By now you know I love to read. For pleasure and instruction, and in special circumstances, both. Before we flew to China I joined several message boards about adoption and parenting. I had nothing to offer to the parents posting about their joys and struggles, so I sat back and read, took mental notes, and on occasion saved a message for future reference.
Last week I followed an extensive thread pertaining to families sending their children to college, struggles with making the grades for admission, and the immense pressure some of future collegiates place on themselves in preparation for attending university. Last Wednesday morning I read a comment from one of the board members, Peg Helminski. In response to others recommendations and advice on preparing their children for college, Peg wrote:
“…test scores are considered but one measure of excellence. I was told at a recent staff workshop that a young woman who tested only average was recently accepted [at our university] because her application included an 8X10 glossy photo of her in the act of winning the state calf roping competition. Her aspirations, expressed in her well-written essay included bringing her family ranch to the next level of eco-friendly operations. The admissions committee determined that what she demonstrated were the two most unmeasurable of all traits and yet the two traits that determine success to the greatest degree: grit and passion.”
(used with author’s permission, emphasis mine)
I read, then reread the comment. And then I decided to write you this letter because Peg’s words are important not just for college admission but every aspect of life.
1. Find out what you’re good at and love doing. Then do it. I thought I’d learned this too late. Taking the Johnson O’Connor aptitude test (documented at length starting here) and discovering a natural aptitude for language, including foreign language acquisition, inspired me to pick up the books again and study Mandarin in earnest. It’s been nearly seven years since I took my first class. It’s embarrassing how little I’ve learned during the intervening years. I gave up so many times, told myself I’d come back to the language (and eventually did) only to be defeated. Why? Because I wanted to know everything – right now. I had (and still have) the passion, but lacked the grit and determination to power through. Who knows how far along I’d be had I stayed with my studies. Miraculously I still love learning Mandarin. When you find something you’re good at and love doing, keep doing it, even when it gets hard. Everyone hits the wall. You just need to find a way around it. Or over it. Or under it.
2. Try everything you can while you can. Think you might like to be a doctor? Start reading about it. When you go for your yearly checkup or when you get sick, talk to the doctor about the day to day duties, the joys and sorrows of the profession, what she or he wishes they’d known before going to medical school, their residency, or joining a practice. Want to become a famous singer? Sing! Read about the lives of other singers, especially those you admire, and how they became successful.
3. You don’t know what skills or knowledge will be useful, required, or beneficial as you get older. The classic example is “why do I have to take algebra when I’m an English major!”. There could be several reasons. If you go to college you’ll be required to take certain maths, algebra being one of them. That’s the utilitarian approach of “I’m taking this because I have no choice and will immediately forget it when the class is over.” Whether you love algebra or hate it, you won’t know how you feel about it until you’ve taken the classes and applied the formulas. And if you don’t like it, and/or you don’t have a head for numbers, you’ll know what challenges await you if all of a sudden engineering sounds like a great career path.
In high school I would have laughed if someone said I’d be able to do any “handyman” stuff like sweating copper or installing a toilet. But over a decade later that’s exactly what I had to do in order to renovate the bathrooms in our half-century old house. To my surprise I enjoyed it. The feeling of accomplishment when I turned the water on and the pipes didn’t leak boosted my confidence. Imagine if I’d known that ten or twenty years before? I might be a plumber!
Make your formative years like the top end of a funnel. Pour in as much as you can because as you get older you’ve only got time for a few things (unless you’re cut from the same cloth as Tim Ferriss). If you know what you’re interested in and good at early you can develop it into a satisfying hobby or career.
4. Read as much as you can, as widely as you can. Next to first hand experience reading is going to expand your horizons more than anything else. Reading will take you places real, and more importantly, imagined. I’m a firm believer that we’re all creative to a degree but live in a world that rarely sees the value in it. Creative solutions, creative writing, creative composer, creative opportunity maker. Creativity doesn’t just apply to the arts.
Reading will introduce you to people you would otherwise never get to know. It could be Tom Joad or Tom’s creator, John Steinbeck. The printed page is your introduction, your meeting place and method for interacting with them. Interacting? Yes, though the opportunity will never present itself for you to meet face to face, these people will come alive in your mind. It’s in your mind that they will comfort you when afflicted or sullen. Their voices will whisper encouragement or shout to challenge your assumptions about anything and everything, including the ones you make about yourself.
5. Make mistakes then learn from them. Even better, learn from other people’s mistakes. Accepting the fact (yes, fact) that you will make mistakes can take a lifetime. Some people do everything they can to avoid messing up, which means they expend an enormous amount of time and energy on a task or never even try. Traditionally I’ve leaned toward the latter and dabbled in the former.
This is not meant to be a full treatise on making mistakes. (We’ll have those discussions for the rest of our lives. I’ve got a decades worth of examples, both big and small, to share with you.) Rather I’d like you to catch the general concept. Mysteriously when you accept your own fallibility and can move past the embarrassment of failure you become more free, more open, more daring, and more likely to change your life and the lives of those around you.
The more involved in other people’s lives you become the more often you’ll see them make mistakes. It’s easy to sit back and say “Of course he crashed into that light pole, have you seen the way he drives!” or you can let that thought pass and help the person.
Sometimes the things we count our greatest achievements lead to our greatest despairs. It could be marrying someone only to find out you didn’t really know them. Or accepting a job when you desperately need one and remaining there for twenty years, when what you should have been doing was following your passions. Or it could be the opposite. Getting fired and moving on to something you love or ending a failed relationship than meeting your soul mate. Life is very hard to quantify and evaluate while it’s happening.
Make the most of your time before you head off to college or get a job. You’ll never have another opportunity like it.
I love you and look forward to many hours of conversation about this and many more things.