The worst advice you’ll ever receive: a letter to a high school graduate

No Junk – Artwork by Erin J. Bernard

I wrote this letter to a younger cousin of mine who is finishing up his high school career this month. Almost immediately upon finishing it, I realized that I need to do a better job of following some of my own words of wisdom. Perhaps I’m not the only one who could use an emotional and spiritual nudging. Thought I’d share.

Dear Ben:

Well. You are preparing to enter college. And as you’ve no doubt noticed, this particular milestone tends to inspire in others a seemingly irresistible urge to dispense all sorts of advice. How to live, what to value, whom to trust, where to turn when things get sticky. Some of it will be excellent and invaluable. Some of it won’t be so good. Some of it you’ll follow. Some of it you’ll really, really wish you had followed much later on. And some of it you’ll nod your head at and promptly discard, which is OK, too. As you’ll soon discover, the world is quite full of empty dogmas and high-sounding dictats that offer little help in a reality as dynamic and ever-changing as ours. Life is a complex business, lived forward but understood, often, only reverse.

In the end, the map is yours to fill in however you choose, and, in the end, you’ll have to construct your own compass by which to navigate it. There is no other way. But because I am just ever so slightly older and wiser, I’d like to take a moment to examine a few of the less helpful pieces of counsel I was given when I stood where you are standing now. I hope you’ll humor me, cousin. Herewith, five pieces of advice you might do well to ignore.

Be humble. Early adulthood will dress you down in countless ways. If you’re anything like me, you’ll make a few mistakes. You’ll run your mouth and regret it later. You’ll wish for more money, a better car, a different job, and you’ll struggle to be taken seriously. You’ll get your first taste of love – and possibly of heartbreak. Please don’t criticize yourself too harshly for the lessons it takes you two or ten times to really learn. Most of us spend far too much energy berating ourselves for our imperfections, and the world would likely be a much happier place if we all stopped worshipping humility and started congratulating ourselves once in awhile instead. Take time, regularly, to celebrate the things you get right. Whether it’s a stellar essay or a flawlessly executed presentation or a meal whipped up on the fly with $3-worth of ingredients and a hotplate. Celebrate it without listing off its shortcomings or pondering how you wish it had turned out different, and keep in mind always that you are a work in progress. We all are.

Do the best you can and others will take note. Yes, they often will. And it feels amazing to bask in the accolades that come from a job well done. But I’m going to let you in on a strange secret: other times, you’ll work your tail off and nobody will notice. Or you’ll do your best and it’ll still come out all wrong, or someone else – by luck or fate or sheer, dogged determination – will outshine you completely. Or, even more weirdly, you’ll throw something together at the very last minute and wow the pants off everyone in the room and walk away totally baffled. My point: you can’t put all your freight in the reactions you get from others. Praise is wonderful, especially well-earned praise, but if your self-esteem hinges too much on the applause you garner for a particular task, you might walk away disappointed. Instead, learn to pat your own back. I promise you can reach.

 There is always a right answer and a wrong answer. There are certain things that are, for each of us, absolutely, immutably true and right. For some, it’s the goodness of God or another higher power. For others, it’s an ideology such as capitalism or socialism or democracy. For these precious things, you should argue long and loudly to everyone who will listen. But I’d like to challenge you to pare your Absolute Truths – the things you will never, ever change your mind about – down to a sparse and carefully chosen few. For everything else, keep an open mind. Let yourself be challenged by people with different ideas, even if those ideas seem inconceivable or even completely wrongheaded. Everyone has a reason for believing the things they believe. Even if it’s logically flawed or not immediately obvious, there is a reason. And even if at the end of the day you opt not to revise a single one of your own ideas based on what you’ve heard, taking the time to unpack those lines of reasoning will change you.

Don’t overextend yourself. You’ve probably heard this one before in many versions. Get 8-10 hours of sleep each and every night. Don’t climb tall trees or eat more than a playing card-sized serving of steak, and go with the economy model and, no, flossing every night is not optional. All good advice, sure, but here’s the thing people sometimes forget to tell you – if you’re not having any fun, it’s harder to wake up each morning feeling happy and excited about the fact that you get another day on this earth. Stick to your commitments, be kind and care for your body and mind, but don’t forget to stretch a bit, too. Exert yourself, then sleep in afterward. Have adventures, try weird foods, accept intellectual challenges, opt for the steep and far-less-traveled route. When you’re 20, eight-point-something decades on earth seems an endless allotment of time, but trust me. It will fly.

You can’t save the whole world. It is impossible to even begin to conceive of how huge and beautiful our world is – or of just how much suffering and need there truly is among its people – until you venture out of the bubble. Travel widely. Study abroad. Learn a new language and go practice it in a strange and distant land and watch the locals laugh their heads off as you fumble and stumble and say nonsensical things. What you’ll see on the other side of said bubble will fascinate you and confuse you and rearrange everything you think you understand about anything. It may well also later inspire you to do vast good. Enormous and improbable and invaluable good that will go on being enormous and invaluable long after your short time here on our little blue planet is finished. Your natural intellect and the fact that you were born in the wealthiest and most privileged nation on earth are incredible, incredible gifts. You owe it to yourself and to your fellow human beings to use those gifts earnestly, and generously, and often.

Best of luck to you, my godson and cousin. I can’t wait to meet the person you become.




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