I don’t think I’ve met one single person who had a perfect life or anyone who wouldn’t change something from their teenage years if they could. Some of us had a harder few years than most and some had it easier, but no one in their 30s looks back and says “Life was so perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing!” The truth is, teen years are some of the hardest, and if I could go back and tell my 16-year-old anything that would have made it easier, it would be this:
1. You don’t have to have it all figured out
This is the age when the things you do directly affect how hard or easy life will be as an adult. But that doesn’t mean you have to know what your entire future holds. It’s important to focus on grades in case you do want to go to college, but you don’t have to know what your major is going to be. In college, you’ll spend the first two years taking general courses and your major very well might change several times in the first year. As long as you’ve got it figured out by the end of your sophomore year, you’ll be fine. And if you don’t want to go to college, then try a trade school for something that interests you. The worse that will happen is you now have a very employable skill and can work using that skill while you decide what you really want to be when it comes time to choose a career. I changed my career three times in my life because life changed me. In high school, I planned on being a TV news anchor (I eventually did do that) and then instead I joined the military as a police officer with the plan of joining the FBI (I didn’t do that). Now I work in Washington, D.C., for Congress of all places. Some people grow up planning that as their career, but I didn’t. And truthfully, it’s not the end of my career either. I’ll use the skills I learned in Congress to get an even better job in the years to come.
2. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan
Just because you don’t have to have your whole life mapped out right now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start deciding what you want and putting things into motion. I will be sitting down with my high school junior over Christmas break to talk about local colleges and career paths. He has to know that if he doesn’t get certain grades, he may not be able to get into those schools. We have to talk about college funding and SATs, and all of that takes planning. When I was speaking to a young girl a few years ago at an alternative high school, she asked me what she could do to prepare because she wasn’t old enough to leave home despite being in a very stressful and sometimes abusive home environment. We talked about what she could do at the age of 16 so that at the age of 18 she could move out and immediately begin to take care of herself. That takes planning. She began to learn an employable skill and said she would stop skipping school so that she could get a job that would allow her to take care of herself as soon as she was legally able to.
3. Boys will break your heart, but men treat you well
This was my biggest downfall in my teens and 20s: boys. If I could change anything, it would be to worry far more about my grades and my future than a cute boy. I spent too much time worrying about what boys thoughts of me and wanting to make them happy, that I didn’t spend enough time finding out what would make me happy. The amount of pain inflicted on my life over this nearly ruined my entire future. There are plenty of boys out there and you’ll have plenty of time for dating. Right now, the only thing that matters is finding out who you are and what you want in life. Don’t waste time trying to make a boy happy, but instead work on making yourself the person you want to be, and then one day the right man will come along and will prove he is worthy enough to be a part of your life.
4. Hair, makeup and fashion are fun, but aren’t everything
I think it’s actually pretty cool that teens and young adults are making serious cash as YouTube stars. It’s not for everyone but some people have definitely found their calling! But I do wish I had learned at a young age that saving money is far better than spending it on clothes that won’t be in style in a year or two. In fact, I’ve learned that living a more simple life with less material things is so much better. By saving money where you can, you can create incredible memories. Spend that money on traveling and see how much happiness that brings you. I promise it brings much more happiness than a pair of shoes!
5. Avoid debt at all costs
Saddling yourself with debt, i.e. credit cards at your favorite mall store or a used car loan, will have an effect on your adult life for years to come. Companies love giving small credit cards to young adults because it’s their first experience with being able to buy something whenever they want even if they don’t have the money – and that feels really good … until you’re still paying for those jeans two years later. It took me until I was in my 30s to really learn how to manage money and by then I already had so much debt, it was quite depressing. If you avoid debt, you’ll later be glad you didn’t put yourself in that hole. Debt can prevent you from later buying a house, getting a good job or paying for basic day-to-day needs.
To sum it up, save your money, don’t go into debt, don’t worry about boys and focus on your education/employable skill. Those are easier said than done as any teen knows, but are the best ways to set yourself up for the best possible future. Now the trick for me would be discovering how to get my teenage self to listen to this advice in the first place!