I try not to read top 10 lists. I try not to read top-anything lists. But dang it, sometimes I really do just want to hear a series of succinct points. The internet knows this about me and other humans, so occasionally it sends these numbered lists my way.
One that came up in my LinkedIn news feed recently was something to the effect of “10 Reasons Why People Might Not Like You”. I thought, “Hmm, I care marginally about this. Okay, maybe I care about this more than marginally, but I shouldn’t. And reading a stupid online article isn’t going to make me any more likable. This is dumb.” So, naturally, I clicked on the article and proceeded to read it.
Unsurprisingly, it contained a list of fairly obvious points about how people might not like me if I talk over them, force them to do my work, or smell bad. I’ll concede to the fact that it was a decent little reminder, but I knew after reading it that it was incomplete.
So I created my OWN top 10 list. Why might people not like you? Well, they might have trouble with the fact that…
1) You’re carrying a $2 bill in your pocket.
What are you, some kind of freak? What sorcery did you undertake to retrieve such a thing? Get some ones and fives like the rest of us! Or maybe embrace the future and pay with everything through Venmo. Otherwise you’re just not even in touch with the future, luddite!
2) You have yet to achieve inbox zero.
You haven’t hacked your productivity? You’re inefficient. I bet you don’t even drink bulletproof coffee or delegate all of your administrative work to offshore teams.
3) You keep hand sanitizer on the left side of your desk. What are you trying to say, left-handed people are better than right-handed people!??
4) You changed the background on your computer to a picture of seals. Do you know what seals eat?! Fish. Do you know who else eats fish?! MURDERERS AND TERRORISTS!
5) You’ve eaten pizza before. Millions of pizzas die everyday and you do nothing to stop it. How do you sleep at night?
6) You bowled 9 strikes in a row and got a 6 in your last round. Why aren’t you wearing your “I’m a Failure” badge?
7) You aren’t fluent in Classical Armenian, Sanskrit, or even Old Church Slavonic, for that matter. Have you no respect for the languages that came before yours, you ingrate?!
8) You own an uneven number of gardening tools. Do your shears, tool #37, have a buddy to assume responsibility for their safety in the event of an emergency? I don’t think so. And that’s your fault.
9) You accidentally waved back to them when they were waving to someone else. Which means you’re not only unlikeable, but a complete weirdo.
10) You have a face. And it just sucks. I don’t know. Something about it.
For real, though.
The reasons that some people will find to dislike you are some of the most egregiously asinine reasons on the planet. The above is just a parody of those reasons (actually, not really – someone actually told me that they didn’t like me because of my face one time. An adult. In college.) Most people like me enough, but that doesn’t stop the occasional person from thinking I’m too quiet, too loud, too obnoxious, too opinionated, too stupid, too antisocial (you notice all of these are kinda conflicting? Yeah…), etc.
That being said, the goal is not “to not care what anyone thinks” (which, by the way, is an impossible goal). The goal is to actively care what the important people think. These important people, for most of us, are:
Our close ties like family, true friends (the ones that feel comfortable enough to take care of you all night when you’re drunk, or tell you when your cooking sucks), and romantic partners.
People instrumental to your advancement as an employee or human, such as your coworkers or mentors (note: some of these may fall into the first category, too).
Loose ties, or people you don’t know yet, but would like to get to know. Yes, this means people you’re “networking” with, even though I loathe networking and I’ll talk about why in a future post.
With these people, seek out their company. Seek out their advice. Even if you’re an extreme introvert (like myself), the maintenance of these relationships should be a priority. Without them, you’ll start to feel incomplete. Trust me on this one. If one of these people tells me I’m being obnoxious that day, that’s when I should believe it.
Internet trolls, people on the street, and failed Tinder dates do not fall into the above categories, so stop caring about them. Shut them out of your mind. Put those bad memories in the Recycling Bin and then delete them forever. I’m not saying don’t treat people with respect, but don’t validate their words of hurt.
Now, with this aforementioned goal comes the caveat that no matter how old or wise or good at loving your awesome self you get, you are going to care about what non-important people think once in a while. That’s okay. People often either don’t think before they speak, or speak maliciously in an attempt to hurt someone else due to their own insecurity/self-loathing/stupidity. Understand that this as an unchangeable reality of the world – and just work towards changing your reaction to this reality.
“Easier said than done” applies here. Practicing this attitude will help you and true indifference can only be cultivated through this practice. Trust me.
If all else fails, just imagine someone saying to you, “I hate you because I find your inability to eat pinecones to be in poor taste”. Because whatever qualm this person has with you is probably as humorously misguided as you not eating pinecones, quite honestly.
A few weeks ago, I read an awe-inspiring and magnificently well-researched piece on one of my favorite blogs, Wait but Why, called “Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man”. As the title implies, the piece was a deep-dive into the life of the dude who founded PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla, focusing on these ventures but also providing some insight into Elon the Human Being (whom I previously assumed to be “E.L.O.N., the Next Generation of Artificial Intelligence Since No Actual Human Being Can Do What He’s Done”). It was engaging, informative, educational, and just a bit soul-crushing.
