When I was 15, I thought I knew everything. My world operated in a bubble and I could not see what was outside of it. Now, that I’m a bit older, I can see some of the gaps in my understanding of life back then. Here the advice I would have given my 15 year-old self.
1. Life does not go according to plan.
This is a cliché for a reason. When you’re 15, you have grand dreams of the future. Maybe you think you’ll retire at 35 or maybe you want to find the cure for cancer. Or, you might dream of becoming a doctor, celebrity, fashion designer, etc. Inevitably, whatever you think will happen won’t. You might still get your dream job or you might still find the cure for cancer. It definitely won’t happen according to your carefully laid plans. There is an old expression that rings true: “Life is what happens when people are busy making other plans.” Don’t forget it.
2. Accept that you’re different and don’t conform to peer pressure.
When I was 15, I cared so much about what people thought. However, I somehow managed not to succumb to the pressure to drink or do idiotic things. Instead, I was obsessed with how people perceived me. I would cry at criticism and take people’s unkind words as fact. What I learned over the last 17 years is that I’m different and I’m never going to be like everyone else.
I remember an incident around senior prom. I decided to skip getting a date and to go with a group of girls. Even in the 90’s, there was a good amount of pressure to go with a date. But, because my junior prom had been a disaster, I was not about to repeat that experience.
My best friend was talking to an acquaintance who was very nervous about not having a prom date and my friend told her that I was going without a date. The girl said, “That’s okay for her.” I could’ve taken this badly, but I thought about it later and realized that because I hadn’t conformed for four years to everyone’s expectations, I had a freedom that this girl did not allow herself. I could choose to make myself happy.
Over the years, I’ve realized that this is a good example for my life. I’m not quite normal and I never will be. Accepting this frees me to be the best me that I can be.
3. The major you choose in college does not always reflect what you’ll be doing in life.
The majority of people do not hold jobs in the field they majored in when they went to college. My English degree got me a job working at an internet florist and a chamber of commerce, among other things. Off the top of my head, I can think of my closest friends and what they did with their majors: one best friend majored in Political Science and now works in development at a major children’s network; two other best friends majored in Psychology, but neither is working as a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist. One oversees a fellowship program for screenwriters and the other is a bank executive.
My advice to my teenage self would be to put less pressure on getting the “right major” and just learn what I can from the college experience.
4. It is more important that you love yourself than trying to get the approval of everyone else.
Yes, this is along the lines of number 2, but it bears repeating.
At 15, my self-esteem was low. As I mentioned above, I paid too much attention to other people’s opinions of me. While I had enough self-respect not to get involved in dangerous activities, I was very concerned with being liked and fitting in.
I did not understand that I needed to love myself first and then other people’s opinions would cease to matter. There was someone who needed my attention most-and it was not the cute boy in English class. I was me.
The catty girls in high school would only haunt me for four years. I have to live with me for the rest of my life. The most important relationship you have is the one with yourself. It is a lesson that I am still learning at 32. When you love yourself and go about your life with confidence, other people gravitate toward you because confidence is dynamic and attractive. Remember that.
5. Start investing and saving early.
This is a big one! I wish someone had taken me aside when I was 15 and showed me how to properly invest for the future. I wish I had understood my checking account, how to use credit appropriately and how much money to put into a savings account each month. I wish someone had started a savings account for me early and locked it into a CD so I knew that the money should go into savings and stay there.
Don’t spend all of your money on clothes, iTunes, concerts, etc. Pay yourself a portion of your salary first and then spend your money. If I had known this when I was a teenager, I would be in a much better situation and I would have weathered the financial storms that have appeared in my life.
Because one thing they don’t tell you is that as soon as you get into college, people will be coming up to you left and right or sending you letters in the mail convincing you that you need credit, that credit is easy, and that you can buy what you want now and pay for it later. What they don’t tell you is this: you’ll be paying for that iPod for years because the interest rate is so high.
The best thing I could’ve done for myself was to save early and to learn to say, “No.”
6. Take advantage of internships in high school and college.
As far as career and finances go, this one is also high up there. No one had ever told me about internships when I was 15. My family didn’t tell me about them and my counselors in college barely addressed it. I’d heard about it, but I didn’t understand the value until school was over.
