10 Things I'd Love to Tell Myself At Twenty-One


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My girlfriend asked me, “What advice would you give my niece about investing in real estate?”

It was a loaded question that lead to several of follow-up queries.

What does she want to invest in?  Where does she want to invest?  How much money does she have?  What are her long-term goals?

My girlfriend rolled her eyes (she does this a lot) and quickly re-framed the question, “What advice would you give a twenty-one-year-old version of yourself?”

That gave me pause. 

“Good question,” I said, the wheels turning. 

Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to go back and tell themselves something important?  To pull a Marty McFly (a la Back to the Future) and jump back into the past.  People are fond of saying, “If I only knew then what I know now, life would be so much different.”  Then let’s imagine what that advice would be.

I’ll frame the discussion in a way to be helpful.  I can’t give my former self any advice that is specific to an event or item like, “Bet on the Eagles over the Patriots in Super Bowl 52” or “Buy Google stock and never sell” or “Don’t go out with so-and-so.  She’s bad news.”  The advice must be generally related to investing in real estate or personal finance.

Also, I’ll stay away from real estate/personal finance advice that I could find in most books at the time.  Ideas such as buy for cash flow, location matters, watch expenses, and get a mentor are all concepts that could easily be found in magazines and books (the internet didn’t exist for the twenty-one-year-old version of myself).  Therefore, this would just be parroting advice that was already available and not using my limited time in the past to its fullest.

Therefore, I’ll share only knowledge that I haven’t read anywhere else and that I’ve learned the hard way - by walking through life, falling down and picking myself back up again.

So, if you’re willing to continue with me on this adventure, here’s the advice I would give to a fresh-faced version of myself.  (For context - when I was twenty-one years-old, I was still in the Army and college was a year away)

Here goes…

#1. Your Friends are Morons, but so are You

For a good portion of my life, my friends have been morons.  That may sound harsh until you realize I was a moron as well.  That’s what happens when you hang out with morons.  You are either affecting others or being affecting.  It’s a constant swirl and it happens.  You’re either the catalyst for an idiot or you’re affected by the idiot.  Cause and effect, right?

In my earlier years, I hung out with general morons – you know the type, the sort with no ambition.  We partied a lot in high school and in the Army.  Having fun was more important than anything else.  Nothing really mattered beyond that moment.  We might have said we had goals, but that was garbage.  We were about drinking and trying to meet girls.

If these guys were complete morons, why would I take life advice from them?  It doesn’t make sense, but I did.  I wanted to be like my friends.  I based my purchases on what they liked, and my behaviors were a mirror of theirs.

Then I grew up some, got a bit of money but I still hung out with morons.  Their behaviors were just as bad as the younger morons, but this group had more money (or access to credit) to make even worse decisions.  And I made the same decisions as they did, wanting to fit in.  Buying new cars when I didn’t need them and, more importantly, didn’t have the money for them.  Gambling.  Yeah, gambling.  Geez.  We actually read books on how to improve our odds at throwing dice.  What a moron.

As you move through life, drop the friends that don’t make you better and do it quickly.  Move on – now!  If a friend doesn’t add value to your life, they are doing the opposite. 

Find friends that make you better and who you will make better in return.

I only have a few friends today but I have a lot of acquaintances.  There’s a reason for that.  It took many years to understand the impact close friends had upon me and my life.  They truly will impact you more than you can comprehend.

Are you willing to give up lousy friends to reach your goals?

#2.  Your Family Isn’t Much Better Than Your Friends

When’s the last time you had a family gathering?  How many family members looked honestly happy with their place in life?  Did they look like they were enjoying their work?  Did they sound fulfilled?

When you stop and think about it, how many ever said anything great about what they did for a living?

Yet how many of them are were willing to tell you how to live your life?

Guess what?  Most of them are full of shit.

The loud uncle who boasts of his motorcycle and how tough he is in bar fights?  Moron.  Move on.

What about the crazy aunt who is lit-up on wine every time you see her?  Same as above.  Ignore her advice. 

Maybe grandma wants to tell you how important a pension is since she’s lived off grandpa’s for twenty years after he passed away.  Is that going to help you?  Probably not.

Internalizing any of their advice will do you more harm than good.

Some of them may mean well (maybe the uncle doesn’t – who knows what he thinks?), but this is like hanging out with a friend whose advice you know isn’t valuable, but you’re still buddies because you have history.  Just because you were around these people when you were little doesn’t mean they always know what they’re talking about.

