For My Cousin, On Her 18th Birthday

Because you are awesome.
Happy 18th Birthday

Dear Nikki,

As you turn 18, you make me feel both old and grateful I am not your age. I’m turning 30 this year, and having watched you grow up, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would say to my 18-year-old self. I’ve been thinking a lot about you and the changes that are approaching you in your life. I know we’re not the closest, and I am probably your “weird cousin” — I’m many people’s “weird ___” in our family — but here’s my unsolicited birthday advice for you as you head off on your next journey.

Go to college.

Seriously, just do it.

Do what you love.

When in college, don’t pick a major because that’s what will get you a job. Or that’s what your parents want you to do. Or that’s what your teachers think you’re good at. Or that’s what the cute boy’s majoring in. Instead, do what you love. Find something where your homework’s not work, that you can lose yourself in for hours, that you want to learn about outside the classroom, that you can “geek out” about anytime you’re prompted. Only you can find that.

You won’t know what you’re going to major in or what you’re going to do when you grow up.

And you’re not alone. When I was a college n00b, I thought I was the only one without a major, and then as a senior, I tutored a bunch of freshies. Not a single one really knew what they were going to major in. That’s okay. It’s also okay to not have a 5-year plan or know what you want to do when you grow up. It took me at least 2-3 years into my career before I found what I loved. Heck, my current career, as a community manager, didn’t even exist my first year of college, and the greater industry that I’m part of, just got started then.

Prepare to fight to do what you love.

Most all of my friends did what they loved in college, but not all of them ended up doing what they loved when they hit the workforce. That’s okay. But if you want to do what you love, get prepared to fight tooth-and-nail and fail once you leave college. If your passion is competitive, undervalued, or underpaid by society, it’s going to be hard to get by. My own degree in creative writing with a minor in studio art is all three of those things. If your passion is in high demand and well-paid, you’re probably in a male-dominated field, and you’ll have to fight to never let anyone take away your passion or tell you that you can’t do it. You’re going to have to do amazing things to get noticed. I recommend the combination of being yourself, helping others, and doing fucking awesome things.

Take a leap.

When I graduated with the aforementioned creative writing degree, I had $500 in my bank account and no job. I knew I would, thankfully, never be homeless as our family wouldn’t let that happen. That said, I had one shot to make it in Seattle before having to head back to the homestead. I spent three months post-graduation searching for a job, living on a bit of money collected through odd jobs and the grace and goodwill of my roomie and her parents (who cosigned our apartment lease). After knocking on many doors, I went out and spent my last $100 on makeup for interviews — I didn’t even own foundation — and the next week, I got two jobs offers. This probably says our world’s a little sexist that no one would hire me sans makeup. Or it says that you’ll sell yourself the best when you really need to. Which meant my first boss thought I’d learn to Photoshop in art class, not drawing fanart.

Harness your anger.

I’m probably the first one to ever say this to you: it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be pissed off. It’s okay to want to punch people in their stupid faces. I want to do that stuff all the time. But I don’t actually do it. So Grandma — who I’m totally telling on right here — always says that she just doesn’t understand how angry you can be and how it reminds her of me when I was your age. (Spoiler alert: I’m still a pretty angry person; I just use it differently.) We love Grandma a lot, but she doesn’t get it because it’s not in her personality to be this way. And it doesn’t help that as women (and you probably get the added intersectionality of race) that we’re told not to be angry. Girls are made of sugar, spice, and everything nice, right?

Be angry. There’s a ton of fucked up shit going on in this world that’s worth being angry about. (And it’s probably not the person who doesn’t under why you don’t stand on the swivel space in the bus and then basically has you support their weight all the way from Seattle to Everett. (That was a note to myself from today, by the way.)) Don’t tame your anger or simmer it down. Instead, push it in a useful direction. Take up activism, take up a creative hobby to push it out of, take up exercise, take up making the change you want to see in the world. Put it all in your passion to fuel the fire.

Be the change.

