When I turned 18 I was just completing my first semester of college. I made the Dean’s List and was excited about my future. I loved two things more than anything – theatre (we know I’m serious because I spell it with the ‘re’ rather than the ‘er’) and writing. At the time I felt pressure to major in something marketable – business, communications, or something else I felt was ridiculously boring.
One of my first acts of independence as an 18 year old was to major in what I wanted to major in: Theatre. I did it consciously not because I thought I was going to get a great job in the field, but because my interest was all-consuming and this would be the last chance to study something I loved to this degree. If it led to a job, then so be it. My one concession was to make my degree in theatre education even though I really had a marginal interest in teaching.
There are a few things I wish I had done differently. There are a few words of advice I would have like to have heard then. I write them now for both my and your benefit.
- College is about exploration and learning from your mistakes. Use caution, but don’t be afraid to fail. If you learn by mistakes, you have to step out of the boat and make a few. Chances are they aren’t going to be life-threatening.
- If money is the driving force for you choosing a career, you will eventually feel empty inside because you didn’t pursue your dream. Money is great – so much greater than being poor – but it doesn’t make up for missing your calling. Twenty years later, with your money in the bank and your career goals achieved, if you don’t have a passion for what you do the majority of your time you will end up seeking fulfillment elsewhere. It won’t be pretty.
- Travel. I really wanted to do a semester abroad when I was in college, but I thought it was too cost prohibitive and I never even looked into it. Because I didn’t look into it I never knew that the additional cost of a semester abroad was generally your airfare and incidentals. I could have gone. It’s one of my biggest regrets today.
- Cull the negative people from your life. You know the ones – they consistently only see the bad in life. When you’re on a high their goal is to bring you down. Oh, maybe they are not so forward about it – they’ll couch their negativity in “wanting to keep you grounded” or “keeping you from getting your hopes up” but they just want you to be at their level. Negative people find hope threatening. A lot of my self-doubts from that time came from negative people. I saw them as people offering sage advice – after all, they were older and who was I to doubt the wisdom of their years?
- Cultivate self-confidence. I started doing this when I was 21 and it is still a daily exercise for me. When you are growing up your self is, in part, formed by the people who surround you. Their life experiences become a part of your psyche and can grow or fester inside you. If you believe you are dumb because your parents told you your grades weren’t good enough, those words can wind up being the foundation of your inner dialogue. You need to work to dispel those negative thoughts. It’s hard work. Self talk is an excellent way to start.
- Keep a careful eye on your dreams and say yes to the things that will move you closer toward them. You want to be an author? Take writing classes! See how simple that is?
- Worry more about your motives than what other people think. After ballerina, the only thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. I remember taking trips to the library and dreaming where my books would be shelved. However, when I look at my early claims in the School Days books my mother kept, it said I wanted to be a teacher. I have no memory of wanting to be a teacher except for a brief period when I believe I equated teaching with reading. I never played at being a teacher, but I did finish a (terrible) novel at age 14. I think somewhere along the line I got the message that the arts were something you did as a hobby in addition to a “real” job. I studied education only because it allowed me to pursue theatre. I had fallen in love with stage design and lighting but didn’t see it as a practical career choice so I stuck with education knowing I didn’t find it as exciting.
- Don’t let seemingly major setbacks determine your path. My second semester in college I was really excited to take a writing course through the Communications department. Until then my writing was mostly intuitive and well-received. This class was challenging and required a lot of hard work. I did it all happily even though struggling with an unfamiliar format took up a great deal of my time. My writing improved significantly. My final paper was probably the most work/research I’d ever done on a paper since my 5th grade report on the Native American tribes of the Finger Lakes area. I labored over this term paper and double-checked it with my textbook and all the work we had done over the semester. I think I turned in a solid paper. What I had forgotten to do was footnote my source of a definition I used, even though in the same paper I gave the dictionary for an additional term. I was marked down a full grade point for “plagiarism”. I misused a comma or a semi-colon or something and was marked down another full grade. My A paper received a C which still seems rather harsh to me now. It was freshman class, after all. And what written work doesn’t have minor errors? I could have only gotten an A+ for absolute perfection – which is reasonable, I think. I probably deserved a B-. Anyway, that single incident told me I sucked as a writer and from that point on, my writing was fraught with self-doubts. I questioned everything I put to the page. Had I been wiser, I would have given myself a some strong self talk and realized if this professor was the be-all and end-all of talented writing, she would herself be published instead of laboring away at a small commuter college in a temporary lecturer position. I let her criticism tell me I wasn’t worthy, that I had no hope of becoming a better writer because I made stupid mistakes.
- Make learning the priority. I am a learner. I like acquiring knowledge. Sometimes college becomes a test mill – taking required courses and muddling through boring subjects taught by uninspiring teachers is a chore. However, I wish I knew then how to take responsibility for my own learning. It’s so easy to place blame on bad teaching but the truth is, if you have the textbook, you have 90% of what you need. I should have adjusted my attitude and looked for the exciting aspect of the course. The target shouldn’t be to get an A in the course (my own crazy, unpopular opinion) but to understand the subject matter. I got a C in Philosophy, but I’m pretty good at formulating an argument.
- Have an open mind. I didn’t go to college with a totally open mind, but I was lucky that my mind was opened through my studies and my new friends. My life was enriched by the people I interacted with. A lot of kids go to college and spend all their time with people just like themselves. If you have strong opinions about something but have no practical knowledge of it, you’re platform is on thin ice.
- Be vulnerable. This is definitely one I wish I knew years ago. We equate vulnerability with weakness. We’re expected to get over being hurt quickly with a pint of ice cream and a night of cocktails. At some point we accepted that we are supposed to be impenetrable and stalwart 24/7. But how can we do this and participate fully in life the way that gives us the biggest return if we are constantly putting a brick wall in front of what can be our best experiences? The thing is, putting a wall up doesn’t prevent us from getting hurt. We still get hurt when we realize we are isolated and apart. It’s better to go through that hurt with people who love you than it is to completely shut down. There’s an exception to this suggestion – you also can’t be the victim crying on the shoulders of those who are not in your support corner. Accept your own choices and realize they can go either way. The only thing you can be responsible for are your own reactions.
- Live! My favorite line in the movie, Mame? “Life’s a banquet and most poor sons-a-bitches are starving to death!” It’s true. There’s also this quote by CS Lewis: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” For a lot of us the tendency is to live small, safe lives with few challenges and smaller victories. And then, because we are dissatisfied we warn others against living big, messy lives even though that may be the very best thing. Don’t be covered in mud and think that’s the best life has to offer.
I hate regret. It’s the worst feeling for me. Luckily, I have so very few. The travel thing is one of the biggest. And being afraid to be vulnerable. Younger me always felt as if I were constantly being watched and judged for every little choice I made. I’m so lucky I did not carry the fullness of that into adulthood because getting rid of the dregs of it was horrifically difficult and is constantly a struggle. Age helps. Turning 40 had me realizing I like what I like and it’s stupid to worry so much about other people’s perceptions of me. My perception and God’s perception of me is what really matters. Anyone else can love me or leave me. The bonus is the people who love me, really love me for my real and authentic self, are the ones who carry and encourage me and give me the capacity to love more. How can you not embrace and strive for that?!