Riley — last month you turned 18 years old.
I am a big fan of taking time to reflect whenever you reach an important birthday like 18, 21, 25, and the others that end with a zero.
Earlier this year I turned 50 years old. I wrote about the hard truths from my first 50 years on earth. To date, it is the most read post on the blog from this year. Two weeks ago I published a special blog entry for your birthday.
Last week I shared the answers my friends gave when I posted a question on Facebook asking them for advice for you. I combed through their answers and spent some time thinking about the same topic.
Here is the one thing I would tell the 18-year-old me.
Be true to yourself
It sounds cliche, but it is true.
It is vitally important to be true to yourself.
I did not really understand what this meant when I was young. I thought I was being authentic when the reality was that I was still finding my way.
I did not know myself very well when I was a senior in high school. I bet that most of us were in the same boat.
That may be where you find yourself right now. Don’t worry.
Many friends have expressed the same sentiment to me over the years. Based on the quote below it is something man has struggled with for centuries.
Spend time learning about yourself
In order to be true to yourself, you must first know who you are.
I did not really know myself that well when I was your age which is normal.
But, I don’t want to be just normal. I want more than normal. I hope you do also. Earlier this year I wrote how to become better than normal.
It briefly described three ways to become better than normal. They are simple to learn, but hard to follow. Know who you really are, discover your strengths, and build your expertise.
Notice it all starts with knowing you really are, especially your personality.
I did not spend much time learning about myself when I was your age. I hope that you do. It is worth it.
You learn more about yourself as you age
The older I became the more I learned about myself — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Remember there will be things about yourself that you do not like.
Don’t fret — we all have them. None of us are perfect.
Here are a few personal examples.
- Good — I am somewhat smart and a decent athlete.
- Bad — I can be overly skeptical and stubborn in some situations.
- Ugly — I was not good at being married to your Mom. She deserved someone else.
Learning will help you become a better version of yourself
I suspect the same thing will happen to you. Pay attention to all these data points. They will help you learn and grow.
The people I am most impressed by these days are the ones who continue learning and growing as they get older.
They are constantly improving.
They are not satisfied with their own status quo.
They are staying true to themselves by becoming a better version of themselves year after year.
The people I struggle to understand are the ones who refuse to mature. They are set in their ways and will not get better with age.
In fact, they will likely get worse and worse as the years roll by.
Don’t be that kind of person. Be the former, not the latter.
Our self-knowledge increases. An expanding awareness of our strengths and vulnerabilities helps us endure difficult times with more equanimity. We are not buffeted around so much by other people’s opinions about the choices we make and our overall sense of what we should do with our lives. It becomes a pleasure to stand our ground in tricky situations, not out of stubborn pride but because we finally know who we are.
From the article Ten Ways Life Gets Better as We Get Older published in Pyschology Today
Staying true to yourself can be difficult
Staying true to yourself over the years is easier said than done.
I know because I was not successful in this way.
In fact, I did one of the worst things you can do. I tried to be someone else rather than myself. At one point in my life, I became a poser. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do.
But, in retrospect, it was a big mistake that included multiple bad decisions.
In fact, it is one of my greatest regrets. I hate posers and I became one.
Let me explain how I got there by providing some context.
You may know this already, but I doubt it.
Poser — noun. a person who pretends to be a member of a group that they are not actually a member of; a “wannabe”.
I was true to myself while in the military
As both of you know I went into the military for over a decade after graduating college. They were fun years full of adventure.
I learned a lot about leadership, worked side-by-side with many great Americans, and helped the units I served in successfully execute their missions.
Many of my best friends are from my military days, and some of my favorite memories are from traveling around Europe while serving there. I would even dare say that my marriage to your mother was strongest during those years.
There are many challenges that come with serving in the military, like long deployments and low pay.
But overall the good outweighed the bad for that decade.
Things changed after becoming a normal civilian
In 2001 I decided to leave the military and become a civilian.
Looking back on that decision it was the right one. We were a young family and needed more stability. But, after getting out I made some poor decisions that started the ball rolling downhill.
First, we settled in Prince William County. Your mother grew up in the area, your grandparents lived there, and the church your mother wanted to attend is there.
A pastor I trusted gave me the advice to live near the church because you always can find a way to get to work.
In retrospect, it was bad advice.
We lived far from my office and I spent long hours commuting back and forth to work every day. It sucked and made me miserable.
The reality is that we should have lived closer to my office.
You can always find a way to get to church on Sunday when traffic is light.
