By Lucy Morris
Photography by Rich Smith
They say hindsight is 20/20.
When it comes to life and career advice, the wisest of recommendations tend to come from those who have been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt. These are the leaders whose determination and experiences have driven them to see success and achieve their dreams. In hopes of helping others learn from their wisdom, we asked an influential lineup of role models across various industries what advice they wish they could give their younger selves.
Owner & Attorney, Jelks Law
Slow down. Don’t be in a rush to grow up. After all, paying bills and changing diapers can wait. As a teenager and a young adult, you’ll be obsessed with finishing early. Like so many young people, you’ll be in a hurry to complete high school and college so that you can move on with life. You’ll think finishing early means you can move on and do what you are meant to do. So, you’ll put your head in the books and barely look up – ever. You’ll finish high school at 17 with enough college credits to enter college as a junior, complete your bachelor’s degree in two-and-a-half years, go to law school, and start practicing law by the age of 24. Your family will be thrilled at your accomplishments – so will you.
Then life will do what life always inevitably does and give you a rude awakening. Accomplishments are important, but when you look back, you will realize that there were so many things you wish you would have slowed down to enjoy. All accomplishments come with a sacrifice. One of the biggest things that you sacrificed was relationships with other people. You didn’t take the time to get to know the people around you. You were always rushing from one class to another only to realize upon launching your career that, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” You will have spent an incredible amount of time on the “what” and not so much time on the “who.”
You only get 24 hours in a day, and the obligations you have to fulfill in those 24 hours don’t decrease with age – they increase. Adulting is hard, and once you become an adult, there’s no turning back. Be carefree while you can. Get to know yourself and those around you. Discover hobbies that make you come alive inside. Stop and smell every single flower you pass by. Being an adult can wait.
President & Executive Creative Director, Maycreate
Dear Past Me,
This is me writing to you about our future.
Let’s start with patience. Patience with yourself and with others. Especially with others. It’s important to start now because you’ll need to work on it for the next 20 years, and probably 20 more, but the work will make your time – present and future – better for everyone.
You also need to know that you cannot do everything yourself. Stop trying, and start delegating now. You’ll be happier, the people around you will be happier, and you’ll avoid a lot of unnecessarily painful memories down the road.
In a few years, you’ll help start a company based on a weird new technology called the internet. You’re going to do some pretty cool things, but this company is going to fail. You’ll believe the world is ending. It isn’t. Don’t worry so much because in the future, you’re thrilled with how things turned out. You’ll eventually understand that failing was valuable, and the knowledge you gained will allow you to work for one of the richest men in the world. Those experiences and connections will be priceless.
Finally, some relationship advice. This is extremely important, and I know you’re already thinking about what you ought to be doing, about the work you need to start and finish, but listen up: Be patient. There it is again. That word might be the hardest in the English language for you to understand at your age. You think you’re never going to meet the right person because you work all the time. Trust me when I say you’re going to meet and marry the most extraordinary woman on the planet. You’ll be 33 the day you marry her, and that’s the day you realize you’re going to spend the rest of your life with your best friend and business partner. You’ll travel the world together, start an ad agency together (among other businesses), and have experiences that you only want to share with her.
The future is brighter than you could ever imagine. Keep your head up. Be patient. Hang on for the ride. It’s all worth it.
Sincerely, Future You
Bishop Kevin Adams
Senior Pastor, Olivet Baptist Church
Moses said, “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” It is interesting that Moses, the giver of the Law, prays that we might develop wisdom. Children and the immature need only law to tell them right from wrong. But adults and mature people, who know the instruction of the Lord, need wisdom to live out the laws of heaven in a fallen world. Moses, a man who lived 120 years, still felt the brevity of life and our need for growth in wisdom.
When you were young, you never thought of the limits of age and time. You knew you would grow older someday, not realizing that “someday” becomes “today” so fast. When you were young, you would constantly say, “I do not have time for that now,” not realizing that you would never have more time. As a young person, your life seems full of years, and you do not realize the sands of time spill out far too soon, and they cannot be saved.
My advice to you is, “Number your days, and grow in wisdom.” Wisdom is manifested when you place the right value on everything in your life. Wisdom is spending your time on what is most valuable. You only have so much time to share with your family. Your children will only be small for a short season. Relationships do not all carry the same value, and so they are not all due your time. It was Jesus who said, “What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his own soul?” He could have also said, “What good is it to gain the world and lose your family?”
We cannot change the number of our days, but we can change the quality of our days. In the end, it will not matter how long we live, but how deeply we choose to live.
Vice President Market Manager, Cumulus Media
Listen to me. This is for your own good.
