1. Nobody is looking at you half as much as you think they are.
All the hours I wasted staring into the mirror, cataloguing my many faults, real or imagined, I now realize I should have spent doing something, pretty much anything, else. People weren't looking at me, or if they were, they weren't seeing the hideous creature I saw when I glared at my reflection. That tiny zit on your forehead is not the volcanic crater that you see when you look in the mirror, and no one is staring at you and judging you . . . except of course, you. Think about it. You're so busy looking at yourself that you're probably not spending much time scrutinizing anyone else. And even the kids who look like they've got it all together are freaking out right below the surface. They just hide it better.
I understand that it's worse today than it was when I was young. Back in the Stone Age, you only had to stress out about being judged by the people standing next to you. Now, thanks to the Internet, kids are posting pictures twenty-four-seven, so you worry that the whole world might be looking at you, all the time. Facebook is overflowing with photos of kids laughing and mugging for the camera, looking as if they're having the time of their life. But are they really? It kind of feels like it's not about the party, but the story you get to tell afterwards -- evidence to prove to everyone else how much fun you're having, how popular you are. In a world where some people measure success by how many Facebook friends you have, it's hard not to get caught up in life as performance art. But your life shouldn't be a reality show acted out for the benefit of an audience. You should dance and go to parties because you want to dance and hang out with your friends, not because you want to have something to post on your Facebook page.
2. Stop wishing your life away in your rush to get to the "good" part.
There are good things about getting older: you get to make your own decisions and you don't have to go to school anymore. There are bad things about getting older: you have to make your own decisions and you don't get to go to school anymore.
Being a teenager is tough. No one will argue with that. Your body and your brain are in flux; you go to bed one person and wake up feeling, and maybe looking, like a different one. Teenagers can be cruel to each other. Many of those who are blessed with clear skin and shiny hair think they're special, when in fact they're just lucky. It's not fair, but it just is, and while it's tempting to wish you could skip the rough patches, please don't. It won't work, and while you're wishing, you'll probably miss out on some really good stuff.
When I was in high school, I couldn't wait to get to college. When I was in college, I couldn't wait to get to real life. But when my grownup life finally started, I realized that it was way different than what I'd seen on TV. On television, twenty-somethings spend all their time drinking, flirting and looking fabulous in their oversized, professionally decorated Manhattan apartments. They might spend a few minutes at their glamorous jobs (running the company even though they're only twenty-five), chatting on the phone with their feet up on enormous desks in corner offices with floor-to-ceiling windows. That's not how it is. I spent my first few years of "the good part" working fifteen-hour days at a law firm in a windowless office I shared with another associate and kicking myself for not reveling in those days when the bills were addressed to someone else and my worst fear was a low grade, not a layoff.
Think about it this way. You only get to be a teenager for seven years; you're going to be a grownup for the rest of your life. Make the most of those seven years. Try to make those seven years the good part. You won't regret it.
3. What you do now really can make a difference ten years from now, so don't do something stupid (like driving drunk), and don't blow stuff off (like the SAT) because all your friends are going to the movies.
I know. I've just finished telling you to live in the moment, not to get tangled up in the next chapter before it even starts. And I meant it. You should have fun . . . just not too much fun. Even though you should enjoy being young, you have to remember that life isn't a video game; you don't get to press the restart button when you drive off a cliff. So be young, but be smart about it. Try to get the best grades you can. Study for the SATs -- they matter. Don't do anything illegal, even if everybody else is doing it. (Yes, I know I'm sounding like your mother right about now, but even your mother used to be a teenager. Maybe she messed up a hundred years ago, and she's just trying to help. It's possible.) Use your common sense -- it's not rocket science.
To sum it up, just in case you're too busy texting to read the whole essay: Enjoy this very brief, sometimes great, sometimes not so great, moment in your life, but not to the extent that you screw up your future . . . and don't spend so much time in front of the mirror.