“And just what the hell do I do with my life?” I thought, letting my deep-seated self-deprecation bore into my consciousness after I finished reading the article while shrugging into my seat, arms crossed. In my mind, I started naming off things that I do, creating a running checklist to ensure that I was still a worthwhile member of the human race despite not being instrumental in changing the course of the automobile industry. Do I do enough work for the university? Is the book I’m writing going to change lives someday? Do I inspire my friends and family to greatness? Do I practice pole and aerial enough to become as good as Natasha Wang or Bendy Kate?
In times like these, I bring myself back out of Selfhateistan (the place where my confidence goes to die and – incidentally – lies nowhere near any of the “-stan” nations) only by reminding myself of something really important:
A big part of being successful at something is the condition of actually wanting to be successful at something.
For instance, while attending Cambridge and becoming a world-renowned neuroscientist sounds fantastic and is certainly a way to make vast contributions to society, that’s not what I want with my life at all. Neither is becoming a concert violinist or pro basketball player. If I truly wanted to do these things, I would put in the woman-hours until I collapsed – and, theoretically, I could succeed (except in the case of the pro baller; at “only” five-foot-nine and clumsy, I don’t think I could make the cut), but I choose not to. I’d rather focus on becoming who I want to be. I focus on what’s important to me.
When I think about what’s important to me, I think about making my brother’s first soccer game of the season this Saturday. I think about planning a girl’s weekend with my Mom, if only she would give me her availability already, dang it. I think about my health (too much). I think about building up my web design skills at work, so I can help my local reptile store rebuild their website. I think about making my coworkers happy and reducing their stress. I think about reading and writing as much as possible. I think about impacting the world of education. I think about swing dancing and laser tag and video game/spa nights with my partner. I think about traveling, especially in a backpack-like manner so as to facilitate my meeting of interesting people and *willfully* running into unpleasant, but later hilarious scenarios like having crazy hostel-mates or accidentally eating gourmet bugs. I think about what my first pole competition is going to be like. I think about what it’s going to be like when I resume my private pilot lessons. I think about opportunities where I can donate my time to making peoples’ days easier that day.
And yes, I do think about changing the world, preferably through my written word. Even if I change just a faction of the planet, or even if I have just one, remote fan who’s touched by my eclectic, far-off musings, that’s enough for me. I’m not the “popular” one and, in a way, that’s a relief.
(I’ve eliminated the other preposterous things I think about, like “MY ROOTS ARE COMING IN AND I NEED TO CHANGE IT NOW BECAUSE COOL AND WARM COLORS IN HAIR CLASH THIS IS DISGUSTING I’M DISGUSTING” or “My boyfriend is out at a baseball game and hasn’t called me even though it’s 12 am. No, his phone didn’t die – he’s dead on the road, obviously! I’m going to Google all the hospitals in the area…wait, should I set a radius, like 50 miles? I’m going to set a radius.” Being in my mind for even a half hour would absolutely run anyone into the ground, trust me on this.)
From there, I work backwards. I cultivate my life so that I can pursue what matters to me – everything else extra that may come along is great, but not a priority. I work hard – really hard – to be wonderful at the things I care about. But I’m not going to sacrifice the most important things in my life for things that are decidedly less important, like having three houses or a private jet or an entire team of people to manage my money for me. Or, like Sir Musk, being the pioneer of three major multi-million dollar companies and having a net worth of 11 billion dollars. Again, that’s wonderful, and I’m not diminishing the value of it. I just think we need to start expanding our definition of “success” beyond one of pure currency accumulation.
This TED talk, this article, and this blog post all cite the “true cost of happiness” as lying somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000 for most people in the United States. Okay, it’s a little higher in Hawaii, but that’s because it’s freaking Hawaii. A fourth article, from Yahoo! Finance UK, also displays an interesting graph showing professions’ happiness relative to their average salaries. One comment from this article struck a chord with me and sums everything up better than I could:
“I grew up poor and now I am rich. Trust me on this, it hasn’t made me happy. I am still a grumpy git. I was once told that when you have no money, you have one problem. How to get some. When you’ve got money you have two problems. How to keep it, and how to get some more. I have come to the conclusion that a happy poor person will be a happy rich person, but becoming rich won’t make an unhappy person happy.”
Grumpy git-ness notwithstanding, this man seems to be right.
For two years, I made a lot of money for someone my age. I was miserable; the most miserable I’ve ever been in my life. This was despite having several weeks of vacation per year, buying clothes for myself almost every week, traveling at least once a month, and eating at restaurants as often as I wanted to. All this being said, I wasn’t pursuing the life that I wanted to pursue. I came into the job unfulfilled and knowing that the job would not fulfill me. (This is NOT a knock against my former job, as it taught me invaluable life skills, helped me forge life-long friendships, and is an AMAZING career for many people. I adore my company for everything it gave to me. But anyone who worked closely with me could tell you: I had taken the wrong train into the wrong territory.)
