My Advice To Graduates

With this being the time of year for college and high school graduations, I’ve been paying more attention lately to the plans of those receiving diplomas. I’ve also been reflecting quite a bit on the decisions I made over the course of my educational journey, and while I would not by any means consider myself someone qualified to dole out career advice, I believe I made enough wrong turns along the way to be able to pass along a few tips about how to not fall into some of the pitfalls I have over the years.

I was always one of the “smart kids” in school. I made good grades, enrolled in all the honors and advanced classes in high school, graduateeven took the SAT in middle school. I graduated college with a 3.5 GPA, and that was even with my failing one class and not retaking it (For the record, it was an earth science class, and I could take it a thousand more times and still never pass it.). I received honors and awards and got my name in the newspaper a few times for different accomplishments. As a student, I was a success.

And, for the most part, none of it meant a damn thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I didn’t learn anything useful in school. For instance, had it not been for the encouragement and efforts of some great teachers, I would have never realized I had a (debatable) talent for writing. I never had any vision or passion, though, for what I wanted to do with what I was learning. Even worse, I somehow believed that doing well in school would save me from the more mundane jobs and tasks I didn’t want to deal with learning. I didn’t learn things because I didn’t want to. I was a good student, and that would get me where I wanted to go … even if I didn’t know where that was.

So I never learned how to change my own oil or repair a broken transmission or hang sheetrock or build a bookshelf or bring in a crop or shoot a deer. Are you going to be required to do any of these things in your lifetime? I can’t tell you for sure. I can say, though, that everything I just mentioned (with the exception of shooting the deer) is a service people will always need someone to do. I used to make fun of the kids in vocational school. Now I wish I knew how to do at least half of the things they do. Never consider any job beneath you, no matter how smart you think you are.

Manual labor is not for everyone, though, just as college isn’t for every high school graduate. We live in a society now that preaches everyone must go to to college, whether they have any clue what they want to do there and no matter how much debt they incur on their way to obtaining a degree. I am sad to say this is not a recent development. A great many of us have diplomas hanging on our walls that don’t have much to do with where we wound up. If you find a calling in life that doesn’t require a degree, go for it.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately, it’s not. You’ll be faced with all kinds of decisions. What do you need to learn? How much time, energy, and money will it cost? How will it affect those around you? Should you move and make a new start or make a go of it where you are? Fear and uncertainty will be waiting around every corner to derail you, and, unfortunately, you won’t always get the best advice. Education will be a tool, but it can’t make a decision for you. Be brave, and don’t take the freedom you have right now for granted. It won’t always be so easy to take chances.

Keep in mind, of course, these words are coming from someone who flubbed up in one way or another nearly all of the things he was just talking about, so I’m not claiming to be some kind of expert or guru. I just don’t want you to travel some of the roads I have. And, if you do happen to wind up on one of them, I hope you’ll be able to navigate them better than I did. That reminds me of my final bit of advice: Give yourself room to screw up. Because you’re going to – a lot. Instead of endlessly beating yourself up, though, keep going forward or backward or sideways or whichever way you have to go to move on.

Take all that for what it’s worth, graduates. I’m guessing a lot of you already know more than I do anyway. Just remember me when you get really successful. Okay?

Perfection

About two weeks ago, one of my daughters and my two sons began mentioning this idea of theirs to open a restaurant. Now, given the fact that this particular daughter is 9 years old and her brothers only 7 and 4, I was naturally curious as to how this plan would proceed. Apparently, this was to be a roadside restaurant, sort of in a lemonade-stand design: People would drive by, see the sign, and then, hopefully, stop and order something.

Just to give you a mental picture of the “town” we live in, it’s called Coldwater. Doesn’t exactly imply a thriving metropolis, does it? Also, considering we actually live approximately a mile off the nearest main highway, the likelihood of much traffic in our neck of the woods is fairly slim. The enthusiasm was so high between the three of them, though, I decided my best course of response to whatever they told me they were going to do would be to smile and nod affirmatively, as long as it didn’t have anything to do with power tools, the killing of animals, or a start-up cash loan.

Of course, the 4-year-old lost attention fairly quickly once the other two actually began to actually hammer bits of wood together for signs, but the other two stuck with it. Soon, I came home to discover, sitting in the yard, a couple of kids’ lawn chairs, a wooden pallet, some assorted cinder blocks, and painted wooden signs advertising the new establishment. Granted, they still hadn’t solved the dilemma of not having any actual food for their restaurant, but problems of this nature are relatively minor to aspiring elementary school-aged entrepreneurs.

No one actually stopped at the new roadside attraction the first day, but I was told there were some curious looks and plenty of smiles from those who drove by. They were proud of their work, and I was proud of them for putting the time in, even if I knew there wasn’t much way they could succeed. That night, as the sun was setting and my daughter and I were heading inside, I noticed one of the signs had a strange word written on it – skare – so I asked her what it meant.

