Spiritual Formation

20 Things I Might Have Told My 20-Something Self

Truth be told…I didn’t want to write this essay.

Oh, I know. List-y essays are all the rage. That’s partly why I balked. The non-conformist in me.

But, too, it feels reductionist.

Because in listing out these 20 points, I am communicating—in an over-simplified sort of way—several of the ideas that I will be unpacking here in the weeks and months to come. I’m spilling the beans.

You could almost call this an outline. A table of contents. A summary. Or worse, the Cliff’s Notes version of this blog. And I’m an English teacher. This just isn’t right.

However, the more I tried to avoid this essay, the more it wrote itself in my heart and mind. The more I decided that it had to be.

When Peter and I meet with college students or recent grads, when we speak on a dormitory floor or invite them into our home, we are often asked: “What is the most important piece of advice you would give to us?” And I never answer well. Dozens of thoughts start swirling around in my head, and I can never grab ahold of what I would deem to be “the most important” one. Instead, I just stutter and stammer and try to say something sensible.

So, for any of you who have ever asked me that question and been disappointed by my answer, or for any of you who prefer using Cliff’s Notes, this one is for you.

Here are 20 things I might have told my 20-something self…

  1. Examine your foundation carefully. It’s your worldview. Look deeply at what you value and what you believe about God and man and truth and reality. And make it your own.  Because it will affect every decision you make. And because life has a way of picking you up and tossing you around. And you always want to nail the landing.
  2. Seek healing. Don’t imagine that the trauma of your childhood has been left in the past. It simmers under the surface. And it will surprise you at how suddenly it can boil up or suck you under. The work of healing those hard places might involve reading books or finding counseling. (Don’t be too afraid or too ashamed to ask for help.) But ultimately take that trauma to the only Helper, the Counselor, who has a totally healing touch.
  3. Remain teachable. More specifically, find a mentor. A parent, a pastor, a teacher, a spiritual guide. Or just a person who is living as you would like to live. Spend time with them. Sit at their feet. Look and listen and learn. And, most importantly, be different because of them.
  4. Choose your community carefully. Your friends will give shape to your life. They will either stunt your growth or spur you on. And when you find good friends, keep them. They are like gold. Treasure them. Invest in them. Spur them on too. Be the kind of friend that you would like to have.
  5. Feed yourself. Your body, your mind, and especially your soul. When your soul is starving, you can’t see straight. So learn what sort of nourishment you need. A group Bible study? A worship song? A long run? An art project? A prayer with a friend? This is an individual matter, so take the time to figure out what fills you up.
  6. Foster good habits. As Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So don’t wait until tomorrow to get up early, go to bed on time, exercise enough, save money, and so on.  The patterns of your life today are the person you will become.
  7. Learn to rest. Though this could fall under “foster good habits,” for me, it deserves its own point. I am terrible at it. And I can trace this trouble back to my twenties—when I was single and lonesome and (more) insecure. And to distract myself, I filled my days and nights to overflowing. A bit fuller and more frenetic each year. So I would tell my 20-something self that busy is not better. And your worth is not measured by the length of your to-do list.
  8. Take sin seriously. There is no such thing as “getting away with it.” Even if you don’t “get caught.” Though grace is gigantic and forgiveness is free, sin does still stain. And the spot will undoubtedly spread further and sink deeper than you can initially see.
  9. Be patient. Learn to wait well. You are used to getting things in an instant and on demand. But life doesn’t always work that way. Neither does God. His timing is rarely yours. But His is always right. He doesn’t rush. And He never delays. Instead, He unfolds a plan carefully designed and perfectly timed to bring Him glory. (More on that later.)
  10. Don’t worry. It’s a waste. Of time. Energy. And emotion. Worry will tie you in knots. Keep you up at night. Make you cranky and crazy. Nothing good ever comes of it. Worry is fear for the future, but worry does nothing to actually change it. So instead of worrying, make the best decisions you can right now. That’s all you can do. Then let it be.
  11. Evaluate your emotions. They are tricky. And they can be trouble. Often, they spring up from our triggered trauma. For example, let’s say (hypothetically) your husband says something about your blog. He might mean it innocently, even positively. But (hypothetically) you hear it differently. And you immediately feel threatened, defensive, hurt. All of your (hypothetical) insecurity swells to the surface in an instant. You can go with it. Milk it. Act on it. Hurt him back. Or you can do the better thing and take it back to truth.
  12. Adjust your expectations. So much of our disappointment and frustration—with people, with life, with God—occurs because we presume that life should go our way. I still remember the Friday night when the light bulb of this lesson first switched on for me. I was driving home from work, mulling over my expectations for the weekend and already becoming irritated, knowing that they wouldn’t be met. So I decided to change them. Simple as that. I made the very conscious decision to rewrite my personal plan for those two days. And I put only one thing on my new agenda: “Love Peter well.” That I could do. That I did. And I was in no way disappointed.
  13. Take risks. Follow God’s leading boldly into the unknown. Beyond the horizon of your comfort zone. As a wise friend advised me when we were trying to decide whether or not to put our already broken hearts on the line to foster our son Daryl, “Do what you won’t regret.”
  14. Press into pain. While no one wants to experience pain, you will. Don’t be shocked. Don’t run from it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t fight it. Let it be. Let it burn and melt your heart. But never fear that God has abandoned you to the flame. He is there. His presence is unwavering. He is pursuing you and purging the dross. You are not being punished. You are being purified.
  15. Realize that your life is not about you anyhow. It’s about Him and His glory. I used to repeatedly recite this mantra to myself when a big project loomed and I feared the outcome. Would I succeed or fail? Would my reputation rise or fall? “It’s not about me. It’s all about Him.” I said it over and over and over again. And if He receives more glory from your failure, so be it. Accepting this takes the pressure off.
  16. Maintain an eternal perspective. Train your eyes on this hope, this inheritance, that will “never perish, spoil, or fade.” That is “kept in heaven for you.” For it is in this that you are “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1). Peter (the apostle, not the husband) said it better than I could. So we’ll leave it at that.
  17. Embrace grace. Accept it with open arms and open heart. Hold it tight until it soaks into your soul. Then release it. Give it away. To your family, to your friends, to your church. When I was 20-something, my church was falling apart. The pastor left. The leadership couldn’t agree. And the congregation was about to split. I was disillusioned and critical. Sitting in judgment over all of them. Looking down my nose with disgust. But that posture helps no one, and it is not your place.
  18. Live loved. Wake up every morning and—before you put your feet to the floor—let your mind and heart linger on the fact that the Creator of the Universe loves you passionately, completely, unconditionally, and eternally. Nothing matters more than this. And this one truth can change absolutely everything.
  19. Never, ever get another perm. (A digression, I know. And yes, it is included because I needed one more point to make 20. But, really, it had to be said. Right? I’m pretty sure you were already thinking it.)
  20. Finally, prepare to be amazed. Your life may look something like you envision. Or it may take you to places that you never imagined. Regardless. Hold on tight. Because He is in the business of blowing your mind.

