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12 Things I'd Tell My 25 Year Old Self (About How to Live and Lead Better)

I recently got a great email from Emily, a promising church leader in her 20s.

Emily asked me a great question: “What would you do differently if you were 25?”

The questions hasn’t left me and I so admire her for asking it.

There’s a bunch of stuff I would do differently. Things that, like many of you, I’ve had to learn to do differently.

As someone who cares passionately about young leaders and the next generation, I thought it was worth a post and conversation to which I hope you’ll contribute in the comments.

Because, like me, (even if you’re just pushing into your 30s) I’ll bet there are things you wish you’d done differently.


Dear 25 Year Old Self…Listen Up

I did a few things right as a leader, but nothing gives perspective like time and experience. Some mistakes you make as a young adult and leader are inevitable, but not all. In fact, I wish I would have applied or sometimes even known these 12 truths when I was 25.

I’m positive they would have helped me lead and live better earlier.

Here are 12 things I’d tell my 25 year old self:


1. Trust God more at his word

For almost my entire life, I have believed that the Word of God is just that – the Word of God. I always landed on the side of the authority of scripture.

But I would read certain passages and say to myself “Come on….really?” I thought I knew better.

Time and again I have seen God’s word proven to be true not just in principle but in experience. In everything from how husbands ought to treat their wives, to scriptural ethics about relationships, to insights about human nature, finances and leadership, the Bible proves itself accurate again and again.

Disobedience (even slight) comes with a cost that you and the people you love pay again and again.


2. Go to a counselor earlier to sort out your issues so they don’t come into your marriage and family

I got married at 25, and before I got married I swore I had no ‘issues’. When you live by yourself, it’s easy to get along.

Then as ‘issues’ emerged, I made the natural assumption that the blame lay with other people. Until, inevitably, I discovered I had a pile of issues (don’t we all?) I got counseling and help but not until after my wife and kids bore some of the cost of me not dealing with my issues earlier.

Go to a counselor earlier. Get into accountable community earlier. And deal with your issues as early as you can in life.


3. Trust other people earlier

I tend to be fairly trusting up front, but I was very reluctant to trust at a deep level.

I’ve realized most people are not out to get you. They care very deeply, and to the let the right people in early is just a fantastic way to live.


4. Be more selective about who you allow into leadership

I realize this sounds like a contradiction of point 3 above, but I don’t think it is.

Trusting deeply does not mean you should trust everyone deeply. And I lacked the discernment early on to know who to allow into leadership and who not to. In the name of being ‘nice’ or ‘fair’ I often failed to limit leadership to those most qualified to lead.

That always leaves the organization worse off. Not to mention what it does to you as a leader.


5. Drill down on your insecurity faster

Have you ever met a truly secure person? Chances are they didn’t start out that way.

Most of us are on a journey from some kind of insecurity to a deeper sense of security.

Two things would have helped with this. Drilling down on my issues faster would have helped. And study some of the (then) emerging field of emotional intelligence would have really helped.


6. Be less resistant to outside advice

As a leader you tend to have an opinion on everything. I still do.

But the difference between now and then is that now I realize my opinion is often wrong and that wisdom has many counselors. Sometimes I would listen, but it would take me years to implement what I had heard. I had someone tell me to have an assistant schedule my life. It took my almost a decade to fully implement that advice. It’s the only reason I can do everything I do and still do it well.

I wish I had been less defensive to outside ‘advice’ when I was starting out and had listened longer.


7. Take your physical health seriously

I only started taking my physical health more seriously a few years ago when I hit my forties.

My wife has always been healthy, but I consistently ignored healthier food options and exercise. The energy of youth can disguise a lot the damage you’re doing to your body by not eating right or working out. And, no, spiritual fitness does not override your need for physical fitness. We are called to love God with all our heart, mind soul and strength.

By the time I was in my late thirties, I was 40 pounds heavier than I was at 25. Fortunately, now I’m closing in on a few pounds of where I was in my mid 20s. Wish it hadn’t taken 20 years. And I’ve also discovered a love of cycling. I feel so much better.


 8. Spend less time reinventing the wheel trying to be ‘unique’

I think most leaders want to quietly leave a little dent in the universe. At least some of us do.

What I figured out a decade into my leadership is that most of what I spend my days trying to do has been done by someone else, often better.

If there are synergies to be had by borrow a strategy from someone else, often it makes sense just to do that. I wish I had stopped trying to be so original earlier and copied what could easily be copied, focusing my creative strengths on those things that would bring the best and most unique value to our team and organization.


9. Find mentors earlier

I wish I had found more mentors earlier.

Two things fueled my hesitation:

I didn’t clearly see my need for them

Even when I did I was afraid to ask

Fortunately for me, three years into my time as a senior leader a mentor ‘adopted’ me and I began to see the value in mentorship. I just wish I had asked a few more people earlier. My life is so much better now for having half a dozen mentors in my life.


10. Focus on productivity, not just effort

I’ve always had a high capacity for work. But sometimes I would put in more hours than I need to.

I did too much solo early on, not employing a team. And often my methods meant I wasn’t as productive as I could have been.

You don’t get points for working 60 or 70 hour weeks. You get points for producing results.

I could have either shaved hours off my work week earlier or produced much more in the time I spent working by engaging a team earlier and focusing on productivity sooner.


