Wisdom For The Children I Do Not Yet Have

It’s graduation time again, the time of year that gets you thinking about pithy advice you would give to someone younger and more naive. Sometimes known as “Patronization Season.” Still, I know I enjoyed getting advice when I was about to embark on what seemed like a big blank canvas of existence, and all of the articles I’ve seen lately have gotten me thinking about what I want to impart to my own children someday.

I played it safe through school. I was good at figuring out what teachers wanted, and so I did very well, but I let go of some opportunities along the way to keep the old GPA up, and the joke may well be on me. So far the advantages I’ve gained from my Phi Beta Kappa, summa-cum-laude status are pretty negligible–I’ve met some cool people through the Phi Bete society in Chicago, but that’s about it. Meanwhile I never continued with higher math because it took too much time to figure out and didn’t come naturally to me, nor did I take a drawing class, nor a computer science class. I stayed away from science classes with labs. True, a lot of this was because I was so busy with extracurriculars, but grade worries played an important part (and I continue to have nightmares almost once a week about finding that I didn’t actually graduate high school or college and have to re-complete Chemistry).

So know this: Sometimes a brave C is worth more than a safe A. I’m not saying to slack off or to fail to ask for help–absolutely not. But there’s more value in taking a chance than there may be in learning how to phrase a sentence in the way this particular professor prefers.

Here’s what I think is most important in life, based on my vast twenty-five years of experience. This is the order I’d put them in if I had to choose an order.

First be kind. That’s the hardest thing. You never know what’s going on inside of another person. Remember that everyone is doing the best he or she can, and that every person is the hero of his or her own story.

Next, take care of your body. Sure, stay up late sometimes and try to lift that extra twenty pounds every so often and don’t worry so much about a bite of cake, but it really is true that when something goes wrong with your body, it’s very hard to rise above it and be the person you want to be, doing the things you want to do, with your mind.

Then work hard. I’ve gotten a lot of credit for being “smart” that really should go toward hard work. I value work a lot more than inherent cleverness. Everybody hates that guy who doesn’t ever study but still does well on the test. If you’re that guy, and people say they don’t hate you for it–they’re lying. (Ok, “hate” is a strong word. “Strongly resent.”)

Then take risks–creative risks, imaginative risks, not health risks. Everybody fails. Everyone who’s ever made something worthwhile failed before they made that thing. If not, they’re like an amplified version of that guy everyone…strongly resents, and that’s a total fluke, and anyway they’ll probably realize on their next big achievement that they’re terrified of failing this time around, because life and your career are both longer and shorter than you realize.

Cleverness, beauty, success–in the end, these things come from outside of you, from your genes and your opportunities and pure dumb luck. So don’t give them too much power. If you can laugh when you don’t succeed, you’re winning. If you can see how lovely your body is when it’s healthy and doing its job, walking, running, dancing, no matter what it looks like, you’re winning. If you keep trying even though you feel like the answer is always going to elude you, you’re winning.

Just because you’re growing up doesn’t mean you have to lose everything you had as a child. Bring a sense of play with you to the things you do (even and maybe especially to the most important, deadly-serious things) and my guess is that you’ll do just fine.

And hey, last pro-tip: Tell people what they mean to you while you’re still around them. You never know when it might be the last chance, and it’s a lot easier to do than you might think. Like you, dear reader. Have I told you lately that I love you and your ability to continue to read as my wandering trains of thought diverge in a yellow wood?

See? Easy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a musical about pornography to write.

(EDIT: One thing that’s true: hard work can get you to a place where there are other cool, smart, passionate people, and that IS worth a whole lot. I wouldn’t have a theatre company or half as many awesome friends and opportunities if I hadn’t gone to Carleton. So do keep that in mind.)


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