Unfortunately, most people won’t tell you that while you went to school to learn and hopefully get a good job, most employers won’t hire you because you have no work experience. This means that you’ll have to take a retail or restaurant job or some other form of basic labor, which has absolutely nothing to do with your degree. This leads you into another job, which has nothing to do with your degree. Hopefully, you’ll catch a break and get a low-paying job in your field and work your way from the bottom up. Otherwise, you might go from dead-end job to dead-end job and end up in a career field that has nothing to do with your original goal.
With an internship, you can get basic training, learn the ins and outs of certain industries and then you have the work experience to make it easier to get a job when you are out of school (remember, student loans have to be paid back six months from when you graduate).
You may find after interning at a few companies that you don’t even want to go into that field anymore. If you are smart, you started early and you now have time to change your major, or if you’re close to graduation, you can take a minor in the field you are interested in.
7. People can change, but most people don’t.
We all have the dream of coming back to a high school reunion and showing off how successful we have become. We dream of being more beautiful, having a better job, a good-looking spouse, etc. Despite reality, at 15 you assume that you will grow up and magically change from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan and that everyone will admire you and regret their criticism of you.
I’m sorry to burst the bubble, but the majority of the time, this doesn’t happen. You may change. You may become successful and exquisitely lovely, but chances are, your friends from high school have the same basic personality that they had when they were kids. They are still annoying, smart, obnoxious, arrogant or whatever they were before.
For example, I’m still a bit nerdy, emotionally sensitive, compassionate, quiet, and continue to spend my free time in a book or scribbling down notes for stories. The guy who was obnoxious and bordering on misogynistic at 15 was exactly the same when I saw him seven years later. My best friend is still funny, low-key, family-oriented and a fashionable dresser.
My advice to myself would be: don’t expect extreme changes in yourself or other people. While changes do happen, the core of people’s personality generally remains the same.
8. If you make a mistake, you’re not going to Hell.
Growing up in Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist churches as a child, I lived with a very fire-and-brimstone view of life. I thought I would go to Hell if I didn’t believe strongly in the devil, carnal sin, and the existence of Hell itself. It took me a while to realize that God could be compassionate and forgiving and it was okay to make mistakes and even to disagree with “the Church”.
I wish I had known that I had a right to live and that it wasn’t God’s mission in life to punish me for making mistakes. I wish at 15 that I had understood that people choose how to view God and the devil, and that I could choose to think that the universe was loving and supportive. I could believe that when I made mistakes new opportunities would always come to help me do better.
9. Love your body now, because it will only stay like this for another 10-15 years.
When you are a teenager, you can eat anything. Well, almost anything. It is nothing to have spicy, greasy food or to drink four to six Cokes in one day. But, when you get to be about 25-30, your body starts changing. Gone is the metabolism that kept you fit and trim at 15. It takes longer to loose the same five pounds and your stomach starts churning after you’ve eaten a big, greasy hamburger. Wrinkles and grey hairs start to appear where they never were before. You get acid reflux after having your favorite snack.
I wish I had known that just because my body behaved one way when I was 15, did not mean that it would stay the same at 30. I wish I had kept a consistent diet when I was in college, so that I would maintain good habits as an adult. And, I wish I had learned to value and appreciate the daily exercise that is so easily accessible when you are a teenager in school. There is a track, gym equipment, sports teams, gym class and all kinds of resources that are not readily available when you are an adult working 40-50 hours a week.
10. Your parents are neither the best nor the worst people in the world.
The big myth when you are a teenager is that your parents do not understand you and that they are basically there make your life miserable or to try to turn you into a robot of what they want you to be.
The truth is that your parents are doing the best they can given their own stress, problems, and their desire to see you have a good life. Understand that what they value and understand as a good life is totally different most times from what you perceive it to be.
Your parents are concerned about your future. You are concerned about your present. This is entirely appropriate. But, as you get older, you start to see why they made certain decisions that pushed you to do some things and forbade you from doing others.
Your parents make mistakes, just like you do. There is no magic formula that turns you into an all-knowing, perfect person at 30 or 40. You don’t suddenly figure life out. You make mistakes at 40 that you wouldn’t make at 60, just as you make mistakes at 15 that you would not make at 25.
Even when you get older, you are not going to agree with your parents all of the time. It’s just the way life works. Remember that you are not all good and not all bad. The same goes for your parents.
Whether you are 40 or 15, there is always going to be more to learn. I think the most important step is developing a better relationship with yourself. My advice is to be kind and forgiving to yourself. We all make mistakes. It is a part of life that never goes away no matter how old you are. Accept that and enjoy the journey anyway.