I wrote these words originally for the class of 2015 but I think & hope, two years later, that the advice still stands. My school’s latest batch of seniors threw their hats in the air tonight. In their honor, I’ll share these thoughts again here. I hope it’s not too preachy, hokey, or obvious. But these are things I think young people should know.
Advice to Seniors
Know this: you are not supposed to have everything—possibly, you are not supposed to have anything—figured out. Knowing the questions is much more important than knowing the answers. There is more wisdom in asking than in answering. Embrace the unknown. Embrace confusion. Cultivate an enthusiasm for question marks. Be open to, and excited by, the unexpected.
Learn to improvise.
Frequent taco trucks.
Eat watermelon in the summer, as much of it as you can.
Develop a taste for Indian food, and, wherever you live, know which Indian restaurants you like the best and why.
Prepare meals for and with your friends.
Unless you are in love or in deep conversation with a friend and it’s already almost sunrise, there is never a good reason to stay up all night. Work—schoolwork or otherwise—is not a good enough reason: one or two all-nighters, total, is the most you should experience in life, for the sake of school or work.
Practice forgiveness. Forgive everyone, including yourself. The strength of your character depends upon your ability to forgive.
Seek out the people that inspire you. Surround yourself with them.
Listen to people you disagree with. Work to understand what they really think, and why. Assume they may be right.
Try to know everyone.
Make friends with people who do not look, talk, think, or act like you. You need each other in your lives.
Smile at strangers.
When you see them on the street, look homeless people in the eye.
Do not be afraid to say hello.
Talk to old people. Listen to old people. Ask them questions. Not just your grandparents, either.
Ask kids questions. Listen to their answers.
Do not be afraid of your own singing voice. Never tell anyone, “I can’t sing,” unless it is also true that you can’t talk. You do not need to be professional and are not expected to be. Sing in the car or with friends or in the shower or while you worship, or sing to an infant. Always sing on New Year’s. Know at least the first verse and chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” by heart.
Read good books.
Listen to good music.
(How do you know if music is good? If you like it! If it makes you smile, or move, or think, or laugh, or sing; if it makes you feel good, or feel whatever it is that you need to feel. If it in any way at any moment makes things around you or in you somehow better than they already are.)
Never interrupt a conversation for the sake of your cell phone. If there is a live human being sitting or standing in front of or next to you, keep your phone in your pocket. In fact: if you are standing in line alone, also keep your phone in your pocket. Learn how to be alone, comfortably, with nothing but your thoughts.
If you are in school, take classes that have nothing to do with your major.
Ignore people who say your major is silly or useless or who make fun of you for changing your major every semester.
Ignore people who say your dreams are silly or useless or impossible. Ignore people who say your dreams are financially unsound.
No matter how you rationalize it, a love for or preoccupation with money is immoral. Do not let questions of money dictate your decision making—especially in choosing a major or a career.
Around graduation season, lots of people will speak clichés to you: “Be yourself.” “Follow your dreams.” Etc. As an English teacher, I should tell you to avoid clichés. But listen to these clichés, and take them seriously. Even if the speakers who spout them don’t seem themselves to live them, be just dumb and gullible enough to believe these lines yourself (you can make your dreams come true! etc!); believe the clichés and your life will reward this gullibility infinitely.
Also, by the way: dreams do not come true unless you are willing to work tirelessly toward them. Wanting something badly is not enough.
When you go outside at night, look for the moon. When it is especially beautiful, tell someone else to look, too.
Drive with your windows down.
Live, when possible, with your windows open. That’s not a metaphor; I mean, actually open the windows in your home.
Find a way to spend part of every day outside.
When possible, feel sand in your toes. Once in a while, feel mud and dirt in your toes.
Always vote, even in the littlest local elections.
Never vote “straight party.” Vote for issues and individuals, not for parties. Vote Republican and Democrat, depending on who is running. Do not assume they are all the same. Vote with your own brain and heart, not with someone else’s.
Do not strap any label onto yourself. You are more complicated than that.
Do not strap any label onto any other person.
Watch every episode of Freaks and Geeks at least once, in order.
Read Walt Whitman, especially “Song of Myself.”
Take deep breaths.
Make your own choices.
Do not join any club that dictates what kind of footwear you can wear.
Do not join any club that dictates who you can and can’t talk to.
Do not join any club that tells you what to think.
Men: do not join any club that encourages a debasement of women—unless you are willing actively to change that culture from the inside.
Women: do not define yourself according to a man’s desires. Do not compromise yourself for anyone else’s expectations.
Men and women: do not attend parties where all the men drink beer and all the women drink liquor.
Remember who you were when you were seventeen. Every few years, ask yourself: would the seventeen-year-old me like the current me? If the answer is yes, keep up the good work. If the answer is maybe, or if the answer is no, take some time to re-bridge the gap between these two selves.
Thank your parents.
Forgive your parents.
Write postcards and letters. You will forget the texts and emails you have sent and received, but you will remember the cards and letters. It will make someone’s day to find your handwriting in his or her mailbox, amidst all the anonymous junk.
Always stop your car for boiled peanuts and for kids’ lemonade stands.
Sometime in the next two weeks, get a piece of paper. Make a list of all the positive traits you associate with the word “youth.” Determine how you can continue to embody these traits, no matter how old you may get.
Care about your hometown. Care about all the places you have lived.
Make time, some time, to go to minor league baseball games, whether or not you really even watch the game.
Understand history. Never stop learning about history.
Don’t settle for history that is clichéd or uncomplicated.
Follow your own dream, not somebody else’s. No matter how much you love them, and vice versa, nobody else can dictate the shape of your dream.
Be sure you have exactly zero enemies. Your life is not so complex and dramatic that it needs or justifies anything you could seriously call “enemies.”
Drink lots of water.
Always drink your water straight from the tap. The water bottle industry represents the greatest scam your lifetime has witnessed. Don’t give in.
Don’t listen when people tell you high school or college represents the best years of your life. Make the most of these years. But make them a beginning, not an end. Create a life that goes uphill, not down.
Don’t listen when people tell you you are the future. You are the present. That’s more important.
Don’t listen when people tell you you are about to enter the real world. You are already in the real world. And you’re doing good so far.
Actively work to keep your oldest friends in your life.
At the end of the day, go to sleep, knowing you’ve done the best you can for today. Let the rest go, and start over fresh tomorrow.
Be courageous enough to hold your ground and stick to your guns.
Be courageous enough to change your mind.
Be courageous enough to change directions.
Find time for naps on sunny days.
Contribute something positive to the planet. Make your time here have meaning and significance that goes beyond yourself.
Listen to your gut.
Be your own hero.
Make it happen.