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  • Sofia Sulikowski

13 Things I learned While 21

Not unlucky, just precise


I learned a lot in my 21st year of life. And honestly, I’m kind of surprised. Most of my personal growth in previous years resulted from interacting with others and novel experiences—traveling, new relationships, and school-related activities. But the growth in 2020 makes sense. Change simply means something different. Nothing dramatic or adventurous required.


In some ways, returning home for my junior spring and senior fall was a step back into my comfort zone. But in others, it was a challenging, unexpected turn of events that required tough conversations, personal reflection, and flexibility. And change, as we all know, leads to growth. Many of the following points have already been addressed in dedicated posts, but the lessons are worth revisiting.


1. You don't get what you don't ask for


This year, I discovered the power of asking. I tested the waters of politely requesting and refuting circumstances in my academic, professional, and personal life over the last 12 months. The shift in mentality probably began when I transferred into the business school my sophomore year. The micro-environment showed me the skills and behaviors prompted by constant competition. In the good category: pushiness (without disrespect) gets you places. Going with the flow and accepting events as they come leaves outcomes to chance.

At 21, I began advocating for what works best for me in ways I thought were "overstepping" before. While the process still feels uncomfortable, I've already benefitted in so many ways.


2. I can keep myself company all year


Literally. Being alone is fabulous. I've sat at restaurants by myself and taken advantage of my free time to see and experience my surroundings regardless of whether others wanted to join. 2020 essentially banned large groups, and I felt quite proud of never struggling to continue (safe) activities on my own. Although the act of venturing out alone isn't a new development, my confidence while doing so increased. I made many memories alone at 21 and while they're different, I cherish them as much as the more social variety.


3. I'm more extraverted than I thought


On the other hand, I unexpectedly really missed social interactions. I increased my interactions with family and close friends, but I missed the daily, spontaneous social contact with strangers. Although I'm not shy, I don't enjoy small talk and always considered myself to be more introverted. But each year, I notice myself enjoying casual conversations more.


And of course, I'm looking forward to sharing space with people who match my energy to explore and discuss life again in the (hopefully) near future. There's nothing quite like in-person companions to banter, laugh, and share experiences with.


4. Schedule to stress less and do more


2020 gave me the gift of time I never asked for. I enjoy being busy, with a healthy mix of productive and fun activities. Out of necessity, I re-learned how to define a balanced schedule and keep myself accountable to my structure. A big part of overcoming the period of feeling down last year involved self-imposed structure and discipline to prioritize and push through work I had the flexibility to procrastinate on for extended periods.


5. Anxiety is debilitating


I've been the easily-stressed type for most of my life, but I'd never describe my periods of worry as anxiety. This past year, I experienced several months of true anxiety symptoms when sleeping, eating, and even getting out of bed were difficult. Thankfully the period was brief, but the experience deepened my empathy for those who consistently struggle with their mental health.


6. Family first


My family members are all very independent with strong and somewhat-incompatible preferences, and the four of us clashed when our separate lives and routines came back together under one roof. But after the rough initial 3-4 months, I felt closer than ever to my parents and brother. They really know and support me best. Being a cheer squad takes work, though; I called for several sit-down conversations about how we could adjust our behavior and compensate with empathy when our flaws upset each other.


I also reestablished communication with my grandparents after once-a-year messages for most of my teenage and adult life. I learned extended family will always be there, waiting to hear from me and get to know me no matter how much time has passed.


7. Reach out


You never know what may come out of a hello message. A random message to an old friend led to a sublessee for my room in DC. A LinkedIn note turned into a mentor. And an audio message to my grandparents evolved into a new relationship.


8. Friendships change in closeness as people evolve


Even my closest childhood friends may move in opposite directions from me. Sometimes the people I click with stop clicking — like puzzle pieces that have changed shape. We're both still part of the same big picture but no longer next to each other.


9. Social media isn't all bad


I rarely post my life on social media, and according to Screen Time, I spend less than 1 hour a day on all socials combined. But my negative perception of social media shifted when my brother and I received so many recommendations and comments on our outings from responses to his Instagram stories. Sharing the day-to-day, not just highlight photos once a year, opens the door to unexpectedly re-connect with people. I still prefer to keep my personal life private (except for blog content), but I'm experimenting with the value of spontaneous social posts.


10. The less I care, the more I thrive


I'm still not an expert, but each year teaches me a few modules more on how to care less about...everything. I feel and perform at my best when I'm not worried about perceptions or outcomes, and I made a few important baby steps towards permanently-cool-and-unbothered future me.


11. I need natural light to survive


Like a plant. Never again shall I work in a room with no windows or live in DC for longer than absolutely necessary.


12. Never take health for granted


You can read the phrase a thousand times, but it'll never impact you until you've witnessed its truth. At 21, I both experienced health complications and watched family members struggle through health problems. Never take health for granted.


13. Defining directions


Finding your career direction takes work. Moving in your newfound direction also takes work. Good thing I'll be focusing the first half of my 22nd year on defining and pursuing my direction to the best of my abilities.


Ready for what's next


Each year my confidence in what I know and awareness of all I don't grow simultaneously. I'm looking forward to building on the progress of 21...I have a feeling my list of learnings in 12 months will put this one to shame.


Cheers to all the February birthdays out there!


P.S. :)

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