Nowadays, I make less money. But guess what? I’m absolutely stoked on life. I still have my ups and downs and am still in pursuit of many dreams. But at least I’m on the right train now.
My partner’s current dream is to open up a facility housing both a physical therapy center and a gym. In pursuit of this, he has honed in on an impressive philosophy regarding exercise; he feels that it desperately needs more mental engagement and more program personalization. I admire him so much that I routinely embarrass both him and myself with how much I brag about him. Because I know how successful he’s going to be.
Never once has my partner talked about acquiring vast wealth. He just wants to make an impact. But with the number of people who already respect his skills at age 25, it seems that fulfillment and wealth are at his horizon. What makes me so proud is not the idea of him being wealthy. It’s the idea that I’m partnered with a man who is pursuing his life’s intended work.
Back to redefining success: it’s not about money (though we knew that, hopefully? Kinda?) – it’s about pursuing our life’s intended work, or trying to find out what our life’s intended work is, with fervor, grit, and resolve. It’s about not settling for less. Most challengingly, it’s about tuning out what’s not important.
Now that I’m on the right train, I can finally focus on the beautiful scenery I keep passing. Here’s hoping you’re on the same train that I am.
I would be so freaking confused if I were a teenager right now.
With all of my nieces, cousins, and siblings chugging through high school at the moment, I know that college is going to become “a thing” in my family again shortly. The problem is, you can throw a pebble and hit six people dealing with nearly-insurmountable student debt, many to the tune of over $35,000. I have friends who’ve graduated but are living with parents against their will and still have no promising prospects, some even years after donning their cap and gown. Then there are people like me, who scrambled to settle on a “useful” major, despite strongly disliking its subject matter, and ending up in a job they are ill-suited to. But hey, I graduated in five years (Bachelor’s + Masters) at the age of 23, so the facade of “success” I put up to the outside world is believable. Many others feel the exact same way about themselves.
While it sounds dismal, today’s employment statistics actually give a mixed-to-positive picture. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Class of 2015 (those who graduated college this year) are fairing pretty well, with the unemployment rate for 2015 college grads sitting at 2.7%, according to the Labor Department. The Washington Post also talked about the 295,000 jobs added in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But looking at these numbers is, at best, a superficial way to analyze the true value of college. The number above doesn’t account for the many, many people who took jobs below their experience or education level just to get a job. The number of jobs created still doesn’t outpace the amount of job seekers we have, including the hundreds of thousands of college graduates that are churned out every year.
This is a tough issue because there are so many pieces to this puzzle. For simplicity’s – and readability’s – sake, let’s just focus on two key questions: (1) Should you go to college/post-secondary education? (2) If you go, what type of postsecondary education is best suited to you? If not, what are your other options?
Before we move any further on the topic of how one should address the idea of advanced education, allow me to briefly tell my story to give you an idea of where my voice is coming from so that you can keep that in mind when making your own decision. The key points regarding “me” are as follows:
(a) If you read this post that I posted last week, it would not surprise you to know that I did not do too well in high school and my college choices were pretty limited as a result. However, not going to college was not an option to my parents, and they were not keen on letting me have a gap year/start at a community college. [Note: I adore my parents and they are the most spectacular parents ever, in my humble opinion. This is not a jab at them. Parents, if you’re reading this, I know your views have changed since 2008 and I know you guys did everything for my betterment! I love you!]
(b) The college that I did choose, Arizona State University, is one of the largest public universities in the world, which in and of itself lends it to being a unique experience. When you have soooooo many people at one school, it can be hard to get the individualized attention you need and admittedly, there are some classes that they make deliberately easy to pass so as to push more people through. Nonetheless, my experience there, especially during my senior and Master’s years, was absolutely vital to my growth and was so much fun.
(c) I recognize the potential I have to be attacked for this, but I feel it’s my duty to let you know that I have zero student debt. See the note under point (a). My parents were incredible for sacrificing so much time and money for my education. Truth be told, however, most of the people I know did not have their college paid for my parents, even those whose parents could afford to. I admire people who paid their way through college deeply, whether partially or fully, and I understand that my not experiencing student debt personally means that I am by no means an expert on the matter of student debt/financial aid.
(d) After starting with a “marketable major” (Accounting), meandering between other marketable as well as some “less marketable” majors (from Biology to Philosophy to English to Computer Science to Marketing), I ended up settling back on Accounting due to the fear that I was probably going to be in college for a decade if I didn’t choose something and stick with it.
(e) I ended up joining a good amount of clubs related to my major, thus forming life-long friendships and putting myself out there enough to get a high-profile internship.
(f) Thanks to the aforementioned internship, I was fortunate enough to get a job directly out of college.
(g) I now work for a university – and I absolutely love my job. At the end of the day, one of the reasons I chose working here is so that I can help make the education system better. Moreover, I do believe in college for so many people.
Just not for everyone.
