23 Things I Wish I'd Known at 23, by Hillary Kerr
At 23, I was just your typical Manhattan-dwelling girl, living the dream with a fifth-floor walk-up and two rowdy roommates. As a young editor at Elle, my life was rich in experiences and opportunities, poor in cash and stability, and filled with uncertainty—plus the hope that someday I’d have it all figured out. Or at least mostly figured out. Now, a decade-plus later, I still have zillions of things I’m trying to learn, but along the way I’ve also mastered a few. Some are serious and some are silly, but one thing’s certain: I wish I’d learned them all earlier!
It is unquestionably the best place to pluck your eyebrows, thanks to the intense lighting. You will find things you didn’t know existed—#truth.
You live with your family as a kid, with roommates as a young adult, and with a partner for many years of your adult life (assuming you want this, of course). And that is why living alone is such an important experience. It won’t last forever, but every person should know what it’s like to have a room (or rooms) of her own. My first solo apartment was quirky and small, but being able to walk in and have my stuff exactly where I left it? Truly priceless.
Even though my first job was at Elle, I somehow never really subscribed to fashion until my late 20s. As a kid, my parents always talked about how it was important to work hard, be kind, and value intelligence, which is great, but somehow my mind got twisted into thinking that caring about your external appearance was silly. But just like it’s important to be articulate (thanks, Mom and Dad!), what you wear communicates something about you before you even open your mouth, so why wouldn’t you work on mastering your wardrobe and your words?
See also: If you can watch a video online, you can cook. Seriously. It’s that easy. Cooking always seemed like such a hassle to me when I was younger, but it’s less expensive than eating out all the time, better for you (since you are controlling what goes into your meals), and, let’s be honest, intoxicating as hell. Even if you can only make one totally perfect sandwich, that’s something. That’s a start.
My best friend told me this “fact,” and it cracked me up. Whether it’s texting, calling, or sending an email, her point was to take a beat when you’re vulnerable, angry, or, most importantly, a combo of those two things. (Also relevant if you’ve had more than one drink.) Because no one wakes up after being in a foul mood or having a drunken, surly night and thinks, Man, I wish I had told off so-and-so last night.
One of the things I detest most about working out is being sore afterward. I’m not talking about feels-so-good sore. I’m talking about walking-like-I-just-got-off-a-horse sore, can’t-put-my-heels-down-on-the-ground sore, don’t-ever-want-to-work-out-again sore. And then I met my fitness guru/exercise crush, Lauren Kleban, who told me to do two things after working out: stretch (duh) and soak in a bath with two cups of Epsom salts for 20 minutes. I’ve been lazy about the first part, but I’m obsessed with the bath part. It really works. Really really really really works. Really.
In my early 20s, my personal mantra was #NoNewFriends. I was lucky enough to meet most of my BFFs as a kid, and I figured I had enough. Also, how could any new friend compete with the decades of memories I had with my oldest ones? Thankfully, I was wildly wrong about this. In fact, while my childhood best friend is still my number one—love you, Kelly!—some of my best, most rewarding friendships are ones I’ve made as an adult. Because making friends in your 30s is hard—you have more distractions and less free time than ever—so when you do meet someone you really click with, it’s special.
Dinner parties are my thing these days, and over the last year or so, I’ve gotten to the point where I can throw one for eight people on a weeknight (or twice as many on the weekend) without a major freak-out. The hardest part about entertaining is timing everything correctly, and I’ve finally figured out the secret: creating a detailed timeline of what I should be doing at any given moment. It sounds crazy and Virgo-centric, but with an ultra-detailed schedule, I’m never worried that I’m forgetting something. And then I can have some wine—hooray!
I have a whole stack of amazing birthday cards, get-well cards, congrats-on-your-engagement, hooray-for-the-new-baby, great-job-on-that-thing-you-did cards—you name it. It’s made my life infinitely easier, because let’s face it: When you’re rushing around, the last thing you want to do is make an extra stop at the card store.
To be young is to experiment, sure, but just because something is having a “fashion moment” doesn’t meant you need to embrace it, especially if you know it doesn’t work for your body. For example, back in the day, I really wanted super-low-rise jeans to look good on me, but they never have and never will. I wore them anyway, but I was always so uncomfortable in them. Finally one day I just realized I’m an hourglass, that’s okay, and it’s time to start dressing for my body and stop trying to shoehorn it into every trend that hits the runway.
Taking responsibility for what you let other people get away with is one of the most important life lessons you will learn. Because people will try to get away with as much as they can and are rarely aware of how their requests affect you. If your friend needs another ride to the airport tonight but you really need to finish that work project, encourage her to grab an Uber. Your sanity will thank you later.
First of all, dry shampoo wasn’t a “thing” in my early 20s, but now I don’t know how I lived without it. If your hair is coarse, dry shampoo will extend the life of your blowout. If your hair is fine, dry shampoo will give it some much-needed texture and body. It is a savior for those days when you need to refresh your hair on the fly but don’t have time to wash it. In other words, it’s ideal for everyone and a must-have, in my opinion.
