With my nephew Elliot and millions of other young people graduating university this weekend, my cousin Melanie asked me what advice I would give my younger self if I were graduating today. Looking back with 20/20 laser vision, here’s my advice:
#1 Run don’t walk.
If you are driving along a country road and see a big hill and think to yourself, ‘Gee, that would be really fun to run down,’ pull over, get out of the car and barrel down that hill. Unless you are en route to the emergency room there is very little that should stand in the way of a joyful moment. One afternoon you will be in your 50s and you will see a big hill and think to yourself ‘Gee, that would be really fun to run down, but if I fall I will break a hip,’ and you will continue on to your 4:30 dinner reservation without even slowing down.
#2 Choose your friends wisely.
Several years ago I realized that I was spending time with a few people who were petty, mean-spirited, selfish and small. They infused my life with drama, anxiety, self-doubt, ugliness and the intense desire to publish my own obituary and join a witness protection program in Antarctica.
Instead, I put on my big girl pants and let Judgmental Jurgen, Bitter Briana, Angry Arianna and Whiny Wyett know that they were bringing me down, when I needed to be up. Culling is difficult, painful, awkward and unsettling, and it can be avoided if you choose your friends wisely.
Here’s a handy list of qualities to look for in a friend: kindness, compassion, empathy, generosity, a sense of humor, ethics and honesty. You can forgive a lack of tact, but someone who cheats, is mean, or thinks they’re better than other people will never be a true friend.
I don’t completely understand why, but I know it’s excellent advice.
#4 Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.
When I was in my 20s, every misstep and blunder took on significance disproportionate to its actual importance. Of course, I also worried that my feet looked big and I wore shoes a size too small. By the time I hit 40 I realized my feet were proportionate to my height, and the mistakes I made in my 20s helped me develop into a confident, able and humble person.
Your 20s are the very best years for trial and error because your recovery time is short, your bones are still relatively soft, and you’ve got the energy to pick yourself up and keep going. You are genetically engineered for maximum bouncebackability. Don’t underestimate this super power.
#5 Be charitable.
If I have learned anything it is that I am not better than anyone, especially not the homeless woman, the battered woman, the addict or the mom who buys groceries with WIC vouchers. Many of the people we might be inclined to pity or pass judgment on have endured unimaginable suffering, abuse, deprivation and loss. Some are sick, others beaten down and too tired to get back up.
If you can spare a dollar or two, do it. The argument that the person might be scamming you is obscene. Begging is not easier than “working.” Standing on the street asking strangers for money does not bring a sense of worth, contentment, fulfillment or security. No one in his or her right mind would choose to be sneered at, disdained, reviled or pitied.
You do not have to give the less fortunate money. It costs nothing to treat people charitably.
#6 Pay attention.
When you were in the fifth grade it seemed like summer would last forever, right? All of a sudden you’re 35 and running down a big hill sounds like fun and chances are you could still do it without breaking anything, but who has the time, and the next thing you know you’re playing Yahtzee with Amy Fliegelman down at the senior center and you can’t remember your bra size.
Savor a kiss. Memorize the feeling of warm sand under your feet, the sensation of snowflakes landing on your nose, the way your grandma looks at you, and how it feels to hold her hand. Some day, I promise you, those will be the things you want to remember most of all.
#7 Put the phone down.
There are experiences and there are recordings of experiences. The latter, historically, have been used as a tool for people who were not able to enjoy the event first hand, such as a concert, where people play music on a stage, live and in front of you, and it goes straight into your eyes.
I went to tons of concerts back in the (prehistoric/pre cell) day. I’ve also been to a lot of shows with my cell phone. I think about the early times, and whether I would like to have had video and selfies from those events. While it would be cool to see what I was wearing and who I was with, the truth is that I was able to dance, clap, throw double horn hands and party without the anxiety of feeling like I had to cover it all for posterity. It is quite liberating to pocket the phone, and simply be in the moment. \,,/(*_*)\,,/
#8 Be on time.
I skated on a number of infractions because I showed up on time. Many older people, like, over the age of 30, regard it as a personal insult to be kept waiting. If you think about it, making someone wait for you is the equivalent of saying “my time is more valuable than your time.”
You may have overslept, forgot you needed to shower, or simply became distracted by your Yik Yak feed. Whatever the reason, you have been doing something during the period you were expected to be somewhere else. The person who is kept waiting is doing nothing but waiting. Even if you call to say you will be late, there isn’t ample time to schedule another meeting, take on a meaningful task or get a pedicure while they wait for you. There is ample time to fume, seethe and plot ways to disembowel you without getting blood all over the furniture. This is not the optimal outcome in most cases.
#9 Work hard.
I’m going to use my dad’s favorite, oft repeated personal anecdote. (There isn’t a busboy in southeastern Wisconsin who hasn’t heard this at least half a dozen times.) When my pops was in high school he got a job as a busboy at a fancy steak house in Milwaukee where he was paid a dollar an hour—$13.28 in today’s money, nearly double our minimum wage. While my dad busted his butt, the other busboys slacked off, went out the back door for a smoke, content to let the new kid do the heavy lifting.
At the end of the night the restaurant’s owner, Joe Deutsch, called my dad into his office.
“I saw how hard you worked tonight,” he told my pops. “And I saw the other guys goofing off. I’m going to give you a buck fifty an hour.” My dad, a hardworking young man, on his first night on the job, was given a 50% raise, which today would come to $19.93 an hour. Why? My pops learned the value of hard work from his father, and whether you get a raise on your first night on the job or not, people do recognize hard work, and it will take you a lot further than the alternative.
#10 Choose happiness.
You’re young. You have superpowers. The road ahead is a great adventure. It is true that we become set in our ways, so make sure your way is the path of happiness. When you see a really lovely elderly person you can rest assured he was a lovable young person. Similarly, the old cuss who yells at kids to stay off his lawn was once a 25-year-old tool who’d yell at an old lady for moving too slowly in the crosswalk.
We become more of whom we are the older we get, so give yourself a leg up. Be happy now, and the rest is gravy.
Congratulations on this milestone! May the road rise up to meet you.