17 Pieces of Advice for My Niece on Her 17th Birthday

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IMG_0177 Bella seriously pondering what to be when she grows up: a professional Ladybug Catcher or a Magical Fairy Princess. Decisions, decisions.

When we’re little, we tend to get asked this question a lot:

“What are you going to be when you grow up?”

It’s usually a very cute inquiry meant to amuse the inquisitor, and is never meant to pressure anyone. It’s a fun game we play when we’re six or seven. (I recall that my 4-year-old son was dead-set on being a train. Not a conductor, but an actual locomotive.)

But as we venture closer to adulthood, the question changes a bit, doesn’t it?

“When are you going to get a job?”

“What major will you choose for college?”

“What’s your life-plan?”

“How are you going to pay your bills?”

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

These questions stop being cute fast, especially when you’re someone who doesn’t have it all figured out. Sometimes you might feel a little pressured and slightly overwhelmed.

Meet Julia.

She’s my niece and freshly-turned seventeen-years-old. She’s the oldest of her cousins and the first one to grow into adulthood. Not to cause her to become self-conscious, but I must admit that we are all waiting with baited breath to see what she does with her life.

‘Cause we expect it will be dazzling.

Now that she’s nearing adulthood, the pressure to pick a life is officially on.

Thankfully, Julia is a fortunate girl. She has amazing parents, super siblings, and a ton of involved family members. She is bright, funny, athletic, a talented guitar player and possesses the most charming personality this side of the Rio Grande.

Yet, this age is so critical and yet so confusing. It’s the time many of us dive into a path we later regret. No one wants Julia to wake up at 45 and finally discover her true passion and calling after going to law school or becoming an accountant.

Yeah, she’ll pay the bills with those careers, but that’s a lot of wasted years doing something she may not be called to.

And yet, we don’t want her to linger on the sidelines of life either, wandering in circles and never getting anywhere for fear of going down the wrong path.

So I was thinking, what advice do I wish someone would have given me when I was her age? What advice might have sent me down a better path in life and closer to my calling — sooner?

In honor of her 17th birthday, I came up with 17 pieces of advice I hope will help guide her in the right direction.

Here they are:

1. Ponder the meaning and purpose of your life as often as possible. There is a great deal of noise in this world. It will do its best to distract you from delving deeper into your Faith and the true reasons you were put here on this earth. If you let that happen, you will surely miss your calling by a mile.

2. Document your life. Your experiences and perspective are unique. Treasure them by getting into the habit of recording your life through journals and pictures. When you’re 50, you’ll thank yourself for doing that. Your kids will, too. And your grandchildren. Maybe even your dog.

3. Give your time and effort to charity. Always being involved in helping those who are less fortunate keeps you grounded in what’s real. It will humble and enlighten you, plus you’ll meet better people as well. Want to meet a nice boy? They aren’t hanging out in nightclubs, sweetheart.

4. Don’t be afraid to jump in and try new things. But if you do jump in, give it 100 percent. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time. You’ll never know if you like something – or if you’re talented at it – until you truly go for it. This is your time to explore the world and what you’re made of.

5. Travel. Somehow, find a way to go places. Go everywhere. Travel opens your mind, destroys prejudices, ignites your curiosity and will make you one fearless chick. Travel, travel, travel.

6. Learn a second language. The rest of the world does it. But the rest of the world travels more than we (Americans), too. Knowing a foreign language will give you intimate access to a country and culture. Doors will open. 

7. Strive for 100 percent honesty all the time. We’re living in a world where everyone lies and… no one seems to be scandalized by it anymore. When you lie, you lose touch with who you really are. Develop your sensitivity for telling the truth… and remember that there’s nothing wrong with refusing to reveal something that might otherwise tempt you to lie. When in doubt, just say nothing rather than lie.

8. Everything worth doing will take some hard work and pain. Finding your calling does not mean that you find that thing that is easiest to do and doesn’t require pain. Make hard work your friend. He will take you places most people never go ‘cause they’re too busy running from a little pain or discomfort.