This saying came from a VIE (very important ex), and it’s true on so many levels. He meant it literally—don’t drive behind a truck with a ladder in it, because it’s often not fully secured, and if the ladder falls out, it will cause lots of damage to everyone around it—and I’ve seen it happen enough times to know he spoke the truth. But it’s also true on a metaphorical level: People who are trouble tend to show or tell you that very early on, and it’s up to you to get out of their lane or turn down a different street. Thanks, Mr. Ex.
I am not a natural exerciser, unless you count reading on the couch an exercise, in which case I should be an Olympic medalist. But a few years ago, after a particularly horrific breakup, I dragged myself to a dance-sculpt class one of my friends organized, desperately seeking endorphins, and finally found my workout thing: dancing with friends. It turns out I needed more than just the right exercise; I needed to do something I enjoy with people I enjoy. Who knew?
I’m a super-loyal human, so the thought of walking away from a friendship always struck me as one of the worst things you could do. But sometimes a friendship takes a turn for the worse and simply can’t be fixed, and that’s okay. My first friend “breakup” was prolonged (it became problematic in my early 20s and dragged on until I ended it eight years later) and painful (we’d been pals since we were kids), but one day I just realized that we both deserved better, and stopped trying to force it to work. Deciding I was done was hard—I felt like I’d failed—but it was also a relief to close the door on an unhealthy situation.
When I was in my early 20s, I shopped for clothes only in four-alarm-fire emergency situations, like I have to go to a wedding in 12 hours and just realized I need a dress! The result was a closet packed with things that were fine, but not great. Okay, so maybe this still happens to me sometimes (cough, before vacation), but I would say I’ve reduced the frequency by approximately 85%. By planning ahead and being more strategic about how I shop, I have fewer things, but they’re better.
*Full disclosure: I’m obsessed with Marie Kondo’s organizing book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and may or may not have just donated 30 giant bags of clothes to Goodwill.
Standing up for yourself and believing in your own worth are some of the hardest things to master—and they’re still among my biggest challenges, honestly. It’s weird; if one of my friends is treated poorly, I’m instantly furious, but I will often put up with the same behavior without a second thought. It made me think: Why is it easy to stand up for a friend but not myself? Now I try to evaluate my own relationships from a caring outsider’s perspective, and it makes me behave differently. Specifically, it’s made me want more for myself, the same way I want the best for my friends, and that’s a good thing.
In my mid-20s, I spent a lot of time wondering if I was making the right choices at work and in relationships, and often ignored what my gut was telling me. I just assumed that my “logical” brain was right and that my “emotional” instincts couldn’t be trusted. The older I got, the more I realized that my brain can justify just about anything, but when something really resonates with my heart and mind—or makes my internal alarm bells go off—that’s when I should be paying attention.
Shopping just to shop is fun, don’t get me wrong, but if you want the most bang for your buck, you need to be strategic about it. I keep a running list of the things that could be truly additive to my wardrobe—gray pointy-toe heels are at the top of my list right now—so then when I see a pair or have an urge to browse, I stay focused.
When I was younger and would get into arguments with someone, I was always indignant. How dare they accuse me of such a thing! So rude! I didn’t even do anything! But along the way, I’ve learned that sure, sometimes people are just jerks, but sometimes they’re being jerks because you’re accidentally pushing their buttons. The point is to take a moment, think about why someone is reacting to you in an extreme or aggressive way, and take responsibility for your role in it. Yes, there will be times when you truly didn’t do anything, but those moments are rare.
My lovely co-founder, Katherine Power, taught me this one, and it truly changed my life. I grew up thinking that you wore black accessories or brown accessories, period. Back in the day, there was no mixing and matching in my world, nor would I have considered buying a bag or shoe in a color other than one of those two staples. But when KP told me that tip about gray, suddenly my world went from black and white to Technicolor. I didn’t have to match! Even better, gray is the perfect color for investment accessories, because you can truly wear it with just about anything. Needless to say, it broke my “fear” of wearing something that “didn’t go together,” and I haven’t looked back since.
Well, it is for me, anyway. What I really mean is taking care of yourself in small ways really adds up. Maybe that’s buying yourself flowers at the market every week, or perhaps it’s treating yourself to clean sheets twice a week. The point is there are lots of little gifts you can give yourself on a regular basis—and you should! You’re worth it.
When your friends are having life experiences that you’re not—whether it’s hitting career goals, getting married, or buying their first place—it can be hard to step outside the situation and just be happy for them. But one thing is for certain: Measuring your life against someone else’s is a recipe for disaster. And let’s be real: You never really know what someone else’s life is like. There are plenty of people in unhappy marriages and loads of people who are successful at work but don’t love what they do. Simply put, the grass is always greener and appearances can be deceiving, so just focus on living your best life instead of focusing on what everyone else is doing.