But is this advice to my younger self, or is my younger self trying to counsel the elder? As Hamlet eloquently stated, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” To be the adult or to be the child – who should provide insight is the question of the moment.
There are many times we all wished the youngster could have stopped, sought, and heeded advice from the experienced self. That might have differed or bettered the outcome of some events. Conversely, is it possible I benefited from the free-wheeling creative youngster as some situations arose?
Older, wiser today – definitely. All a result of those decisions made in those younger days. Could I as an adult have provided pivotal advice at key times all those years ago? Imagine advice like, “Whoa, hold on there, think about the consequences,” or, “Don’t try to be all things to all people.”
Ah yes, there are moments you’ll look back on where you’ll wish you could have grabbed yourself by the shoulders and shaken some sense into your head! But on the other hand, there are many ways my younger self has been instrumental in my adult journey.
Kids tend be creative free-wheeling thinkers who don’t have inhibitions or indecisions as a result of life experiences. As I aged and faced decisions, would I have experienced life differently if that little kid had received advice from a completely altruistic self?
Alas, none of us will ever know. And so goes the circle of life. Regardless, I am the sum of my experiences and stand proud today. I am surrounded by my loving family and have wonderful friends who have shared life’s moments.
My advice? Be thankful for who you are and what you will become through the blessings, lessons, and the joys of being a kid along the way. Share that aged wisdom with those around you. Be prepared for continued growth, and help others.
The best advice from dad was: “Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.” In other words, approach each day with a positive attitude. Spread that happiness to all you encounter, and the end result will inevitably lead to few regrets throughout your years.
Now take a second and toast who you are and who you have become.
Dr. Edna Varner
Senior Advisor, Leading & Learning, Public Education Foundation
“The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” –Mark Twain
Before you know it, you will be 70. That seems far away when you’re 17, but time really does fly, and you’ve got a lot of living to do before you find yourself talking with friends about the medications you’re taking instead of the adventures ahead.
For now, focus on the “lot of living” part. Life should be full of wonder, seeing the world God created and understanding how you fit into it. You don’t have to be wealthy to live a great life, but it helps to feel rich in your resolve to be happy. Find reasons to laugh every single day. Fall in love, but don’t fall far from who you are. In your becoming, it is okay to put yourself first, break some rules, and make mistakes you really regret. Forgive yourself when you do. Those experiences become the stories that mold you into a woman who’s responsible and reflective.
Along the way, celebrate accomplishments. Be grateful that you hit the parent jackpot and parent yourself as they did, to be strong and tackle hard things. You will learn much from the wisest of friends and strangers, students and teachers who happen in and out of your life, and from moments – some planned and some hard to predict. Be involved. The thing about opportunity is that you have to show up for it. Aim for better, not perfect: Lose some weight, and seriously – clean out your car!
Kudos for your “go for it” approach that opens you up to endless possibilities. The speaking up that got you into trouble in middle school will serve you well as an adult. Always remember where you came from and be a voice for those still there. Enter the fray when it’s important. Whether you win or lose, learn something. Finally, continue to care deeply about things and respond without need for permission or credit. Remain true to that, and you will grow old still discovering ways to matter.
Vice President Business Transformation, CBL Properties
Dear Monique 2.2,
Your gray hair is going to come in early. Yes, it is true. Do not spend New Year’s Day wondering if this is the year to start dyeing your hair. Instead, embrace the change. It will make you look as fierce on the outside as you feel on the inside.
Maya Angelou was right: “When people show you who they are the first time, believe them.” Good, bad, or indifferent. Trust your instincts over your intellect, and act accordingly. The high road is and will always be your friend.
When you finally catch up with the bus you have been chasing, it is okay to want to change seats. It is okay to want to get off one bus and chase after another one. It is okay to walk around, albeit fast in your case, without a bus in sight. While you are chasing the bus, please note that how you go about getting things done is as important as what you get done.
It will take having your first child to realize you are not in control of much. At first the awakening is overwhelming, but then it transitions to a joyous and liberating one. No strategic plan, spreadsheet, or conference call with a team of experts will bring the confirmation you are seeking. Instead, I tenderly suggest you go easy on yourself and take delight in the mundane … the time between the big moments.
In the rough sea of conflicting priorities, make time for your close friends. More than any special lotion or green vegetable, they will keep you young and grounded. They will support your efforts to be the best version of yourself. The day will come when a friend goes through a terrible experience. Call that friend. Visit that friend. Do not wait for the perfect words or moment. Your warm presence is the best salve.
Lastly, be grateful you followed your mom’s sage advice, “Choose wisely. It is better to be alone than to wish you were.”