I have been swimming in a pool of graduation-induced nostalgia lately. For one, I have both a niece and nephew graduating from high school in the next couple of weeks, and I am sympathetic to both the kids and their parents. Second, I just finished a book of collected college commencement speeches, so I have been thinking a lot about what I might say to young people who are making a huge transition into the world. To put a cherry on top, this week, while working on The Journal Project, I came across my entries for the week that my little sister graduated from high school. I was seven years out of school at the time, but her graduation stirred up a lot of emotions in me. Here is a little portion of a journal entry I wrote on May 28, 1998, recalling my own graduation week seven years prior:
“I remember how sentimental I was in my last days there. I wanted so fiercely for it not to end. I knew what a special thing we had going and what an incredible group of guys that were saying “so long.” I can look back now and see that I wasn’t a fool in that regard. I don’t want to go back to eighteen again, because I live with the wisdom that brings me an amazing level of joy and peace. But I can still see those guys and feel exactly the way I felt about them then. I dearly loved them then, and I dearly love them now. I know that most people’s best friends are the ones they met in college. Mine are the ones I have known since high school and grade school.”
I still feel that way, actually. I had an incredibly lucky childhood in just about every way imaginable, and as I approached my high school graduation, I knew that just about everything that made my life so free and love-filled was about to change. I was chosen to be the speaker at my graduation. It was kind of ironic that the guy who didn’t want that charmed life to end was the one chosen to tell everyone it was over and to offer some words of wisdom heading into their next lives. I don’t remember the words I said, but it was a lot of schmaltzy quotes read from a page and very little from my heart. I said the types of things they told me I was supposed to say, so I didn’t really think about making an impact.
Looking back now, I wish I had said something profound that day. Heck, I wish I had heard something profound that day. I needed at least as much guidance as everyone else did. I was an 18-year-old kid. What did I know? Instead of me giving out hurrahs and platitudes to my classmates, I wish someone who really cared about me and who had been down the road I was about to go down could have sat me down and given me some real advice. I am not sure I would have listened—I was 18, remember—but maybe something would have sunk in and helped me in all the 25 years that have followed.
So today, I decided to write my 18-year-old self a letter—sort of a high school commencement speech to myself—and tell him all the things I wish he could carry with him on the journey through the circus that is early and middle adulthood. So, armed with 25 more years of experience, here goes….
Dear 18-year-old William,
When I wrote in your future niece and nephew’s graduation cards last week, I told them that my one piece of advice was “to understand who you are and what makes your heart sing. Then just be unapologetically you, forever and always.” Twenty-five years after I was in the shoes you are in now, that message pretty much sums up what I have learned. I suppose that sounds kind of vague and unhelpful to you right now, but it truly is the essence of what I wish I would have heard when I was sitting in your seat.
But how do you do it? Well, that’s the tricky part. There may not be an exact answer—you could start by getting a journal, I suppose–but these are some of the habits that have most helped me to know myself and live my Truth along this beautiful path called Life.
First, be completely curious. Be open to all new ideas, and learn as much as you can about as many different people as you can. Find out who they are and what makes them tick. Learn about different professions, different hobbies, different lifestyles. The more you know about the way others live, the easier it is to choose wisely for yourself. (Oh, and don’t EVER stop being curious!)
Trust your intuition. There is a still, small voice inside you, and if you listen closely and courageously to it, it will keep you on your path forever. This one is much more difficult than it sounds, though, because there are other voices trying to shout down the true voice. They are voices of fear and insecurity, of society, of family, of shame. It takes a discerning ear to focus on only the voice of your Truth. And it takes courage to own that.
Be the one and only you, unapologetically. To deny the world your complete and authentic self—with all of its idiosyncrasies—is to give in to fears that you are not enough as you are. And you ARE enough! You are amazing, mostly in your uniqueness. So give us the gift that only you can give!
Understand your value. You are a miraculous being, fully part of the Divine, and your presence in this lifetime is a gift to the rest of us. As much as you treasure and respect the people in your life, remember to value yourself at least as much.