Unless they are truly successful (and this means taking a hard look at what they’ve accomplished in life), ignore their advice.  There are other mentors for you to find.  This doesn't mean you can't love them, just don't take their advice for how to invest or how to live your life.

Are you willing to ignore bad advice from family members to reach your goals?

#3.  The Media Has Lied to You and Will Continue to Lie

We’re bombarded every day with images of success and how easy it is to have a life of play.  Guess what?  It’s hard work.  It’s diligent work.  Sometimes, it’s not fun.  But you’ve got to get up and make it happen.

Music videos showed a life of quick and easy success.  Seriously, ABC’s How to be Millionaire didn’t help me become one.  It’s doesn’t happen like that – I wish it did.

TV shows like MTV’s Cribs filled me with envy.  They didn’t help me understand how much work was necessary to create wealth.

Movies promised immediate success outside of college.  I can’t tell you how many times I re-watched The Secret of My Success.  I had long stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, but I believed in easy success because of films.  Why?  Why did I believe in these movies when I was younger?

This isn’t a fake news rant or a rail against the horrible media.  They are selling us what we want.  That’s their job.  We are a capitalistic society, remember?  They sell what we want to consume.

We want life to be easy.  It’s not.

We want success to drop in our laps.  It doesn’t.

We want wealth and fame to find its way to our doorstep.  It won’t ever happen.

We want overnight success.  It’s never happened. 

The best advice for success is from Britney Spears – “You better work, bitch.”

Are you willing to reduce the amount of media (television, movies, and video games) that you consume so you can reach your goals?

#4.  High School Didn’t Teach You to Be Successful

I spent twelve years in school, doing the minimum and skating by, hanging out with morons. 

Well, I learned the term turgor pressure in biology.  I can’t remember what the hell it means, but the term has been stuck in my head since 10th grade biology.  Again, congrats.  That has never made me a dollar.

Home Economics taught me how to balance a check book and make an omelet.  There was never a discussion about a budget, credit cards, nor compounding interest.  That lack of information also never made me a dollar yet surely cost me tens of thousands of dollars.

Oh, I played the stock market in Economics class.  I imagine a lot people have done that.  Along with the others in the class, you pick a few stocks and watch them for a couple months.  What’s learned?  That for a two-month period investing in the market is like a horse race.  There are winners and losers, right?  I didn’t learn anything about long-term investing strategies or alternative investment vehicles like real estate.

It was a silly exercise, being taught by a teacher who had no investment experience themselves.  What was I going to learn?  At best, I would learn the ideas of diversification and spreading risk.  Winning a horse race is more exciting.

I left high school economics thinking I was ready for the business world.  I was a moron.

Surely college would prepare me for success.

#5.  College Won't Help You Become Wealthy

In a little while, I went to college.  I would be the first in my family to do it.  It was a big deal.  I finally turn myself around.  I studied hard and got decent grades.  It was a time when I could be proud of myself. 

The finance degree I earned was surely a ticket to the big time.

Except it wasn’t.

Most of what we learn in school is sort of background noise when we get into the real world.  I believe a lot of college is simply learning to show up, read, and follow the right directions.  Oh, we will learn a few things that are important, but most of our education just fritters away after a while.  Unless we move into a master’s program (I didn’t) or go after into a specialized field (I didn’t), a general degree is there to test our resolve to stick to it.  Are we willing to stay in one place for four years and earn something?  Mommy and daddy aren’t there holding our feet to the fire.  Only we are.

College is important, don’t get me wrong.  I needed the education.  I was a moron and was trying to grow into a useful member of society.  That takes some help – a lot of help.  I paid attention, but it was to all the wrong stuff.

When I get my first “real” job – they taught me what I needed to know so I could complete my duties.  However, it had nothing to do with building wealth.

#6.  Building Your Wealth Is Up to You

A high school education will not make you wealthy.  Attending college will not make you wealthy.  In fact, they only promote that a college education will help you get a job.

Guess what?  Your job will not make you wealthy.

It’s not the employer’s responsibility to build your wealth. 

It’s yours.

It’s your responsibility to build wealth.

No one ever tells you that.

They never said it once in primary school or college.  My parents also never  said it to me.

We’re left to figure this message out.  If we’re lucky, we figure it out early.  If you’re like me, you figure it out sometime around forty years old.  At least, I figured it out.  Some unlucky folks never figure it out and expect someone else to build their wealth for them.

Every dime we make, should be allocated to something.  If we spend all our dimes, there will be nothing left and we will have no wealth.

If a twenty-one year-old version of myself saved only ten percent of everything I made, I’d be a radically different person today and in a much different financial position.  