There are Plenty of Forks in This Road
My experience was, to put it simply: “traditional”. But the truth is, if you had taken my parents out of the equation, or if I had graduated a few years earlier, I could be sitting on a pile of debt or on my butt out of a job. Knowing this, many people come to the conclusion that they simply can’t “go to college”. But for those teenagers deciding to attend college, I wonder if they’ve considered these alternatives:
– Attending community college for a few years, then finishing up at a university? This method saves you an unbelievable amount of money and I think people are crazy not to take that path.
– Taking a gap year to volunteer, travel, or complete a creative project?
– Attending a trade school and becoming a really good mechanic or carpenter or plumber? A skilled plumber with several years of experience may end up making a lot more than I do right now.
– Entering the military first?
– Starting from the bottom at a computer where you know that experience, not education, will get you further at it, and supplementing your skills with autodidaction (teaching yourself)?
– If you’re a daredevil with a good idea and at least one other person who has your back, starting your own company from scratch? Granted, you should still be wary of thinking that it’s “easy” to become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (neither of whom have college degrees), but if you work your tail off and have a determined enough attitude, you just might find yourself there.
I could go on, but you understand my point. There are alternatives, but people aren’t always apt to take them. Reasons for not taking them include fear of missing out on critical job opportunities, fear of resume gaps (in the case of the gap year), or not taking a path that is “prestigious enough” to their family/friends/significant other. All of these are dumb. Why?
1) Even in boom years, the job market will always be competitive. There will always be awesome opportunities out there.
2) Any employer who doesn’t respect a well-spent gap year – maybe you volunteered to build schools in Cambodia or hiked the Pacific Crest trail – isn’t someone you’d want to work for anyway.
3) If you make your life about pleasing others, you’re in for a miserable life. Create a life that you are proud of and those who are meant to be in it will feel the same way.
The Tale of Germany and its Vocational Training
I came across this article a while back, which talks about the apprenticeship system in place in Germany. To give a short summary, German students usually go to their equivalent of elementary, middle, and high school until approximately age 18. At that point, they can choose to either go to a traditional college or university or enter a trade program where they will attend school 1-2 days a week and work in the field 3-4. Since they generally cannot enter such a program unless a position is available, this means that they are essentially guaranteed a job as long they finish the program. Skilled workers are a highly respected bunch in Germany, and these workers can go on to have jobs at prestigious companies like Porsche, Daimler, and Bosch.
Now, you’re probably asking: why on EARTH haven’t we (the U.S.) implemented this yet?
Well, the truth is, we do have apprenticeship programs here in the U.S., though the number is significantly lower than Germany (5% vs. 60%…holy crap). The reasons for this great disparity are that (a) trade jobs/apprenticeships are not regarded as highly here in the U.S. due to our obsession with the service economy and knowledge work (not a bad thing, but there is still a necessity for many skilled jobs), (b) the perception that manufacturing jobs are going away or being automated, and (c) the very valid difference between the U.S.’s subsidizing of education vs. Germany’s. Apprentices are not cheap, but the state will largely finance your education if you’re a student in Germany. In the U.S., the company giving the apprenticeship will pay the majority of the costs, making it a risky investment for them.
Nonetheless, there are actually more skilled jobs than workers to fill them, so it’s absolutely worth considering. By the way, that article gives a pretty good picture on how the U.S. might attract more people to skilled labor jobs, so I’ll let it do the rest of the talking for me on that subject 🙂
My Friends’ Perspective
Obviously, I loved my experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the dang galaxy. But I’m one white, female, debt-free human who is hardly representative of all opinions out there. When I reached out to my family and friends to solicit their opinions, I felt their words held unbelievable value. Some are more positive than others, but all are worth deliberating. Here are some of those:
“I have a mechanical engineering degree, but I got it back when tuition was $299 per quarter. If I were graduating high school now, I would seriously think about skipping college and just learning a trade like welding. A university degree is much too expensive these days.” – Aris, photographer friend, who specifically requested that he be referred to as “Mr. Big Stuff” as well. Hahaha.
“My thoughts on college. COLLEGE IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. If you don’t want to be there, then you shouldn’t be. I feel like society has created this stigma that if you don’t go to college, you will work at mcdonalds the rest of your life, and I don’t think that’s true. Yes, college opens doors, and for me, I loved it. But I don’t believe you should be there if you don’t want to be. I feel as though we raise kids to believe college is the only option. We see it in the media, on tv, at school, and for a lot of kids, at home. For me, growing up, my parents philosophy on going to college was not going to college was not an option. And I don’t think that’s true. We tell kids they can be whatever they want as long as it’s a doctor or a lawyer or some other cookie cutter job. I believe in primary and secondary school. People need to know how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. But not everyone needs to be an academic rockstar. It is 100% possible for people to become happy, successful, productive members of society without higher education. Higher education should be for people who have a passion for it, for people who thrive on knowledge and academic discussions. I think that college should be encouraged especially for kids who aren’t hearing that message at home. But I think when it comes to secondary school, kids should be encouraged to explore other options to hear the message that yes, you CAN go to college, but only if you want it. College is something you have to work hard for, and if you don’t want to that’s okay. If you don’t though, then what’s your plan? What DO you WANT to do? That should be the message we send to our secondary students. And if you don’t know then take some time, travel, see the world, have an adventure, take a class or 2 at a community college. The message should be: find a path, follow your heart, find your place in our f***ed up society. Do what is going to make you happy.” – Cayolyn, high school friend.
