This is the sixth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.
Last night here in Colorado we had a little mini family reunion. It consisted of my next younger sister, my youngest brother, and me. I just turned fifty, and my sister and brother are still in their forties. My sister and I in were in a wistful mood. We are now wiser in the ways of the world, not due to any innate wisdom but from having dodged and parried with life for so many years. My sister posed the question: if you could go back in time, which life lessons would you teach your younger self?
When I think of the person I am today compared to the one I was then I am not sure that even if I could transport myself back in time that my headstrong and younger self would have listened. Perhaps you will. Each of us draws our own lessons based on what life throws at us and how well or badly we dealt with these challenges. Here, for your consideration, are some of mine.
Failure is a temporary phenomenon. When you were in school and screwed up, you may have heard the threat, “This is going on your permanent record.” Guess what. Failures happen to everyone, not just once, but periodically through life. No one becomes a permanent outcast from life based on a single failure. Failure is not only a fact of life, failure is often a virtue. You will learn the truest and most enduring lessons from failing at something. The only true failure is not learning from failure. It may take a while to recover from the shock and the hurt feelings, but picking yourself up and reengaging in life in spite of a failure is something you will have to do regardless. Life goes on. You too will surmount a failure, although it seems impossible at the time.
You do not need to go to an Ivy League school to be a great success. Throughout America, parents are obsessed with their kids’ success. Here in the Washington metropolitan area, there are parents who are planning their kids’ overachievement from before conception. For many of these parents it becomes critical that their children get into the right Montessori preschool, the Gifted and Talented program and eventually end up in an Ivy League school. Anything less means their children have not really succeeded in life. While there is certainly nothing wrong with attending an Ivy League school, you are hardly doomed to be on life’s second tier if you make other choices. Not convinced? Look around you. Clearly, the world’s business is getting done even though the numbers who attend Ivy League schools are paltry. In my case, I got both my bachelors and masters degrees from convenient and reasonably low cost public universities. My grades were typically a mixture of A’s and B’s, with the sporadic C and F. Yet I consider myself quite successful and am very pleased with my life. No, I am not a Wall Street baron earning millions, nor did that sort of life hold any appeal. Yet I live a very fulfilling life, have a very well paid and interesting job and have virtually every possession I could want. I am hardly unique. It is what you do with your education and skills that quantifies your success, not which tickets are punched.
A grunt job is the best preparation for success. Had I gone to prep schools and spent my school days in overachieving mode I believe I would be quite unhappy today. This is because that while grades and intellect are important, they are meaningless unless they can be applied inside the current social context, i.e. reality. You learn what real life is about by engaging it on its ground level, not by avoiding it. Do you want to know why our current president is a miserable failure? Not only were all his failures cushioned so he did not feel their impact, but he never had a grunt level job. Perhaps that is why during a recent Central American tour where President Bush worked in a carrot factory, he said: “It was really, really fun — and really heartwarming. As a matter of fact, it was one of the great experiences of my presidency.” It is too bad he did not get this when he was sixteen. Do not shun away from those first (and often necessary) entry level jobs, embrace them. Your eyes will open wider than they ever have been before. In my case, I spent my high school years working part time at a Winn Dixie supermarket. My unglamorous work involved bagging groceries, unloading trucks, mopping store aisles and flirting with cashiers. I experienced with crystal clarity what my life would look like if I did not embrace other choices. By the time I left Winn Dixie’s employment, I was anxious to spend my life in more engaging pursuits. Look upon every job you take as a lesson in the laboratory of real life. You cannot get this kind of education in school but these kinds of lessons are essential to succeed in life.
Play makes life meaningful. Because you are technically grown up, that does not mean that you are not allowed to regularly feel childhood delight anymore. Play is essential for happiness and growth, not only in childhood, but also throughout life. You can be adult without being “an adult”. You do not have to don the robe of being a sober, serious adult when you “grow up”. The term is really something of a misnomer. None of us really grows up. In fact, if you do truly “grow up” then you have ceased to grow. You might as well be dead, because you will have killed yourself spiritually. Do your best to carve out some time within your busy life to engage in activities that amount to play and that bring you the same sort of joy you felt as a child. Find activities that fill you with joy and wholly engage you. Just because you are over 21 does not mean you must stop being fun and silly. Parents do not need to be somber all the time. They can teach their children that adult life can be fun too. If you grew up singing to yourself, there is no reason to stop as an adult. If you liked playing Dungeons and Dragons as a teen, keep playing it as an adult. A life that is all work and no play is an empty life. Surprise your neighbors and go trick or treating on Halloween. Wear a goofy hat to work. Sing in your car at the top of your lungs to your favorite music. There is enough serious stuff in adult life. There is no reason to engage in more of it than is necessary. Do your best to find at least a couple hours a week for the frivolous and fun.
Life is about living. No one really knows what we were, if anything, before we were conceived. It is absolutely certain that you will die. No one knows what, if anything, will happen after death either. Most religions will try to persuade you that they have the answers to all of life’s persistent questions. At most, only one of them can be absolutely correct. Most likely, none of them is correct. What is absolutely true is that you are alive. Your life is your reality. If you have a mission, it is to live it in a way that feels natural to you. So live life as robustly as you can. Fill it with as much joy and meaning as possible. Since you like me will die someday, you do not want to spend your last days regretful that you lived only half the life you could have. Fill it with knowledge, with fun, with passion, with insight, with friends and with relaxation. Life is your pot to stir. Do not let others stir it for you. Grab the handle and stir it yourself.