It’s the time of year for graduations and new beginnings, and it flashes me back to that largely unaware 21-year-old sitting on a plastic chair on Cornell University’s football field in 1985.

The night before had been full of celebrations – a family picnic with my college roommates, at which we all decided we wanted someone else’s parents instead of our own; traipsing through Ithaca looking for a frat party for my dad and brother to check out; staying up late with my roommates, trying to suck in the very last moments of college. The morning had started with a bottle of champagne for each of us. Celebration was on my mind.

What wasn’t on my mind was what would happen next. I knew I was headed home to New York City. I knew I had to get a job. Some kind of job. I knew so very little else – though being 21, I probably thought I knew a hell of a lot more.

What I wished I knew then – my unaware, clueless self? Here are a few of the top things.

1. Spend some time looking at (and into) yourself– You’re newly graduated with a degree in psychology, and you have no idea how destructive your thought processes and behaviors are. You’re in a relationship with someone who already has a girlfriend, you’re still recovering from anorexia, you barely escaped a cocaine addiction, you left the cult you were raised in…and you are “fine.” As far as you are concerned, you are fine. It will be years before you’re knocked to your knees and you realize you need to heal some of the pain inside you. Perhaps you could have realized it a bit sooner if you’d been able to sit still and let yourself feel. Don’t run away from what you’re feeling. Trust yourself. Trust your gut. You deserve to be happy, and if you’re not, you deserve to dig into why. Look deep and figure it out, and get the help you need.

2. You have all the time in the world – You are in such a rush for whatever it is you’re aiming for, when the reality is it’s not a race, and there’s no finish line to cross. Life doesn’t have to be serious, and it certainly doesn’t have to be serious right after college. There is time to enjoy and be curious and play. Take it. You’re looking for a job, but you don’t have to find the perfect job right away. Take time to experiment and explore. Be curious. Have fun.

3. You deserve more – You don’t have to settle for anyone treating you poorly. You don’t have to be the “other woman” for anyone. Your thoughts – and automatic responses without thought – that seem to tell you that you’re worthless or unlovable are lies. Outright lies. Don’t believe them anymore, and act like you deserve more. You do. Ask for more. Get it.

4. Life is supposed to be fun, not painful – Yes, life can be hard. Leaving the Church was hard. Yes, there are many lessons to be learned and battles to be fought. You have a lot to learn about being vulnerable and connecting with other people. You have so much growth ahead as you pull away from some of the craziness of your childhood and your family. Life is also supposed to be fun and at least mostly pain-free. “No gain without pain,” is not true. There are times for pain – like when you’re powerlifting and building muscle (and you will do that in years to come) – but overall, go for the easier route and the less painful choice. Again, you deserve it.

5. People are the most important thing Spend time on your relationships. Make space for friends. Be with others. That’s what really matters. (Oh, and when your boyfriend-soon-to-be-fiancé tells you that your friends are too immature, and you should blow them off? You should blow him off instead.)

6. Figure out what you’re passionate about and do it – Life is too short to spend the majority of time on things that don’t matter to you. You’re passionate. Embrace that and find what you want to be passionate about and do it. You can make a difference in the world – figure out what you want to make a difference about and go make it. Spend more time creating art – even if it’s “just” photography. Allow your self-expression to bloom – be yourself and don’t have qualms about what other people think. Other people matter, but pleasing them doesn’t. Find the causes that matter to you and donate your time and energy. Don’t wait until later to let your passion and values drive your life.

7. You can always change your mind – I know 21 may seem old to you, but again, in many ways it’s just the beginning. The choices you make now don’t have to be your choices for the rest of your life. Or even the rest of the year. Try things out. See what works. Be willing to make mistakes. Learn from them.

8. The choices you make matter – As true as it is that the choices you make now don’t have to be the choices you make for the rest of your life, the choices you make today mean something. Don’t feel pressure (or maybe just try to lessen the pressure) to make the “best” or “rightest” decision. There probably isn’t a best or rightest decision. But trust me, you’ll learn over the years to choose more things that make you smile. Choose joy. Choose ease. Choose laughter. And don’t choose to stay with the fiancé who doesn’t like your friends.

9. Be willing to make mistakes – Okay, let’s be fully transparent here. Many years from now you’ll realize that you drive too hard and push too much. That you’re wired to try and be more than perfect, and that that wiring may wear you down and almost take you out. Let yourself mess up every now and then. Color outside of the lines. Break a few rules. Try new things. And then try more new things. Give yourself latitude to learn and grow, and learn and grow you will.

10. Love yourself – “Love yourself first, and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” This quote is from Lucille Ball. Listen to it. For whatever reason it hasn’t dawned on you that this is important, and you’ve certainly learned to treat yourself – and to allow others to treat you – in some nasty ways. Figure out what there is about you to love. Realize there’s a lot about you to love. And then love yourself. It’s really that simple.

Written by Lisa Kohn


  • Lisa Kohn

    Author. Leadership Consultant and Coach. Cult Survivor.

    Lisa Kohn is an accomplished leadership consultant, executive coach, author, and keynote speaker with a strong business background and a creative approach. Her latest book is her memoir of her journey through a childhood torn in two - to the moon and back: a childhood under the influence. It tells her story of being raised in and torn between two conflicting worlds: her mother’s world that she longed for and lived in on the weekends – the fanatical, puritanical cult of the Moonies – and her father’s world that she lived in during the week – the world of drugs, sex, and squalor in New York City’s East Village in the 1970s. You can download the first chapter of her memoir on her website – and see how Lisa learned some of the messages she shares. Lisa has over 20 years of experience partnering with Fortune 500 clients in areas of leadership, communication styles, managing change, interpersonal and team dynamics, and strategy, as well as life balance and fulfillment. She partners with leaders, teams, and organizations, helping them become more intentional and Thoughtful. Lisa has a bachelor's degree in Psychology from Cornell University and an MBA from Columbia University.