This weekend I went to the graduation ceremony for our school’s seniors, most of whom I had in my class this year. I felt like such a proud mama bear, even though I haven’t known these kids long.

It also hit me — yet again — how quickly time flies, because I could have sworn I sat in my own (much longer, much more boring) high school graduation not a few years ago. Nope… try 24 years ago. Wow, that sounds nuts.

As I sat there, I thought about what was next for them (college, gap years), and I recognized what a unique time they have in front of them for the next few years. Everyone’s trajectory is different, of course, but in general, your early adulthood is the most unique time in your life when you have the most freedom coupled with the fewest obligations.

Sure, you’ve got responsibilities, and you should absolutely not neglect them — but you’ve usually got very few strings tying you down. I know I did, and I barely recognized it at the time.

Here’s what I would tell my 18-year-old self, just leaving high school and starting college a few months later.

1. Learn to cook, budget, and save.

I knew how to do none of these things. I’d had a job since I was 16, but all I knew how to do was earn money, not manage it (and definitely not save it). Take the time to learn how to do those things well, because they’re not complicated, and they will take you so far. Take an online class, if you need to, buy an app, whatever (well, I wouldn’t have told myself this in 1995, but you get the gist).

Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated, either; just get the hang of 5-10 basic meals from scratch, and you’ll be equipped to feed yourself decently with all sorts of combinations. (If I were just starting out now, I’d make sure I had both How to Cook Everything and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat on my bookshelf.)

2. Take care of your body.

I know it feels like you can live indefinitely off daily Dr. Peppers and occasional all-nighters ending with pancakes at Kerbey Lane Cafe, but one day, that punch card will expire and you’ll wonder what happened. Take care of your body in the little things now, and it’ll pay you back in dividends later.

Sure, you go to the university gym (which is a fantastic perk, by the way!), but do more than take fitness classes and lift weights. Go on plenty of hikes. Learn some sort of obscure outdoor sport, just for the fun of it. Drink tons of water, all day. And get plenty of sleep.

Your body is much more capable than you give it credit for. (Also, enjoy your young skin and hair while you have it.)

3. Travel abroad.

Okay, so you do this eventually — after college. And it’s in the top five of best, most life-altering decisions you’ll have ever made. But if there’s one regret I have during my college years, it’s that I didn’t follow through on that study abroad opportunity.

Before you dive head-first into “real” adulthood (whatever that means, honestly), save up money and take time to travel cross-culturally. Get a passport and leave your borders. It’d take pages and pages for me to espouse all the benefits of why this matters (and well, I actually did take up pages eventually).

Your best early adulthood memories will involve meeting new friends in a European hostel and going out for drinks and live music with them, even though you’ll never see them again; getting lost in obscure Eastern European villages and having to charade your way out of them; trying so hard not to laugh with your friends when you all travel to the UK together and the drunk guy on the Tube starts singing Rhinestone Cowboy to you when he finds out you’re from Texas; and of course, meeting your husband on a dirt road in an inconsequential village in Kosovo.

You’ve got to travel abroad. It changes your worldview for the better. It’s worth every penny, every effort.

4. It’s good to work.

Unlike most of your college roommates, you’ll work your way through college, mostly waiting tables. It feels like an epic tragedy at the time, but it does so much good for your work ethic that’ll carry you on into adulthood, when working long hours, with a good attitude, pays off.

Those endless hours counting tips, interacting with strangers (both kind and not-so-kind), cleaning up gunk left by messy kids, and making friends with other waiters you’d otherwise never take time to know will all be ingredients in a foundation that yields you profits as an entrepreneur.

Don’t complain about “having” to work. You’re learning life lessons you won’t find in your college classrooms.

5. Get involved in things that make you uncomfortable.

Sure, I went to a public high school, but it was still pretty homogenous. It was when I went to college (at the University of Texas, which was — and often still is — ranked as the largest university in the U.S.) where I really interacted with people very different from me.

You’ll hesitate to join certain groups out of fear of rejection — but if you’re honest, it’s more out of a fear of the unknown. Go ahead and join those groups, because you’ll rub shoulders with all sorts of people, and I can’t think of a better time to do that than in college. Like travel, this’ll mold your worldview for good.

6. It’s okay to change your mind.

As you befriend those people, travel abroad, work those long shifts, and study for your classes — yes, often rewarded with late-night hangouts with friends you’ll have for life — hear that quiet whisper that sounds like change.

When you’re 18, leaving the comfort of your parents’ house and all you’ve known thus far, it’s understandable why you think you’re set on your values, perspectives, and ideals. But those will change, I promise. You think because your faith is solid it means your worldview is mostly correct, and definitely black-and-white.

If there’s one thing I can tell you about growing older, it’s that the older I get, the less I’m sure of anything. That may sound scary — and it can be, when frameworks start deconstructing — but honestly, there’s a lot of freedom in embracing this inevitable truth. It makes the few things in life that are, indeed, black and white, much, much sweeter.

Embrace the gray areas of life, and learn how to sit with a learner’s posture, acknowledging that just because you’re leaving high school, that doesn’t mean learning is done. You’ll be learning the rest of your life, long after you leave the classroom — and honestly, that’s where most of your learning will happen.

Life is good. Things will be okay. Take advantage of the rarity of this season in your youth, and use it well. It goes by so fast. Whoosh… Hear that sound? That’s the sound of you now in your forties, sitting at your desk with three children asleep in their beds, as you start another week of work.

Embrace this fantastic season ahead of you.

• Listen to the podcast episode about this post.