My 21st birthday was on July 4th. I sat around and sipped moonshine and talked with people I loved to be around.

Which caused me to arrive at an intriguing thought: Now that I’ve lived all this time and cultivated all these relationships, what have I learned from living?

So here, each with its own explanation, are 21 things I’ve learned in my life by listening to others, cultivating their wisdom and attempting to implement each lesson.

1. Be comfortable in your own skin.

When I was in middle school, I was a fat kid. I was 5’4” and weighed 140 pounds. Because of lacking self-confidence, I mostly kept to myself. Since we’ve all been through that awful stage of purgatory in our lives called middle school, we know that being the quiet, fat kid equates to being the one who gets picked on. And I did. A lot.

But enduring that taught me a lot about myself, and it taught me a lot about the different and never-endingly inventive ways people can criticize you. It steeled me up, and it taught me to embrace who I was in the end. By the time 10th grade rolled around I had shot up to 6’1” — and still weighed 140 pounds, which meant my weight was no longer distributed awkwardly. Instead, I was slim. And now, in college, I’m 6’2” and a lean 185 pounds. And guess what? People don’t pick on me anymore because my physical appearance is to their liking. And that bothers me, deeply.

Whatever shape or size you are, you’re a beautiful human being. Embrace your quirks, your oddities and your so-called flaws – all of these things make you who you are. Know yourself and what the world thinks they know about you won’t matter so much.

2. Tip Well.

My sister was a waitress through high school. Creepy old men hit on her. She bustled around with trays brimming with drinks and food. Customers insulted her. The manager would scold her if she was bumped into and dropped anything. And she only made $2.13 an hour. After an hour of arduous work, she couldn’t even buy a gallon of gas to get home that night.

So if you go out, tip your waitress/waiter and leave at least a 20 percent tip – they depend on the extra money and the kindness of strangers to make ends meet. If you’re a broke college student, wait until you have sufficient enough funds to tip properly. Your waitress will thank you.

If they seem to be having a rough day, leave a brief handwritten note on the receipt. Any positive sentiment will do.

3. Say thank you — a lot.

The world and the people around you owe you absolutely nothing. So that makes everything you receive a gift.

Did your roommates cook dinner that ended up tasting like the south end of a northbound mule? Say thank you. They made an effort to feed you. Thank them for that. Then you’re welcome to step up to the plate and cook next time.

Did your boss give you yet another grueling task to complete at work? Thank them. It doesn’t matter how miniscule the task is. Most people in this world are not out to get you. In the end, they do these things so you are provided the opportunity to learn from your mistake and get better.

If it turns out someone is actually out to get you, thank them anyways. It will throw them off and make you feel relieved. Or if they are physically, literally, out to get you and running at you, you can also run. Or not. Your call.

4. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

If you are going to use your time to perform a task — such as writing a paper or doing something for someone — don’t be sloppy and lazy about it. This isn’t to impress the person you’re doing it for. It’s because if you do it right, you don’t have to use even more of your time to go back and correct the mistake to the task you didn’t want to do anyway.

5. It’s almost never worth it to be angry with someone.

I learned this the incredibly hard way. My father was an alcoholic. He died when I was 18 from cirrhosis of the liver. About six months after his death, I found out pieces of information about him that I really could have done without. One of them, as it turns out, was that he had plenty of time to get a liver transplant. But when he found out he had cirrhosis, he refused to quit smoking and was therefore never put on the transplant list. If he would have quit, doctors said, he would have had his transplant by May of 2010 – he died in August of 2010.

[quote]But the more I held on to my anger the more I realized: anger is a hot coal.[/quote]

Of course this made 18 year old me very, very angry. Here I was, at 18, fatherless and without a “father-figure” to guide me through arguably the most transformative four years of my life. And he could have lived.

But the more I held on to my anger the more I realized: anger is a hot coal. Holding on to anger only hurts and burns you, and never does the same amount of damage to the person you are angry with. I was angry with a dead man, for crying out loud. No matter how justified your anger is it’s rarely worth it. Because even if you are angry with someone who is very much alive and you do manage to successfully take out your anger on the person that wronged you, you now have two people who are hurt and angry instead of one.

6. Don’t criticize others.

This is arguably the hardest lesson on the list to learn. The heart of this one is to give credit and take blame. If you are in a position where you manage other people, it can be incredibly easy to light into them when they make a mistake and rip them a new one. Don’t. Look for what they did well. Then lead with it. After you tell them what they did well, tell them you could tell they struggled with certain parts of the assignment and ask them what was unclear about the task. Then, provide them a solution to the problem and give them a second chance to do it correctly.

