The Mouth of Truth (Italian: Bocca della Verità [ˈbokka della veriˈta]) is a marble mask in Rome, Italy, which stands against the left wall of the portico of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church, at the Piazza della Bocca della Verità, the site of the ancient Forum Boarium (the ancient cattle market). It attracts visitors who audaciously stick their hand in the mouth.

Advice for My 20-Year-Old Self

When you’re 20 years old, you’re a less-awkward version of a teenager who thinks he’s an adult. You don’t know it, but you’re on the verge of discovering so much about yourself. There’s so much advice I would give my 20-year-old self.

First Time at Piazza Michelangelo on the outskirts of Florence. L-R: Me, Patrick, Chris. Behind us you can see the famous Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.
Our first Time at Piazza Michelangelo on the outskirts of Florence. Left-to-Right: Me, Patrick, Chris. Behind us you can see the famous Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.

By the way, if you would rather not read this whole thing, just jump down to the bottom of the page where you’ll find a video version of this post that highlights four main pieces of advice I’d give myself.

It all started with a Facebook discussion about Teflon in cookware.

A friend shared an article about the harmful effects of Teflon in cookware, and I lamented that I would love to go back about 12 years to when my wife and I made our wedding registry and tell myself to get something different. We are gradually replacing the Teflon-coated cookware with stainless, piece by piece.

But, I wondered, what else I would tell myself if I could go back in time?

I’m forty now. What if I went back twenty years to when I was twenty years old?

Like everybody else, I had to get a shot of myself pretending to push the leaning tower of Pisa. Yes, we all did some variation of this.

In the spring of 1999, I spent a semester in Italy. I had the time of my life, and I can’t wait to go back — and take my family with me.

I realize if I were to visit myself 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t listen to somebody twice my age! At 20, you still have something of a teenage mindset and think everyone over the age of 30 is uncool and out of touch.

That said, if I could go back 20 years to talk to 20-year-old Brad, here’s what I’d tell him, and I hope that he would listen.

Take care of your physical health now!

When you’re 20 years old you think you’re going to live forever. But trust me, start an exercise regimen now. You’re about to spend most of your waking hours sitting at a computer and it’ll mess up your back. In 20 years you’ll be doing yoga to help everything stay limber.

Eat low salt, low fat, and low sugar. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re in Italy, and you get enough exercise walking everywhere that it doesn’t matter right now. But when you get back home, you might even try eating vegetarian for a while. In a couple of years they’re going to merge Palm Pilots and cellphones into something called a smartphone, and we will have fancy watches that talk to our smartphones and we’ll be able to track what we eat and how many steps we take. Yes, it’s weird. We will probably look back and laugh at how we would try to get the last 500 of our 10,000 steps for the day before midnight by pacing in our living rooms. But it’s surprisingly effective.

Take care of your ears. Don’t go swimming in a red tide. The telltale sign is dead stuff washed up on the beach. You’ll regret that.

I lived with about 50 other people. Spot me in the bottom right corner.

A strong body is no good without mental and emotional well-being.

You’re having the time of your life there in Italy right now, but I know how incredibly lonely you are. Right now this doesn’t make any sense. How can you feel alone while hanging out with 50 other people in this amazing 500-year-old villa situated outside Florence, Italy?

You’re what’s called an introvert. Being an introvert means you recharge by getting alone time. Get a gelato or a cappuccino and sit in a piazza by yourself and journal or draw, not with the intention of impressing anybody. Just get it out. Then, find a friend you can trust, and “hey man, I need a pick-me-up right now.” It took me years to understand how important it is to be vulnerable.

When you get back to the states, you’ll fall back into the trap of looking at porn online. It’s going to get even easier to get to. Get help for that now. It will escalate and won’t go away on its own. Don’t let it fester for the next 10-15 years. It’ll hurt your marriage down the road. Just trust me on this. This is something I wish I had tackled sooner. 

See a therapist. You probably have OCD, SAD, bipolar disorder, mild depression, mild anxiety, or some combination of those. This is something else I should have addressed 10-15 years ago. The stigma of seeing a therapist is about to go away.

Stop stressing about girls, but don’t waste time with the wrong ones.

You’ll date a lot. You’ll be convinced that one girl in particular is “The One.” She’s great, but her parents rub you the wrong way, to put it mildly, so eventually you break it off. It is painful. But after that, you’ll find your wife. The saying about marrying your in-laws is true. So if you don’t like a girl’s parents, don’t date her. Thankfully you’ll figure this out on your own, before making a big mistake like marrying into the wrong family. I’m happy to report that will like your in-laws.

