Dear 18-Year-Old Me
It’s graduation season. Here’s what I would go back and tell myself half my lifetime ago.
It’s graduation season. I can’t help but think of all the high school graduates who are heading out into the wide world, and the university graduates who are celebrating the grand finale of their years of advanced study. It’s a time so ripe with potential! It’s the season of inspiring commencement addresses gracing our social media feeds and uplifting sentiments about achievement.
At this time of year I frequently reflect on that time in my own life — my high school graduation specifically, as it was a time of monumental change in my life — and wonder whether 18-year-old me would have paid any attention to this iteration of herself, twice her age and somewhat jaded. I must say that despite the challenges that come with some of the choices I’ve made, I can’t begrudge anything about my path because I would never risk missing out on the phenomenal humans I’m fortunate to have brought into the world. If I could go back and talk with 18-year-old me though, here are some of the things I would say.
Adulthood builds slowly.
I had always been mature for my age. I was dancing competitively, working hard (at least most of the time) in school, and I didn’t get into much trouble. In fact, I spent a lot of time hearing from peers, teachers and other adults in my world how grown-up I was. In hindsight, I sorely wish that more people had let me in on the apparent secret that I was, in fact, still a kid.
As much as people in their late teens and early twenties understand that their perspective, self-awareness and understanding are vastly different than they were when they officially became teenagers on their thirteenth birthdays, I would like to tell my young self that the same is true as we enter into adulthood. A common thread among my friends as we hit our thirties was a sense of complete awe at how much our understandings of ourselves and our place in the world changed throughout our twenties. A staggering number of friends saw the marriages they had entered in their early or mid-twenties come to an end within the same decade (myself included), for example.
When the adult world first opens up and welcomes you as a new member, it’s important to understand that wisdom is golden and it only comes with time. Responsibility is very important but don’t be too quick to cash in your youth.
Get a feel for the world before you try to create one yourself.
I was very compelled by the life script placed before me by society. I had friends who had embarked on adventurous experiences travelling or working abroad and as deeply as my heart yearned for adventure, I honestly didn’t feel it was available to me. The only acceptable choice was to go immediately into post-secondary education. I would love to be the voice to go back and whisper in my young ear that the sky was the limit. I could spend time working and travelling, to seek an Au Pair job in France or Spain or Germany — one of the countries whose language I speak — and experience other parts of the world. I could save and take weekend trips to new destinations and populate a map with tiny flags on pins to show all the places I’d been. There was no reason at all that I couldn’t do this. School would still be there later, and I would have found my own feet and learned things about myself and the world which would allow me to make good use of my time once I entered university. I would have been investing in invaluable wisdom.
There are education gaps to fill in, the sooner the better.
The doorway to adulthood is a precarious time, as we can make choices big and small which can ripple for years (or a lifetime). If I could go back in time I would offer some specific reading to my young self for a crash course to unlearn my insidious toxic messages about finances and relationships. These are subjects that are not (widely, if at all) taught in school and it’s an outrageous disservice to our new generation of adults that they step through that door unprepared in such critical areas.
It’s a worthy investment to start learning the tools that create strong boundaries within ourselves in relationships, and to gain a deeper understanding of financial options. To be quite specific, I would hand my young self a copy of one of David Richo’s books on relationships and strongly suggest a sit-down with a professional to discuss financial health (available at your credit union or bank for free).
Meditate and stretch daily.
My mind has been a busy place, inclined to worry, overthink, and neglect itself. The mind-body connection is good for so much, and one of the benefits I would have enjoyed gaining decades sooner is an ability to tune into my truth. Back to that social script — it’s a strong force. Having a practice that allowed me to connect with myself would have given me room to feel into the authenticity of my choices and would have given me more confidence in myself (effects which I now enjoy since bringing these practices into my life). One of the important transitions of adulthood is the process of bringing our own inner voice to the foreground, where parents and other influential adults stood before. Creating a solid connection with our self and our inner voice is critical to living an authentic life.
There is no advice that anyone can give to graduates at the doorway of adulthood that will save them missteps, regrets, or challenges. I can only imagine that in half my life again I will have plenty to say to this 36-year-old me of today. But as we share, as we take the time to offer our thoughts, words, and lessons to the ones coming into this new stage, we offer breadcrumbs. This is how we grow as a species; how we try to give our children something more than what we had. These words of advice are gifts which you, a new adult in this world, can offer your future self.
As a parent I always say that since no one can be perfect, I can only hope to make new mistakes. Then at least I have learned from the mothers who came before me.
So really consider the wisdom offered by those who walked before you. Try it on and see what happens in your own life. Then, when the time comes for you to leave a new breadcrumb trail for those who follow you, the lessons can be new as well.