The bad decisions started to pile up
The second bad decision we made was that your mother did not get a job. Instead, she was a stay at home mom.
This decision would have been a good one if I earned enough money to pay for the things she wanted. I didn’t.
As a result, we lived in a townhouse for many years. I even refinanced the townhouse multiple times to pay off credit card debt.
Just so that I am clear there is nothing wrong with living in a townhouse.
But, your mother and I possessed a relentless desire to live in a nice single family home like most of our friends.
Each bad decision felt like a success
In order to achieve the dream of owning a big house, I worked really long hours and took on a huge interest-only balloon loan to pay for it.
At the time it felt like a success.
The truth is that the financial pressure did not lessen after buying the house.
It got worse. Make no mistake about it — the house I bought was beautiful. Your mother did an awesome job decorating our home.
It was way more difficult to maintain than I realized.
When we moved into the house we did not own furniture for several rooms. A clear signal I was in over my head.
I chose to ignore that red flag and kept swimming out into deeper water.
Trying to keep pace in a two-horse town
Looking back I cannot believe some of the financial risks I took back then.
I knew better and was not being true to myself. Instead, I was living a lie.
The reality is that the Washington DC metro area is a two-horse town. In most married couples both spouses work. The extra income provides couples with greater spending power and more financial freedom.
The housing market reflects this reality. It is not cheap to own a home in the DC area, even out in the suburbs like where we lived.
In fact, several counties in the DC area are the wealthiest in the entire country.
In case you don’t believe me, drive around the area.
You will notice all of the mega-mansions.
My house was built upon the sand
This reality came crashing down on me when the housing market took a nosedive shortly after I bought our dream home. The value plunged.
Like many homeowners in the DC metro area, I owed way more on the loan than what the house was worth.
It is called being underwater. This term is accurate because you feel like you need to hold your breath while you try to swim towards the surface.
My bank offered to write off some of my debt on the house via a special government program. I rapidly agreed because there was no better option available at the time.
My credit score took a big dip as a result. Not a good decision.
I was playing a dangerous game and I knew it.
I was not being honest with myself about our situation.
I was unwilling to face the truth and would pay the price.
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Matthew 7:24–27.
Being true to yourself means that you face up to the truth
We tried to live like others on a single paycheck. It was foolish.
We should have either stayed in the townhouse or figured out a way for your mother to contribute financially to the family.
Any amount would have helped. Another paycheck could have paid off our credit card debt or contributed to our annual family summer vacation, or gone towards retirement.
At this point, I was not saving any money for retirement which is just plain stupid.
My undergraduate degree is in Economics. I understand the time value of money and several other important economic principles that apply to retirement savings like compound interest.
Instead of following these principles, I chose to ignore them.
I was not willing to face up to the truth.
I stayed stubborn — set on the wrong path.
Oddly enough I was earning a lot more money than before at work which should have solved the problem.
It didn’t because I continued to make poor decisions.
My third bad decision revealed how far I had drifted
Not all was bad. I experienced a lot of success at work due to the extra efforts of the team I supported. That eventually led to a big promotion which included a nice pay raise.
As a result, we could upgrade the car your mom drove.
She taxied you boys around in a Chrysler Pacifica for years. It was actually a good car. Practical for taking family vacations, and cool enough not to be considered a mini-van, the ultimate sign of the suburban lifestyle.
Your mom and I went car shopping.
A wise man would have purchased a reasonably priced vehicle given our financial situation. Not me. No — I bought your mom an expensive Lexus.
Driving away from the dealership I knew it was a mistake, but I chose to ignore my instinct and make the large monthly car payment instead.
Now I know the truth — Lexus is just a souped-up Toyota.
Becoming a poser was not my plan
I have shared a lot here.
Perhaps too much.
Why am I sharing all these details? Because I do not want you to make the same mistakes. I was a poser by the time I reached my 40s.
I had reaped the seeds that I had sown.
The person I became was not the person I wanted to be.
I was not my true self.
It may have looked like I had it all together to others and that everything was going fine. It wasn’t. My dreams were about to be washed away and I was ill prepared for what happened next. I don’t want you to face a similar situation.
How do you avoid it? Be true to yourself.
It is way more difficult than I imagined, but it is well worth it.
I wish I knew this lesson back when I was 18-years-old.
I write a blog for my sons called Doug Keating Letter to Sons. I am sharing content from my blog here. I hope you enjoyed it. All feedback is welcome. Thanks for reading it.
Originally published at www.lettertosons.com on November 4, 2018.