But don’t get married in December. My wife and I both wish we had gotten married at a different time of year. We had a Christmas wedding. Christmas weddings are pretty, but December will be mega-busy for the rest of your life now and it is hard to find a chance to celebrate your anniversary the week of Christmas. When you skip the family Christmas get-together it pisses people off. Fortunately, you’re not a people-pleaser.

So don’t worry about pissing people off. You’ll be miserable if you try to make everybody happy.

Learn how to manage your money

Find out who Dave Ramsey is. Dad listens to him on the radio. You’ve heard of him, but you don’t know anything about him. Basically, this is what he says: make a budget, avoid debt, start tithing, start saving. Tithe and save 10% of what you make. Yes, you end up with 80% your income, but it is worth it in the long run.

This is boring adult stuff. But if you don’t start doing this now, you’ll find yourself at the end of the month wondering where your money went. The good news is, you figure most of this out by about 30. If you must take on debt other than a mortgage, pay it off as quickly as you can. At 40 I’m wishing I had saved a lot more.

Remember the cheat code to get 99 lives on Contra? Well, here are the cheat codes to your career.

Up, up, down, down, left, right, B, A. I wish it was that easy! But it’s not as hard as you think.

1. Start an email list. Start with a dozen friends and quickly build it to 100.

That dorky, flimsy Rolodex is about to be replaced by the address book in Palm Pilots and computers. Your contacts are your most valuable asset. Start an email list by collecting your friends’ addresses. Say, “I’m going to send out a weekly email about art and design, can I send it to you, too?” Collect 100 addresses as quickly as you can, and honor your promise to email something once a week. Once email distribution services become available, sign up. Write about your art, your design processes, your philosophy.

2. Weblogs are the future.

Right now, in 1999, weblogs are mostly used for logging daily research items at colleges or for people to collect links to cool stuff they find on the web. In a few years, they will be called “blogs.” It’ll be the next big buzzword. You’ve seen them, but you don’t know it has a name. Basically, it’s a website that gets updated regularly.

Blogs will revolutionize pretty much everything, and it’ll be super easy to launch one and get your message out to the world. 20 years later, it’s hard to take seriously any business that doesn’t have a blog.

Your website should be a blog. There will always be other sites you can have a presence on, but your blog is your home base. The same kind of content should go on your blog as your email newsletter: your art process, what art means to you, the results you get for your design clients. Focus on the people who hire you and buy your work, not your peers. Unless, of course, you want to provide services to people like you. Chances are, you don’t.

(Until you build a business and then make a business out of telling other people how to do what you did. That’s lucrative, but it takes time to get there.)

Don’t agonize over each update – publish as often as possible. Publish every day for a year, and people will start to notice. You’ll get better at expressing yourself. After a year or two, start to think like a magazine and create an editorial calendar. You’ll build a small media empire this way.

In 2003, something called WordPress will come out. Learn WordPress right away. It’ll be rough around the edges in the beginning, but it’ll become the platform most websites are built on in 10-20 years. It’s a great blogging software and in 10 years it will be a defacto content management system, or CMS. It’ll be dry and geeky and boring at first, but if you learn WordPress, you’ll have a skillset other people don’t have, plus a killer website for sharing your work.

The search engine Google launched a couple of years ago. Learn Search Engine Optimization (SEO). (By the way, buy stock in Google, Apple, and Amazon as soon as possible.) Learn the basics of SEO, and you can apply that to websites, podcasts, social media, marketing products, you name it. Good SEO is good business: be relevant to your audience. Build connections with people by producing something that resonates with them, whether it is writing, video, or audio. Yes, you’ll create all of those things.

3. Read all the business and marketing books you can find, and make a plan.

Buy books, check them out at the library, whatever you need to do. Find out who Seth Godin is and read everything he writes. Learn about art businesses and make a plan. How did Andy Warhol make money? Salvador Dali? Read up as much as you can, and make a plan.

Here’s a simple plan that works: design something cool every day, publish it, and send it to your list. Make art every day and publish it online. (Are you noticing a pattern yet?) Show up every day, even if it isn’t perfect. It’s that simple. Just publish something. This still works in 2019. Start there. Then you can find out who your people are, who likes your work, and talk to them and understand them.

Don’t think of your audience as an audience. Think of them as your tribe, your people. Once you demonstrate that you understand them, they’ll see you as a friend and start buying your work. Build up a body of work, and talk to galleries. It’s scary, but it’s worth it.

Make sure your parents know you have a plan, and follow-through. Let them see you working to get your art out there.

3. If a job sounds like it’ll suck, don’t take it. 

What might be cushy job for good money will likely crush your soul.

4. Get involved with non-profits. 

Not everything is about making money. It’s about making connections and doing good.

