I was trying way too hard.
She was slow to text back. She occasionally laughed at my jokes. But I had to work so, so hard for not much in return. She was totally breadcrumbing me to keep my attention.
In the back of my mind, I knew something was off; she just wasn’t that into “it.” A little voice inside of me nudged me to stop wasting time. Yet, as with so many things, we often want what we can’t have, and I was no exception.
She wasn’t over her ex. She’d given hints to that effect before, and it explained why things always seemed stuck in second gear. She shouldn’t have been on the dating app stringing dudes like me along.
Yet there I was. Sinking more time, money, and energy into this woman. I should have moved on.
She went back to her ex.
And I ended up cursing myself for all the lost effort. Unrequited love is one of the harder pills to swallow. And there are many more pills like it if you aren’t careful. It is dangerously easy to get caught up in a routine, or impulse, that takes us down a path to regret.
Things I’ve learned (that every twenty-something should know)
What if you could reduce regret later in life?
If you avoid making these mistakes, you’ll be wiser and improve your quality of life (while you watch others step into the metaphorical potholes you knew to avoid).
Here are five things to learn while you’re still young:
1. You get two pairs of teeth
If you’ve ever been to southwest Appalachia, you might have stumbled across some of the more depressed areas.
I stopped there at a gas station and the attendant behind the counter had a horrible speech impediment, made far worse by the fact that he had not a single tooth in his mouth and was only 30-ish years old.
There’s a thing in the region called “mountain dew teeth,” and it’s why dentists hate mountain dew. A lack of education and resources in Appalachia results in some people not brushing their teeth or seeing a dentist.
It’s not uncommon to see 20-somethings missing most of their teeth. Liquid sugar coats your teeth in bait for germs that cause cavities. Soda is cheap and commonly guzzled.
We need to make our teeth last a lifetime, and you will be shocked by how expensive it is to repair the damage. Root canals can easily run north of $2,000 each.
There are few things less attractive than a blackened, toothless smile. Our teeth are a signal of overall health.
2. Protect your ears
Last year, I awoke with a loud ringing in my left ear.
It went on at all hours of the night. I’ve never experienced something so annoying and distracting. I couldn’t fall asleep all night and was about to lose my mind. I was cranky and fighting with my girlfriend, all because my sleep had vacated the building.
I came to realize I had a case of tinnitus. It’s a common ringing that assails millions of Americans.
At my girlfriend’s insistence, I went and saw an audiologist.
Surprisingly, I was able to hear all the weird sounds and didn’t appear to have hearing damage (the leading cause of tinnitus , pronounced tin-it-tus).
The audiologist reassured me everything would be just fine, that my ears were just “going through something.” As I rode home in the car, it was hard not to beat myself up for the known causes she’d listed: listening to loud music, attending concerts, or playing loud instruments without ear protection.
I’d been a frequent offender.
Fast forward, my ear is 80% recovered — by the grace of God. I am so grateful and wouldn’t wish this condition on my bitter enemies.
If you’re reading this and you’re a young person — trust me — protect your ears. Losing your hearing isn’t the only threat of loud music. Millions and millions of us end up with a ringing that won’t go away.
It can get so bad that some people wish they’d lost all sense of sound entirely.
3. Soft skills will make or break you
Many new hires have deep misconceptions about advancement in the workplace.
I’m out of traditional office life these days, but I often hear about it through my girlfriend. New hires, freshly spat out of college, woefully misunderstand how promotions and raises work. It’s like they think that one decent (but not great) year means they’ll get a $20,000 raise.
There are many well beyond this early point who are frustrated; they see people they perceive as less competent getting promoted.
Here’s the thing: Several factors beyond your core competencies influence whether or not you get promoted.
For example, high-performing jerks are often frustrated that they aren’t landing raises and new job titles.
Getting along with your coworkers is a major part of any job.
Be a good listener. Be empathetic. Recognize that everyone gets stressed and needs to get projects done.
Don’t do drive-by, desperate help desk requests to people who are busy.
4. Polite doesn’t equal kind
A person can smile as they put your heart in a doggy bag for you to carry home.
Don’t confuse someone asking a question in a friendly way with sincerity. While I’m inclined to see the best in people, learning to spot manipulation will save you a lot of trouble.
Sprinkled out there amongst you good citizens are those who know how to use kindness as a weapon. They know that if they smile and are bubbly, the other person will eagerly do anything they want — no matter how severe the inconvenience.
I always do a “reasonable test” as a judge-friend taught me : “Is what they’re asking reasonable for one to expect in this situation?”
Remember: Even a serial killer can be charming.
5. Tread carefully with taking on debt (students especially)
The sad part about student loan debts is that anyone can get them. There’s been a number of for-profit colleges penalized in recent years — as they prey on this vulnerability.
I have several peers that are nearing 40 like me. They are still struggling in a big way because they jumped into an expensive university without proper consultation. They didn’t get a degree that was specific enough to justify the debt they are now in.
I was fortunate to have parents who paid for my college — which I fully appreciate now after seeing the hardship so many young people are buried in.
I’ve purged all other debt from my life, and it’s been the most incredible feeling.
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with student debt before doing some basic analysis.
Lean forward at the table of life
Develop a keen awareness of your surroundings, relationships, and biology. Both our bodies and wallets will punish us if we don’t look after them.
This world is full of temptation, and there are people who will yank us around and prey upon our good nature—if we let them. Tapping into our soft skills helps us to avoid learning these things the hard way.
There’s nothing scarier than looking back and despairing about what could have been. Remember, some mistakes are harder to undo than others.
We can never know how many years we have left on this planet; it is best to spend those years free of self-inflicted wounds.