Ten years ago you graduated high school, and in that ten years your life has changed dramatically. You have grown physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. You have loved, and experienced loss. After ten years, you are still you, and you continue becoming more "you" every day.
Young Jeremy, from your older self, I want to share some life-lessons that you've learned. Maybe you (aka, any other 18-year-olds who stumble upon this letter) will be able to learn them faster than I was. Some lessons are pragmatic - specific tasks you can cross off a checklist. Most, though, are about your inner-character, and will take you a long time to develop. I should warn you: this is not a short letter. That's probably a good thing, because it means you've not only made a lot of mistakes, but learned from them. You have never stagnated.
Practical advice (things you can check off a todo list)
When you get into college, the sooner you lose your 4.0, the better. This is not to say "don't try" or that you should get *bad* grades, not at all. You should still give [almost] every class a fair shake. But the sooner you can stop worrying about meeting that impossible bar you've set for yourself, the sooner you can lose the pressure that comes along with it, and therefore the sooner you can focus on things that really matter: learning for the sake of learning (not for the grade), and investing time in people.
Take notes during sermons. Still now, by two hours after church you struggle to remember details from what the pastor talked about; even the worst sermon [usually] will have at least one valuable tidbit worth remembering, so whether it's on your phone or on paper, write notes as you're listening. This carries an added bonus of everyone else thinking you're holier than they are, even though you know it's not true.
Learn to play guitar. You started at age 20, only two years from now, but go ahead and start earlier, and try to spend more time truly worshiping as you play.
In a few years you'll hear about a guy named Randy Pausch and something called the "Last Lecture." Drop what you're doing and watch it. And then re-watch it at least once a year, if not more. In one hour and 15 minutes, you'll hear some of the most valuable advice and wisdom that has significantly changed the way I approach my own life. In fact many of the ideas in this letter originate from listening to Randy. Also be sure to watch his time-management lecture, again at least once a year.
Stop using breath mints (actually, at 18 you hadn't yet started, so, don't start). There's an ingredient in them called sorbitol that causes you very bad gastrointestinal distress.
Treasure and spend more time with your grandparents, because you'll only have them for a few more years.
Set specific goals over which you have complete, or relatively complete, control. For example, rather than saying "I'm going to get this particular job," say, "I'm going to apply for this many jobs." No matter the eventual outcome, your goal remains achievable completely under your own control, and is not dependent upon anyone else's response.
Alongside setting specific goals, practice "expectation management." For example, instead of saying "I hope [read: 'expect'] this date turns into a relationship and then marriage," say, "I expect that at my date tonight, I will eat dinner." I'm not exactly saying set your expectations low, I'm instead suggesting setting expectations that are [almost certainly] guaranteed to be met, which prevents you from leaving with a feeling of disappointment. This also leaves a large amount of room for expectations to be exceeded, which is a phenomenal feeling.
Those quarterly magazines you get from Minneapolis Community Education, you should check them out, because there are some pretty cool classes (ASL and Badminton to name two) for very cheap: ~$50 total for 7-ish weeks of class. Just be sure you don't over-schedule your calendar.
Audiobooks and sermon podcasts rock, especially when you're driving to work (or Iowa), mowing the lawn, or doing other chores around house. Sign up for Audible.com's largest plan, and each book will only cost about $9 - not much more than a paperback. And, if you buy a waterproof bluetooth speaker to hang in the shower, that's another block of time you can be productive "reading" while doing something else.
Make backup plans for life. If this job / person / housing situation / class / <generic possibility> says "no," what's your fallback? What's your fallback to your fallback?
And of course, relatedly, always back up your computer, because you'll have two laptops stolen from you in the next few years. Apple's built-in Time Machine is great for recovery, and Code 42's CrashPlan is great for on-the-go file access and unlimited offsite storage. The peace of mind is worth the money.
10 years later, people who are just meeting you think you're an extrovert. But you and I know the truth - you're an introvert, who also happens to like spending time with people. This means you need time by yourself to recharge. Schedule "me time" in your calendar and guard it. When you don't, you get crabby.