Have an opinion about yourself. I know this overlaps with the last one—all of these really are different angles of the same point—but I cannot stress it enough. It is not only important to know your worth, but also to know what serves you and what doesn’t. When you have an opinion about yourself—a strong, positive one, of course—you act like it with the choices you make. You don’t allow the negative people and the drama queens into your inner circle. You don’t take jobs that don’t speak to your values. You don’t let people take advantage of you. You stand up to injustice. You use your time instead of wasting it. You give up being a victim. Basically, you become an active participant in your own life and assume responsibility for what is in it.
Follow Your Bliss. If you are in the process of being curious, open, and trusting of that inner voice, you will undoubtedly come upon the things that simply light you up inside. These are the jobs, the hobbies, and the people that make your heart sing, the ones that “just feel right” in your gut. They are your dreams, your calling, your Bliss. And that warm, fulfilling feeling that overtakes you when you pursue it, that is your intuition telling you that you are on the right path. Follow it!
Act like this is a one-shot deal. In other words, “This is not a dress rehearsal!” Even if you think there is some kind of afterlife or reincarnation or something else spectacular waiting for you after this dance, act like this lifetime is your only chance. Love wholly and completely. Dream big and go for it. Give everything your best effort and focus. Forgive. Agree to disagree. Move on. Say what you have to say. Take chances. Follow your fear. Just be sure that in the end, you have lived, not merely existed.
Never settle. Don’t be lulled to sleep by the life everyone else says is enough for you. Don’t take a job that doesn’t mean anything to you. Don’t keep poisonous relationships just because it is inconvenient to cut ties. Don’t stop learning just because you have a degree. If your dreams are bigger than your current life, do what you must to go get them. Playing small only sucks the passion out of life. Play the bigger game for the stakes that YOU have determined are enough to fulfill you completely. That is living.
Just make sure that whatever you do, you do it for yourself. Do it because it fascinates YOU, tugs on YOUR heartstrings, and stirs YOUR soul, not because it is what your parents or friends or society expects you to do. It is your life, not theirs. Pleasing them may seem to be the path of least resistance, but it will kill your spirit in the process, and that is not a good trade. Keep your integrity by living the life you were born to live, the one only your soul knows the way through.
Above all, enjoy the ride! Be grateful for it. Life is a miraculous journey, every single step of it. You have a choice whether to see it that way. I highly encourage you to do so. It makes for a lot more Love and Joy in the process. I wish you all the Love, Joy, and Bliss you can handle. Carpe diem!
P.S. Don’t lose touch with your best friends. These are the best guys you will ever know.
P.S.S. About those girls that you are going to have the crushes on but will feel too scared to say so: get over yourself! Fortune favors the bold. Ask them out!
How about you? What would you say to your 18-year-old self? Open up your journal and organize some thoughts. The easy part—especially compared to last week, when we wrote to our future selves—is that you know exactly who you are writing to. You know how you were at 18 and what types of things Life has thrown at you since. If you could sum up your message in a short sentence or two—like on my graduation cards—what would it be? Is that the kind of message your 18-year-old self would have taken to heart, or would it have gone in one ear and out the other? Now expound on that summary. Do you think your letter would have more general rules, like mine, or more specifics, like my P.S.es? What did you really need someone to tell you at the end of high school? If they had, how do you think your life would be different now? Do you wish it were? Is there one specific decision or time in your life since 18 that you wish you would have been warned about back then? Who was the person in your life back then—friend, relative, teacher–who was most likely to give you the kind of advice you would give yourself in this letter? What role, if any, does that person play in your life now? Is there someone that you can play that role for? Would you write them the same letter you wrote to yourself—is your advice universal—or something very different? Is there something that every 18-year-old would benefit from hearing? Leave me a reply and let me know: What would you say to your 18-year-old self?
P.S. If today’s letter got you feeling nostalgic or reminded you about all the lessons that Life has taught you, please pass it on. Wisdom is meant for sharing. Cheers!