“Oh, that says ‘Come On In To The Old-Time Square.'”DSCN1201

“Oh, okay. Um…”

“Did I get a word wrong?”

“Um, yeah. That’s not how you spell square.”

“How do you spell it?”

“S-q-u-a-r-e.”

“Well, what did I spell?”

“I guess you would pronounce that scare.”

And then, my daughter laughed, said, “Oh, well,” and went on inside our house.

I just stood there, dumbfounded. Even at 9 years old, I would have been absolutely mortified if someone had pointed out one of my mistakes like that. I would have been completely distraught at the fact that people had driven by all day looking at it. And I would have worked until the daylight was gone trying to fix what I had done wrong.

And my daughter just said, “Oh, well…“, and didn’t give it another thought.

Now, this particular incident has caused me to reach two very distinct and different possible conclusions: Either I have taught my daughter that it is okay to make a mistake and that she needn’t beat herself up if she gets something wrong or I have not taught my daughter to strive for perfection and she does not care enough about doing a good job. The former of these, I can live with; the latter … eh, not so much. In fact, that would be something I would want to rectify immediately.

Therein lies the rub, though, so to speak. I have struggled with perfectionism for as long as I can remember, and I certainly don’t want my children to grow up afraid to try different things because they might get something wrong. On the other hand, by virtue of them being my children, I have a burning compulsion for them to be the best possible human beings they can be. So I don’t want them to settle for “Oh, well…, but I also don’t want them belittling themselves constantly and killing their self esteem.

I suppose there is the possibility here that God is trying to teach me through my daughter to learn how to move on from mistakes and not worry so much. I also suppose the possibility exists that this is a wake-up call to me to teach and preach a better work ethic to my children. The actual answer probably lies somewhere in between, and, unfortunately, finding it will be a largely imperfect process.

Oh, well…

Just Write Something

This is the kind of post I hate writing. You know the one – the “Oh, crap, I haven’t written anything in a while, so I guess I had better lazy writercome up with something so people don’t forget who I am” post. Funny, I never notice really successful bloggers having to write things like this. I, on the other hand, seem to have to do it every few weeks or so, which leads me to one very obvious conclusion…

I’m not doing this right.

It’s usually at about this point I would start going on about the difficulties of writing or the busyness of life or the struggle to figure out the purpose of having a blog in the first place. I don’t think I’m going to do that this time. Fact is, I’ve realized (with the help of others) that I’m sort of lazy sometimes. Or I’m deathly afraid of failure. Or maybe a combination of the two.

At any rate, I don’t dedicate myself to writing like I should.

Feels good to get that out of the way. Now, time to start thinking about the next post…

Raison D’être

I was a tumor … or so I’ve been told.

A chance meeting with one of my neighbors today revealed this to me. He knew my dad when I was born, and that’s what my dad had told him when my mom was taken to the hospital the night of my birth. See, my parents didn’t know I was coming, and not in the sense that I was born ahead of my due date.

They didn’t even know my mom was pregnant.

There were circumstances that made this not so difficult to believe at the time, but the fact remains I went through the entire Reason for Existencepregnancy without anyone checking on how I was actually doing in there. In my lighter-hearted moments, I joke that this explains why I’m so screwed up in the head now, but the truth is I’m amazed by the whole story. Granted, probably not as amazed as my parents 40 years ago, as my neighbor told me he received a call from my dad that night that began with the words, “You’re not going to believe this…”.

I called the meeting today a chance one, but the more I think about it I’m not so sure. I’ve known that story for a long time (Well, not the tumor part. That was new.), and I’ve learned to embrace it in times of struggle. I’ve had so many days of feeling lost or inadequate or just plain embarrassed to be here that I’ve thought on more than one occasion that I had to be some sort of mistake. If that were true, though, how do I account for the miraculous way I wound up here in the first place?

So in my frustration today, I decided to go for a walk. A little ways up the road, I ran into a neighbor, and he told me I was a tumor. And I was glad he did.

Dumb Beginnings

fresh_prince_of_bel_air_will_smith_300x309Maybe one day I’ll figure out why certain random thoughts pop into my head. For instance, I’m taking a shower before work last week when, totally out of the blue, I think back to an old documentary I watched one time about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. For no apparent reason, I remembered Will Smith talking about how embarrassed he was of his acting during the show’s first season and how hard he worked to improve over the course of the show’s run. I also remembered how he was basically the biggest movie star in the world at the time I watched that documentary.

Let’s face it, though: As much as I loved Uncle Phil, Aunt Viv (both of them), Carlton, Hilary, Ashley, and Geoffery, Fresh Prince wasn’t exactly Shakespeare. In fact, it was pretty dumb most of the time. As catchy as its theme song was (“I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air…”), I still cringe a little when I catch an old episode on cable and see Smith bobbing his head around while waiting for someone to answer the front door of the Banks’ mansion.  I actually kind of wonder if he does, too.

