11 Important Things I Wish I Knew at 21

As we grow up and take more and more responsibilities on in our lives, sometimes we can’t help but look back and say to ourselves, “Gee, I wish I had known or learned about that when I was younger!”

There are many things I wish I knew when I was younger. Here's just eleven of those lessons and why they're so important.

There are times I reflect on my life and wish I had known a few more things about life and even personal finance back in my youth. It certainly would have smoothed out some of those bumpy roads I experienced in life when I was first getting started out.

Most of us can say that we learned most of those lessons the hard way. But it’s a fact that if you learn as much as you can early on, say by age 21, you can lay a pretty solid groundwork and actually become an adult when you hit that ripe old age. Here’s my list of the things I wish I had learned by age 21 and paid just a little more attention to when I was growing up!

Things I Wish I Knew at 21

1. It’s OK to ask for help – occasionally

We weren’t created to be able to do or handle every problem we face alone. There is no shame in asking a friend or a loved one for advice or help, seeing a counselor, or admitting that you can’t handle some big thing in life by yourself. Don’t let your ego get in your way and think pride always rules the day. People with experience ask for help.

2. Admit it: your parents actually may know more than you do

When I grew up, I thought of my parents as old-fashioned and not quite up to speed—on everything! While it may have been true when it came to music and technology, it wasn’t the same thing when it came to money and relationships. They knew all about that stuff because they had lived “life” and I hadn’t quite yet. Listening to your elders is important and when they are not there anymore to listen to, you will really miss it.

3. Understand how important your credit rating is

Building good credit—and the benefits of getting rewards from it—is something that may take years to learn and understand, but the sooner you do it, the better off you will be. Maybe if I had started out with an American Express card (the kind you must pay in full each month) instead of revolving credit or generic cards, I would have been able to manage my spending better. Avoiding credit problems makes everything in life easier and costs a hell of lot less of your money in interest, too.

4. Stop caring so much about what other people think

The decisions you make about your own life are not done solely for the approval of others. Sometimes you have to step outside the box to achieve something new and great. As long as you consider the pluses and minuses when you do, it’s OK to take a chance even when others may not understand why you did.

5. Not everyone tells the truth, even in business

As a young person, you grow up with all the kids around you making up stuff, distorting the truth, exaggerating things, and even just plain lying to you to get something they want. Unfortunately, that is not just a “kid thing” as it continues on in life and follows you around wherever you go.

Make sure you understand what any deal is, get everything in writing, and ask a lot of questions before you sign any legal documents or fork over money for something, because you will be at high risk if you don’t.

6. Learn a second language

I grew in a very white suburban neighborhood back in the 1950’s and that isn’t the world that we live in today. Yes, I took three years of Spanish and two years of French in high school and college, but I learned as little as possible and retained practically nothing of it, which I deeply regret. In today’s world, you are bound to be working and living around many cultures and languages and knowing and speaking at least one or two bedsides English is a major asset both socially and at work.

7. Learn the importance of having an emergency fund

Having a savings account you keep just for emergencies is something that all self-sufficient adults should do. Take any part, even a small amount, and place some of your pay into a separate account for emergencies every week because emergencies will happen. You don’t live in a dream and real life has troubles.

8. Your health is really, really important

When you are 21, you really do think you are immortal. If you grew up relatively healthy, you may not even ever think about what “might happen” and take your body for granted. You have to take care of your body.

There is a price you will pay for too much drinking and/or eating unhealthy foods and/or not getting any exercise. Be in tune with your body and go to the doctor regularly even when there isn’t something obviously wrong, because sometimes bad things happen to even the “immortals”, so be smart about your health.

9. Keep updated on current events

I was a history major at school and I made it a point to know all about that subject. But you should also make it a habit to keep up with current events and current world news. Not that I was totally uninformed or ignorant, but I definitely was not as knowledgeable as I’d like to be. What I learned the hard way is that knowing what is going on in the world makes you make better decisions in everyday life.

10. Take a deep breath and let it out – relax more often

I have to admit, back when I was younger, I’d jump right into an argument whenever I thought I was right and you were wrong! I believed I was always absolutely right. Those arguments have a way of eating away at you regardless of whether you are actually right or wrong in the end. Better to let go of those things and live your life, instead of thinking about them. That becomes a burden and you need to let them go so they don’t become part of the core of who you are.

11. Luck has very little to do with success

I used to think and say to myself that someone was really lucky when something good would happen to them. As a kid, it’s the easy answer. Rather than admit that perhaps hard work had something to do with success, it was just easy to say that they were lucky and I wasn’t. It took me years to understand that I can do a lot of things with education, determination, and persistence. While luck may help, it isn’t the main factor when it comes to success. Maybe I should have chucked my magic eight ball earlier in life.

Final Thoughts

I guess that this list could actually be entitled: “11,000 Important Things I Wish I Knew at 21”, but that would have to be done in a movie with episodes like Star Wars because of its length. The point is that there is so much we need to know and prepare ourselves about when we get to be “the adult in the room” and there are so many of us who are just not prepared for it when the time comes. I don’t know if it’s better today or worse than when I grew up. But it seems to me, almost every day I ask myself the question: What is wrong with those guys? Didn’t they learn anything when they were kids about that stuff?

What are the lessons that you wish you had learned when you were growing up that you missed or ignored? Have you made an effort to learn them now and are you teaching anyone else about those lessons? If not, why not start right now, because it’s never too late to learn.