9. Shun consumerism. Learn this now: Stuff will never make you happy or well-liked. Ever. Get as streamlined as you possibly can and work hard to stay that way.

10. Realize that Hollywood and almost everything that comes from it is a big scam & stop yourself from wishing to become famous or meet someone famous. Most celebrities live empty lives and produce obnoxious garbage with the only intention of making some money off of people who wish to checkout of their own lives and live in a fantasy world instead. Most of the celebrities I idolized when I was younger got involved in drugs, married and divorced several times and turned out to be quite dumb.

11. Find amazing people to emulate. (That do not live in Hollywood.) Choose people who win awards, write books and make this world a better place. Learn from them.

12. Don’t let boys take up too much of your life. Boys are fun to think about and dream about… but they can also steal your time and attention. Unless you’re ready to get married, keep them at a distance and direct your attention toward better things. This is your time to find yourself. Don’t find some boy instead. There will be time for that later. Much later.

13. Learn how to hold onto a buck. When you’re a kid, having money for the sake of having money seems illogical. Why hang onto it when you could buy candy, or a game, or a new surfboard? Mom and dad are paying all the other bills, so why not, right? Get out of the mindset fast and start saving. This habit will make life so much easier when you’re the one paying all the bills. Trust me.

14. Read. College will most likely teach you how to do a job for someone else. Reading will elevate your mind and truly educate you for a lifetime. Get a library card wherever you end up and start pursuing the shelves for the classics. Always be reading a great book.

15. Read the news every day. It’s all relevant to you whether you believe it or not. Stay up on current events and if you don’t understand why Israel and Palestine are constantly at war with each other, grab a history book and learn the back-story.

16. Always follow-through with a commitment. Even if you regret making the commitment, do it anyway. This will build character, integrity and maturity. It will also stop you from being impulsive about making commitments in the first place.

17. Finding your calling is not about finding the job you can tolerate in order to pay your bills and buy junk. Although finding a job to pay some bills could lead to you to your calling and help you develop a strong-work ethic.

How do you know when something is your calling? Aristotle said it best:

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.”

Surely there is more I could say to Julia. What advice do you wish someone would have given you when you were 17?

{ 29 comments }

Naomi April 11, 2011 at 10:16 pm

I think you about covered it. Those are all of the things I wish I had known at about 17.
Except maybe the college part because if you get a liberal arts degree you’ll still elevate your mind via conventional education… Other than that you hit the nail on the head. :-) Too bad we weren’t talking back then! And hey, how’d you have it figured out so well when you were that young? :-)

Melanie April 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Okay, I agree, it is possible to elevate your mind in college. From my own experience, though, I learned so much more in my extra-curricular activities (as always). I didn’t really get into history, for example, until I started reading on my own outside of a classroom.

College has become so much more about getting a grade and a job rather than truly LEARNING.

Naomi April 11, 2011 at 10:47 pm

I thought of one more.
A double one actually.
The lesson that you can not please everyone, nor should you try. That your responsibility is to yourself first and foremost not your boyfriend or your peers. And you owe it to yourself to keep their needs, wants and opinions out of the pictures when making decisions, and out of your ultimate life equation.
You should always follow your inner guidance and instincts as opposed to someone else’s, because only you can know whats best for you (even if it does take a little exploration and is found through trial and error). Additionally, one should never self sacrifice, especially for the wrong reasons or for the wrong people. I’ve taken to asking myself this one simple question from here one out – “do I really want to do that”? If the answers no, I don’t. (This by no means equates to laziness or disregard or flakiness, as I hold my commitments firm and do usually WANT to help others, especially my closest loved ones; if you’re a good person, that’s generally the case right? However, it’s a good check in question to prevent being taken advantage of or losing resources unnecessarily when you just don’t feel like going out. When it would be better to stay home and read a book, for example.
If I had known these few things – I could have saved myself a lot of misery and wasted time and energy…
I think young women can easily slip into a sort of martyrdom and can also get side tracked into wrong paths due to peer influence. So… those things are good to keep in mind. That’s it’s ok to say no, and that it’s ok to listen to your inner guidance above others.
(Sorry if it’s a little heavy. You don’t have to tell Julia this). :-P

