A Letter To My Little Girl As She Heads Off to College
Do what you love (and work hard), build great relationships to create your community, and don’t stress out or panic along the way.
Late this past week I dropped my eldest child off at the airport to begin her journey back east to start her freshman year of college. Now before you peg me as the callous parent who can’t be bothered to travel all the way to her college campus — followed by a trip to Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond to help outfit her dorm room — rest assured that her mother AND nana made the full journey to New York to complete the family loop. You see, we have a younger daughter making her own transition to high school frosh this same week, so I stayed back to provide equal time and attention for that important transition. As every parent knows, favoring one kid over another is no way to guarantee maximum elder care from your offspring in the future!
So while I said my (yes, teary) goodbye and gave a lasting long hug at SFO, I had already imparted a full dose of free advice for my college bound progeny. My hand crafted note card laid out three simple rules for my daughter to live by beginning her first day of college, with the high hopes that this wisdom will ensure she sails through these next five years (yes, five years, since the kid opted for a 5-year degree program!)— and ultimately life — with a great perspective of what it means to live her life well. I wrote this digital version as a backup knowing two important truths. First, I trust that my daughter will no doubt struggle like we all do with life. She’ll certainly face the stress and anxieties of completing her studies and finding a job that pays her enough to avoid moving back in with her damn parents. She’ll battle society’s banal pressure that she does something that makes a lot of money, while also making sure that she fits into social norms that a young woman must live up to no matter what professional field she chooses. Basically, I wanted to write down three poignant thoughts so she might be able to refer to them in those moments when she feels self-doubt, frustration, or even anger directed towards those mysterious forces that she will feel pulling her away from where she might otherwise let her heart lead her.
The second reason I wanted to permanently document the note I shared with my daughter has more practical grounding. Candidly, I expect that somewhere along the line she might, amidst all her travels, lose the card I wrote her, and consequently, she’ll need to track down this blog post to resurrect the brilliant thoughts that her father shared with her as she excitedly headed to college.
Okay, with that set up, let’s get to it. All the advice my daughter (or any college frosh to be) needs to live life well.
Do It for Love — Not For Money
Simply stated, rule number one is to find something you love doing and do it as much as you can. If this is architecture today — and it is still architecture in five years — that’s great. If you find a love for psychology, drama, teaching yoga classes, or leading trekkers on hikes across India, that’s great too. Life is short, go do any of those things that call out to you loudly (or softly). The time we have on earth is a fraction of a blink in the big picture. Just ask an anthropologist about measuring time.
You will stress about money, but that’s mainly because your peers (and those dumb ass brand marketers) will try to convince you that you are missing out. “How?” you ask. Your friends will buy things that you will then deem must-haves like a big house, a nice car trips to Cabo, fashionable clothes, the list goes on and on. Maybe owning things like a house and a car won’t be a “thing” when you’re out in the working world, but other purchases will haunt you as important. Buying any of them won’t make you happier, especially if what you do during the bulk of your waking hours saps your soul.
The corollary to this first rule is you need to work really hard. This should be easy if you pick what you do for love. In fact hopefully, it won’t even feel like you’re working hard. It will, however, be more difficult to work hard if your heart isn’t in it, no matter how much money they pay you. Working hard has big benefits. You’ll get to do more of exactly what you love doing because working hard is the surest way to become really good at what you do, and being really good at something is the surest way to do things on your terms. Working hard is also important because it’s how you teach people. The people coming behind you — especially your kids, your nieces and nephews, and anyone for that matter who pays attention to your work ethic — will all learn from how you do what you do. This is one of the most valuable gifts you can pass on to them. So work hard, okay?
Find Your Tribe and Build Relationships
Rule number two follows directly from rule number one. Find the “tribe” or community that you most belong, and build as many meaningful relationships as you can in that community. Your community can have several layers. It can start with your profession, be it architect, teacher, or doctor. Find those people in your profession who share your passions and beliefs, and who share your commitment to working hard and being excellent. This doesn’t mean everyone in your profession is going to be a trusted member of your community. Choose wisely the friends and colleagues who join your tribe.
Beyond your profession, other layers of your community will emerge that are equally important. You’ll find organizations that you want to support — a non-profit foundation or local food bank — where you will meet other amazing people to bring into your tribe. You’ll find other women doing amazing things they love doing who energize and empower you. Someday you might even have a family and you’ll find that your kids’ school community brings you together with even more amazing people to add to your tribe. As you add these layers, choose wisely. Time is precious and you should spend as much of it with really great people, and as little of it as possible with those who don’t fit your definition of community. You’ll get better at this understanding this difference every day.
And what about relationships? These are the building blocks of how you grow and how you help other people grow. It’s one thing to have special people be a part of your tribe, but it’s even more of a blessing to have a subset of meaningful relationships that you can turn to in your time of need. People who can help you advance your career or your pursuit of lifelong learning. People who can help you reaffirm the love you have for your profession — or who can honestly tell you when it’s time to do something new. People who know you well enough to call “bullshit” when you are doing something for the wrong reason (like for $$$) or when you’re drifting outside the lanes set by the values you most believe in. And finally, people who are there just for you, especially when you simply need someone to help you out even when they know there’s no quid pro quo to be had. Those are the relationships to build, nurture, and cherish.
No Stressing and “Don’t Panic!”
After you wrap your arms firmly around rules number one and two, this last rule of the road seals the deal. In fact, the better job you do at nailing the first two, the easier it will be to stick to rule number three that says don’t overly stress out about your life and “don’t panic!”.
There will always be something to stress about in your life. You can stress about anything. “What grade am I going to get on that paper, on that project, or in that class?”. “Will I get an internship with a good company or firm this summer?”. “How will I ever have enough money to pay for an apartment in San Francisco or New York?”. The good news is that all of these questions have been asked — and answered — by thousands of college students before you. The amount of stressing that went into processing these questions (and the hundreds of others that might cause stress and anxiety for you) did virtually nothing to change the outcome. If you stick with doing what you love and building meaningful relationships in your community or tribe, you’ll end up where you want to be over the long-term.
And the long-term here is important. I know earlier I mentioned that life is short, and indeed it is in terms of how a clock tracks time. But in the context of all the specific events in your life, you have to take a long view because not every event is going to turn out exactly like you want it to. You won’t get an “A” on every paper or project, or in every class. You won’t get every internship, job, or promotion you apply for even in the profession you love, and even if you have been working your ass off. Nope, you’ll have plenty of individual bumps and bruises along the way. That’s why doing well over the long string of events that you tackle throughout your life matters most, and stressing over the outcome of any one or two (or several dozen) of them won’t help you get where you want to go.
As you learned your freshman year of high school from your shop teacher Doug: “Don’t panic!”. This is the right-now version of no stressing. Take the failures (and the stress that comes with them) in stride, pause and take a deep breath, and learn. Learn what to do next time. Apply that learning to the work you love doing and to the relationships that matter most to you within your broader community.
That’s it, three rules to live by: Do what you love (and work hard), build great relationships to create your community, and don’t stress out or panic along the way. Pretty easy right? Now go have some fun in college!
This article was syndicated from Medium.