“it was free for me so i didn’t take it too seriously. up until my last few quarters i didn’t feel like i learned much. however i truly loved it in the end. not the formal bs education of tons of hw and tests… the real education built with discussion and understanding. now i regret not participating more and gaining more from it. so far my degree has done nothing for me. and according to some friends in law enforcement, i’m actually considered over qualified to be a cop and that is potentially hurting me.” – Garrett, one of my partner’s dearest friends and the only person I’ve met who likes dessert as much as I do.
“I think college is a prerequisite nowadays. Historically speaking, compulsory education in America from grades (K-12) was only created to keep up with the transition from an agricultural economy to a rapid industrialization. Subsequently, this required less time in the fields and more time learning skills that the workplace needed. (Although, there was push back from politicians representing agricultural constituents in regards to who will now work when the labor force is in school, hence why we still have summers off today in America because a compromise was reached in 1845 so children could help their parents with the harvest.) We are moving now from an industrial age into a technological one and an even broader education and demand for technical literacy is required from society and the next generation to keep pace. ‘Doing what you love’ is a rather first world, higher middle class luxury. It’s easy to pursue leisure or a ‘passion’ when we have the capital to necessitate such pursuits. However, I do know that the generation preceding ours, is statistically unprepared for the looming retirement age of 65 and now find themselves ushered out of the technologically specialized workplace. Blue collar jobs have become a race to the bottom, especially with the demise of unions and the rise of ‘right to work’ states; therefore, instead of doing what you ‘love,’ I think a proper education in a high demand skill is a great investment.” – Zack, my partner’s military buddy who also happens to be the one who introduced me to my partner.
“It’s hard to regret the choice to go to college, because it welcomes other sorts of negative feelings. Having said that – college can be great, however – it shouldn’t be something we have to go in debt for. Imagine paying to learn how to play monopoly. College gives people the rules to play the game within the system so why should I be paying for it. It’s psychological. Now most are forced to pay for it – so it’s hard for me to disagree with any of its curriculum. In all honesty – by and large I feel like I wasted my time because I realized a lot of things that people aren’t ready to hear about.” – Aleksey, writing buddy and fellow Long Beach-ian.
Teenager reading this: “I still have no idea whether I should go or not. All these other choices and all these opinions are actually making me even more overwhelmed. Just tell me what to do, already!”
I get it. I seriously do. No matter what options are available and how many people you ask for “their thoughts”, sometimes you just want an answer.
And I hate to disappoint you, but I, a 25-year-old who’s only walked in her own shoes before, am not going to give you that answer.
The best advice I can offer a confused, pre-college teenager (as someone who has another seven years under her belt) are these steps:
1) Get grades that are as good as possible. Do not destroy yourself if you’re not an all-A student, but focus on doing the best you can do. This preliminary step makes more prestigious colleges, if you fancy them, a better possibility.
2) Participate in myriad activities and talk to as many people as you can about their activities. Find out what you like and dislike. Nothing is a waste of time. You’re eliminating chances to enter into a career you won’t like and producing chances to enter a career you’ll love.
3) Be realistic about the kind of life you want in the future and figure out what jobs can provide you with that life. This will probably change drastically, so give yourself a range of money/comfort you’d like to have in the future, not an exact number.
a) Do not ever pick a job just for the money. As many will attest, you will be miserable if you do that.
4) Figure out jobs that will help you live the life you want while still being enjoyable. My dad calls this “connecting the dots”. It may be a longshot, but the harder you’re willing to work, the more likely you’ll be able to make that profession work with your desired life.
5) If you feel up to the task:
a) Start going to school (vocational, university-level, or otherwise) for that job. Don’t ever think that you can’t change your course. I made a complete 180 on mine and there’s no reason why you can’t do the same.
b) Start up that company or enter that job you think will be promising. You can always come back to college later. It’s also worth noting that according to a recent CareerBuilder survey, over half of jobs occupied by a group of 2014 graduates did not actually require a college degree. Moreover, companies like Google and even Ernst and Young’s U.K. offices have scrapped the college degree requirement as a prerequisite.
6) If you still don’t know what you want to do, take a gap year or work at a family/friend’s company. Do something interesting. Really rack your brain for ideas. Again, figure out what you DON’T want to do, and allow other things come through. Also, read this article that I wrote for Refine the Mind a while back, which talks about figuring out your life’s work any any age through creative, unusual means.