Oh, and one more!
Take extremely good care of your health. It’s the most precious and valuable thing we can own. If you have good health, you can do almost anything given enough time, energy and determination. :-)

Melanie April 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm

I get what you’re saying here about doing what is best for you and not everyone else. I’ve always held that forced or pressured “charity” is not true charity. True charity is doing something completely out of your own volition for the sake of another… because you want to and not due to outside pressure. For example, when someone manipulates you into helping them out… and then you later regret it. That’s not charity.

Thanks for commenting, Naomi! :)

1 Timothy 3:15 April 12, 2011 at 1:08 am

I think everything that we do should consider long term goals in addition to short term goals. With long term I mean where do you plan to be in 150 years? I think ultimately, that is what’s more important and the first thing we should all ponder when we make an important decision in life.

When I was in my junior year in high school, I spent a week at a local monastery reflecting about this. I also spent my summers with Opus Dei which has great formation allowing me to see truly virtuous people striving to reach this ultimate reality. I was very blessed to be raised Roman Catholic by wonderful, loving parents who instilled the capacity to be able to dwell on this ultimate reality. The greatest time that I have had in life has been in front of the real flesh of blood of Jesus Christ exposed to us all in the monstrance during Eucharistic adoration or in front of any tabernacle in the world. Nothing has done more to fill my spiritual soul with true conviction about what we are truly made for.

When I was young I made decisions like this:

Lord, should I become a priest or an engineer? I will be happy with whatever you want of me. I just leave it in His hands and he guided me so I never stressed or worried about it.

Then when I got older I asked:

Lord, do you want me to get married or become a monk (while I visited a local monastery here in TX)? Again, if you show me the woman you have set aside from the foundation of the world to spend this short life with, then I will be happy. If you want me to dedicate my body and soul to you in perpetual prayer in a monastery then I will happily accept this. I only want what You want of me.

Our Lord set paths for my life and I never ever stressed or worried about it. He has blessed me with more than I could have ever imagined with whatever path He wanted me to take, I was ready and willing at any time. I could leave everything and give up everything at any time. It didn’t matter to me what God’s schedule was for me because I didn’t doubt He had great plans for me. I didn’t have any fear and part if that is because I realized that the ultimate reality of heaven will last forever while the short term plans in life will soon dissolve into dust (St. Thomas Aquinas said that the Summa Theological was but dust when he reflected on the same) . One blink and we have all lived our short lives on earth and are rotted in the earth. Heaven will be a perpetual eye opener. Thank you God for your guidance and the vocation you set for me.

Now it’s time for me to try to live the way he wants me to live and not the way my natural instincts constantly steer me away from His path.

- 1 Tim 3:15

Melanie April 12, 2011 at 6:04 pm

So insightful and true. If God guides your every step, how can you end up in the wrong place?

Maria April 12, 2011 at 2:34 am

The things you think are SO important at 17, you won’t even remember at 27 really you won’t. Your life and priorities will change so much in your twenties. Don’t get married before you are at least 25, if you found the one you were meant to be with at 20, he will wait till you are 25.
Make sure you do three things before you settle down and get married. Live on your own and be totally self sufficient, have your heart broken, and have broken someone else’s heart. These experiences will teach you important lessons about life and yourself. You have to be mature and strong enough to walk away from someone who is not right for you before you will find someone who is.
Know what you expect from a future spouse and friends and don’t ever settle for less. Know what you don’t want in your life and don’t ever make exceptions for friends or boyfriends. Do not compromise who you are for anyone and read \Ten stupid things women do to mess up their lives\ by Dr. Laura. Read it again at least twice a year for the next five years.

Melanie April 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Maria – Thank you for pointing our how our values change over time. Gosh, I remember being 17 and not having a clue about life.

What a hearty recommendation for Dr. Laura’s book! (I’ll have to check it out at the library… I wonder how many stupid things I’ve done out of the 10…)

Thanks for commenting!

