An Open Letter to the Graduating High School Classes of 2018

Dear New High School Graduate:

It feels good to complete something, doesn’t it? But it also feels good to begin something new. Your high school graduation is more of the latter than the former, but you may not recognize it for some time. Here are a few things you ought to know.

In some ways, high school prepared you for what comes next, but in other ways, it left you completely unprepared, even though there is no reason to worry. You learned some things that will be important as you move into college or whatever comes next. The math that you believe is useless is useful because grown-up humans have to be able to do arithmetic. The science classes helped you understand a little bit—a very little bit—about how things work in our Universe, including Earth. These classes taught you a bit about the objective truth, the things we can see and touch and measure.

While those classes were important, the more important classes were English, history, art, and psychology (if you were lucky enough to get a class on psychology). The ability to understand the arc of human history (with all its successes and failures), the ability to understand other people, the ability to communicate effectively through language. These classes, with any luck, helped you see what is good, since the lessons of history always include morals (or should), and art is a look at what is beautiful.

What high school is less likely to have helped you understand is that you are pure potential. What you are now is a mere fraction of what you might become—and what you are becoming. You weren’t born to be ordinary. It’s doubtful that anyone shared with you that you can be more, do more, have more, and contribute more. In fact, that is what you are here to do. This point in time is a chance for you to set off on a path of personal discovery, one that requires you to grow and to put your potential to work.

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It doesn’t matter if you know what you want to do. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who you want to become. The reason prior generations knew what they were going to do is that their life expectancy was half of yours. They didn’t have the time to explore because they were too busy doing what was necessary to survive. As you grow into your potential, at some point, you will bump head into something that feels like what you were put here to do. Your college major will likely have very little bearing on whether or not you find yourself.

Because of the circumstances of your birth, namely the time and place in which you were born, you may have been born into a relatively new form of adversity. The adversity that is the lack of adversity. Your generation is guilty of collecting participation trophies, something that is going to be missing from this point forward. But not to worry, adversity is what will shape you. You should look for situations that make you uncomfortable, and you should stay away from safe spaces and crying closets. Instead, expose yourself to people and ideas that are in direct opposition to what you believe.

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High School is a weird time. During your teenage years, there is a lot of pressure to conform, to belong. There are cliques that exclude others as a way to maintain status (exclusivity is a powerful force). The people who were popular in high school may have peaked at 17 years old. Sometimes they try to relive that time for the rest of their life. You don’t want to peak in high school. You shouldn’t aspire to be a 30 under 30. Instead, you want to work on yourself and peak somewhere around 40 or 45 years old.

If you go straight into the workforce, look for two things. First, look for a place where you are going to get training and development opportunities. You want to seek out a place where the leadership team is serious about building a pipeline of leaders and high performers. You also want to work for a great leader. A leader that cares about their people is what is necessary for you to grow. That caring will allow them to see something in you that you don’t yet see—and that leader will help you see it.

Don’t worry about not knowing everything you need to know to take a job. Say yes, commit, and then figure out how to get done what must be done. If you ask for help you will get it. If you give help to those who need, you’ll find that there are people that will work with you to help you succeed.

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Finally, and this may be most important, but you have to protect yourself from negativity. Much of the people around you will believe that externalities, the things that are outside of their control, deserve more of their attention and emotional energy than the areas of their lives where they have control. The end up infected with negativity, become skeptical and cynical and, eventually, angry. They won’t know that they infected, and they will infect others—including you—without knowing they’re doing so. Be aware of world events, but don’t give them so much meaning that you aren’t positive, optimistic, future-oriented, and empowered.

You were given a life. It’s your job to figure out why you were given it—and it is your job to live it to its fullest.

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