Dear Lost 20 Year Old (And His Parents),

I know you don’t know what comes next. The traditional college path didn’t work out on your first attempt, and the job market hasn’t produced what it promised. You are having trouble finding yourself; you don’t know where to start out anew or what to do next. Do you go back to school? Look for another job? Move? Look for a way to start over? Hide and cover your head back at home?

As one of your chief advisors, there is something that troubles me because I don’t hear you or your parents discussing it. While you are all talking about career versus education, living here versus living there, opportunities and possibilities, no one has been talking about your identity formation. 

Your identity started forming when you were a young teenager. You were a smart kid, a band nerd, a musician, and a straight-laced rule follower. You were the youngest child in the family, the one who was accustomed to being told what to do, being led around by more experienced others. You were an uncertain decision maker, a term you have used to describe yourself time and again. Throughout these years, you have labeled yourself in a number of ways. Many of them are positive, but some are not.

And now at age 20, when you’re trying to figure out what comes next, no one is talking about who you’ll think you are if you go this way or that way. If you hide in your bedroom and avoid big changes, what will that decision reinforce in your psyche? What will that decision tell you that you can’t do? Will it support your view of being uncertain, incapable, meek, or even helpless? And if you take a risk and fail, what will that reinforce? 

These years are a time for testing and succeeding (or failing) in order to decide who you are. Who do you believe you are today? What would you like to believe? And when exactly will the identity that you have started to adopt set itself in stone, becoming the permanent sense of who you are? In one year? Two? Five if you’re lucky?

At age forty or age ten, deciding where you’ll go to school or which house you will live in tends to have far less impact on your long term identity than it will right now. You, as an emerging adult, are in the thick of identity formation. That’s what this time is for. You peel yourself away from your past, and you break out into a new future. This is the task of teens and young adults for time eternal. 

As you make these tough life decisions, with the strong support of your parents, I hope you’ll all start talking more about this forming identity, and I hope each of you will consider what effect decisions made today will have over the long term. 

Posted on March 28, 2016 .