I’ll conclude with a succinct but meaningful adage from yet another friend as a final quotation:
“You’re gonna kill it, whatever you choose.“ – Taylor, fellow Master of Accountancy.
I sincerely hope that helps, because I sincerely think it’s true.
Endnote: This article is largely focused on helping “traditional” college-aged students find their way with regards to postsecondary education. I specifically did not discuss “non-traditional” students (older students who are either re-entering college later in life or entering it for the first time) because I feel that it’s a completely different ball game. If you’d like to see an entry on that, or have thoughts on it, let me know in the comments section!
Whether you’re reading this at 13 or 19, you’ve probably experienced quite a ride already. I’m sure you heard plenty of advice, jokes, and stories from your parents and other people older than you before entering this stage, but it’s still nothing like they talked about. Sure, they got braces like you did, then eventually got them off and felt the wind brush against their metal-free teeth as they left the orthodontist’s office. Yes, they failed their driver’s license test three times, and you may have failed it once or twice yourself. And of course, they, too, felt anguish over their college choices (or lack thereof), clenching their teeth as they waited for acceptance letters and FAFSA approvals to come through. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. They know how it feels to be a teenager. But what about being a teenage girl in 2015?
Being a teenage girl in 2015 is just like being a teenage girl in 1975 or 1992, I suppose. Except now you get to worry about how many Instagram followers you have, how many friends you have on Facebook, and how many people retweet your tweets on Twitter. Speaking of the internet, there’s nowhere to hide – online bullies lurk on every corner and will pick you apart for doing so much as breathing. People will come out of the woodwork to say something negative knowing that their biggest consequence will probably be being blocked. Meanwhile, you’re knocked down yet another peg and questioning your value to humanity.
There’s also the added joy of keeping up with the impossible beauty standards that permeate society. God forbid you don’t weigh 100 pounds or don’t know how to contour like Kim Kardashian. It’s no fun wondering how – if ever – we’ll match up to the girls guys say they fantasize about. Even if they’re just saying that they fantasize about them to fit in with their friends. And even if beauty is 100% not a one-size-fits-all thing, and no two people will have the exact same tastes.
I know, I know…I can feel your eye rolls from here. Am I sounding like a typical counselor right now? Well, it might be better if I talked a little about who I was as a teenager (something I’m not *great* at, so bear with me). Maybe that’ll give some weight to what I’m saying, yeah?
(Disclaimer: The rest of this letter gives an extremely personal view of your author. Believe it or not, this letter doesn’t even go into half of what I experienced as a teenager, but I wanted to keep it brief…ish. Also, I noticed reading through it that it seems fairly heteronormative and cisnormative, which is unfortunate. I want this to be as accessible as possible to all women of any sexual orientation or gender status. In fact, I would love for this to be accessible to people beyond just teenage girls, but I feel I have the most experience with this age group/gender identity and can address them a little better. No matter who you are, I hope you enjoy this post – and maybe even get a little something from it.)
The Wonder Years
Let’s go back a little further than teenagedom for a second. Not to be conceited, but I was a freaking adorable kid. An awesome, spritely little ball of light who had no qualms about admitting she was a part-dinosaur, part-cat dynamo bent on writing stories and proliferating the language she created (Boodisce).
Do you think I cared about how I looked, or if boys liked me? Not a chance. Boys were gross anyways, unless they could climb trees or play video games. Then they were cool. I guess. But kissing them? Echk. BRB gonna go barf.
But in 4th grade, girls started liking boys and boys started liking girls. One day, I saw a boy who I wanted to start sitting next to and drawing pictures for, even though I had no idea why. Once 5th and 6th grade happened, I finally got a grip on what was happening: this was starting to sound like the “love” and “dating” things I had seen with my parents and learned about on TV. This is how it all started. People “like-liking” each other.
In 7th grade, I looked like this:
You can’t tell in this picture, but I have braces and exceedingly frizzy hair. Shortly after the time that this picture was taken, I also developed some decent acne. Given my naturally translucent, pale skin, my acne looked 10x worse on me than it did on other people with darker skin (read: everyone other than me, including most of my red-head friends). My body also decided to grow faster than my head, so by this age I was about 5’6″ and 100 pounds with virtually a grape for a head. On this grape of a head sat an enormous nose and even bigger ears. Never mind the fact that I had no idea how to use makeup or do something about my unkempt eyebrows. Yeah. There’s awkward, and then there’s me.
Right before the time that this picture was taken, a boy at a nature camp I went to found out I liked him. I had, in fact, told my best friend to relay the message to him somehow, as I would not dare talk to him. In fact, I would have eaten sand before talking to anyone I had romantic feelings for at that time. After receiving this message, he took to AOL Instant Messenger (I picture all my 90s kids smiling) after the camp was over to let me down easy: “No offense, but ur probably one of the ugliest girls Ive ever seen. And I already have a gf. Thx tho.”
I still remember this exchange like it was yesterday, because it helped kick off a deep insecurity that would last me the majority of my life to date.
