Though I find it hard to believe, twenty-five years ago today was my high school graduation day. Besides making me feel pretty darned old, it also leads me to reflection. If I could go back, what would I say to my 17-year-old self, assuming she would listen to me? Who knows, but here goes.

  1. Don’t sit on the sidelines; participate. Ask questions, get to know people, build relationships. The high school model of learning–listen to a lecture, do your homework/write a paper/take a test, move to the next one–won’t get you a good grade in real life. You might pass, but you won’t excel. Whether you go to college or to work or anywhere else, get to know people. Connections count; you never know where or when it might make a difference. And no matter what happens, those relationships will enrich your life experience.
  2. Explore, explore, explore. I wish I had known myself as well at 18 as I do at 40-something. Unless you’re particularly gifted with self-awareness, it takes trying a lot of things to know which ones really trip your trigger. You can always make a change, but it’s a whole lot harder to make a career change once you’ve settled into a particular lifestyle. Figure out what you like to do, then figure out how you can make a living doing it. Even if it doesn’t make you rich, it will make you happy.
  3. No matter what people tell you, you can’t have it all. You can be a mom and have a career–and be successful at both–but there are always trade-offs. I wouldn’t change either of those things in my life, but it would have been a whole lot easier to have known that going in.
  4. Never, never, never give up what makes you YOU for anyone else. I’ve seen so many relationships falter–including my own–because the people involved tried to become what they thought the other person wanted, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Either way, it never ends well. Without those essential components of yourself, you’ll turn into a washed out shell. Your real self–the one who wasn’t trying to conform–attracted the other person to you in the first place. Don’t ever forget that.

These are some of the most important life lessons I’ve learned in the 25 years since I accepted my high school diploma. I only wish it hadn’t taken so long.