Becca April 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Set goals. Lots of them and in all areas of your life. If you aim at nothing, that is what you will achieve. If you miss your goal, draw a line and start over. Anything worthwhile is worth working and fighting for.
Don’t pick something you “love” as your source of income. After doing anything for 40 hours a week and for forty years because you have to, you won’t love it anymore. Instead, choose how you want to live, whether it be in a mansion or a fifth wheel, only you know what is right for you, and do something that will allow you achieve your goals. But don’t break any of man’s laws or God’s laws to do it, though. Then do the things you “love” just because you love them.

Melanie April 12, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Becca,

LOVE your first sentence — wow, that’s just what an aimless teenager needs to hear, right?

Very good, solid advice. It’s sounds like you know something about raising teenagers, eh? ;)

Grace April 14, 2011 at 1:45 am

Hi Julia,

So here is my bit of advice for you as you turn 17 years old.
Pay yourself first. Ask yourself do you really need this or is it just a want. Save money and money will save you. Don’t rack up credit card debt. It’s financial suicide. If you don’t have the cash to pay for it then you cannot afford it. Especially don’t charge food or perishables. Have an emergency fund…so important. If you go to college, go to class and apply yourself. Really try to understand what you are learning don’t just learn enough to pass the test. You will enjoy it more really. There is no sense spending all that money to be half-hearted about it. Fancy new cars are only new for a short time and then all you have is an old car with a new car payment. Learn to cook. Buy a fire extinguisher…just in case. Vodka and water are not the same thing ….though they may appear similar. But most importantly find something that makes you happy and make a job of it….money will come later. Good luck to you and always keep God close.

Grace

Melanie April 14, 2011 at 2:07 am

Grace, that’s some great money advice! My favorite tip has to be the part where you recommend a fire extinguisher because it’s hard to tell the difference between Vodka and water.

(Note to Julia: You are not allowed to keep Vodka in the house.)

Hmmm… there’s a story behind that little piece of advice, isn’t there? ;)

Thanks for adding this!!!!

Amy April 14, 2011 at 3:41 am

Great advice that I’ll be passing along to my soon to be 17-year old niece!

Melanie April 18, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Thanks, Amy, for commenting! If you have some advice to add, please don’t be shy. I’d like my niece to read this will as many great comments as possible. :)

Rachel April 14, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Love this. I needed this list when I was 17. Would’ve saved me a lot of time, money and heartache.
You are an excellent Aunt =)

Melanie April 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Thanks, Rachel. I think young women, especially, need some guidance. It’s a crazy world out there — but an amazing world, too.

Really, Julia stopped thinking I was cool when she turned eleven or so. Prior to that I was the bees-knees.

Stephanie April 18, 2011 at 5:13 am

Excellent advice. All 17 pieces. I think I’m going to pass this post on to my youngest sister.
Stephanie recently posted..Day 72- Give Your Family RestMy ComLuv Profile

Melanie April 18, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Thanks, Stephanie! You must be quite young to have a sister who is around 17! (Or you’re the oldest of a large family.)

Julia April 20, 2011 at 12:15 am

greatest birthday present ever, thanks for the advice auntie, and you’ll always be the bees knees in my eyes:)

Melanie April 21, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Love you, Julia. Thanks for the comment. And for being you.

Adrienne April 20, 2011 at 2:01 am

Good Advice Sis! Julia must have appreciated the advice because she purposley had me read it.. maybe she wanted me to follow the advice at 35?? lol who knows Thanks for always loving our little julie-bear.

xo

Adrienne

Melanie April 21, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Thanks, sis. There’s probably no expiration date on advice if it’s good. XXOO

Madilynne June 11, 2011 at 5:48 am

1) Find someone you admire, and ask them about themselves. There are no ‘right’ questions to ask, just be inquisitive, and genuinely interested. Especially, find people who are experts in things that interest you. Learn from them, even if you don’t agree with everything they stand for.

2) Keep making friends. Keep keeping friends. But always spend quality time by yourself, so that you remember who you are.

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