To the Class of 2014: relax, the race is long

I’ll never forget the first time I was in a real race, on a track with a starting line and real ribbons and everything. It was my elementary school’s field day, near the end of the academic term. There was even a cap gun used as a starting pistol (hard to imagine in our gun-paranoid modern era), and when it was fired, I was off. In only a few steps I was well ahead of the pack and gaining speed.

Looking back at how far back everyone else was, I was amazed at how well I was doing. Surely fame and glory and innumerate riches were mine for the taking (or at least one of those coveted blue ribbons). It was then that I realized this was a 400-meter race — an entire lap around the track — and I was already getting quite tired. Uh oh. Gradually the pack caught up with, and then passed me. Instead of a blue ribbon, I got a purple one that says “participant.” I still have it, because I learned an important lesson that day: life is a marathon, not a sprint.

I’ve never run a marathon, but one thing I know for sure is that it isn’t wise to break yourself right at the start. If you don’t pace yourself, you’re going to have a bad time. It’s good advice whether you’re pushing 40, or moving a tassel across your mortarboard. Relax, the race is long. Writing to you as someone who’s well into the race, I’d offer a few words to you, the Class of 2014.

Congratulations on completing the easiest part of your life. I know it seemed brutal at times, tiresome in others, and you’re glad to rid yourself of the pettiness and drama that goes hand-in-hand with the American academic experience. But, really, you’ve had it about as easy as it gets. From here on out, you’ll have to work harder, smother more yawns, and overcome more backstabbing than a church potluck. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you think “the struggle is real” just wait until you’re out from under the protective awning of your helicopter parents.

Pay your dues. Some of you are at the top of your class, prom and homecoming royalty, or boast a DVD full of athletic accomplishments. None of this will 1.) get you a job, 2.) pay your bills, or 3.) make you friends out here in the real world. I’ve hired numerous people over the years, and I never asked a single one about what they did in school. A diploma might get your foot in the door, but it’s what you are able to do that keeps you from getting a foot upside your rear.

Make time for fun. Yeah, even irresponsible fun, but remember that mistakes stick with you — especially if your mistakes are captured via social media. While we’re on the subject, lose the social media. Deactivate your Facebook and Twitter, leave it to the moms, the trolls, and the pervs. Live your life in the real world, with real interactions with real people. Save the nostalgia and the voyeurism for your mid-life crisis. It’s debatable if youth is indeed “wasted” on the young, but it’s certain that this part of the Internet is a monumental waste of your time.

Pay it forward. If you’re finishing school, there’s a pretty good chance a lot of folks have been working behind the scenes to make sure that happened. It could be parents or other relatives, your teachers and mentors, but somewhere you benefited from someone helping you along the way. It’s not because you’re special but because they are, and they want you to become more than you are. Don’t disappoint them. Commit yourself to always getting better and doing more, not just for yourself but for your community.

Take care of yourself. If you’re already athletic, keep it up. The wonderful high-octane metabolism you’ve got right now is about to slam on the brakes. Get in the habit of hitting a local gym or participating in regular exercise on your own. It is ridiculously easy to stay in pretty good shape with a regular regimen, but once you’ve let things go it’s difficult to get it back.

The good news is, you’re young — still so damned young — your minds and bodies are as elastic and resilient as they’ll ever be. You probably feel full of dynamic and creative energy, enough to set the world on its ear. That’s called hubris, and it’s gonna cause you problems out in the workforce. Take it down a notch, champ. You’ve got a lot to learn. How do I know? Because I’m going on two decades since high school, and I’ve got a lot to learn. The people who best run the race are the ones who learn the well-worn bends in the road before they start blazing their own trail. There are a lot of folks in your life who’ve tried and failed — kept trying, and succeeded — so hit them up for sage advice and sound counsel.

Make mistakes, but learn from them. You can abandon bad jobs and hairstyles but stick out your relationships and your education, even when they get difficult… especially when they get difficult. The friends you keep through hard times become trusted advisers in older age, and no one ever regretted learning more.

Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. Not all wines should be tasted, and some should only be sipped… but with others, drink the whole bottle.

You cannot change the cards you are dealt but, if you’re clever enough, even nothing can be a real cool hand.

I wish you well.

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