I have a 22-year old son, and my advice to him is the same:
Between 16 and about 30, life gives us incredible energy. After that, we have less energy and less time. As Franklin said, "Do ye love life? Then do not waste time, for that is the stuff life is made of." You see, one of the great lessons of Western Civ is to delay gratification in hopes of a better reward down the road. Hence, the many compelling time-wasters of our day (mindless internet surfing, video games, texting, endless social media use, porn, bad relationships etc.,) –these are all a slow drip of poison for the life you hope to have. You can never get back those many hours wasted.
What should one do instead? Read, study and build skills. Listen to old people. Hone your ability to concentrate. You are now in the 'habit-forming' time of your life, that will carry forward for many years. Guard your integrity: your word, the quality of your friendships, the interests you allow yourself. Be fully in the moment; life is more interesting that way.
My son is a student and a cook. If I was between jobs, I told him, or if I had some days available, I'd ask to work for a week at a few different restaurants as an unpaid intern. Sign a liability waiver, smile, and tell them you want to learn from experts like them, and all you want at the end of the week is a great reference or referral. They may feel complimented, and give you a chance. They may keep you on, as a paid employee. You'll learn to cook other things, and add a new cuisine to your experiences. Think about your young life this way, as an opportunity to pack away experiences. It's hard to find the time to learn them, later.
For those NOT on scholarship and WITHOUT deep parental financial support: A young person should first seriously consider learning a trade, at a tech or occupational school, before their college career. A trade: working with your hands with a bona fide skill connects you to the real world in a way classroom knowledge cannot. Your work at that trade will pay you much more per hour. Paying for college by working full time at a low-wage entry level job is mind-numbingly hard. Besides, this will make you more interesting. "Hmm, an accountant who can weld? I better read this resume…" Personally, I use all kinds of skills I picked up while young, which come in handy now.
Ah… but be careful: Peer pressure will urge you toward making that trade into your life. That extra money will be a big temptation. Do you want to stop there? Or continue on to a better place, and a 4-year degree? HAVE A PLAN – don't just coast along. Use the trade as a tool to better yourself, as part of a broader goal, with timelines, a series of goals and discipline.
Don't be afraid to realize that some of your friends may be time-vampires, or for that matter, emotion-, or energy-vampires. All relationships are a give-and-take, but if your friends chronically derail you from your goals, dreams or better judgment, get new friends.
One should avoid student loans if at all possible. In the US, we're probably looking at the bubble of higher education bursting soon, because the cost of education has risen so much faster than inflation, and because the quality of education is declining. Admissions officers lie. "Oh yes, Modern Dance is a fine major. I'm sure you'll find many rewarding opportunities with this degree, as do all our grads. Just sign here…" And on this subject, look at what starting income is for your proposed field of study. Don't waste your financial aid. If you are going into debt with student loans, know that a new grad will almost certainly be paying huge bills in comparison to their salary – and for decades – if they've chosen a sociology degree, architecture, or fine arts, or womens' studies, or basically anything in the soft sciences, with the salaries those degrees command, even if they can find a job! Sorry. Hard sciences, business or pre-professional curriculums are a much better bet. [For more, see this link for a study of Return on Investment (ROI) for US colleges, and my response to Dan Dorpsworthy, below.]
I want to be clear: I like (good) architecture, and women (as a rule), and (good) art. But these degrees don't pay well, or there aren't many opportunities with those degrees compared to the number of grads.
Quick story: my car dealer had a 22 year old come in to buy a new car. He'd just graduated from a state school with a degree in… Geneaology. He had $140k in student loans, and was looking for work, having a tough time of it. My dealer told him he was nuts to take on more debt, that he would be lucky to get even a $40k/yr job. It absolutely shocked the kid, and when he recovered, he stormed out; it was probably the first time someone told him the truth about his prospects. But it was the truth, nevertheless.
Ah, but I digress. Let't talk about you.
Brain-building – If you can't concentrate and read a book for a few hours, work on it anyway. Until at least the age of 25, the brain is still developing its habits. Starve its craving for the video games you play, and feed its ability to focus on books or a study topic. This gets much easier with practice.
On that subject, your choices in life don't just define you, they become you. You are your choices: That simple fact is the greatest piece of wisdom anyone ever gave me. See, our brains grow to meet the experiences we give ourselves. If you spent hundreds or thousands of hours on video games, your brain will be wired to seek pleasure through them, and it will be a serious battle of withdrawal to break away from that endorphin source. The same is true with all habits we nurture. When YOU control your brain's input, instead of passively seeking whatever is pleasurable, you can begin to change your habits and your very self. Example: More study make studying easier. Or, regular writing helps you communicate better over time. Talking, versus texting helps you develop interpersonal skills that will make you more valuable as an employee. You'll create new clusters of brain synapses to support an ability or skill where they didn't exist before. But the reverse it true, too, for bad habits…
Porn is destructive. If you have to watch porn to get turned on, you are harming your ability to find natural pleasure with your partner. Eventually, that porn habit will destroy your relationships. It fairly quickly leads to other bad things, like dysfunction, secrecy, cheating, hurtful behavior, unrealistic perceptions of yourself and others, self-hatred, disease and destruction of trust. It will consume you, and dramatically change how you would normally relate with your world. Ban it from your mind. Be your own censor. You are worth more than to let yourself descend into that hell. (Not convinced? Watch the video I've appended to the end of this post.)
