What I Would Tell My Teenage Self Today
What would you say to your teenage self, looking back with all the knowledge and insights you have gained (hopefully!) over the past decades? I know what I would tell my younger self. It is something I still like to say to young teenaged girls today.
As far back as I can remember I have wanted to be either an architect or interior designer. There really was not a profession such as interior designer when I was growing up. Architects took care of interiors at that time in the Netherlands, my home country. It was the architects who would work out kitchen and bathroom layouts. They determined the locations and layout of stairwells and fireplaces, still one of their jobs today, although I have collaborated with architects about these elements. When I was growing up not much thought was given to the interior design of spaces in the sense we think of it today.
Granted, the aristocracy and merchants, the lawyers and doctors, the politicians and speculators, in short those with higher than average incomes, embellished their homes in grandiose and sometimes dramatic ways. I think of palaces and merchants’ homes. They could afford it. Albeit some with tax money from the people! Then two world wars destroyed a lot of my country’s buildings, homes and public services. In particular the second world war. People had to rebuild a lot of infrastructure. The economy was in shambles and with the help of the USA’s Marshall Plan, Europe began to rebuild.
I was born manyears after the second world war ended, in the very south of the Netherlands in the town of Hoensbroek near Maastricht, where eventually the Maastricht Treaty was signed signalling a new free trade Europe with a single currency, the Euro. By then I had already moved to Canada.
When I was preparing for my high school finals, it was my intention to go to the Arts Academy in Rotterdam to study interior design. My high school diploma was focused on languages, law and accounting more than anything. In those days, a student had to make the decision to follow alpha or beta studies when they entered high school. Looking back that was way too early for me, in any case. It would have been better for me to have taken a beta study program so I could enter a university to study architecture. But what do you know when you are 12 or 13 years old….so I made drawings and developed designs in my free time, at home.
My high school education did not allow me to study architecture. I could blame my parents who thought that math would never be my strong point (that turned out to be incorrect); I could blame the system for having such rigorous rules and regulations in the education field which forced young people to make life decisions at far too young an age.
So I never studied architecture despite coming from a family of builders and architects. I also never made it to the arts academy in Rotterdam to study interior design, as basic a field it was at that time. I grew up in a family with four children. I was the eldest. When I was ready for post secondary education there were still three children after me to take care of by my parents. And as so often happens, life threw a wrench into my plans.
My father was the CFO of a day coal mining company in line for a promotion to CEO the same year I was to graduate from high school. That year natural gas was discovered in the Netherlands and almost overnight, day coal mining became obsolete. The company had to liquidate and close its doors.
This had serious consequences for my family. I was about to embark on my post secondary education and my family’s future was uncertain in financial terms. I was told that a four year study program would not be there for me. Money needed to be preserved. A government student loan was out of the question since my father’s income would be considered far too high for me to qualify for governmental assistance. Bank loans for students did not exist. And scholarships were not available either.
I choose something else, something safe, something utterly boring and so unsuitable to my character and temperament. Of course, that did not last long. A couple of years later I realized I would qualify for a student loan (by then two siblings were also entering the post education field - still no family money available for me for a long term study program. Not that I even bothered to ask. I knew the situation.)
I also realized that at that point, with student loans, I could go to the Arts Academy in Rotterdam. I was young, in love with a cool guy and antsy. What could stop me!
This time, I stopped myself. Since I was in love and not quite prepared to move to another city to study interior design, I signed up for a university program of Cultural Anthropology. Four years and an undergraduate degree later I realized that I would not want to be in the Anthropology field. There were virtually no jobs other than academia. And, that I did not want to do. How utterly dumb and stupid was that! To this day I am acutely aware of that mistake. Eventually I went back to interior design and got my qualifications. When you realize there are other ways in getting an education than your parents’ wallet, loans and scholarships and you badly want it, you can find a way. I certainly did. So, in light of these facts there are two things I would tell my teenage self:
(1) NEVER make life decisions based on a relationship that is not a permanent one (permanent as in a form of marital one). Never make life decisions based on romantic feelings. And, of course, at that age hardly anybody is in a permanent relationship and if someone is, that is an issue all by itself and needs to be seriously evaluated, in my view. Even in a permanent relationship it is important to follow your heart, your instincts, your gut feelings and hopefully you have married the right person who will allow you to do just that.
I would recommend to quiet all those voices in your head to find out what your deeper self is telling you. Don’t listen to what parents, teachers, friends and a whole range of influential people have whispered in your ear while growing up…. Find out what really matters to you, not all the others. Make sure you either have a post secondary education that you like, that suits you, not your father or mother, or your ancestors. or your boyfriend of the month. I was stubborn and silly, I was like a donkey. I made this mistake not once, but two times! Argh….how insecure, looking back.
(2) Learn to become financially independent! Learn about finances, learn how to set a budget and stick to it. Learn about compounded interest and its impact. This is so important, especially for a girl, a woman. Trust me, I have been there, financial dependence is not a pretty picture. I wish I had known about compounded interest when I was a teenager. I would certainly have more money in the bank today! The Me that I am today would not let that happen to the Me then. But, it is in the past and cannot be remedied, other than making sure not to become financially dependent ever again. A firm resolve I have now.
But life does give us silver linings, doesn’t it? Or perhaps even golden ones. After my second mistake my amazing son was born, my biggest blessing in life to this day. I could not imagine my life without James. He has the capacity to make this world a better place, more than I did at that age. He is smart. He is kind. He has a generous spirit. He is a real mensch. Yet, even when he was growing up I would talk to him about exploring life, about expressing how you feel and what you think, about making smart decisions, about making decisions based on facts not emotions. Decisions he could benefit from rather than loose. Decisions he could look back on and be proud of. I think I may have succeeded.