I set out this week to write a friendly “free advice” column for the departing graduates of area high schools. After a few okay starts, I kept realizing that one I had written just a handful of years ago was as good as anything I could conjure up.
So, I’ve updated a few things at the beginning, but what follows is essentially the same column I originally published back on May 19, 2011.
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There’s a saying that you get what you pay for. So this free advice may not be worth the paper it’s printed on. Even still, recently graduated seniors of 2017, I hope you’ll give this somewhat seasoned 1997 grad your brief attention.
I’ve learned a few things since I wore a cap and gown some — gulp — 20 years ago at my high school graduation. And I’m certain I’ve got lots more to learn, but in that time — and in a whirlwind blur — I have:
• lived in 12 different houses/apartments/dorms in five different towns;
• worked eight different jobs;
• earned a four-year college degree;
• been married for 16 years come the end of June;
• have had four children, now ages 14, 12, 7 and 5;
• bought three houses, sold two;
• owned 12 different vehicles (a few of them not so lovely);
• bought a business;
• and then another business.
And, believe it or not, this is pretty normal for a lot of people. You’ll probably find that life changes a great deal from year to year (even week to week) during your late teens and throughout your 20s. As I look at that list, nearly all of it took place before my 30th birthday. There will be so many little decisions that have to be made, and many times, you’ll have only a bit of information, the skills and philosophies you’ve honed and some gut instincts to guide you.
I don’t write this to frighten you or add weight to your shoulders (especially the planners among you who may think you’ve got your path all laid out). There are exciting times ahead. What I want to do is try, as best as I can, to come up with an analogy for life that makes sense at this stage — the leaping in stage.
I’ve frequently heard life described as a road with forks along the way that force you to choose the directions you will go. That’s not untrue, but I don’t think it captures the essence of what life really is.
It’s much more like a river. It has a current that, despite your best efforts, will never cease in pushing you along. Everyone’s river is a little different, too. Some of you will encounter rapids, sometimes fierce ones. It may seem unfair when that happens, but there is no amount of pleading that can change it.
People will come in and out of your stream, and often there’s not much you can do about that, either. But whenever you can, identify those people who make the journey better and do right by them. Tell them they are important. Tell them you want them to be with you.
You’ll have goals, and you will be able to achieve them with various amounts of planning, hard work and luck. To reach specific destinations along the way, you’ll probably need to be scrappy. You’ll need to grab the drift wood that floats by, calculating its density with a guess on the fly. You’ll need to rely on someone else from time to time, and you’ll also find that there’s absolutely nothing more satisfying in life than helping someone else stay afloat.
There are times when you’ll need to limit distractions and focus on the tasks at hand. There will surely be times you’ll need to rest and to let the current take you. Make time for the leisurely swim. Become at ease with the back float.
There will be other times when the current takes you to people or places that do not reflect who you are or bring out the best in you. You must know when to swim away from these things. There are whirlpools everywhere, and they are to be avoided. Don’t be someone else’s whirlpool.
Sometimes the water is too warm or too cold. When it feels just right, take note of it. Enjoy it.
You’ll make mistakes. There’ll be rocks and deep spots you could have never seen coming. Other times, you’ll know you should have seen them from a distance but weren’t paying close enough attention. Learn from these moments.
Accept that even in good times the river will change, whether you want it to or not. So expect the unexpected. Learn how to tread and when to expend energy and when not to.
For those of you who strive to plan the course, I admire you and wish you the best. But don’t expect everything to go just so. You never have to give up your hopes and dreams, but flexibility is a virtue as important as any. And know that, more than likely, your dreams will change somewhere along the way, too.
For those of you who do not like to plan and wish only to weather the current a day at a time, I wish you luck, too. Sometimes, when you’re not sure what you want from your journey, it’s not a bad idea to see where the river takes you. But I warn you, that can’t be your only approach. Destinations are important. They are fulfillment.
And also keep in mind that no destination is ever permanent. Whether in radical or subtle ways, you’ll always be moving on.
It may seem complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple. Life is a ride. Be giving. Be alert. And though who you are will alter a little bit with each challenge and opportunity left in your wake, always be true to yourself and the people who believe enough in you to swim with you.