive and YOU CAN DO IT.

4. Use your voice.

If #MeToo has taught me anything, it’s that women (and men!) have been censoring themselves for far too long.

So, speak out against abuse and assault. If you’re in the company of a D-bag, call them out on their behavior. Do whatever is possible to help out your fellow humans, and make sure that your home and academic environment is a safe space.

5. Go against the grain.

In a world full of princesses, dare to be a hot dog.

6. Do what you love.

As long as doing what you love isn’t detrimental to others or yourself, you have the right to pursue it. What are you going to remember most in college: the biology class you took freshman year or when you auditioned for your university’s Shakespeare in the Park club?

7. Let your success intimidate others.

As women, we’re often taught to be modest and never gloat. Now, this may play out well in some scenarios (use your common sense here), but it turns out that being humble in the workplace can hurt your career in more ways than one.

Therefore, resolve never to dumb down what you do for the sake of someone’s fragile ego. Trust me, they can take it.

8. Know that uncertainty is O.K..

Especially when everyone around you seems to be scoring the perfect post-grad job or getting engaged. As the latest episode of This is Us illustrates, your 20s are supposed to be a complicated and messy time.

9. Don’t waste time on uncaring friends.

Fake friends aren’t real friends. If the people you hang out with constantly push you away, never include you, or aren’t interested in your growth, you have every right to drop them.

10. Love patiently and generously.

First Corinthians does a wonderful job describing how real love works.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs,” it says. “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

BRB, just casually tearing up.

11. Measure success by your own terms.

In an ever-changing world of 7 billion humans, there’s always going to be someone that’s better than you at something. Instead of focusing your energies on one-upping another person, think bigger and set independent, manageable goals for yourself.

12. Strike a healthy balance between work and play.

Going back to #3, you can’t earn an A grade with a C+ effort. When it’s crunch time, turn your phone off to focus and ignore the siren calls of late night Taco Bell and frat parties. Better yet, don’t save your projects until the last minute.

13. Make every day special.

Everybody’s working for the weekend, but you ought to be making every moment count. Treasure the little things.

14. Social media breaks are recommended.

Over the summer this year, I got a bit obsessed with my Instagram.

Uploading pictures every day, I’d compulsively check the app every five minutes, watching my likes soar from 5 to 500. I’d get food based on how “Instagrammable” it was, post only during prime social media hours, and worry about bad angles constantly. My self-esteem and mental health suffered, so I decided to take a brief hiatus from the ‘gram.

I’m back on it now (spot the self-promotion @annaburbano), but I’m no longer chained to it — and I feel so much better than before.

15. Family is forever.

I’ve said it before, but remember to call your mom and dad every so often! And not just about money problems or advice on how to get over the common cold.

16. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

As tempting as it is, don’t be the kind of girlfriend who punishes their S.O. for not liking their latest tweet or because they forgot a “good morning” text. In the context of a loving relationship (see #10), this shouldn’t matter.

17. Value experiences.

Things (especially in the form of clothes and accessories) are fun to buy. I can’t deny that — it’s most of what I write about. Still, material goods can be lost, damaged, or given away. Memories, on the other hand, are harder to let go of.

18. When given the opportunity to travel abroad, do it.

Experiencing a different culture, language, and people is invaluable. If you have the financial backing to do so, don’t hold back. (And if you don’t, look at student loans or part-time jobs to actively work towards this goal.)

19. Your home should be a sanctuary.

At the risk of sounding just like your mom, let me leave you with one simple question: if your bedroom is chaotic and disorganized, what does that say about your life?

20. Worthwhile pursuits are hard.

Put in the work and you’ll reap the rewards. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Do not throw away your shot.”

21. Embrace fear.

Opt for the things that scare you, like applying to positions you feel are out of reach or accepting an internship abroad. These experiences tend to be the ones you’ll cherish the most when you’re older.


Are you 21 or turning 21 soon? What life lessons have you come across in college or post-grad life? What would you do differently?

Comment below!

1 thought on “21 Life Lessons I Learned Turning 21”

  1. This was incredibly well-written. As a 25-year-old (who also considers meal prep as “adulting”), I whole-heartedly agree with all of these. Seeing all of the lessons I’ve learned these past few years in one post really opened my eye to my personal growth. It seems like you’ve had a lot of experiences, good and bad, to teach you all these. It gets easier as time goes on as you grow into “adulthood”.


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