Worse than blatantly criticizing someone is half-heartedly trying to cushion the blow. Don’t give them a multitude of reasons why what they did wasn’t good and then end your criticism with a, “But nice try.” If someone does mess up, don’t dwell on their mistakes and they won’t either.

7. Hold the door.

Strangers, boyfriends, girlfriends and elderly people alike – hold the door for them. This was instilled in me ever since I was big enough to actually, physically hold a door open. I thank my father and grandfather for that.

This costs you maybe five extra seconds of your time, and the effects of this action ripple through your life for much longer. Once you get in the habit of it, it’ll become second nature and people will think you kind and thoughtful.

8. Study broadly, study passionately — absorb every piece of information you can.

Take classes outside your major and learn about things outside your comfort zone. I did yoga for two years straight in high school – it was one of the best things I ever did, and it was entirely out of my comfort zone. I was raised a southern Baptist, but it didn’t stop me from reading every religious book I could get my hands on from each and every faith to form my own opinion about religion.

There is more to life than what you already know about it. Life, to me, is about engaging as deeply as possible with the miracle of human consciousness. Act accordingly.

9. Do what you love.

This summer I’m working as a full-time reporter. I don’t dread waking up in the mornings. I don’t mind staying late to make one more phone call. I love relentlessly editing and rewriting stories. Meeting yet another person for a face-to-face interview gives me a brand new adrenaline rush. And all of this is because I’m not even out of college and I’m already doing what I love.

Through this I’ve learned maximizing income is a heck of a lot less important than maximizing passion and fulfillment in your life. I make hardly any money as a reporter, but I know when I’m writing a check later in life to pay off my student loans it will be immensely helpful to know the money I’m paying back bought me the education I needed to do what I love.

So don’t pick a safe major that will provide you with a large income in hopes that you can buy happiness — you can’t, you won’t and you shouldn’t try.

10. Let it go.

Remember what your high school girlfriend did that angered you so badly that one time? No? Nobody else does, either. Some of the things you think are of absolute importance in your life right now will no longer matter four years from now.

In four years I have graduated high school, cycled through a zillion different passions and hobbies, lost a father, gained an entirely new group of friends, worked four different jobs, landed two different internships at newspapers and generally tried to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life based on 21 years of random events and occurrences.

My life has not even remotely gone the way I suspected it would, yet I managed to hyper-analyze nearly every situation I was in because I thought they mattered. Spoiler alert: Most of them didn’t. Take a breath, forgive and let it go.

11. Grandparents are wise people.

When I was in high school I would steal away to the local Barnes & Noble on the weekends to read books, drink coffee and visit my grandparents who lived in the same city.

The conversations I shared with them resulted in my learning more than half of the things on this list. They both were born during the Great Depression. My grandfather was a tobacco farmer who became captain of the North Carolina Highway Patrol. My grandmother came from low-income project housing, married my grandfather and raised my mother and her brother.

My uncle died of leukemia when he was 25. Their house burned down. They constantly had to move because of my grandfather’s job. And they learned how to live life and live it well even when they were being dragged through hell on their backs.

So I absorbed their wisdom, cultivated it, learned their life stories and then applied it to my own life. The result? Deeply bonded relationships, general common sense and understanding about life and learning the value of work and appreciation.

They might not be able to text, FaceTime, operate social media or work a DVD/Blu-Ray player, but they have the one advantage that you don’t: They have lived their lives. Use them for their wisdom. They won’t have a problem sharing it with you.

12. You are what you do — not what you say.

You can talk a big game but if you don’t play a big game, you’ll just be known as a show-pony with more mouth than sense. Let your actions do the talking for you. Do what you say you’ll do. Dependable is a good thing to be, both at home and at work. Act as you speak, speak as you act. Actions and words should not be mutually exclusive.

13. Use your words.

Communication. There’s an entire major, and all of its subsets, dedicated to this one task. It’s because it is important to be able to communicate clearly with the rest of the world what you are thinking and what it is that you do.

In relationships, you have to talk. Sit down, be mature and talk things out. You’ll both walk away with a better understanding of each other and a clearer sense of where things are going.

In a career, you will have to communicate your progress, your process and even negotiate for a raise a time or two. It helps to know how to use your words.

14. Have a firm handshake.

Make eye contact. Smile. Extend your hand. Connect with the web of their hand. Grip and shake. No limp fish handshakes, and no death grips either.

