Dear 17 or 18 year old, or maybe 19 year old or even early 20something:
I’m not really writing to you. I’m writing to myself when I was 17. But I’m letting you listen, because I think many of you feel the same way. So,
Dear 17 year old me:
Right now you feel like you’re on the edge of a plank and about to be pushed off. And maybe you don’t want to be pushed out there yet. You’re certainly not ready yet.
So what are you going to do? Go to college? Work? I know for a fact that you hate school. You have hated it since you left Mrs. White’s class in the 3rd grade. Yes, you still think she’s the greatest.
Pink Floyd’s The Wall was released the year I graduated high school. And yes, I loved the band and Roger Waters for showing the world exactly what I was feeling about school at the time:
Needless to say, my theme song the day after graduation was
It’s not that you’re not smart. You love to read. You love not just literature, but science and a whole bunch of other things. You like seeing what you can do with a chemistry set. You do dangerous things. You read everything. You read comic books and westerns, yes. But you’re also reading Shakespeare (unabridged), Plato, Aristotle, and Orwell, and have been since you were about fourteen. That’s why you wrote the best essay on Hamlet that your teacher had read in quite some time, and why you scored the highest on the biology final exam out of all students in the school, even higher than the gifted kids.
But you hate school. You hate it. That’s why you’re smart but have a GPA just over 2.9. You can’t stand the thought of four more years in a classroom. You want to get outside and do stuff. You want to learn to play guitar. You feel better about doing work with your hands than you do sitting in a classroom. You want to surf. The idea of four more years in a classroom is repulsive.
But what’s worst of all is that you feel that whatever decision you make now you’re making for the rest of your life. If you go to college now and choose a major, that’s it for the rest of your life. Your major is your life. If you don’t go to college and do something else, that’s it for the rest of your life. It’s the finality of it all that really gets to you, especially when all that you want to do is live on a tropical island with a really hot girl, play guitar, and hang out with your friend Marty and his girlfriend.
Now let me tell you what I’ve learned 33 years down the road.
It’s not that I’m smarter than you, or smarter than any other 17 year old. It’s just that I’ve seen how things happen, and what happened with you, so I can tell you about what I’ve seen, not about some inherent inner knowledge that’s superior to yours somehow (it isn’t).
First off, it’s only partly true that what you decide now will affect the rest of your life. That’s true, but not in the way you think, not in some kind of “you’re stuck in a box now” kind of way. Yes, it is true that every step you take is a step forward in some direction. But do you see what I just said? Every step you take. Your choices now will lead you down a path, but that path can be changed or altered at any point. The choices that really feel irrevocable are marriage and having children, because those choices involve other people, people that you care about.
So just watch how young you are when you get married and when you have kids, and don’t worry about the rest of your choices. No matter when you have kids, they’ll still be the best thing to ever happen to you, but you want to make sure that you’re ready — mostly for their sake.
You want to think about earning money and what it means. A lot of people these days talk about “return on investment” — while you’re in college, you pay tuition and other costs to attend college, and mostly forgo whatever income you may have earned by working instead. So you need to think about those total costs in terms of your future income potential.
But remember the best job you can get right out of high school pays badly — it’ll be entry level construction, retail, or food service, or something like that. So the income you lose right out of high school, even four years out of high school, won’t be that big a deal. But the longer you put off going to college, the worse the loss will be down the road, and people who don’t go to college usually make a lot less money than those who do… with a few exceptions. That means the best thing is to start college as soon after high school graduation as possible. Take a year off if you have to. Take two. But try not to wait too long.
So if it feels right now like I’m trying to talk you into college, maybe I am. But I know how you feel, so I know there’s no way I’ll be able to talk you into it, and it won’t work for you until you really want it anyhow. I’d like you to think about something, though: I’m you way down the road, and I have a Ph.D., and I teach college, so I changed my mind about it, especially after working as an electrician for a few years.
Yes, I was a good electrician. I was decent with my hands and, of course, I knew what I was doing. But regardless of how I was feeling about working outside, it was never who I was.
See, you need to understand that college isn’t high school. The first year might be too much like it, but it gets increasingly more interesting. You want to think of your mind as something like a big switchboard with a bunch of lights turned off. Every time you experience something new, a switch can turn on. If you think about it, this even happened sometimes in high school. Switches can get turned on and off just in daily life, but if you stick to what you like and know and follow your daily routine, you’ll leave most of your switches off. Travel turns on switches. New relationships turn on switches. Reading anything at all can turn on switches. But when you finally do go to college, though, you’ll experience a lot of different things, and learn a lot of different things, and you’ll find that more of your mind lights up a lot faster than you thought it could.
What you’ll discover is that college is really a playground for your talents and for your mind. It’s not about what you do for them, whoever they are. It’ll be something that you’re doing for yourself. And that’s something you want to start doing as soon as you can. I don’t mean to rush you. Wait for college, for marriage, and for children until you’re ready. Just don’t wait longer than you have to when it comes to college. Going to college, when I finally got there, was something like this for me…
And oh yeah, all that reading you do before you actually start college? Those thousands and thousands of pages? That was great. Keep it up.
That whole island thing still sounds pretty cool, by the way, and you’re still friends with Marty. . .
–Your Older Self