The summer right before college, I was invited to a pool party in the outskirts of Brooklyn. We grew up in the Knickerbocker projects so access to large bodies of water was restricted to crowded YMCA bacteria colonies or … the Hudson River. Neither were good options so I was excited. Little did I know, I almost became one of the thousands of kids who died at an unscrupulous backyard pool accident every year.
That sunny afternoon, I see my friends jumped in one after another. I surveyed the water in my new swim trunks and slowly slipped into the bath except this tub (as I discovered) was bottomless. Oh… those evasive tiles on the bottom that never touched my feet, how I yearned for you. The stings from the chlorine blinded me when I needed my sight the most, and in a moment of panic, I fought against the water, kicking, flailing my arms to find something, anything to ground me.
Everyone experiences near death differently, I’ve been told. When my grandfather was coming in and out of consciousness during his hospice stay, he allegedly spotted his long-deceased parents sauntering about in this room. After I’ve exhausted every ounce of uncoordinated energy, a quiet sense of ease came about. I stopped kicking. A glimmer of light grew more prominent. Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen. Maybe I should’ve been a Presbyterian this whole time. Maybe I should stop making fun of the Mormons. But before it became a tragedy, I felt an arm pulling mine towards the edge of the pool.
I didn’t know the lung can house that much water but they all came violently spewing out onto the tanned porcelain trims of the pool. More than a decade after that incident, as I sit here inching my way into the big 3-0, I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on my potential demise, the brave woman that reached out and saved my life, the abundance of mistakes I continue to make, and five lessons I want to pass onto everyone kicking and screaming their ways into their 20s.
Mentors are Gems
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of good mentors. These are the people that can offer you a transformative experience in your career, your health, and your personal development. They come into your life via different paths. My first mentor was in fact, my high school biology lecturer which I’ve written about here. He eventually groomed and got me into a multi-year internship at a prestigious institute (even though I was wholly unqualified). In hindsight, this was a pivotal moment because it served as a building block for future opportunities that compounds on itself.
A mentor is a very fluid role that almost everyone plays and we don’t always have to perfectly fit into. I have a friend who I (and many other folks) believe to be a great father. He might be a great source if I am also wanting to be a great father. If you have a friend you find to be very fit, she can potentially serve as your fitness coach.
I like to think that when you are ready to learn and work, the right mentors will appear. The biggest mistake I’ve made in my 20s is to purely see mentors as a mercenary opportunity to grow my career. But the relationship is so much more complicated. Good mentors are very busy and they seldom respond. You have to demonstrate your commitment to learn and be mentored. This means hard emotional labor. It means starting early and leaving late. It means spending your free weekends researching, investing in studying the crafts, and constant/relentless follow up. In many cases, even after you’ve put in the hard emotional work, the mentor will simply not have time for you. But I guarantee that you’ll impress someone else through this arduous process, and that someone might just be who you need.
Learn to Apologize
This one is strictly for men (and maybe some women). Growing up, I almost never see my Dad apologize about anything. Even if he was blatantly wrong, he would murmur his wrong reasoning and carry on. I think many men in our lives have this tendency, as if an apology is an admission of our incompetence, our inadequacy and therefore rendering us undeserving of love. But this tendency is actually very harmful for our emotional growth.
I remember in a moment of heated banter making a very personally offensive comment about a friend that picks at her deepest insecurity. Almost instantly, I can see her eyes dodging away quietly and uncomfortably. Many of us will recognize this discomfort and even internally notice that we’ve done something wrong. However, we’ll never make a point to apologize because it’s so goddamn uncomfortable. The best solution? Set up a time and have a heartfelt one-on-one conversation. Say you’re sorry and ask for forgiveness. Yes – that sounds fucking uncomfortable but it’s very necessary if you don’t want to be emotionally stunted. It demonstrates that your ego is not bigger than your relationships.
Send Handwritten Cards
Technology and globalization have afforded us enormous wealth and but also made us increasingly lonely. In fact, loneliness has recently been considered a public health crisis. In our effort to grow the economy, we sacrifice our ties to our communities/family in pursue of our career and professional development. I’m not here to cast a judgement but rather to offer a simple but powerful way to add a human touch to our yearning for closeness.
I used to think it’s ludicrous spending $6 on a piece of folded cardboard until a friend sent me a postcard from her travels in Switzerland. It was literally sent from the peak of Interlaken and I was pleasantly surprised. She didn’t just sent a email with an emoji. But rather, she took the time to find a pen, a leveled surface, and wrote down all that she felt about me on this piece of memento. In her scripple, I feel the rotating table she was writing on. The blemishes that lays naked on the page. It was as if a piece of her was sent along with the joy, the pain, the angst, and everything that a simple text message cannot encapsulate. I still have that postcard and unlike a text file that’s been saved in the cloud, the card has aged much like our relationship.
