Culture

6 Warnings I Would Send My Younger Self

Who has two thumbs and loves Back to the Future? This guy! Replete with such cornball humor, and stimulating the imagination to ponder mysteries of the universe like temporal displacement and women, the ’80s popcorn adventures hold up to this day.

As 2015 nears, boasting a movie release schedule packed with blockbuster franchises – everything from the next Star Wars to Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World – it saddens me to realize we won’t also see a revisiting of the Back to the Future universe. You may recall that 2015 was the year that Doc Brown and Marty McFly traveled to in the second film. That year will also mark the 30th anniversary of the franchise. A second volume of films centering around the disparity between 2015 as we will know it and the one encountered by Marty as a teenager carries a lot of potential. If only screenwriter Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis were reading.

Much of the fun in Back to the Future emerges from a clash of generations, how things change over time — and how they stay the same. The second film in the series addresses what might happen if you went back in time and told your younger self how to be successful. Marty McFly plots to take a sports almanac from 2015 back to 1985 so he can place bets on foreseen outcomes. When the book falls into the hands of an elderly and villainous Biff Tannen, he executes the same plan to disastrous effect.

Sure, sending your younger self stock tips or sports scores may be an underhanded way to achieve your best life now. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t less scandalous messages you could send which might produce a better result. Here are 6 warnings I would send my younger self.

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6) Postpone Moving Out

I couldn’t wait to get out of the house. I was in such a hurry, and so committed to removing myself from my parents’ grasp, that I packed a handful of belongings into a busted Grand Am and left the Twin Cities for a part-time radio job. Mine may be the rare tale of someone running to Kansas to “see the world.” I had never been on my own before, and chose to experience independence two states from home.

Shockingly, I did not land on my feet. Work to supplement my income as a disc jockey was hard to come by. I delivered pizzas in the aforementioned beater, offering the military police of Fort Riley ample opportunity to cite me for driving without a headlight (not with a headlight out, mind you, but without a headlight). After three months, I was forced to break camp and head home on my last dollar.

If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t. As eager as I was to get out of my parents’ house, in retrospect I would tell my younger self to stay as long as possible while gearing up for a proper exodus. Note: I do not prescribe lounging around, living on your parents’  labor. Rather, staying should be part of a larger strategy to ensure long-term success once you finally do get up and go.

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5) Don’t Go to School without a Plan

Like so many among my generation, I adopted the conviction that college was essential. Two sides made up that coin. First, the culture around me portrayed a bachelor’s degree as the modern high school diploma, absolutely essential to being considered for a decent-paying job. Second, I got the impression that a college degree made it easy to get a better job. The net impression: going to school ensures success, and not going ensures failure.

Even after years in the workforce, this idea nagged at the edge of my consciousness, an itch which increasingly demanded I scratch. Eventually, I chose to earn a bachelor’s degree online, just to get it done. While the accomplishment retains some merit unto itself, in the final analysis I have a piece of paper and many thousands of dollars of student loan debt. By my reckoning, I have yet to earn an extra dime on account of having a bachelor’s degree. In every job I have held, including the jobs I hold now, I have worked alongside (and even for) people without degrees.

My wife’s story proves even worse. She went to graduate school and enrolled in a program designed to deliver her straight to a doctorate. After five years, she came to the horrifying realization that she could not finish her program. Today she too works alongside people without degrees, and has not earned a dime on account of her education. Combined, our student loan debt amounts to six figures. We may never own a home.

In each case, we went to school for the wrong reasons, without the foresight to integrate our education into a plan for living. In my case, I went to school because I thought I should, not as a means to a particular end. In my wife’s case, she neglected to weigh the cost of pursing her chosen career, and discovered far too late that she was not willing to pay it.

Unquestionably, we would be better off today had neither of us gone to school. That’s not to say college or graduate school should be avoided, only that they should be attended as part of an objectively worthy plan.

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4) Avoid Debt, Save, and Invest

You might think this one goes without saying. You would be wrong.

At no point throughout my childhood did anyone convey this message to me. I did not get it from my parents. I did not get it from school. I did not get it from any other influence in my life, not from religious leaders, not from the media, not from adult mentors. No one.

Conferring with my peers over the years, I have concluded that few of them received this message either. In fact, many of us heard messages to the contrary, and were offered horrendous examples to follow.

Here’s a smattering of the sorts of things I and others of my generation heard while growing up:

You can’t take it [“it” being money] with you.

Live for today.

Everyone has debt.

Bills are part of life.

You might as well enjoy it while you have it.

My mother received Social Security benefits via direct deposit each month. She would routinely start spending the money three days before it arrived, writing checks which she gambled would not clear until the deposit was made. Once in a while, she’d get burned and go into the bank to harass them into dropping the fine. It was a monthly routine, regular as clockwork.

With those kinds of messages and examples, I delved into adulthood with little respect for the value of a dollar. I continue to pay for my lack of judgment. Only now, after learning things the hard way, have I begun to view money properly. The nice part about that is still being young enough to do something with the wisdom, and being able to convey it to my sons while they are young. The downside is living with the knowledge that the first seventeen years of my adulthood were largely squandered.