You want to change something in the world? Do something about the stuff you’re so angry about? Then do it. Whether you want to work through your personal problems — we all have them! — or you want to take on a small or huge problem in the world, do it. When I first started volunteering for this thing called GeekGirlCon, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know that it would grow into a popular convention and change the dialog around women geeks. I didn’t know how it would change geekdom. But I knew it was a change I wanted to see. GeekGirlCon’s mission probably isn’t going to be complete in my lifetime (sexism sucks), but I’ve already seen what incredible things can happen when you try to change the world. Especially if you work with others.

Love yourself and be yourself.

If you can’t look into the mirror, there’s something deeper wrong. If you’re one way with your family, another with your friends, and yet another with professors or bosses, then you’re broken. First and foremost, love yourself. Think you’re too much one way and not enough the other way? Motivate yourself to make the change. But be realistic and give yourself a break sometimes as you’re only human. Learning to love yourself is one of the greatest things you can do. You’re never going to be happy without self-love.

Be empathic.

Try to always understand where someone’s coming from and be open to changing your point-of-view because of it. This doesn’t mean you have to like everyone or trust everyone. It just means that you need to have the capacity to think outside yourself. Which I know is super hard when you’re younger and all crazy-brained due to the actual chemistry of growing up. Say like how the girl on the bus was young and it might’ve been her first time on the bus. She might’ve been so focused on getting on the right bus, off at the right stop, and not falling over that she had no more capacity to focus on how her leg rubbed against my leg in a way too intimate manner for a stranger. Even though I wanted to yell at her, it was the right decision not to. Being empathic will save you from being a dick. Even if you still decide not to like that person.

Try everything you can.

Everything that you can reasonably, safely do. Try new foods. Travel new places. Travel, travel, travel, if you can. Meet new people. Try things you’ve never done. Do things that you scare you a bit. Go to South Africa and dive with great white sharks in Gansbaai; it’s amazing, even if you lie in the bed the night before seeing Jaws in your head.

Also date, date, date. Okay, you probably guessed that I might put dating advice in here somewhere. I’ve date a LOT of people, and I’ve had a lot of different types of relationships. The one thing I think our culture really fails at is being okay with causal dating. If you go out on one date with someone, you aren’t in a relationship with them unless you both agree verbally that you are. There’s no unsaid serious dating rules. Nor do you ever “owe” a date sex, or even kissing, just because you went out on a date; that’s called assault.

I learned so much about myself and what I like by trying out dating different people. I’ve dated people seriously, people casually, people the same age as me, people younger than me, people older than me, skinny people, fat people, tall people, short people, people who worked white collar jobs, people who worked blue collar jobs, people who made me laugh, people who loved argue, people who loved cats, people who were great kissers, people who were boring in bed, people who were poor, people with more money than they knew what to do with, people who are liberals, people who are conservatives, people who like driving around for hours just to look at Christmas lights, people who want you to call them Captain Kirk in bed, people who ended up in jail, people who have chemistry-related equations named after them, people who wanted to stay up all night listening to Pink Floyd, people who have more books than I do, people who’ve later become my friends for life, people who I never want to see again. Don’t settle down too fast and don’t fail to recognize when it’s lust bunnies, not actual romantic love. Just go out, have fun, and use protection.

Call Grandma and Grandpa.

No, seriously, they’ll probably think you’re dead if you don’t. And they love you.

You probably noticed that I didn’t write any bullshit about “being happy.” You can’t be happy if you don’t love yourself and do what you love. “Finding happiness” is bullshit. You can’t seek it out. No one will make you happy except yourself. You have to do the other stuff — the hard work — in order to find what will ultimately make you happy. When people are unhappy, it’s because of something, and happiness is the same way. You don’t just magically find the happiness emotion one day and stick with it. You do the other stuff and happiness happens as a result.

Anyway, I hope that you have a wonderful 18th birthday. Life’s going to change more than you even realize, and with some awesomeness by you, it’ll be a thrilling adventure. I hope that my unsolicited advice is at least worth my blogging time.

Love you.

Your weird cousin Erica

2 Replies to “For My Cousin, On Her 18th Birthday”

  1. That’s pretty wonderful! I am 54 and I know people who haven’t figured this stuff out yet.

    1. Thanks. Life is always a work-in-progress, and sometimes just because we *know* something, doesn’t mean we always do it.

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