A good handshake can open doors in your career and makes a good first impression. Where I’m from, a handshake is as good as a legally binding contract. Don’t underestimate the value of it.

15. Never interrupt another person when they are speaking.

Conversations are not a contest. Let them come freely. Do not try and one up the other person. Do not name-drop or attempt to finish a story as the person tells it. Listen intently to the other person and respond in kind to what they say. Interrupting them gives the impression that what you have to say is more important than anything they were saying, and that their ears are simply containers for your bombastic babble.

You will always learn more by listening than you will by talking – listening is how I’ve learned most of what I have. When having a conversation, approach the encounter with broad talking points and a genuine interest in what the other person is saying. Make mental notes of what they say. Bring up what they said in this conversation in a later conversation. Impress them. Repeat.

16. You only get one chance to notice a new haircut.

Be actively observant of the people you’re around every day. When you make a note of something like a new haircut and compliment someone on something they’ve changed about themselves, it makes them feel reassured of their decision and impress them that you took note of what they did.

When you’re in a relationship and you don’t notice your significant other’s haircut, you’re going to have a bad time. You, of all people, should be supportive of your partner. Notice the small things about them. They’ll appreciate it.

17. Read.

This is as good a time as any to remind you that you should, in fact, be reading. Preferably, this column and everything else on The Pendulum’s website.

We take our ability to read for granted every day. You read traffic signs, price tags and food ingredients. Yet most people refuse to use this knowledge to enrich their minds with reading novels, magazines, newspapers and the like, because they either “don’t have time” or are too busy being absorbed by our social media feeds and the latest episode of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

[quote]I don’t care how people read, I care that they do. - John Green, author[/quote]

I will make one point perfectly clear, and that is in that I am in complete agreement with author John Green when he said: “I don’t care how people read, I care that they do.”

18. It’s okay to be spontaneous.

I have, on more than one occasion, left work on a Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and driven straight to my hometown in the mountains of North Carolina to slip away from the world and reevaluate who I am, what I want to do and where I want to be.

Spontaneity keeps life fresh and filled with memorable moments. In a relationship, the spontaneous massage or purchase of flowers and a card leaves a lasting impression on who you’re with.

In the workplace, being spontaneous can lead to more efficient ways to complete tasks and better ways to do your job in a more enjoyable manner.

Do what you want, when you want to do it, within reason.

19. Do not underestimate the value of a good pair of jeans.

One pair of jeans I owned traveled 23,000 miles, built three houses, lived through the life of two cars, built dozens of bonfires, held an array of items in the pockets and survived an incredible amount of wear.

Five years later, when I went to snap a log with my foot, those jeans ripped the entire way up the right leg. I paid $40 for them and got five years of wear and tear and memories out of them. Invest in quality, and you’ll only have to do it a few times.

20. Moderation is key.

Moderation is key - in cologne, alcohol and in pretty much everything in life. When it comes to cigars in particular, I have a very effective policy on moderation — one at a time, gentlemen.

If you overdo anything it makes you unbearable to the people around you. In the case of cologne and perfume, using more than one or two light sprays makes you smell like you just strolled out of the red-light district. The people who want to smell your fragrance will, because they will want to get closer to you.

21. Appreciate what you have.

I, not so coincidentally, learned this from my grandparents. I learned how to use every penny in the best way possible. I learned to be appreciative of waking up in the morning. One simple life event with my grandfather taught me this.

I was young and he was having a bout with colon cancer. We walked into the hospital room and he looked haggard and tired.

He turned to us as we greeted him.

“Hey!” he piped up. The strength in his voice startled me. We asked him how he was doing.

“I’m doing great.” he said.

Wait, really? I thought. The man’s stomach had been cut open, operated on and packed shut with gauze. And he was great?

“I had lunch, the weather is nice, I’ve had my bath and now my family is visiting me,” he finished.

I asked him later, when I was older, how he managed to stay so strong. This is when he delivered the line I would never forget, and which taught me this lesson. He leaned in after my question, as if to emphasize what he was about to say.

“Son, I was raised on a farm. I’m not scared of hard work. I’ve worked hard every day of my life until my hands were worn to the bone. In that hospital, I was winning the fight. My family and those I loved surrounded me. I had a roof over my head, meals fed to me, people taking care of me — I woke up and the sun would shine in the window. Or, I could listen to the rain.”

He leaned in a little farther.

“You will learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are. It’s okay to get down, but you can’t stay down.”

You will learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are.