We can’t always be near everyone and a postcard cannot replace the tactile and physical encounters we have with the people we care about. However, I have made it an annual tradition to sit down and pour my gratitude and love onto a blank canvas before snail mailing them out to all the wonderful humans that have crossed my life. That simple act in itself, gets me a little closer to them.
Embrace Dirty Work
5 years ago, I got to bask in all the joy of home ownership. In my 100+ year old Victorian home, my pipes exploded after my furnace stopped working in the dead of New England Winter. I watched in panic as my basement turned into a kiddie pool, surfacing years of aggregate dead rodents. As I called a plumber for help, I suddenly realized that none of my higher education could prepare me for this. No amount of matlabing or spreadsheet mastery would dry up my basement and get my heat back. Eventually a plumber came to my rescue. I don’t ever recall feeling so helpless. Somehow, we’ve been acculturated to believe that such “dirty work” is beneath us. That we should all strive to get highly educated and make as much money as possible so that we can afford to outsource every mundane tasks that’s part of life.
To be fair, I am a firm believer that our society can’t grow without specialization but there is an overwhelming sense of empowerment that comes with dirty work, with replacing your own plumbing fixture, with refurbishing your furniture. In many cases, the economic calculation couldn’t justify me spending the time, money and emotional labor in doing this. But the equation does not factor in the sense of ownership that comes from the literal blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put into feeding the washer back into the fixture or trimming the door down to size. It is as if a union is created between the user and the animate, giving you a deeper appreciation for all the tools and materials that serve us everyday.
Without getting too political, this country has somehow created a splinter in the workforce. On one side, blue collar employees suffered through the recession while their white collar (college educated) counterpart has largely bounced back (Hidden Brain Reference). Across the cultural landscape this has created a rift between the two groups (urban elites vs. rural tradesmen) and is manifested in our recent political swings. In fact, I think our overvaluation of college education and devaluation of trades is the reason why we have an overabundance of student debt, unhappy spreadsheet taskmasters, and bullshit jobs.
Here’s something really practical you can start with: Get a nice power drill and a screw set. Subscribe to a DIY handyman channel. Try to fix things yourself (after some research) first before getting help. You’ll learn to appreciate the complexity of trades work and the sense of Essentialism and self-sufficiency that comes with dirty work.
Your Parents Don’t Know It All
I had my first emergency room visit the year I turned 25. I had woken up to a gloomy Fall morning when I suddenly realized that my jaw was locked. Worst yet, every attempt to feed myself was followed by a deep pain akin to the dental revenge scene from Park Chan Woo’s Old Boy (see visual aid below).
I finally caved in and sent myself to urgent care where I was diagnosed with “Trismus” (which oddly sounds like Christmas) and an infection caused by the impacted wisdom teeth that I’ve neglected for many years. In the days that followed, as I prepared for a very painful and costly experience, friends and co-workers scolded me.
“Why didn’t you get it taken out in high school?”
Honestly, I don’t know why and for some time, I resented my parents for neglecting my dental care which led to that wonderful Trismus morning. Negative thoughts like these inevitably bleeds into one another. Why didn’t we ever go on vacations as a family? Why couldn’t they help you with your financial aids application? Why did they name me Sue? The abundance of blames we can lay on our parents for their shortcoming can spiral out of control and do some serious damage on your relationships.
You can’t choose your circumstances but you can control how you react. Several years after my dental ordeal, I asked my mother about my lackluster childhood dental care in which she responded.
“Well, it was between putting food on the table or getting your teeth pulled out… and I know you’re smart enough to figure that out one day.”
I spent a huge part of my 20s trying to figure out my identity in relation to my makers: the two people that somehow decided to commit to one another and combine their best (and worst) qualities to raise a family in a foreign country. And what I’ve learned is that parents are vulnerable too. They’re susceptible to all the human follies like jealousy, anger, and greed but they also love you because you’re an extension of their combined selves. So they might not know everything and that’s okay because you’ll figure it out.
Not long after that fateful Summer, I eventually learned to swim alongside my very supportive prepubescent classmates. It was either that or walking around with a life-jacket all summer long. I hope you’ve enjoyed these 5 lessons and would love to hear your top life lessons in your 20s!