Caught in the Middle
With middle school getting off to such a great start à la the above exchange, it only proceeded to get better from there. There was a defined set of people deemed “popular” by everyone else and not a single one of them acknowledged me in a positive way. In fact, many of them made fun of me.
When I wore a shirt that said “Princess” to art class (like we all did, I’m pretty sure?), I recall one such “popular” girl complimenting me in a deceptively kind manner on it, only to conspicuously whisper to her friend next to her, “How is she seriously wearing that?,” and bursting into laughter with her. In PE a few months later, I had an excruciating sunburn that had developed into a rather nasty peel. Most of this peel was concentrated on my neck and looked like psoriasis. Several of the “popular” girls had taken notice and initiated a very audible group discussion over the matter: “It looks horrible…That’s so gross…Do you think she, like, knows?” Popular boys would scoot closer to me with their desks in French class and fake “hit on” me, with prettier and more popular girls unsuccessfully attempting to suppress raucous laughter from across the room.
Then, there was Ella*. Ella came to our school in the middle of 7th grade from another school. She had bleached blonde hair and wore thick, black eyeliner. I had never seen someone so stunningly beautiful who was my own age. I wanted to be her.
Ella quickly climbed the ranks as a popular girl and, in true form, latched onto me as a victim as many of the others had. After all, I was sensitive, awkward-looking, and blatantly insecure, so I have to admit that I made the perfect scapegoat. She sat behind me in math class in 8th grade and would tell me my hair looked bad. Somedays I would try and be nice and ask her a question. She would either ignore me or laugh at me. One day, she told me she liked my skirt. I had to do a double-take: she gave a compliment? To me?
She then asked me where I got it. I told her I got it at a local store in the town we lived. Her response snapped back at me like a rubber band: “OBVIOUSLY YOU GOT IT THERE. THAT’S THE ONLY PLACE YOU CAN BUY THOSE.”
As 8th grade ended, I started to feel like I couldn’t afford to be myself anymore.
No More Mr. Nice Girl
The first few months of high school saw me slowly creep into a state of veering away from my true self, both internally and externally. I finally did my eyebrows. I put highlights in my hair – many more than the half-assed ones my mom let me do a few years prior. I started fake tanning (the bottle kind, not the bed kind – though you probably knew that by looking at me). I wore more makeup than a drag queen. I’ve always loved drag queens, but this was not even well-done paint. I just wanted every feature on my face covered into oblivion.
The appearance changes weren’t the worst part, though.
Suddenly, I became cold. I became distant. I felt it more and more every day. Growing up, I was generally kind, considerate, sensitive, and resistant to gossip or disdain towards others. Dissatisfied with where being “sweet” had led me, I tried to turn into the complete opposite of myself in my mid-teens.
The dissatisfaction with how I looked manifested itself in worse and worse ways as the end of high school loomed. At 17, I couldn’t leave the house without makeup or a full coat of fake tanner and I had even started lying about my ethnicity to convince people I was naturally tan (spoiler: nobody believed me). One day, I was part black. The next day, half-Mexican. It sounds pretty funny and borders on Rachel Dolezal eccentricity, but at the end of the day I truly felt ashamed just to be myself. I just wanted to be pretty, exotic, and to be known as the girl who was naturally tan. As if being tan was the pinnacle of my identity.
In high school, my primary hobbies were essentially shopping, tanning, and trying to get attention from people, especially guys. Gone, for the most part, were video games, writing, and art, my favorite hobbies when I was young. I maintained some friends in high school, though I wasn’t above occasionally trying to “one up” them or berate them for “making me look bad!!!” if they dared to post a picture of me on social media without my permission. Any pictures posted of me had to be doctored into oblivion before I put them up. My edits of choice were generally a thinned nose, bigger lips, and, of course, darker skin. At 10 I used Photoshop to add color to my anime drawings; at 16 I was using it to turn every picture of myself into a botched Cosmo cover. I wish I were kidding.
I often ditched friends for romantic conquests at the drop of a hat. I screamed at my friends if they tried to criticize my bad choices; “Who are they to judge me?!?!,” I would think. Gee, just people who love and care about me and would do anything for me despite my utter asshat-ness. But what would they know.
I had alienated all but a couple people by the near-end of senior year. So much, that a school counselor even approached me and asked me why it didn’t seem like I had any friends. In typical “High School Haley” fashion, I retorted in a defensive manner. I “had plenty of friends outside of school” (I didn’t, besides guys I was talking to in the hopes that they would continue to validate me) and “felt more mature than many of the people at school, so I couldn’t relate” (yeah…that’s some well-polished bullsh*t). The conversation ended, and I left with nothing. I felt a little worse, though, which was ironically a start.
Building up to a Breakthrough
Unfortunately, much of my histrionic, high-maintenance behavior continued into the first and second years of college. I improved slightly by becoming more knowledgeable about local politics and more involved in school clubs, only to negate such involvement by doing things like distributing test answers to my sorority and verbally accosting people who didn’t agree with my political views. Watching me debate gay marriage (which I fully support and spent a lot of time defending the past few years) with an opponent was like watching me set fire to a blasphemous heretic in Medieval Europe. I cared deeply, but I couldn’t have cared less if I acted irrational in order to prove my case.
