Some time ago, a young man was given a letter as he was departing for college. We’ll just call him “Adam” for purposes of this post.
Few moments in a man’s life are as exciting as the day he steps out the door of his parent’s home as an adult. I am sure it’s something you’ve been looking forward to for some time—the freedom, adventure, and opportunity to demonstrate your maturity and capabilities as an independent man. And I realize that step can also be a nervous experience when we recognize the uncertainty of the future and assume personal responsibility for our life.
You’ve been blessed with some remarkable gifts, Adam—not the least of which is an exceptional mind. I have no doubt you will succeed in applying that intellect to mastering any subjects of interest. I was quite like you in that regard when I was your age. If I was interested in a subject, I studied it to the point of expertise. However, as a young man, I didn’t fully appreciate the difference between knowledge and wisdom. It was only after many years that I truly discovered the distinction.
Following are a handful of lessons I learned by the long road. Although my wish in sharing these is to spare you a difficult process of trial and error, I know many of these points only become wisdom when they’re truly discovered for oneself. With that understanding, I hope you will consider these ideas as open hypotheses until proven from personal observation and experience. Perhaps hearing these words at your age will hasten the discovery of their truth.
Be free to be you and don’t measure yourself by the approval of others.
From the time we’re born, we’re continuously subjected to suggestion by society, family, school, and others how we should act, what to believe, and ultimately “what we, as men, should be.” And the way we interpret, assimilate, or reject these suggestions ultimately defines the personality we arrive with in manhood. Some rebel against those expectations in adolescence to assert a sense of autonomy or individuality. Others often find themselves struggling to fulfill those ideals, believing their success as a man is measured by the approval of others.
Despite the implied messages of society, there is no such thing as standards for being a human. Some are tall. Other’s short. Some are black. Others white. And as diverse as our physiology, so it is also true for our personalities and the seamless chain of experiences that brought us to the present moment. And that diversity also extends to the expectations and standards we often use to judge others and ourselves.
No human being will ever comply with the expectations of all others, nor all expectations of any one person. To even try is futile.
You have responsibility for one human on this planet—you. Embrace the true uniqueness of being Adam and let the approval or disapproval of others fall where it does. That’s their responsibility.
Money can buy temporary happiness, but it can’t buy joy.
Many years ago your Dad and I provided protection for a billionaire businessman. By all standards of society, this guy had it all…A beautiful wife, fame and adoration from thousands of people, pride of achievement, and enough money to buy anything he ever wanted. And at the age of 44, that man died depressed and lonely from an overdose of alcohol and pills in the bathtub of his luxurious LA home.
As a tragic irony, some of the most wealthy and accomplished people in the world are the most miserable and depressed individuals on the planet. For some, ambition becomes an insatiable addiction for which specific achievements only provide a temporary fix. For others, boredom becomes a lonely hell when they’ve exhausted all desires.
By contrast, I recently visited Ghana and was completely amazed by the people. Despite an impoverished standard of living and persistent challenge for survival, they are some of the warmest and most joyful people I have ever met. They seem to understand a simple secret to life that escapes so many of us “advanced folks” in the West—Love costs absolutely nothing and offers a richness of fulfillment that can’t be measured. That may sound cliché, but it’s resolutely one of the greatest truths in life.
Bear in mind, I’m not suggesting there’s anything “wrong” or “bad” about ambition or material wealth. Everyone enjoys a new iPhone or better car. Yet when we make fulfillment in life conditional to those things, we set ourselves up for a persistent cycle of frustration and emptiness between temporary episodes of satisfaction—and often at the sacrifice of life’s greatest treasure.
Joy is found in loving others. Not in how others love us.
As part of a recent threat assessment your Dad and I were involved with, we read an autobiographical essay written by a guy who spent most of his youth obsessed with feelings of perceived rejection because he thought others didn’t love him. Watch reality TV on any night and you’ll hear similar complaints from people who feel hurt, rejected, or betrayed because they aren’t loved by their spouse, parents, or others whom they hold in expectation.
It’s a common belief of society that “being loved” is somehow related to our experience of joy and fulfillment. Similarly, many people hold reciprocation as a conditional aspect of love in relationship.
As an experiment, reflect on a time when someone expressed love to you when you, Adam, felt indifferent or upset in the moment. What did you feel? Did you suddenly feel your heart light up with joy because someone stated they loved you? Now reflect on times when you’ve felt genuine love in your experience with others. What was the emotional quality of that moment?
Discover the significance of this point and you may unlock an opportunity to experience a richness of life that’s invulnerable to circumstance.
Trust the River.
An eastern philosopher once described life as a mighty river. And we, as people, often struggle against the river’s flow, getting thrashed against rocks, exhausting ourselves, and sinking as we tense in our insecurity. But if we can learn to relax and trust it, we may find its current naturally takes us around the big obstacles with our energy preserved. We may get skinned occasionally as we brush by a rock, but our head stays above water and we can navigate with its movement.
Your future is going to bring wonderful opportunities you can’t even imagine right now. It’s also going to bring many unforeseen challenges and resistance. Whenever you find yourself frustrated or struggling in opposition to what is, pause for a brief moment and ask yourself if you’re navigating with the river or against it. That won’t make the challenge go away, but perhaps that question can open a new direction that wasn’t apparent before.
Wishing you all the best on your new adventure at school! Never hesitate to reach out if you ever need anything from us. We’re always here.