Mom and Dad taught me to save 50% of my paycheck. Admittedly, I have not kept to a strict 50% regimen, but still both this year and last I saved aggressively enough to max out my 401(k) and IRA contributions. My financial advisor was quite impressed with me. The sooner you can start saving for retirement, even if it's only $25 here and there, do it. You should also save for rainy days, like car expenses, property tax, and in a few years when your main sewer line will need replacing (welcome to home-ownership).
Find a financial advisor you trust, who will guide you through the financial arena of retirement savings. If you need a name, I can give you a recommendation.
Live within your means. I have at least several coworker friends from my current and previous jobs who are nearing retirement age, who are still struggling to make house/car payments, and will need to work extra years in order to retire. As much as I joke about my plan to "marry rich", the reality is you need to be financially stable on your own. And that boils down to day-to-day choices to live within your means, eat out less, have money deducted from your paycheck straight into a savings account that you refuse to touch, and not burning through every paycheck the day it hits your bank.
Live debt-free as much as possible. Pay off your student loans as soon as possible, and pay off your credit cards every month. All that said, work the system for all its perks - with some limited attention to detail, you absolutely can reap rewards from multiple credit cards offering cash back, sign-up bonuses, free airline miles, etc. For example, I haven't paid for a flight in 4 or 5 years, and I've received $100s of statement credits and cash-back on my credit cards, without paying a dime of interest or annual fees. (and my credit score hasn't suffered much, it's still around 800)
On a related note: Southwest is, in my current opinion, the best airline. I tell you this because I didn't discover them until I was 24 or 25, so I hope you'll check them out sooner than I did.
Almost everyone has an interesting, if not downright fascinating, story, even if you have no common grounds of interest. If you can find out their passion, their excitement will move you. Also, almost everyone loves talk, I suspect because we as a culture have lost the art of listening. Train yourself to listen actively, and you'll learn so much from the people around you, not only to improve your own living, but that will later give you opportunities to share those stories and wisdom yourself.
Live in the present and the future, because dwelling in the past is not healthy. You'll meet a few friends / acquaintances who insist on living in the past, blaming others for their own non-successes, and never learning from their own mistakes. This traps them in a cycle of making the same errors over and over, and then, again, blaming someone else. You in fact, will get blamed by some of these "friends" because of their twisted logic and victim mentality. It's sad, but move on, let those unhealthy relationships go, and focus on moving forward. You can only control you.
Along with that, let go of grudges as soon as possible. They don't help anyone. And dare I say, it's even Biblical that I advocate forgiveness and reconciliation.
Asking someone for a first date is not a marriage proposal; take the pressure off yourself (and her) about finding "the right one" before you've even had a first date.
Age is just a number, in both directions. You can have a lot of years and remain young at heart (in a good way), and you can have only a few years and still have a wisdom and maturity beyond those earthly years. When it comes to pursuing relationships, draw a line at 18 (and later, 21), but otherwise, remember that age is just a number, and it's experience and personality that count.
Love doesn't always come instantaneously. Some people are blessed with the Disney sparks, most aren't. Don't pass early judgement about a relationship's potential, or lack, without giving it a chance.
Avoid prioritizing work over people. Remember the lyrics and music video for Casting Crowns' "American Dream". People and relationships are more important than work, and also more important than proving yourself right (though you're still working on that last one).
However, some "friends" will abuse your time if you let them. Learn to recognize those signs early on, and refuse to allow your time (or money, or talents) to be sucked into downward spiral conversations that last hours and lead nowhere.
Admit when you're wrong. I'm consistently amazed how many people claim they do this, and then don't.
When leaving a friendship / workplace / commitment / anything, try to leave as many doors open as possible, closing them only when completely unavoidable, or your conscience demands it. However, sometimes that is okay. My goodbye letter at Minnehaha probably closed some doors with those who chose to read it maliciously, but I have no regrets, because I know my heart, and that I was being true to me and true to the hopes I held for the school.
You probably won't stay in touch with most of your friends from high school. A few yes, but most will fall by the wayside, and that is okay - it's a natural progression, and you will make new friendships that are just as beautiful.
