Ten Things I’ve Learned Since Turning Twenty

21 Mar

I can’t hide from it any longer. Thirty is looming. I’ve got six-and-a-bit months to go until the big 3-0 and to be honest 29 is feeling like a weird limbo. I wonder if, when midnight tolls on October 4th, I’ll suddenly pull a Kevin the Teenager and undergo an instant transformation into an actual adult who wears Jaeger pantsuits and drinks coffee. Probably not.

Of course, many of my friends are also facing the same transition, and I’m starting to see a rash of bucket lists, special hashtags and daily Facebook affirmations crop up as people start to take stock of their rapidly disappearing youth. I’ve steered clear of that so far – a bucket list in particular would just be depressing because I know I would fail to achieve the majority of things on it before the big birthday.



A typical Saturday night for 20-year-old me, in the glam and sweaty surroundings of the Flora Anderson Hall

But I am starting to reflect on the things I *have* achieved, and the ways in which I’ve changed. When I was twenty, I was pretty darn happy.  I was in my second year of university and living with a group of friends spread out across two tiny flats in North Oxford, right next to the canal. We did typical dumb student stuff like watch TV for 24 hours straight and brew our own booze and live off a diet of pie (much to the disgust of my continental housemate). I took Classics Mods, the notoriously tough mid-course exams, and didn’t fail Ancient Greek composition which to be honest was a miracle from Athena herself. I was also quite unwell for most of the year and went through a really testing time that summer following an operation. It took me a really long time to recover and I’d say it was two years before I really felt back to normal. In some ways it still has an impact on me now.

Since then I’ve lived abroad, done two kinds of postgraduate study and worked in three different schools. I’ve travelled, learned languages, danced and written four books. I don’t think I’d have predicted any of those things at 20; I was looking into a law conversion or a media career and thinking I’d go back to live with my parents in London while I interned. Things didn’t really work out that way, not least because I graduated smack bang into the middle of the recession. Also, although I’d probably be significantly richer right now as a solicitor, I highly doubt I’d be any happier.

Anyway, life lessons. Since 20, I’ve learned:

1.I don’t always get it right first time. I was fairly lucky as a kid that I enjoyed my A-level subjects, got into my first choice uni and then liked it there. The road since then has been a little bumpier in that I haven’t really found my groove. But that’s fine. I’ve come to realise (and need to remind myself) that not many people have their lives totally sorted from the word go.

2. Writing is an actual thing I can doOkay, I’m not there just yet. I just mean that I have a much better understanding of the industry now, and I’ve seen many writing friends get agents and deals and even publish huge bestsellers. Contrary to what I thought when I was 20, it is actually possible to get published. I’m making small steps towards it.

3. I can make it on my own. When I was 21 I visited my friend Charlotte in Germany, where she was spending her year abroad. I felt in awe of her bravery in surviving in another country but doubtful that I could do that myself. This fear prompted me to sign up for the experience myself, leading to my year out in Greece. I somehow managed to make it through nine months in my tiny, freezing bungalow where I’d go to bed wearing all my clothes. ‘Character building’ doesn’t even cover it.

4. Failure is not the end of the world. I’m an overachieving grammar school girl. When I was growing up, getting an A- was a complete disaster. Since 20, I’ve mellowed a lot, especially because I was faced with a ridiculously difficult degree and just had to accept I would never excel unless I sacrificed my entire being (which I wasn’t prepared to do – see below). Getting rejected many, many times by literary agents and failing my driving test a few times has further thickened my skin.

5. Mental health is valuable. I’ve been in a few tough situations, especially at work, which really took a toll on my health, especially mentally and emotionally. I’m still working through this one, but honestly, is it worth destroying yourself for your job? We all know the answer to that one.

6. People are going to judge me. It’s their loss.  I thought working my behind off to get good grades and a degree would maybe open some doors for me, but I’ve encountered plenty of people wanting to slam them in my face to spite me; plenty of people with chips on their shoulders ready to make assumptions about me and my background or toast my failures with glee. Case in point: the Headmaster who started a job interview with ‘So, you’ve led a  rather gilded life…’. As painful as that was to hear, I do think I’ve had the last laugh on that one. I’ve worked bloody hard at every job I’ve had and he’s missed out on having me on his team.

7. If it scares me, I should probably do it. Not only did acting on my fear lead me to go to Greece, probably the formative experience of my life (besides uni), there are countless times I’ve wanted to curl up in a ball in bed rather than go out to a party full of strangers, or a networking opportunity, or a special event. I usually get something from taking a deep breath and plunging in. I’m slowly learning to embrace the fear.

8. Friends aren’t necessarily for life. Some might just be for Christmas. Others last a few years. It’s impossible to keep up with everyone and if people aren’t going to respond to you or seek you out then sometimes you have to accept that it’s over. Ultimately lots of relationships have a shelf life, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t valuable at the time. You’ll always treasure the time you had, however brief. But, on that note…

9. New friends are always waiting. I thought school and uni friends would be it, but over the years I’ve met many new people, some who’ve stuck around. It takes a bit of effort to build and sustain a relationship outside those convenient structures, sure, but it’s possible. They can even take you by surprise. My dancing group are like family now, even though it took me at least two years to really get to know some of them.

10. I must ask for help. Again, the whole toxic grammar school thing makes it hard to admit when things are going wrong, but I’ve been so grateful for those who’ve listened to and helped me over the last few years. I’m still working on this one, but I’m trying really hard to ask when I need more help. My wonderful teaching mentors and colleagues in particular have got me out of so many sticky situations. Recently I’ve been asking friends to help me make a big change and I’ve been quite bowled over by the response, whether that’s setting me up with coffee meetings or just listening to me rant.

That’s not including all the actual concrete stuff I’ve learned, like how to speak Greek, how to dance Ikariotikos, how to read hiragana, how to plan a lesson, all about the Pastoral genre, techniques for teaching Shakespeare, way too much about poetic techniques, a couple of tasty recipes and a whole load of other useless junk.

But there’s still a lot more to do…a hell of a lot more to learn…

So, in summary, adulthood is like a giant, neverending flatpack assembly. I think I’m partway to being some kind of bookcase but there are still lots of bits missing and some of the screws might have rolled under the bed. Nevertheless, I’m happy to have made lots of progress over the last ten years and look forward to learning even more!

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