As former colleague of mine used to say, and I mean this in the kindest way to every recent graduate reading this column, “Listen to me very carefully.” What you don’t know about life, the workplace, relationships and love is a lot. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying you should. It takes real life, away from school and textbooks and seminars, to teach you. And thirty-five years past my own high school graduation, I’m still learning. But that’s the real lesson here, the real truth that no one seems to ever tell you. No one does. Life itself is a class with multiple instructors, multiple topics, and multiple venues...and it has an unknowable end date.
Be warned: the description that follows may well be your own path in the years ahead. You wake up, kill a stink bug that looks perfectly at ease perched on the bathroom faucet, rouse your children, tell them again to hang up their sodden towels, then remind them to put the cereal and milk away, and comb their hair before leaving the house. Then you start a load of laundry, drive to work, concentrate as much as possible on the responsibilities for which you earn your wages, and then head home for a dinner that may or may not include all the food groups, or all the family members, then run around in or out of the house completing the next set of agenda items, then fall asleep during whatever you’re watching on Netflix.
Fascinating, I know. Again, listen to me very carefully. This doesn’t sound all that exhilarating but that’s my point. Unless you’re counting on world renown of one kind or another, with some minor adjustments to the details, you’ll live some version of this life. My husband and I have for the past twenty-five years, along with everyone we know, and our friends and family cover a broad spectrum of ages, household incomes and lifestyles. Regardless of the things that surround us, the demands placed on us or the degrees we hold, we are all living that spectacularly unglamorous life you never see nor read about in the media.
It’s fabulous and it’s good, and terrible, and then great and then pretty hard and then very sad and then funny and then its okay and then it makes you crazy again. Jobs come and go. They can give you an enormous sense of accomplishment or an enormous source of stress, sometimes simultaneously. People move in and out of our lives for reasons we may never fully understand. You lose touch; you reconnect. Children arrive and turn a couple into parents overnight. Families and friends leave us, and we all figure out a new way to interact with each other that will never really be the same. What I hope you’ll take away from this is that life is not one unending upward trajectory toward what most people see as their goal, that elusive commodity called “success.”
Through it all, it’s unlikely you’ll remember the speech you heard at your graduation. You’ll be busy creating a life, a home, maybe a family. I hope you’ll live in surroundings that bring you comfort and a bit of sanctuary. You’ll pay your bills (or figure out how to juggle them) and walk the dog and plant some flowers and match up the socks that come out of the dryer and hug your kids and put away groceries and take out the recycling. Once in a while you’ll read an outstanding book, or see a memorable movie or play, or attend an amazing concert or take a memorable trip. You’ll laugh and cry with friends and family. You’ll forgive and ask forgiveness. You’ll feel angry, or disappointed, or bereft, or enthralled or hundreds of other emotions over the years. You may become a parent and raise your own children. If you’re fortunate, one day you realize that you’d like them even if they weren’t your kids. You may find some time to give back to your community, and share your own unique gifts with others. Quietly but relentlessly, the days will become the weeks that become the years that become your life.
One more time, listen to me very carefully. Please don’t spend the next twenty or thirty years thinking or saying things like this: Once we buy a house, or a bigger house, everything will be better. Once I own that car, it will be better. Once I get a raise or a promotion or a better job, it will be better. Once we take that trip to Europe, it will be better. I just need the 1000 thread count cotton duvet / the spa vacation / the projection home theater and it will be better.
It won’t. That will never happen. Please don’t waste time waiting for life to get better because of an event or a purchase or an activity. Not one of those things will make a difference to your long term happiness; not one. Know this: everything that makes life “better” and fulfilling and worthwhile can be found within you, and in what you say, what you do, and the person you are to yourself and those around you.
Once you learn that, you will have achieved success by any measure.