When I was 20, I briefly returned to modeling, which I had dabbled in in high school. Modeling, as many will tell you, has the power to either make you feel incredibly confident or like a steaming pile of feces. Amazingly, one particular assignment had a peculiar effect on me.
A vampire-inspired shoot was advertised that called for someone with black hair, alabaster-pale skin, and blue eyes. I knew that if I took a break from my by-then signature faux-glow I would fit the criteria perfectly. Sure enough, I reached out to the photographer, scrubbed off my Oompa-Loompa coat, and made it happen. The pictures turned out spookily AWESOME, and amidst that fake blood in front of that abandoned house, a new me started brewing.
I gave up the fake tan officially when I was 21, never to return to it again (well, except for maybe one or two times for special events). I gradually stopped wearing a MAC store on my face. I got more involved in things I cared about and started treating people with the same graciousness and compassion I had in my early life. I thought long and hard about the person who I was on the inside and made developing that a priority.And in turn, my life started changing.
Over the next few years, I ended up being the President of my business fraternity, completing both a Bachelor of Science and a Masters degree in accounting, and passing all four sections of the CPA exam. I contributed countless hours to volunteer projects I was passionate about. I studied abroad and went to many other countries for fun. I got a job at a prestigious “Big 4” accounting firm and went onto complete two years in the job before moving onto a web development/curriculum gig at the university near my house. I fell in love with writing and art all over again. My relationships with family and friends became the closest and healthiest they’ve ever been, and today I tend to only hang around people who are kind-hearted, positive, and understanding.
I know what you’re thinking: “Great, now she’s pattering on about her accomplishments. Typical older person looking back on their life, blah blah blah…”, so I’ll stop there. The point to me telling you all of this is not to bore the crap out of you. It’s to let you know that when you start caring about the important things in life (family, friends, being involved, self-actualization), your focus really does start to shift, and you tend to worry less about the things that don’t matter as much (money, possessions, looks).
This is not to say that I never have my insecure moments any more – far from it. Ask my boyfriend, ask my friends, ask my mom. I’m a long way from being fully secure, but the difference now is that I recognize my insecurity and I don’t let it control me or hurt the ones I love. Does my insecurity have its way some days? Admittedly, yes. Some days, I’m the heavyweight champ, and other days I’m the scrawny out-of-shaper who’s on the brink of a KO. Most days, though, I get to be the champ.
I’d also like to add that just because I don’t revolve my life around my looks anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t care about how I look. It’s not like I one day decided to focus less on looks, put on a burlap sack, and never brush my teeth or hair again. Like a lot of girls, I still love makeup, dying my hair, and wearing rad fashion. But I do it for me, not for others’ validation of me. Okay, and maybe I like to impress my boyfriend sometimes. Caring about how you look and being a well-adjusted, secure adult are not mutually exclusive – there’s just a balance.
To Put it Simply
I suppose if I could sum up this letter into a few key concepts, it would be these:
I tell my story because I was an exemplary insecure girl. So much, that it even pains me to write about some of the stuff I used to do and how I used to be. Let that be a litmus test for you; ask yourself if you’re acting like me and, if so, try and find out why. Is that really who you are?
If you feel like you’re not beautiful, just know two things: (1) you’re beautiful and someone is looking for someone just like you [whether for a one-time photoshoot or for a lifetime relationship] and (2) even if you/your parents/an internet random/some dumb guy or girl doesn’t think you’re beautiful, guess what? Being beautiful isn’t a ticket to success, health, or happiness. Being beautiful isn’t going to help you code a new app, or perform heart surgery, or run an animal shelter. It’s not going to let you spend time with family or help you make new (true) friends. Only by developing our inner selves can we get that happiness.
One thing I didn’t mention up in the main part of this letter is that when we are insecure, we try and fill up a proverbial hole; we try and make up for something we’re missing in our life. Some people, like me, do this by over-focusing on our looks. Some people buy a lot of fancy cars and purses and jewelry. Some people turn to excessive drinking or drugs. Many of us turn to relationships. I’m a big “why”-asker, so my question to anyone struggling with this is to always ask why you’re doing something, especially if it’s causing harm to you.
Look, guys, I’m no therapist. I’m not even that much older than you. Heck, I could be talking out of my nose right now and someone much older and wiser than me is reading this and going “Wrong, wrong, wrong…ugh, this is so horribly written…oh, yes, another typo…rubbish…”. But that’s okay. I’m willing to take that chance.
Be yourself, and if you don’t know who that is yet, that’s okay. Go experience life and find out.
Oh – and feel free to ask me anytime if you have questions. I may not know you, but I’m here for you. Always.
*It should come as no surprise that “Ella’s” name is not really “Ella”. But I’m not gonna lie – it would be nice for her to read this some day.