It’s a month into our pandemic experience. As each weird “new normal” day opens, I think about you and your brother and feel a familiar sadness that’s hard to explain. It comes with a sense of guilt. When the towers fell on 9/11 you were an unborn diaphragm-kicking babe in my belly, still three months away from your due date, and I remember thinking, “Why am I bringing the poor kid into this horrific mess?” It’s a little bit of the same sadness today.
But too late now, you’re here. My goodness, you’re eighteen already, and I can’t fathom how those years flew by so quick-as-lightning fast. I’m thankful to God you made it this far. You’re smarter than the average bear, blessed with your dad’s handsomeness, good hair, and flair for dress jackets and briefcases, and you have no obvious genetic or health defects that spell disaster for you in the foreseeable future. Phew! That’s a lot to be thankful for, and I’m filled with gratitude for all those things every single day.
The best thing I can do to mitigate the guilt I feel for bringing you into this crazy place is to give you a few words of advice as you’re about to graduate high school and move on to your new adventures, so here I go…
Notice and commit to memory the beauty around you every single day.
It’s there, but you have to look for it – some days you have to look HARD. These observations are like points of light during your life’s path. They can quietly pass by you like brief flickers of light, but if you turn and look at them – really look at them, and maybe even jot them down in a journal periodically, they stay with you.
These are the points of light that, when strung together, create your perceptions about life. Trust me that it makes an enormous difference in how you see the world.
The beauty is literally everywhere around you. It’s in nature — a newly sprouted crocus in spring, the suicidal squirrel who runs in front of your car and then rethinks and skitters back to the curb, the complexity of the ice crystals that form on the window right next to your bed. It’s in people — the guy who holds the door for the granny behind him at the store, the sound of your friend’s laughter at an inside joke, the adoring mother who washes the skillet after you make your eggs (OK, shameless plug there)…
Spread your own magic.
All day long, there are opportunities to create and diffuse positivity into the world. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is. Notice people, no matter how peripheral they may be to your path. Our connections with others and our ability to lift each other up with a simple but kind comment or a smile are SO underrated. I’m one hundred percent sure it’s what we’re here for — to look someone in the eye, really notice them, and give them a genuine “Thank you,” or even just, “That’s a really cool shirt.” It’s a leap of faith but just trust that it has a butterfly effect and spreads outward like a ripple on a lake. Put it out there as often as you can.
For the love of Pete, put the damn phone down.
The collective amount of missing out that we’ve all suffered since the invention of these godforsaken smartphones is horrific. Stop the madness. I’m not talking about the informative stuff. Sure, there are a few positives, but it’s 99% negatives.
There is unquantifiable opportunity cost in those hours of “numbing out” and scrolling through meaningless, valueless garbage. That time is precious and you can never get it back. At 18, you think you have a lot of it left but believe me you’ll regret it when you’re 52. I know I do.
When I was a teen, I wasted too many hours of my life watching “General Hospital.” I could have learned three languages and all of astronomy with all that time I wasted. At least I have the ability to flip that show on today and pick right up where I left off with the Quartermaines in their fair hamlet of Port Charles. You poor kids have nothing to show for your wasted time except Doge memes and TikTok dance videos you won’t remember next week.
Life is not fair.
But you can handle it if you’re OK with asking for help and letting others give it to you. You’ll cringe as you see life hurl some truly ghastly curve balls at people. Some of those pitches will include razor blades and the balls may actually detonate like bombs when they hit people in the face. It may bring you to your knees when you see an undeserving soul suffer a fiery car crash, contract terminal cancer, lose a job or lose a child.
It scares the shit out of you because then you know it could happen to you. The only control you have when you or someone you care about is being unfairly pummeled by life is to decide how you’ll react and what you can do to help.
Even in the most desperate of times, there is enormous grace and beauty. Look for the outpouring of love and support shown by loved ones and even complete strangers. Believe that most people are good and things can change for the better, no matter how bad things seem, because that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Be a proactive communicator, in all your relationships.
Tell people, with as much honesty as you can, how their actions and words affect you. It’s important in work relationships and friendships, and it’s vital in your love relationships. I’ve seen what could have been decades-long happy marriages reduced to rubble due to plain and simple conflict avoidance and inability to say to one another, “something you did (or said) felt crappy to me, and here’s why…”
Lack of honest communication can build resentment that festers and creates walls faster than an old world Italian mason. When the walls become high enough and thick enough, irreparable damage results. Then, sadly, the proverbial “towel” is thrown in and that relationship goes down the crapper.
Collect good friends like flowers, and lean towards the cactuses.
You’ll know who your flowers are as you travel through life. Your dad and I have done a pretty good job at building our collections. In fact, we’ve built sprawling and gorgeous gardens – each of us having our own, with an overlapping part in the middle that we share. Our high school and college friends, former worklife bosses and coworkers, neighbors from places we’ve lived.
The cactus part is a reference not to their prickly natures, but to their minimal care needs. You can’t collect too many tropicals and exotics with shallow root systems and huge thirsts for water. You’ll kill yourself trying to maintain those and keep ‘em all happy. But those cactuses – they’re the ones that survive with a little love every so often and some infrequent watering.