11. Be comfortable being yourself

How much effort gets wasted wishing you were someone else, had a different gift set or been wired differently than you are? In my case, way too much.

In as much as you shouldn’t spin your wheels reinventing what you don’t need to (Point 8 above), there’s also a sense in which you need to become more of whom God designed you to be. Wisdom knows the difference between the two.

I wished I would have become more comfortable being who God designed me to be earlier.


12. Enjoy life more

At 25 I wish I would have enjoyed life more. I probably still struggle with this. I’m driven enough to spend my hours thinking about what could be rather than enjoying what is.

I would have enjoyed God more, life more, my kids more, people more, daily interactions more…and just maybe taken a breath.

Just because you’re driven doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the life God has given you.

Those are 12 things I would definitely tell my 25 year old self.

What would you add to the list? Leave a comment!


  1. John Coloe on September 4, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    Always great to see a focus on self-leadership. I love this list. The wisdom underpinning each point is priceless.

    To this list, I’d add the following three points:

    1. Really know yourself – Before setting a course, it’s paramount to understand our gifting, and to discern how this is different from our God-given talents and abilities. Believing lies of this world, denying my gifting until only six years ago left me unfulfilled and less fruitful than I otherwise could have been for far too many years.
    2. Community – The importance of being truly known by a few simply cannot be overstated. To point #1, being surrounded by like-minded people who want nothing from you, only the best for you, will help greatly in gaining an accurate self image. To your point of seeking out wise godly counsel early and often, the right community can help us identify and work through our issues with the additional benefit of accountability.
    3. Mentor and be mentored – Along with point #2, the value of intentionally pursuing mentoring is incalculable. Completing the circle, we all have something of value to share with others. So, where possible and appropriate, be as willing to pour into others as we desire to be poured into.

    In addition to the “What would you do differently?” question, Andy Stanley suggests also asking “What would you do the same/again?”. I’d love to see a counterpoint post answering the latter question Carey.

    As is said, evaluated experience is the best teacher. Additionally, the best route to a desirable destination is to emulate those who’ve gone before us. Answering both questions helps others by showing them a path through the “mine field”. Footsteps to follow while pointing out hazards along the way.

  2. Sam Lee on August 25, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    I’d tell my younger self not to live such a frantic/hurried pace of life. God did not wire us to live this way and He is more than able to look after us. A good rhythm of living life (slower) goes a long way. The second advice would be to find good spiritual practices (like practicing stillness/silence) so I’m able to make space for God and to discern what is truly important

  3. John Dobbs on August 25, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Great list! I found some things I need to be telling my 52 year old self.

  4. Daniel on May 25, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    1. Determine what’s most important to you ( Money? / Freedom? / Family?/ Spirituality? / Adventure? / Learning?/etc ) None of the above qualifies as equally important.

    2. Whatever your choice in 1., the “HUMAN FACTOR” (quality of your relationships) is the most important in getting you there. All the rest comes second (your Intelligence/credentials/abilities/qualifications/etc)

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 26, 2014 at 8:36 am

      Great advice Daniel. Really great advice. I love how when Christ is our top priority, it reconciles the issue of relationships around, because he summarized our faith as a loving relationship with God and loving relationship with others and ourselves.

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  7. josh reich on March 11, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Love the list Carey, pure gold.

    The only thing I’d add is don’t take things so seriously. The things that stress me out or things I think will wreck my church aren’t that big of a deal in a month or even a week. I’d let go of things faster than I used to. I used to get so worked up over things.

  8. Maureen Kelley Small on March 11, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Great list. #2 is essential! I waited till I was in my mid-thirties and in crisis before I went for counselling. I’ve encouraged my own young adult children and others that I “mother” to seek counselling at this stage in their lives. You touch on this a bit, but I would add, “It’s not about making a name for yourself.” In my 20s I dreamed of seeing my name in lights – or more likely in print – and much of what I did in leadership ended up being about what could get me ahead & further my own agenda. I gave lip service to “humility,” but I wasn’t truly leading humbly. Leading humbly means doing what’s set before you, what’s best for the organization, whether or not you get any credit or it furthers your career.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2014 at 11:40 am

      Maureen…great points. Not making a name for yourself is a great addition. And kudos on encouraging counseling earlier.

  9. revlahart on March 11, 2014 at 10:02 am

    On April 1, I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of my ordination, and there are items on this list that I continue to find my way with. It’s a great list, and thank you for sharing it!

  10. Lawrence W. Wilson on March 11, 2014 at 8:28 am

    Love #10, Carey. I spent far too long working harder on things that don’t work.

  11. Brandon Kelley on March 10, 2014 at 11:47 pm

    Thank you for this. As a 24 year old leader, this is definitely of value to me. I have found #9 to be huge in my journey thus far.

  12. Justin Hiebert on March 10, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    A great list of things to remember for leaders, and it authentically wrestles with the primary issues that I think people have in leadership: insecurity, egoism, and self-reliance. I’m reminded of Paul’s words that love builds up but knowledge puffs up.

  13. Gary Davis on March 10, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    Great list Carey. 6,7,9 & 11 have been good to me. Of course, 1 above all others. Every young leader can benefit from this list.

  14. Robert Hartzell on March 10, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Great post Carey. I agree on all of these. I’m excited to see more of #2
    happening—I’m counseling several people in their 20s and it’s
    wonderful to see them dealing with their stuff before more “life”
    happens to them. Thanks for the post.

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