There are many, many things I hope to teach you as you grow. But just in case I die before then, here are the highlights. If you learn these things the easy way (by listening to me) instead of the hard way (by ignoring me and letting life teach you) you will save yourself a lot of grief, and have a big head-start on those suckers who think they are your peers.
At the time of this writing, you are about a year and a half old. I reserve the right to alter this list without warning or notification as you get older. I’ll probably need to; judging from how wise I find 20-year-old Me, I assume 40-year-old Me will have a lot to say to Present Me. But just in case I die before then, here you are:
- Nobody cares about you but your mother and I
Okay, also your grandparents, but they won’t be around for most of your life, and sooner or later your mother and I will shuffle off as well. Everybody else is only interested in what they can get from you. This includes your future husband, who may very well lay his life down for you, but will also most certainly become very cross with you over the long haul of your marriage if he feels you’re not meeting his needs.
Don’t get all indignant about this; you treat everybody else the same way.
- Seek truth. Seek God. Nothing else matters.
I would go so far as to say that these two things are identical. I take John 14:6 very literally. Hopefully, I have managed to instill in you a love of truth above all else. And to really seek the truth, you must read the classics. Before you head off for college, I will expect you to have read and understood the following: The Bible, Plato’s Republic, Confucius’ Analects, The Tao Te Ching, The Bhagavad Gita, The Federalist Papers, Augustine’s Confessions, Screwtape Letters, Consolation of Philosophy, The Gulag Archipelago, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, The Last Days of Socrates, something by Aquinas.
This is not an exhaustive list, and is subject to expansion at any moment and without warning. There is always more to learn. Seek out wisdom. Love the truth. Never shrink from it. Never settle for the more comfortable half-truth.
This is extraordinarily difficult, even dangerous, to do. When you stare into the abyss, it really does stare back at you. But there is so much on the other side. God is Truth, and we were made for God.
Speaking of God and the abyss…
- God will forsake you
At some point in your life, you will experience what is called the Dark Night of the Soul. This is a universal experience for all who pursue God. Even Jesus did not avoid it. It will seem like He has abandoned you entirely; where you once felt Him there will be only absence and darkness. This is highly traumatic; even so, stick with God. This will be a vital turning point in your life. This too shall pass, and you will be better off for it.
- Just showing up and doing what you’re told puts you ahead of half the people out there
It has amazed me throughout my career how much credit I have often gotten for doing the bare minimum. Back in school, just turning in all your assignments was usually enough for a B. Praise is lavished for simply showing up to things on time. But the fact of the matter is that most people can’t even clear this low bar; indeed, many college degrees provide little value beyond signalling that a person can show up on time and do what they’re told. If you can do that, you can carve out a comfortable existence.
- Just showing up, doing what you’re told and following the rules will never give you wild success
The co-founder and money man behind my current company (as well as several other companies) was kicked out of three schools in his young teens. He’s been stopped for speeding more than 50 times. And he’s made way more money than any of us are likely to. I am sure that these three things all flow from the same core traits.
- Rules mean nothing; only the enforcers matter. Usually there aren’t any.
Corollary: it is easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission.
This is related to the former point. Bureaucrats can make all the rules they want, but in the end, it is up to somebody to implement them. But people don’t like to read, so usually what they actually do only bears a passing resemblance to the rules handed down from on high.
This can work to your advantage and disadvantage. Never assume that there is a system in place taking care of things behind the scenes. Just because you turned in your resume doesn’t mean anybody saw it. and if they did it may well have been in a pile of 50 others after a very long day. Just because you submitted something on the website doesn’t mean it actually goes to anybody; nobody is assigned to make sure that particular form keeps working, which it stopped doing after the latest network upgrade. These aren’t imaginary situations; I’ve seen and perpetrated them myself.
But once you realize that it’s people all the way down, you can exploit that. Don’t rely on anything working itself out for you. Know the right people and the rules will bend for you. Don’t be held back by a few “Keep out” signs. Fortune favors the bold.
More than once I have been mystified by how hard it can be to get some people to take my money. They will talk about how they are having financial difficulties, and then we will approach them with some job for them to do, and then they never follow up. They probably figured that some sort of magic process was kicked off at our initial contact that would naturally lead to us getting in contact with them on how they could have our money. But while I would have been glad to help them if they’d met me half way, it wasn’t my top priority. Follow up.
- Nobody knows what they’re doing. Everybody is faking it and muddling their way through. You’re smarter than 90% of the population, so you should be able to fake it even better.
Fake it til you make it
(This was the same advice I gave to your aunt when she graduated. She found it strangely comforting.) When I was very young, I used to regard the production of goods as a very mysterious magic beyond the ken of mere mortals. These days I’m involved in the production of numerous devices both physical and virtual. There is no magic, just elbow grease. If you need a thing, just go ahead and make it. Isaac Newton designed and constructed his own scientific instruments. Those who are willing to do for themselves will always rule over those who wait for somebody else to do it for them.
- $5 of donuts is more effective than $50 of bribes
People skills über alles
I gained a lot of technical skills in college; there were no classes in people skills. Sadly it is the latter category which doesn’t come naturally to me, and this is also the category that matters most. The great conquerors in history did not rule nations because they were the best at swinging swords; they ruled by getting thousands of other people to swing swords for them.
You may have an incredible gift when it comes to designing whatsits. Your boss possesses this exact same gift, by virtue of being able to tell you to use yours. He also possesses whatever skills your other coworkers have. Engineering skills are lucrative, but there are plenty of engineers out there. What’s really rare is the ability to get all of those people to coordinate and channel their talents in a useful direction.
Even if you never aim to rise through the ranks of management, people skills still matter. Your raises and other promotions will be as reliant on your ability to make a good impression as they will be on your actual abilities. People skills will also help you cut through the red tape that would otherwise ensnare you.
- Have kids young. Marry younger.
This will be a tricky one, since it goes against the grain of our current culture, but it is better to fight the culture than to fight biology. We were designed to have children in our twenties, and our early twenties at that. Babies cost a lot of sleep; this is much easier to endure in your 20s. More importantly, female fertility starts to shut down after 30, and pregnancies after the age of 35 are classified as “geriatric.” Plan accordingly.Yes, this does entail sacrifices and trade-offs. All of life does. You will get to travel less and you will probably not make as much money. But nothing in this world that you will do is going to matter more or be more fulfilling than having children. So have a lot, and start early. Don’t put that stuff off until your 30s, because this may very well be the same as deciding not to have kids at all.
Never date a guy who you do not consider marriage material. This will merely give you a taste for bad boys which will serve you poorly in life. I do not claim that it is easy to find a good mate, but that’s all the more reason to take it seriously from the start. This is, after all, the biggest decision you will make in your life, and it is one that cannot be undone.
- Everybody is selling something
Critically examine everything; hold on to the good
You will be constantly barraged by people trying to get you accept their ideas as their own. The most dangerous of these are the subtle appeals, the ones who couch their pitches in something other than rational argument, because these can often slip through your defenses without you even realizing it. You must carefully sift through everything.
This goes for me too. Even if I didn’t lie to you, I still don’t know everything, so I end up getting plenty of things wrong. But I did lie to you. One of the things in this very post is a lie. Critically examine everything.