5. The wealthy have a several income streams.

Here’s how you can build multiple income streams as an artist and graphic designer:

  1. Launch a website/blog to share your work. Show your process. Offer freelance services to start an income stream apart from your day job.
  2. After a hundred articles or so, offer to write for other websites, for free. Eventually you can do this for money. That’s another income stream.
  3. Sell original art directly online via eBay. Sign up for PayPal and take payments that way. That’s another income stream.
  4. Offer prints online. That’s yet another income stream.
  5. Sell consulting services and open up group masterminds or create a course to share what you’ve learned. That’s a few more income streams. I know several people who have done quite well this way.

You’ll be independently wealthy by the time you’re 35 if you do this. If one area doesn’t do so well for some reason, you have others to make up for it.

Your 20s are for working your ass off. In your 30s and 40s, you’ll want to spend time with your wife and kids. Make something, find out what works, change it up when it doesn’t work, and try again. This is the “ready-fire-aim” approach to business that will absolutely work in the 2000s, 2010s and beyond.

Don’t neglect your spiritual health.

You’ll figure this out on your own, but let me just say this: Don’t waste time on churches that don’t make you feel welcome. Church should be a safe place that motivates you to do ministry. Find your own faith. Question denominational thinking.

Don’t ignore the voice telling you to make art.

Make a daily art habit. 

The results will surprise you. You’ll improve really quickly. You’ll discover what you do and don’t like to paint. Try to finish something every day, or at the very least, paint at the same time every day. For completing a painting every day, I suggest picking a small scale, like 5 inches, or a little bigger if you find yourself getting too tight. Stay loose. I’ve found painting after dinner works best for me. Not 4 a.m. You’ll try for years to become a morning person, but it doesn’t work too well. 

Upgrade to the best possible gear as soon as possible. 

Computers, cameras, paints, brushes, canvas, software. Stay ahead of the curve. Build it into your budget.

Inventory your art. 

Track who buys it and for how much. Make a spreadsheet, buy software that does it, whatever. Track this and look for patterns. (This is something I need to do now, actually.) Paint more of what people like, but don’t confine yourself to that. Make sure it lines up with what you value. For example, I know you can paint florals really well, but you don’t enjoy it so much. 

Experiment with different mediums and techniques. 

Try acrylic and metallic paint. Trust me. The metallic paint seems tacky at first but it winds up pretty awesome.

Don’t waste time watching TV. 

When you get your first apartment, you’ll do nothing but watch TV. Four-hour blocks of reruns of Stargate SG-1 on Sci-Fi channel, plus nostalgic comedies on Nick-at-Nite, and membership at a video rental store down the street will have you watching an entire season of a show in a couple of days. “Binge-watching” will be a thing. Serialized TV will be reinvented, and in 15 years, broadband will be everywhere, and we’ll be able to watch TV on the internet.

Make art instead of watching TV. If you run out of money for canvas, draw stuff and post it on your blog. You’ll run out of money at some point and take photos of stuff and throw it together in Photoshop. Keep doing that. Do it every day. Then when you have money again, buy canvas and post what you paint on your blog regularly.

Make a schedule and stick to it. 

Try doing different tasks on different days. For example, make new art on Monday. Write about it on Tuesday. Edit your writing on Wednesday. Publish it on Thursday and email your list when your post goes live. Plan the next thing on Friday. Use the weekend to read and absorb new information and restock the well of thoughts and experiences from which you draw creative inspiration. Repeat.

Your education goes beyond your classes in school.

Consider changing your major.

You will wish you had graduated a few years later and majored in interactive design, design for the internet/web. That wasn’t an option in 1999. Instead, maybe major in marketing, with minors in graphic design and painting, although you will wish you had majored in painting.

There’s so much stuff you can learn online or at the library.

In 2019, colleges and universities are losing their status quickly. If you really want to learn something, you can learn it online for free or for cheap. I’m not pushing my kids to go to college, and I come from a long line of college graduates! Who knows what 2029 will look like?

The best way to learn is to get to know people.

Listen to smart people. Read voraciously. Buy coffee for the smartest people you know and listen to what they have to say. Follow their instructions and report back to them.

I know you’re tired of all this, but I have a few last things to mention.

  1. Upgrade your hearing aids sooner. They are expensive, but worth it.
  2. Take care of your car. Keep the oil changed, the tires rotated, the tires fresh, keep it clean.
  3. The next few years are going to be hard. In 2001, you’ll see some tragic events unfold. The job market will be tough. You’ll persevere. 2009 will be difficult too, as the country experiences another market slump and you lose a job you like. Buckle up, Dorothy.



Do you think 20-year-old Brad would listen to that, or tune it out?

Knowing myself, I’d probably ignore a lot of it. But if 50-year-old me came to me today and told me what to do, I’d listen.

What would you tell yourself if you could go back to age 20?