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3) Value Friendships Accurately

Bad associations spoil useful habits. That’s a quote from scripture which my mother recited frequently. For her, it was an appeal to divine authority used to justify her disapproval of any friend I kept long enough for her to meet. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we were expected to keep our relationships within the flock. Even then, we were encouraged to scrutinize each other with inquisitorial resolve.

Naturally, as I grew up and grew away from that particular faith, I included among my rebellion a broad acceptance of any friend who would have me. I came to have friends from every social clique, many of whom could not stand each other. Like all teenagers, I fixated upon how my friends regarded me and often sacrificed my values in an effort to earn loyalty.

I had the opportunity to enroll in my state’s post-secondary enrollment options plan, a program which enabled high school students to attend college courses. I had the choice to attend college full-time or part-time. The latter would see me attending high school in the morning and college in the afternoon. I chose that, not because it was the best option for my education, but because it enabled me to continue seeing my friends.

Looking back from the vantage point of hindsight, I never should have prioritized high school friendships over a jumpstart on higher education. Excluding social media, I can count on one hand how many friendships from those days remain an important part of my life.

Friendship can be easily overvalued. If you filter friendship through your rational best interests, you end up with a slim few who truly enhance life.

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2) Love Your Spouse Before You Meet Them

Another generational trend which I adhered to was living with my spouse long before she became such. Moving in with a significant other was a matter of pure pragmatism. As young adults, we needed roommates anyway. As a couple, we were going to be spending a lot of time together frequently. So why not save hassle and shack up?

It turns out our prudish Christian forebears were on to something. The best way to love your spouse is to respect the marital relationship long before it begins, even before you meet. You do that by not blurring the lines between dating and marriage, by keeping certain things sacred. Sure, it’s old-fashioned and eye-roll inducing. But trust me, there’s something to it.

Living together, which is to say living as though you are married when you are not, fosters the illusion that you understand the marital bond. I can’t tell you how many times I heard from other men my age or said myself that “marriage is just a piece of paper.” Nothing will change, we told ourselves before the ceremony. We were wrong.

The moment you get married, everything changes. Sure, the outward routines may remain intact, especially if you were living together before. However, the relationship takes on a new flavor, and the psychology of each partner shifts. Whether you want to admit it or not, before getting married, you take comfort in a way out. The ability to break up, to simply take your stuff and go, lurks in the corner of your mind like a dimly lit emergency exit. Once you get married, that exit gets bricked up. That has a profound impact on your sense of relational claustrophobia. There’s a difference between knowing that you will spend the rest of your life with someone and realizing that you will. The knowledge soothes you with romantic platitudes. The realization kicks you in the groin.

We create the problem by embracing a culture of polyamorism, where we generally accept as appropriate and even healthy a long and diverse list of premarital relationships. How else can we find “the One,” if we do not first sample all the gender has to offer? This notion of romantic destiny, of finding ultimate fulfillment in another human being which we search for by turning over stones of sexual exploration, sets us up for disappointment when we finally settle down.

By regarding our future spouse not as the fulfillment of our lives, but someone we commit to experiencing uniquely, we can enter marriage better prepared to love them for who they are rather than how they compare.

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1) Live For Your Own Sake

If I could send only one message to my past self, this would be it. John Galt put it this way in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:

I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

That conviction informs every other message on this list. Is it selfish? You bet. It’s also unassailably moral.

Our culture confuses selfishness with irrational hedonism. Bernie Madoff was selfish, we say. But was he really? Did his scheme work out for him? Did it serve his rational self-interest? Even before he was caught, even while he enjoyed the loot he plundered from his many marks, could he rest easy? Could he feel proud of his accomplishments as a man, or did he have to distort or mute his rational sense in order to live with himself?

Real selfishness proves rational. A man loves his wife selfishly, regarding her value as an enhancement of his being. Indeed, his wife would accept nothing less. Who would accept pity as love?

You avoid debt, save, invest, value friendships accurately, and love your spouse, all for your own sake. Even when you do something “for others,” you do so in affirmation of your values. You make a judgment and engage in a transaction which leaves you better off than you were before. Otherwise, you would not do it. The thought “I don’t want my money going to [X],” which we have all had at some point or another, indicates our sense of this truth. If the point of charity was just to do something for others, it would not matter whom the other was.

While Galt and his creator were atheists, their expressed principle finds affirmation in God, an eternal being complete unto himself who does everything for his own glory. While Christians often adopt the pretense of sacrifice, in truth, we offer nothing to God. We submit to the restoration He offers for our own sake, to his eternal glory.


Until we develop the technology to send these messages back in time, I must content myself with passing them on to my sons as they grow up. My hope: that they learn from my experience and avoid my mistakes. That may be a lot to ask, given the human predilection toward learning things the hard way. But at least they will have the benefit of warning, which is more than my younger self could claim.