Anything you do repetitively helps you become an expert at it. So ask yourself, "Do I really want to commit thousands of hours toward being an expert at video games, or at writing Reddit memes, or at an internet porn obsession?" Ugh. At the end of your life, will you wish you had spent more time doing those things? Do they offer any redeeming, long-term value to you? Of course not. Some day, young one, you will understand what I am writing here. I'd rather you understand it now, than as a broken 70-year old, alone and muttering about the unfairness of life, and all your missed chances.
Be discerning – don't just consume whatever mindless pleasure comes your way, like an unthinking organism. Guard your gates.
Be Fully in the Moment – Do you find yourself texting in class, or at a dinner with friends? When you do that, those around you often feel uncomfortable, as if you are saying they are less important. Put it away, and open up your awareness to all you are missing. There are people you know whom you will never see again, old folks who will die, and younger people who may move away. Let them have a great last memory of you.
Mentors: You may have a mom or dad who can give you practical advice. Or a grandparent. Seek them out, or an older person who is 'disinterested,' meaning they don't just think the world revolves around you. Give your mentors the freedom to tell you the truth, even to hurt your feelings. Listen to how they perceive you, and your talents and weaknesses. Eventually, you will use your talents to address and fix your weaknesses, but not if you're stuck blaming others for them. Even if it was your parent's damn fault.
Ladies, be hard to get. Or at least, don't be easy. It messes with your head, and makes you think you have less value. No meaningful relationship starts at 1AM. At some level, men, more than women, are wired for the chase, for the conquest. Yes, it's disturbing to see how they can walk away from a brief fling with a partner. Yet, they often do walk away, unless you build a friendship first that shows him you have many attributes of value, not just sex. This link describes the hormonal and psychological basis for this. My dear, you are worth more than being a booty call. If, for him, you are just 'scratching an itch', it is unlikely to turn into something more when the other parts of his brain kick in and he associates YOU with BEING EASY. And, at 1AM, are you really in your best frame of mind to determine if he is worth your time? Focus on your goals, on real people and not players, and stay healthy and childless until you find a real partner. A man, not a boy. If you don't know, watch how he acts when under stress, or how he treats strangers. Don't make excuses for him: either he is ready for real life, or he's still in the nest. Maybe what he really needs is for you to walk away.
Especially for young men, a "coming of age" experience is crucial to our psychological development. I hitchhiked across Canada. Leaving the safety net and going it on one's own is an important step for how a boy becomes a man because it gives us a foundation for our own self-reliance. You will remember it when you need a boost of courage. Where others have suggested 'travel' here, that's fine, but just another spring break trip to a beach hotel is almost certainly a waste.
I'm personally very worried how we teach young boys, and the lack of ambition for many teenage males. It's led to a vast lost generation of aimless men in their 20s and 30s, and it is the reason why there are far more undergrad women now, than men. This is a topic for a different post, but if interested, read "Boys Adrift" by Leonard Sax MD PhD. The summary: Boys and girls develop at different rates. At kindergarten, some kids are 'ready to learn,' while others need another year of playtime. This is normal. But we harm those who aren't ready – as it turns out, this is mostly boys – by forcing them to sit at attention in school when their brains still have minimal (toddler) attention spans. (They'll catch up, sometimes surpassing girls, sometimes falling behind in all areas of development, but the error comes in thinking both sexes are the same.) Boys at the age of five need more physical activity or playtime as they transition into schoolkids. Without it, school becomes a chore, and an unhappy one, where they turn off to learning, and turn away from achievement and ambition, for life. This isn't a reflection of natural 'smarts' or 'stupidity.' Many smart boys can quickly make a habit of turning off when it comes time to learn, when if they'd waited just a year to start school, their lives would be completely different. The book also outlines several other disastrous errors in how we teach boys compared to girls. The concept I raised earlier about changing the mind's habits can be seen in effect from these early experiences. New parents, this is a very good book for you to read.
If I've described YOU, listen: it's not to late. Yes: knowing all this, you can change the way you think, but it's hard. It will be some months before you begin to see the rewards of denying bad habits with disciplined attention to productive pursuits. Don't focus on the time you lost, but on the future you can still gain.
Have you hurt someone recently? Yes you have. Face it. Find a way to make amends, and explore and exhibit genuineness, kindness and empathy. Let the other person's emotions wash over you, and get a sense of their perspective. Breathe it in, and let yourself feel bad. It's human. Self-focused narcissism that would discount the feelings and needs of others is an utter epidemic right now; a little reasonable guilt, then forgiveness, is a healthy thing. And learn to be courteous to everyone. You would be astounded to realize just how many people you pass every day who are suffering.
Finally, a habit of clear-eyed self-talk is incredibly valuable, and incredibly hard. If you can learn to put your B.S. excuses aside, and make agreements with yourself that you live up to, you will set yourself up for a far better life than giving in to every temptation that comes your way. When you realize that YOU own your life, and it is yours to create or destroy, that is the beginning of adulthood.
UPDATE: I'm gratified at all the kind comments about this post, and sincerely hope it helps many of you. The dialog continued a bit, with my back-and-forth with Dan Dorpsworthy, below. It's difficult knowing where to stop giving advice in this kind of post, as while writing I am tempted to put in "just one more paragraph." Maybe it would be better to do a series on my blog. Best wishes, -Tom
Last, on the porn issue. One of the comment writers here, Gonçalo Henrique, sent a terrific TEDS presentation on this subject, and how internet porn addiction – and other addictions – can screw up your life. It's worth watching: