I'm usually a quick learner, but for some critical life lessons, I didn't even start the learning process until my late twenties. How much easier, happier and more joyful might my life have been if I'd just learned these lessons sooner? So, to my 20-year-old self, here's some advice:
1. Criticizing others won't make you feel better. It just won't, OK? In truth, even though you don't realize it, it's actually making your relationship with yourself and those around you worse. Every critique you carelessly toss around sets the bar that much higher for yourself and the people in your life. Every time you expect perfection from someone else, you force that standard on yourself. It's a standard you can never meet. But you will struggle for years to get there. And I'm not just talking big critiques. Something as simple as "She looks really bad in light yellow, why does she wear that color?" or "God, that stranger is a crappy driver," or "I can't believe she's dating him again." People are on their own paths. Just accept it and focus on your journey.
2. Quit mocking people having fun and just join in. In other words, quit taking yourself so seriously. You know those silly people who wear crazy outfits to the football games, or people who have big love fests at Phish shows or any other group of people who do something cheesy or ridiculous for fun? You mock them and pretend that you're so much more sophisticated or world-wise or mature. In truth, you're jealous. You see the joy on their faces and you wish you were with them. Stop mocking them and try joining them instead. You might feel that joy on your face. And you might love it.
3. You are what you eat. Let's be honest: You eat pure crap. I know you think you're young and healthy and none of it matters, but it does. Every bite or (binge) drink you take matters. "You are what you eat" isn't just a catchy phrase; your body is made up of the things that you eat. You're forming bad habits that your 30-year-old self is going to have to struggle for years to break. Just stop. Please?
4. You control your emotions, not the other way around. I know what it feels like: Once the anger or the desperation or the fear start, they take over. They're more powerful than you are and you have no choice but to ride them out, letting them dictate not only your internal experience, but your behavior as well. You can't help it that in anger you lash out, that in sadness you withdraw, that in fear you give up. How can you fight against such powerful emotions? Let me tell you: That's bull. You are in control. Emotions are a choppy sea, but you're driving the boat. You can't necessarily make them stop, but you can choose how you react to them. This is, I think, the hardest part of growing up: You have to learn how to have your emotions without letting them have you.
5. Money can't buy you happiness, but love and gratitude can. You're so busy focusing on the things that you don't have -- yet -- that you can't take even one moment to be grateful for the things you do have. You're so focused on material wealth and academic success and a prestigious career and the life you think you're supposed to live that you have no room for finding your passion. You have no room for loving the life you actually have. I can tell you, from my vantage point, that you will reach all of the goals that you're striving so hard to achieve. And none of it will make you happy. And when the house, cars, degrees, fancy jobs and picture-perfect marriage all leave you feeling empty, you'll be left adrift in a sea of meaninglessness as you desperately try to figure out where you went wrong.
Let me give you a hint: None of that crap matters. No external circumstance can bring you internal peace. What matters is that you fill your life with immense gratitude for each moment as you live it, and that you fill your soul with love for every single thing that makes up this beautiful and incredible universe. From that, all else will follow.