Thing is, I don’t know if we ever would have gotten Will Smith the movie star without Fresh Prince. I don’t think anyone was really thinking of Smith as an actor when the show began. Without it, though, we probably would never have seen the Will Smith of I Am Legend or The Pursuit of Happyness or even Hitch. I guess you could say, then, that a goofy beginning was actually the springboard into bigger and better things.

I’ve been working through the worthiness of doing things lately. I can’t tell you the number of things I’ve turned down in life because I thought they were silly or not worth my time. Do you know how many southern rock bands I could have joined over the years? Or how many writing contests no one has ever heard of I could have entered? Or how many jobs I never applied for because I felt they were beneath me? Or the number of books I never started because the plot lines suddenly seemed outrageously silly to me?

In all honesty, a lot of those things I just mentioned actually were pretty silly. I just couldn’t picture myself, for instance, standing on stage and playing bass through a set of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers covers. Nothing against those bands; it’s just not my thing. On the flip-side, though, right now I’m not playing bass for anyone, mainly because no one knows who I am from all those years of turning down opportunities. Not to wear out a cliché, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Thomas Merton, the American Catholic writer and mystic, once said, “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.” Somehow, I don’t think Merton was envisioning a kid from the streets of Philly moving in with his rich relatives, but many a silly idea has come forth from thinking this way. In some cases, though, the seeds of greatness have been planted in those very ideas.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to become a “yes man” and start agreeing to every crazy thing that comes along. I am going to try to be a jim_carrey_in_yes_man-HDlittle more open to new things, though. Write a few more awful songs. Start the freakin’ book I’ve been talking about on here forever. Take some freelance jobs I’m maybe not so passionate about, just to get the experience under my belt. That all may sound like some sort of weird self-torture ritual, but I’m beginning to think it’s more about progression, even if I feel like it’s all a complete waste of time.

I guess Smith may have sort of bombed out last year with After Earth, but who knows? Maybe we just witnessed the beginning of the second act of his theatrical career. Granted, it doesn’t include a rare cab with a FRESH license plate and dice in the mirror, but it might lead somewhere even swankier than Bel-Air.

Play Day

I haven’t written anything here in a little while, but, believe me, it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. I’ve been pondering some heavy topics lately, and they aren’t exactly easy to put into words. You know, typical depressed male with the big 4-0 bearing down on him kinds of things – missed chances, insecurity, etc., etc. And to those of who so graciously responded to my post about the book idea, I promise I haven’t forgotten you. Real life just keeps getting in my way.

Of course, my lack of productivity here has been driving me nuts. Some people maintain blogs to show off their families or share their hobbies or just to (gasp) have fun; I have one to validate my very existence as a writer. I’m supposed to be coming up with a to-do list every day this week, but I’ve been slacking on that because I hate setting a goal and not reaching it. I feel as I need to be accomplishing something every moment I’m awake, whether that’s educating myself with a magazine article, getting in better shape by riding my bicycle, or learning a new song on the guitar.

Today represented one of my most anxiety-enducing scenarios when it comes to meaningful use of time: Watching the kids by myself. You would think a father of five wouldn’t be frightened by the prospect of babysitting his own children, but I always get a little nervous when it’s just me. I don’t like just messing around with them. I feel as if I should be creating those Hallmark commercial father-child moments. Or I should at least be helping them with their homeschooling. Or making them a sandwich. Heck, something.

On this particular day in western Kentucky, temperatures were mild and the sun was shining for the most part. My 1-year-old daughter was in a happy mood, and my other four were chomping at the bit to get outdoors. Now, I had already taken off work early to watch them (My wife was taking my mom to a doctor’s appointment, and we didn’t have another sitter available.), so I was already not getting something done somewhere else. Heading outside would effectively bring to an end any hope of educational activity inside today, which really didn’t matter because I didn’t have anything planned anyway. Could just fooling around, running around the yard on a February afternoon be worthwhile at all?

Turned out the answer was a resounding yes. We basically all played hooky together; they were getting out of school, and I was getting out of work. We played this weird variation of tennis in the driveway. We shot some hoops. I went on a bike ride (which I’m sure I will be paying for tomorrow). In the indoors department, I got to put my 4-year-old son down for a nap, and I got to read a book to my youngest. I really didn’t do much of anything, at least not in the traditional working sense. I did accomplish something very important, though.

It is so difficult for me to realize sometimes that what seems like doing nothing in my mind is actually necessary in some way. Sitting down and watching a television show usually seems like a waste of time to me, but there are times when the body just needs to stop. I don’t think my children learned one school-related thing all day, but they taught me that sometimes the dad who is supposed to be breaking his back for them all the time just needs a play day where none of the “important” stuff matters. Time is a worthwhile thing; my use of it today was certainly not wasted.

Real life kicks back into gear tomorrow. Threat of severe weather, regular eight-hour work day, kids likely cooped up in the house, books and laundry and dishes to clean. Good thing we did all that important stuff today.