I was up in the attic looking for an extra suitcase when I came across a box of old high school notebooks. I couldn’t resist the urge to pull a few of them down and read some of the notes and thoughts I’d written years ago.
As I scanned the covers, the one labelled “Life Problems” caught my attention.
Deriving its somewhat prophetic title from the nebulous description of a required psychology course, most of the class content was based on lectures, with an occasional guest speaker delivering a presentation relevant to the current topic.
The school’s meagre budget meant the majority of guest speakers were other faculty members. For example, the football coach told us about his experiences in the Korean War, and the home economics teacher delivered a sermon on nutrition and healthy eating.
But neither of those presentations had impressed me.
The one that made the most impact came near the end of the year, when an administrator from the local junior college spoke about the future and the part we would most likely play in it.
What was ironic is that most of the students initially found this man’s speech a bit insulting, if not outright condescending. At the time, it made me wonder why anyone thought this particular individual had anything beneficial to say.
I found a dozen pages with notes from his presentation — about half from the actual lecture and the balance added after the content began to sink in.
I thought it might be interesting to recreate the highlights of that presentation. What follows below is a reconstructed version, delivered in first-person to preserve the impact of the message.
The Speaker Began On a Positive Note
“There are thirty-five of you in this class, and according to the perennial and unfailing predictions conferred upon every new class of graduates, you are, by default, America’s hope for a better future.”
“You are the next leaders, the next innovators, the next business owners. Some of you will go to college and eventually add to the number of lawyers, doctors, nurses, airline pilots, pharmacists, teachers, and other professions that have educational prerequisites.
“Others will choose to go to work immediately and join the ranks of bus drivers, bank clerks, heavy equipment operators, sales associates, carpenters, painters, auto mechanics, and hundreds of other professions that offer the option of learning while on the job”
“And what does our society promise you in return? “
“Our culture bestows every new generation with a heavy dose of optimism, extending the invitation to transform your dreams into reality. We tell you that everything is possible, that anyone can pursue the job they want and go after the goals they set. Because life offers every generation an opportunity to start fresh and build a life based on success and influence.”
“Why such an optimistic sendoff? Why is the so-called older generation so generous with its legacy of hope, inspiration, and encouragement?
“Because we know life is going to deliver a few revelations, an occasional dose of feedback on what you’re doing,” he continued.
“Some of these will bring you a sense of pride, satisfaction, and accomplishment. Others will be more of a surprise, something you didn’t see coming. Those are usually the ones that force you to take a hard look at the path you’ve taken and, occasionally, convince you to change direction.
“Part of my purpose in being here today is to tell you about one of those surprises…
…and to let you know it could very well be the most important thing you’ll ever learn about life and how you eventually feel about yourself in the long-term.”
“I’ll preface what I’m going to say by using the old adage,
‘I’ve got some good news and some not-so-good news.’
“I’ll start with the not-so-good …
“For the majority of you, the biggest surprise of your life will come years from now, perhaps when you’re in your fifties or sixties, and you look back and can’t believe how insignificant and uneventful your life has been.
“The dream career you hoped to have never panned out. The girl you planned to marry ran off with the football captain. And the plans you made to see Europe or visit the Far East never came together.”
“You’ll realize much of your life didn’t turn out the way you hoped it would.
“And when you wonder why, you’ll tell yourself there wasn’t enough time, or the breaks didn’t fall your way, or you waited too long for the right opportunity.
“Whatever the reason, life moved on without you, leaving you and your dreams in the past.
“The good news?
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“You can redirect your actions and reset your internal compass to move toward the things that are most important to you. Yes, that might mean making a decision when everyone around you is procrastinating, or taking a different direction with your life, even as your friends call you crazy for not following the crowd.
“But before I talk about the specifics of that process, I want to give you a little background on who you are — in contrast to who you think you are — because I’m sure very few of you have taken the opportunity to take a long, hard look at yourself.
“After talking to thousands of students in my capacity as a career counsellor, here’s what I’ve learned about a typical high school graduating class:
“Most of you don’t have goals.”
“Some of you may have a sketchy idea of what you’re going to do next year and the year after that. But when it comes to major life goals, you simply haven’t thought about it.
“Oh sure, many of you have applied to college and plan to spend the next four years studying a subject you believe will create some sort of launching pad for your career. But I doubt you’ve really considered what that degree will be worth and how you’ll use it to your advantage.
“Right now, at seventeen or eighteen years of age, you’re along for the ride, waiting to see what the future brings, waiting for new and exciting opportunities to be placed in front of you.
“You’re taking life day-by-day, and every day is different because you’re young and the world is still new to you.
“From your perspective, you have all the time in the world to begin building a successful future. But that will change.”
“As the next few years pass, and the tint on those rose-covered glasses becomes fogged with the drudgery of an eight-to-five job, the kids that came unexpectedly, and a lack of income compared to an ever-escalating pile of bills, you’ll rarely think about the future.”
“Because it will take everything you’ve got just to get through the challenges of another day.
