Congratulations on your high school graduation. I am immensely proud of your hard work in the past several months: including completing your internship. You should feel proud of your accomplishments, and for starting at Metro in the fall.
In honor of this milestone, I wanted to sit down and write out some advice for you. I’m sure every adult in your life will be doing the same, so I’m going to try something different, and offer some of the advice I wish I had been given at your age.
First, let me repeat something I told you earlier this year: life is not a straight line. I used to think life was linear, that life meant having a goal, and then it was just a matter of checking off boxes on a list on the way to that goal.
Unless you’re planning to be in a profession, such as a doctor or a lawyer, it is very, very rare for life to proceed this way. Instead, life is like a crazy straw: it takes you through wild, unexpected twists and turns. Some of these turns may be setbacks and disappointments, but many of them will be opportunities you may not have thought possible. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, you will very often encounter these twists feeling “surprised by joy.”
One of the writers who influenced my life, Roger Ebert, had never considered film criticism as a career. He had studied English and planned to be an English teacher. Reviewing films for a local newspaper was an unexpected opportunity that came his way, and it happened at a time, the 1960s, when Hollywood was undergoing a great change in its business and its creativity. That opportunity led to a Pulitzer Prize, and becoming the most important film critic of his generation.
My first bit of advice, then, is to not think of life as a straight line, but as a series of possibilities and surprises, with your goals serving as a compass to guide you.
My second piece of advice is a purely practical one. Save everything you wrote for high school that you got a good grade on, or that you feel particularly proud of. Do the same while you are in college. This is your portfolio, and whenever someone asks to see some of your writing, you can have it ready to share. Please remember to do this: don’t throw away or delete your writing assignments from senior year, keep them as samples of your writing!
Lastly, I want you to remember that professional achievements are not the same as personal accomplishments. Another writer I admire, Harlan Ellison, won just about every award there is for genre fiction. He once remarked, “Awards are only road signs, only mileposts to let other people know you’ve hung on for a number of years, long enough to get an award, a gold watch, or whatever it is. Until they give you the Nobel, you’re still learning. I’m still learning.”
There’s been a lot of talk about “impostor syndrome,” the feeling that your accomplishments belong to someone else, or that you don’t deserve recognition for them. I’ve thought a lot about why these feelings can be so strong, and I think it’s because we perceive other people’s lives differently than we perceive our own. In stories, the hero or heroine stops the bomb, beats the bad guy, and saves Christmas in a folksy midwestern town. They’ve “won,” and the story ends.
Outside of these stories, in our flesh-and-blood world, life continues; we continue to meet people, and find new joys and frustrations. When a milestone is reached, you don’t become a different person, you are still you. The achievements that mark victory in stories are just milestones on the way to a new experience. Change does occur, but this change happens incrementally, day to day, minute to minute. The change can be apparent when we look back over a period of years, but it is not always so apparent in the present moment.
In life, the most important thing, what you’ll be remembered for, is how you treated other people. I know people who own large businesses and have walls lined with awards and honors, and they’ll be forgotten the moment they’re laid in the ground. I’ve known people who worked on their feet day after day their whole lives, who never knew money, and people still remember them fondly, decades after their deaths. The difference was not in wealth or awards, but in character.
Having gotten to know you professionally these past few months, I think I can speak positively to your character. It’s always a good day when you show up at the office. You are excited about your work, and love sharing what you have learned with others. You are always looking to improve your understanding of your job. I’ve noticed that you are open to self-reflection and seek out the views of others, this is a rare and valuable trait in American life today. You approach everyone at work with patience and openness. I have seen you give this internship the full measure of your heart, and I hope you will continue to do so in any future pursuit, because that’s what inspires people.
There’s an old joke about the Bhuddist monk who goes to the hot dog vendor and says “Make me one with everything.” The monk hands over a $20 bill, receives his hot dog, and asks for his change. The hot dog vendor replies, “Change comes only from within.”
So, as you enjoy this summer before college, remember: life is like a crazy straw, save those A-grade papers, and professional accomplishments are only milestones, our greatest triumphs happen inside ourselves. This is the letter I wish I had received when I was your age, but now I’m pleased to be the one who wrote it for you.
Wishing you the very best,
Nicholas Bernhard lives in Broomfield.
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