Which of these do you need to hear most?

Anything you would change or add?

15 thoughts on “20 Things I Might Have Told My 20-Something Self

  1. When I was twenty-one and dizzy with fear and insecurities, you gently offered me the wise words of #15, and I am eternally grateful. How blessed I am for the season when you were the mentor whose feet I got to sit at and learn and listen and be changed. How thankful I am for yours and Peter’s advice to two eager yet unbearably naive twenty-somethings in 2008. Love to you both!

  2. Am I 20-something you? Because I needed to hear every piece of this. (And #14 OH #14!)
    I, too, resist the ‘list-y, reductionist’ essays. They just seem lazy when I write them. But FOR ONCE I AM SO GLAD SOMEONE WROTE ONE.
    Thanks for being a megaphone of Grace.

  3. Kelli, I listened to your podcast and loved it. It made me think about things that I wish I had known in my late 20’s which proved to be difficult. I guess my top picks would be… Be humble, gracious and generous because you never know what life will bring you… I guess closely tied to that one would be… Never say “this will never happen to me” because God has a great sense of humor/irony of deflating us and ways of teaching us things despite our best efforts. Two more.. . People pleasing is such a heavy (and unnecessary) burden to bear… sooner you let go, the better for you and everyone around you. And finally, use your own internal standards graciously—they are to grow you so you can inspire others, not to be the tools of judgment or division. Thanks again, it was very thought provoking…Yes, I did get a perm my sophomore year and learned my lesson… never again. 🙂

  4. I got to this post because one of my mentors mentioned me about this. When I was reading this, I really did not expect anything. At that point, I was too broken to accept any advice from anyone because of what I have gone through. I guess I was busy worrying about my future, stressing out about things that don’t work out, and being mad about people who just completely broke my heart. Though after reading this post, I had this inexplicable emotional change, from mad to calm, and just started to accept things as a part of plan. I think you did really good job saying “You are not alone” by disclosing your experiences and the emotions you felt at the time. I also have read your other posts and every time I read your post I appreciate how honest you are and how good you are at telling your story.
    I believe that, as a woman who is turning 20 in April, it is important for me to remember these advices. However, my favorite article is So You Want to Get Married. I read it couple times because as somebody who never dated, I have really wanted to know how to catch “the one” whom God has prepared for me. And I think the article did a good job in describing it.

    In general, I really love your writing style, your honesty, and how you connect your life to God’s word without giving a didactic tone. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    Austin, TX

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Joanne. I am honored that you have found something here to connect with. Life can be tough sometimes. I am sorry about the things you are facing. I will be writing in the next several weeks about some of my deepest hurts. Perhaps you will find additional comfort and encouragement there.

  5. Hello –

    I enjoyed this post, especially numbers 2 -11. Good Stuff! I do, however, have a question for you regarding number 1, Examine Your Foundation Carefully. Am I overthinking this one, or this have a postmodern tone to it? You strike me as someone who does believe in Absolute Truth, and yet this reads kind of like “decide what you feel is true, and use your own truth to guide your life”. If I’m misreading it, my apologies. Just looking for a little clarification.

    1. Thanks for seeking clarification, Daniel. You are right that I do believe in absolute truth. The concern that I am addressing with number 1 is that too many of us never take the time or put in the effort to exam our own worldview. We may call ourselves “Christian” and not even realize that we are not thinking “Christianly.” We unknowingly absorb the values and beliefs of the prevailing culture and let our lives be guided by these things–instead of Biblical truth. Does that help?

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