Don’t forget the water – even cactuses need a little. A quick text every few months – or even years – just to check in or let them know you were remembering something they said years ago is enough to maintain that garden your whole life long. The high maintenance flowers will weed themselves out (see what I did there) – you will remember them fondly but not enough to resume contact. And that’s OK.
People will disappoint you; be generous with your forgiveness.
We are such a big human mess of accidental slights, oversharing, forgotten appointments, late arrivals, unreturned borrowed items of clothing/books/cookware/tools/cash, unkept promises, over-commitments, incompatible prioritizations, distractibility and self absorption. It’s astounding to me that any two of us ever manage to be on the same page at any same moment in time.
It’s painful to be hurt by someone you care for. There’s a test that can help you decide if you should forgive them. Ask yourself, “Did they intend to hurt me?” If the answer is, “No,” then forgiveness is absolutely the right course of action. If the answer is “Yes,” (which happens rarely, unless you’re a jerk), then ask, “WHY did they intend to hurt me?” This can be tricky.
If the matter involves a misperception about who you are and what you’re about, either do your best to correct that misperception, or move on. Up to you, depending on how important that relationship is to your life. But when moving on, don’t belabor it. Just go. Don’t spend more energy or time on that one.
When you’re angry, wait it out.
Things said and done in anger are so often regrettable and difficult or even impossible to take back. Some can never, ever be taken back. Sure, you can apologize and put them behind you, but the other person often can’t. That memory takes on a life of its own and comes back to bite later.
Time is a great healer of an inflamed and angry ego. Those compelling reasons you had in the heat of the moment for uttering those injurious words (or hurling that plate or Ninja star) can eventually evaporate into thin air with the simple passage of a few moments (or hours, or days). Just give it some time.
Admit it when you’re wrong.
Your integrity and the respect people have for you are directly correlated with your ability to openly and comfortably admit your own errors and mistakes. You will definitely meet people in life without this ability who thrive and succeed to an impressive degree, but you do not want to be like them. At all.
Why? Because although they’re usually oblivious to it, their friends and coworkers loathe them. People with an inability to admit mistakes (or even worse, blame it on others) have an embarrassing and catastrophic self-reflection blind spot. They think no one else sees them covering up or blaming others, or bending the truth just a little, but people always do.
Once that happens, even just a few times, it’s all over. Without honest admission and correction, without the ability to show the vulnerable soft underbelly of imperfection, respect can’t be earned or regained. People will put up with you — they’ll even work for you and sort of pretend to like you — but they’ll laugh at you and roll their eyes behind your back. You’ll never be taken seriously again.
Get comfortable with vulnerability.
Because you’re a young man, by now you’re aware that our culture celebrates manly men who only seem to comfortably connect with one another through 1. Sports or 2. Work.
This is tragic. Sadly, we’ve taught men to leave the touchy-feely connecting to women, and the men are missing out big time. The stats on the growing epidemic of lonely men in our culture are heartbreaking. Did you hear the story about the single man who became so lonely he began hugging a pole in his apartment? Truth.
You will see men end up all alone and friendless sitting at a bar by themselves at 45-50 years of age. They’ll have not developed the ability to connect with other men and maintain meaningful, real friendships. It requires a comfort with vulnerability and being self secure enough that you’re unafraid of what someone might think of you when you invite another guy to get a beer or go see a movie together.
You must embrace vulnerability in order to forge, cultivate and maintain meaningful friendships. Do not leave that to the women in your life. It’s your own responsibility to hone that skill.
If it scares you a little, you should probably do it.
Aside from things you know are stupid, like skateboarding without a helmet or trying heroin, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is where growth happens, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now. It’s so much easier to take the cushy path of less resistance – that’s why it’s called The Comfort Zone. But it’s lazy.
Get used to the fact that new growth often doesn’t feel good and go towards it when you have the chance. It’s why the first day at a new job or new school feels awful. It’s why first dates are terrifying.
Fight the natural urge to retreat and fight it hard. When you look back on your life, you’ll see that all your opportunities for great learning and development were preceded by that icky feeling of uncertainty, self-doubt and discomfort. Just do it. Don’t think about it too long, and jump in.
CALL. YOUR. PARENTS.
Life gets busy. That’s my usual excuse for why I haven’t called my parents in too long. You will have so much to do and not nearly enough time. There will be schoolwork, dorm life (praying you’re in a dorm by the fall), parties, friends, girls. Then there will be work, parties, friends, girls. Then there will be work, friends, marriage, and possibly the incredible time black hole of a family with young kids. It’s relentless.
All parents are uncomfortably aware that Cat Stevens’s words from his song “Cat’s in the Cradle” will inevitably describe their own feelings as they watch their children become adults. Please remember there will be no two hearts in the world happier than mine and your dad’s just to hear the sound of your voice.
I was unprepared for how incredibly hard it would be to watch you grow up — into this capable young man, seemingly overnight — and to step out into your own world and away from ours. If I had known, I wouldn’t have had the guts to say “yes” to this whole parenthood shindig. I am so grateful I did, and I love you more than I can say.
Your father and I can’t wait to see where life takes you. Enjoy the life roller coaster, Freddy.