(This post was one of the most popular I’ve written and it appeared on my old blog in 2013. Since it is time for graduations around the country, I am replaying it this week.)
Two of my nieces, Megan and Katie, graduate from high school this month. They are both gorgeous redheads, full of potential and possibilities. They’re so young, so fresh, so unaware. That’s not a criticism, that’s actually right on schedule. That big picture perspective only comes with time and experience. They’ll get it. Life is always willing to teach. All Megan and Katie have to do is listen.
I remember being their age like, yesterday. I was busting with promise. I remember being so very proud of myself, full of teenage wisdom. In other words, a total block head. Didn’t realize it at the time, but I was clueless. I was a big fish, but didn’t know how tiny my fishbowl was. If you want to cultivate a healthy ego, grow up in a small town. If you want that ego to get resized by reality, leave that little town. Eventually, you’ll have a bigger, better life but first your pride is going to get pummeled.
It’s a big world. What a kick in the teeth to find that you aren’t quite the superstar your Mama said you were. There is always going to be someone smarter, faster, better than you. You’re going to bump into them all the time. Don’t hate the hot shots, hang out with them. You’ll find yourself getting smarter, faster, and more talented to keep up.
I would not presume to tell my nieces what they may encounter in life and how to deal. They wouldn’t listen anyway. They probably shouldn’t listen. Lessons shared by others don’t stick like the lessons life beats into you personally. You’ve got to figure stuff out for yourself. If you’re smart, you’ll do it quickly. If you’re a dullard like me, life will keep heaving the same lessons in your face until you learn. I was a member of the National Honor Society but in life, I was as remedial as they come. So I have decided that the best way to celebrate my two beautiful, brilliant nieces is to address the idiot that I was. Maybe they’ll appreciate it.
You don’t know me but I am you in 35 years. I know, I know. Ancient. Shut up, it’ll feel young when you get here. You’re going to do a lot of really bonehead stuff in your life and I thought maybe I could give you a few pointers to smooth your path a bit. You won’t listen because you’re a thick wit, but I feel obligated to try. Please pay attention.
Lesson 1: Just because a guy waves something sparkly under your nose does not mean he’s the right guy for you. It only means that he had enough cash for a diamond. Big whoop. In fact, the quicker a guy coughs up a ring, the more disastrously wrong he is for you. (I was engaged five times and married twice, I have learned. I am still a sucker for sparkly things but I don’t make life decisions based on them anymore. I buy them myself.)
a. Never date anyone who is rude to waiters and valets. That’s asshole behavior.
b. Never marry anyone until you’ve seen them with some sort of stomach ailment like food poisoning or flu. It’s a real window into their true personality.
c. Never date anyone whose values vary wildly from yours. It will crop up in embarrassing, shocking, and destructive ways.
d. Things that merely annoy you about a person when dating will make you homicidal in ten years. Never believe that things will improve after marriage. If personal idiosyncrasies change at all, they get worse.
e. Always date someone who makes you a better person. Someone who has your back. Someone who encourages your dreams. (Ding, ding, ding, ding! Big, honking clue here. Not Rick. Never Rick. Forget Rick.)
f. Interesting factoid for you. You do not have to marry at all. Society, friends, and family haven’t a clue what’s best for you. Don’t conform to their expectations if it feels wrong. The worst thing you can do is marry because you think you’re supposed to. (Ding, ding, ding, ding! Big, honking clue here. Not David. Never David. Forget David.)
Lesson 2: Before you marry anyone, sit down and write out a job description for them as your spouse and have them do the same for you. Everyone grew up in different households and what is normal is one family is unheard of in another. By talking out roles ahead of time, there are no hidden expectations that go unfulfilled. Trust me, you never want to have the conversation where someone shouts, “My mother always did that in our house, why can’t you do it?” That talk does not end well.
Lesson 3: If you hate your job, get another one. Immediately start getting the skills you need to snag your dream job. Do not bellyache about your situation without doing something about it. That’s pathetic and alienates your friends. No one is going to save you. Be your own hero.
Lesson 4: Speaking of hero stuff, people are going to pull guns on you. Not pleasant. It happens. If there is one bit of advice here, it is DON’T PANIC. Panicking never helps. Once again, be your own damn hero because no one else will.
Lesson 5: Learn to imbibe without becoming sloppy. A drunk chick is low-hanging fruit and bad things happen to low-hanging fruit. You alone are responsible for your safety. Not your date, not your friends, not the bartender, and not the overworked security guard at the concert. Just you.
Lesson 6: As long as people see you trying to improve yourself, they will offer you some spectacular opportunities. Grab every one you can. Don’t limit yourself by thinking that you couldn’t possibly do something. Yes you can and you had better. Take the overseas job. Participate in the Richmond theatre scene. Partner in the baking business. Do it all. Don’t be afraid to fail. When you fail, no one drags you outside by your hair and stabs you. Try again. There’s a Japanese proverb you will learn to love: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” Go for it. Go for it all.
Lesson 7: You are going to have some surgery. The most important thing about surgery is the skill of your surgeon, not your convenience. Drive hundreds of miles if you have to, but always get the most qualified person possible as your cutter. (As a rule, the most skilled surgeons practice in the higher income, and therefore more litigious, zip codes. Malpractice lawsuits clear out crappy doctors.)
Lesson 8: Never, ever get a tattoo of anything that you would not frame and proudly display on your living room wall for the rest of your life. Just don’t get a tattoo, period. You have freckles. No tattoo can bestow street cred on someone who looks like Opie Taylor with ta-tas. Also, body parts shift as you age and a perfect tattoo when you’re 20 will resemble a damaged Dali painting when you’re 50. Not cool.
Lesson 9: Your caloric intake must match your exercise output. When you stop running two miles a day because your knees hurt, stop ordering the bacon cheeseburger platters. I mean it.
Finally, Lesson 10: Turns out, the best thing you can ever become is a good person. Not rich, not desired, not famous, not influential. A good and kindly person. If everyone managed to accomplish that, the world would be truly awesome. Give it your best shot. Good luck.
Molly Dugger Brennan