Personal growth advice
Chase your own dreams, and don't get caught up chasing the dreams of others. Some of the dreams you've chased that probably belonged to someone else rather than you were: wanting to...
- learn sign language
- become a full-time filmmaker
- become a professional musician
- work at an Apple store
- work at Apple corporate
- move to California
- learn banjo/piano/bass
... and so many more. None of these are bad things at all! But spend time praying about your own dreams - first identifying what they are amidst a sea of other people's dreams, and then second, about how to pursue them, and then third, how to avoid distractions. You haven't mastered this yet, so don't put too much pressure on yourself at 18, just... work on it.
Don't be afraid to do things on your own, like go see a musical (incidentally, turns out you love rock-musicals, for example Wicked, Bat Boy, and Aida), or a concert, or a movie, or even take a trip. You don't need to wait until you have someone else to go with in order to have fun. (thank you to my friend Tom Ryan for this advice)
There are exceptions to every rule, but generally speaking, other peoples' opinions of you matter less than you think they do. Be yourself, not who you think someone else wants you to be. Don't hold back in a conversation because you think the other person will think less of you (and if there's a disagreement, look at it as an opportunity for a conversation).
Worship is, in large part, an attitude. While it is absolutely the worship leader's responsibility to choose non-sucky worshipful songs (for example, not "God of Wonders" or "This is the air I breathe"), it is your responsibility to prepare your heart for a time of worship, so that you can experience worshipful moments even if the leader does play "God of Wonders" or "This is the air I breathe". You own your attitude, good and bad.
It's okay to commit yourself to more than one church community, especially if the two services fulfill different spiritual needs for you (as long as the services are at different times, so you're not robbing Peter to pay Paul).
Don't mistake spending time at church, and doing churchy things, as the same as spending time with God. You need to foster that personal relationship as well. Now in fairness, I'm not saying I'm good at this, I'm just beginning to recognize it, and I wish I would have started on this journey sooner. So... ready, go :)
Fill your life with adult role-models you respect, who make you a better person just by letting you spend time around them, and who will call you out when you're being unreasonable (in so many contexts - work, relationships, anger, attitudes, opinions, theology, every area of life). Along with this, realize that the adults in your life now (at age 18) will become incredibly smart in the next 7 years. I know, it's hard to believe, because they're all dumber than a bag of rocks right now, but by the time you're 25 you will be shocked how much life-wisdom your parents and other adults have accumulated in that time, and how much they're willing to share. They'll consider it an honor, not an inconvenience, to mentor and guide you.
Among these trusted adults, find one or more who are willing to be an anger-management counselor for you. Whenever you sense yourself losing your cool toward someone or something (perhaps an idiot wrote you a stupid-person email), force yourself to wait at least one hour before writing a response. Not once have you replied in the heat of the moment and then failed to regret it later. In that hour, call your anger-management counselor and talk things out, then have them proof your email before you send it, and go through as many drafts as necessary. With only rare exception, you never need to reply immediately, and taking the extra time to cool down and write a calm response will help you, and your reputation, immensely as you work toward a resolution.
Your reputation matters; build a good one.
When making a big decision (whether it's actually a big decision in the grand scheme of life, and also for those that only seem like they're big decisions), listen to everyone's advice, then make (and own responsibility for) your own decision.
When possible, learn from other people's mistakes. When necessary, and a few times that aren't, make your own mistakes and learn from those, too. You will make mistakes. Just try to make different ones next time. Also know that sometimes there is no silver lining, it just sucks (citation: this phenomenal commencement speech by Dessa, recommended to me by my friend Mikaila).
Your value as a human being is not defined by:
- your relationship status
- your job / career / salary
- the number of friends you have
- your number of blood donations
- the movie projects you've worked on
- your skill (or lack thereof) as a musician
- where you live
- how many churches you're involved in
Your value as a human being comes from being a beloved child of your Most High God. Own that, and live it out. Every other metric is transient. Much as you [still] want to believe otherwise, you do not control every aspect of your life, because you cannot control other people nor nature nor spirits, and therefore any of those status symbols by which the world will judge your value, can disappear overnight. Strive to find your value in the eternal, which is what Jesus / God offers, because that cannot be taken away by life's happenstances.