“And so you’ll manage to struggle along, week after week, month after month, telling yourself things will eventually get better.
“I realize the situation I just described may be hard to understand on a personal level — because you’re thinking,
‘He’s not talking about me. That will never be my situation, my story. I’m smarter than that.’
“But the facts, the numbers, they tell the truth — about the number of people who die broke, the number of marriages ending in divorce, the number of people who lose their jobs in industry-wide layoffs, the number of people who need food stamps and unemployment benefits.
“These are the same numbers that have haunted every new generation as they make their choices, live their lives, and try to survive.”
“So think of my visit today as an intervention.
Because like I said before, it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to be one of those who look back on your life as you turn sixty and wonder: ‘What happened to the time? Why didn’t I do more with all those years?’
“So here’s the big question: How do make sure your life is productive and prosperous? How do you give yourself a fighting chance to live a rewarding life, one that gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when you take that look back?
“It comes down to one simple strategy. Choose someone who has done what you want to do, who has lived the kind of life you want to live, and model their behavior and actions.
“For example, if you’re following the path laid out for you by your parents, family, or friends — the people you see and associate with every day — then you’re following a familiar and comfortable mindset.
“Where will that take you? To a very similar occupation, income, and lifestyle.”
“But what if the life of your parents or family members is different than what you envision for yourself? What if the degree of success, independence, and the type of work you want doesn’t match their experience?
“Then your parents and family are not the best models. It doesn’t mean they’re not good parents, or good aunts or uncles, or that your friends are lazy or have low self-esteem.
“It just means you have a different direction in mind. And since it’s your life, why not honour it?”
“The first step?”
“Define your priorities, then identify others who have accomplished similar things.
“Find examples of those who have chosen a life path that makes sense to you, and that will provide you with the lifestyle, financial reward, and satisfaction you want in your life.
“These are the people from whom to build a model. Start construction by asking questions:
“What personal and professional characteristics did this individual demonstrate?
“What education did she have?
“What course of action did she take to achieve success?
“The more specific the answers, the better the basis for creating your own life-plan.
“I know some of you think I’m suggesting that you follow in someone else’s footsteps, living their life instead of your own, giving up the opportunity to be an original. But that’s not the case.
I also know how much your generation loves to proclaim your need for self-expression, and I hear the comments all the time:
“You can’t tie me down like that, I’ve got to be free, I’ve got to leave my options open. There’s no telling what new opportunity is going to be waiting for me tomorrow, or next month, or next year.”
“And so you go with the flow, coasting through life, waiting for some imagined benefactor to arrive and turn your life into the never-ending flow of excitement, fame, and fortune you always knew it could be.
“If that’s your plan, you’re taking a huge risk. Because you’ve got no plan at all.”
“And if you don’t have a plan — one that you created, one that reflects the things in life that are important to you — then others will furnish you with theirs. And you’ll end up living your life and spending your time helping them arrive at a destination they’ve chosen.
“You’ll help them accomplish their goals, their dreams. And while spending your career that way may generate a weekly paycheck, in the end, there’s a good chance you’ll likely feel those pangs of regret, especially when it’s time to take a look back.
“Right now, you have the luxury of youth, of time — to make mistakes, to learn, to experience for yourself what’s best for you.
“And I encourage you to look around and determine who — out of all the people you know and from the people you’ve learned about in history — has lived the kind of life you want to live.
“Then start asking questions”
“Were they married? Did they have kids? How many? How much education did they acquire? In what field? Was their formal education important to them in their profession? What did their career path look like? How much money did they make? Is that enough for you, or do you see yourself making a higher income? How did they spend their time away from work? What recreational activities did they participate in? Whom did they associate with, both on and off the job?”
“Granted, it’s a lot of questions. But the more you ask, the better prepared you’ll be. By gathering as much information as you can, your resulting model will be more accurate, giving you the ingredients you need to build your own map, and to move you from where you are now to where you want to be.”
I could suggest that the moral of this story is to start young — that you can’t afford to throw away the opportunity of starting early in the pursuit of success.
But that’s only half true.
The real take-away is no matter where you are on your life-path, no matter what kind of history you have or the breaks you didn’t get, the time to start fresh — the time to begin a new journey — is now.
It’s never too late to take a look around and determine who is living the kind of life you want to live. If they impress you with their accomplishments and lifestyle, they’re a possible mentor.
You don’t have to restrict yourself to just one individual. You can combine the compatible characteristics, habits, and actions of several people into a composite that represents the kind of person you want to be, living the kind of life you want to live.
Will this process guarantee you a spot at the top of the food chain, living in one of the homes on the summit of the mountain, the one with the best view? Will you achieve the kind of success that gives you the freedom to travel, to invest in the things that are important to you, and to help your family grow and succeed in their own lives?
There Are No Guarantees in Life
But I will promise you this: Pursuing your ambitions — the ones you choose for yourself — will help keep you motivated, give you purpose, and a reason to create a life of adventure and discovery.
So along with developing your resume, develop the desire to do meaningful work on your own terms — to live your life by design instead of default.
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