Are you willing to immediately accept the fact that your wealth is responsibility?

#7.  Buy an Investment Property Before You Buy a Home

A lot of people want to buy a house before they buy an investment property.  They make that argument for a couple reasons. 

First, it’s what they know.  It’s what their family and friends have done so it seems normal.  Remember what I said about advice in #1 and #2.  Ignore these people.

Second, they want comfort and convenience over something that pushes them into an area that would be slightly more uncomfortable. 

A residential loan will allow a person to buy up to a four-plex.  Therefore, if we can qualify to buy a duplex as our first home, why not do so?

How many people live twenty years in their first home?  Not many.

However, if you can buy a duplex out of the gate, you could live in one unit and have someone rent out the other side, thereby reducing your costs. 

When you’re ready to move, you can purchase a new house but keep the duplex.  You will already have an investment property.  And when you move you will be able to rent out both units.

Someone gave that advice to me when I was twenty-two years-old.  Do you know what I said?

“I don’t want to buy a duplex first.  I want my home first.”  Guess what I did.  I bought a house and started trying to keep up with the Jones.  Then I bought another, bigger house.  I didn’t buy a duplex (or any investment property), until I was forty years old.  

I wish I could punch that twenty-something version of myself in the eye.  He didn’t listen.  Don’t make his mistake. 

Doing this could forever change most people’s paradigm.

Are you willing to do something others won’t so you can have others don’t?

#8.  Time Is Not a Renewable Resource

Yesterday is gone.  You’re not getting it back.  What did you do with it?  Did you get something accomplished or did you waste it?

At twenty-one, the whole world was in front of me.  Believe it or not, fifty comes shockingly fast (I just turned forty-nine).  When writing pieces like this, I think back on a lot of wasted days.  Those useless hours are never coming back.  It’s hard to find many good points on wasted hours.

Of everything I’ve said here, I think this may be the most important message to share with the twenty-one year-old version of myself.  Quit screwing around.  Stop watching TV.  Stop playing video games.  Stop wasting time on childish things.  Stop hanging out with morons.

Have you ever seen an hourglass?  Sand slowly fills up the bottom but as it gets fuller, it seems the sand is actually running quicker?  It’s not.  It’s an illusion.  It’s the same pace.  Time is constant.  But as there is less time in the top of the glass, it looks like it is slipping away faster.  That’s how it is in life.

You never get to turn over the hour glass and start time flowing again.  Once those grains of sand fall through, their gone.

Just like a wasted day.  Just like a wasted hour.

Are you willing to stop wasting time to reach your goals?

#9.  Real Estate Really is Simple(ish)

It’s a numbers game and it’s is not rocket science.  Stop convincing yourself otherwise. 

Don’t get freaked out.  Relax and take your time.

That’s it.  Really.  What more do you want me to say?

Did you want me to come back from the future and give some magic formula for investing?  It doesn’t exist.  Don’t you remember my tirade about the media making everything look easy.  It’s not hard, but it does require work.  You will have to take some time and learn.  It’s not going to be done in one or two paragraphs of advice.

There’s a ton of information out there on real estate investing.  We make it more complicated because we want it to be.  We make it harder than it is because we want an excuse not to get in the game.  It’s easier to stay out of investing and say, “I don’t understand it” than to actually jump in and get started.  Trust me, I spent years telling myself it was too complicated, and I was a property manager in the commercial real estate industry!

Are you willing to stop making excuses and believe you can do it?

#10.    Set Goals

In most of my advice, I asked if you were willing to do something to achieve your goals.  That’s only great if you actually have goals

I always told people I had goals, but I really didn’t.  I mean they were nebulous.

"I want to be rich."  What the hell does that mean?

"I want to travel the world."  Sure, kid.  How are you going to make that happen?  By watching TV?  By playing video games and watching movies? 

Talking about dreams is worthless.  It’s childish.  I needed to set goals so I could work towards them - so I could have something to strive toward.

I never had a problem taking action.  I've always been good about going out and doing something.  My problem was what I had no idea what I was going after.  Why was I working hard?  What was I trying to accomplish?

Just working for working's sake is a fool's game.  All your going to get is tired in the end.  You're also going to get easily frustrated and discouraged quickly. 

Start setting goals immediately and then get after reaching them.  A funny thing happens once you start hitting your goals.  Life looks different.  You feel different.  Your world becomes different.

Are you willing to set goals so you can be the person you know you can be?

There you go - the ten pieces of advice I'd give a younger version of myself.  What about you?  What advice would you give yourself if you had follow the same parameters?