Don't wait for the "perfect moment" to tell someone how you feel, or you might lose your chance. This applies with romantic interests as well as family / friends.
Your time is precious. If you're doing something because you think you "should", maybe reconsider.
This is a Jeremy-specific piece of advice, and largely inapplicable to any other youngsters reading: in a few years you will hear about this weird / crazy / awesome mime drama ministry based out of Des Moines, Iowa, called AWAKEN. Do it. Treasure it. And especially, as ridiculous as this sounds, treasure those moments hauling sand bags (read toward the bottom of this blog post for more thoughts on that).
Your college education isn't about learning and forgetting facts; it's about learning how to learn, and putting yourself out there for new experiences. Ask upperclassmen at your school (whom you trust and perhaps are similar to you) who the best / worst professors are, then register for classes accordingly. The seniors aren't as scary as you think they are, and the vast majority will be more than happy to give you professor & class recommendations.
Sometimes risks are worth it. I wish I'd been braver at trying new things (dancing, asking someone out, job interviews, new recipes, talking to a stranger, the list goes on).
Always ask yourself "what's the worst that can happen?" With a few exceptions, usually the worst that can happen is the other person says "no" or doesn't reply. The cliché "nothing ventured, nothing gained" applies. It almost never hurts simply to ask the question.
Your attitude toward life controls you, affects the people around you, and also affects who wants to be around you. As best you can, live your life as an optimist, finding eternal hope in your faith.
Never stop working to improve yourself. Ask your friends for feedback and listen. Sometimes they are wrong and you might choose to ignore their suggestions, but at least hear them. Also sometimes they are right and you just don't want to admit it. Also, even when people *are* wrong, you can still learn something about their perceptions of you, and work to improve your persona.
Realize that most change comes slowly. Start working now for what you want yourself to look like in two years. (for example, exercise, guitar-playing ability, faith-life, etc)
Try to fail as quickly as possible. I think this is something I heard in a behind-the-scenes of a Pixar movie, but citation needed. Anyway, the meaning being: if an idea / business / plot / relationship isn't going to work, figure that out as early on in the process as possible, before you've invested even more time / effort / money / emotion / etc.
Life won't be perfect. If you're significantly unhappy about some aspect of your life, spend time thinking seriously about what you can do to change it, rather than feel trapped by it. For example, if you don't like your job, look for another one, ask around, Google for openings, and ask yourself, "what do I want to be doing?" Make a conscious decision to choose your current employer, or to choose something different. For another example, if you're over-extended / over-committed (which happens to me a lot), it's okay to drop an activity. You need not subsist in a malcontent status quo.
In your faith, you can't and won't have all the answers. That doesn't mean you can't have faith, or that faith is illogical. It's merely an encouragement to spend time worrying only about the questions that actually matter, because the rest are just details. This is not to say all details are unimportant, they're just penultimate at best. The most important aspect of your faith is your relationship with God. And on that note, by the way, know that you CAN talk to God, and if you take the time to listen, God can speak into your life as well.
Create win-win situations for yourself as often as possible. On the occasions when you recognize you're in a lose-lose, try to get out quickly, if possible. If you're in a good-good situation (for example, two job offers, both good opportunities), recognize it, and take the pressure off yourself because you can't make a "wrong" choice.
You will have many opportunities to minister simply by listening. Largely speaking, no one listens anymore, which leaves people desperately thirsty to be heard. Not only can you listen, but you have a quality about you that allows others to open up and trust you with their "stuff". You are not unique in this, and you'll meet others with the same gift, but my experience so far says there are few of you, making you each precious. (I think anyone can cultivate this spirit of servant-listening, but few do).
Finally, trust that God is working in and through your life. You will impact so many people in your journey, and many of those stories you'll never even know. I'm amazed looking in hindsight at the orchestration God's poured into my life, and how I've impacted others. Try to leave people better than you found them, and know that even in your mistakes, God can work out something good.
Blessings to you on your journey, during the emotional roller coaster highs and lows, the smooth and the bumpy times. Pray always, trust always. Welcome to your Adventure.