My daughter stands still, looking out on the ocean, the waves of the retreating tide gently splashing against her ankles. She holds her newly-purchased skim board in front of her, patiently awaiting the optimal combination of incoming and outgoing waves. The moment arrives. At an unseen signal, she moves quickly from right to left, throws the board in the water, launches herself upon it – and the board buries itself in the sand. She is thrown forward and stumbles briefly, before cartwheeling into the surf.
The world holds its breath. The impatient teenager who demands nothing less than immediate mastery of everything is sure to see this failure as terminal. She’ll never be any good at this. Never.
She extracts the board from the sand, brushes herself off, returns to her starting position and patiently waits again for those optimal conditions to return. The world exhales.
Shortly, I was standing by her side. There was an obvious look of determination in her eyes. I’d seen determination there before, but this was different. Where previously her determination had mostly been the insistent, frustrated, slightly bemused expression of an infant struggling with a square shape and a round hole, now it contained an almost steely “I can do this” focus. It was a look I doubt I’ll ever forget.
As I returned to my seat in a sun too intense for my pale blue English skin, it occurred to me that her look, although seemingly innocuous, was a portent; signifying that my role as a parent was on the cusp of a transition. The foundational qualities of academic understanding, decency, politeness and respect that we’ve tried to instill in our daughter will, in a few short years, be subject to practical examination; be exposed to some real-world scrutiny.
My thoughts returned to my own father’s advice to me: to explore, take chances, have fun. Now that it’s my time to be the advisor, what will I recommend?
In my mind, I started constructing what I would say. I imagine the conversation proceeding – punctuated, no doubt, by occasionally rolled eyes and barely disguised gasps of exasperation – something like this…
As you prepare to embark on your own adventures, I thought I would offer you a few words of advice. I don’t expect you to follow in my footprints, but you may benefit from knowing about those I left.
There are rarely any better places to start than with the words of Samuel Johnson. (Note to self: Eyes might roll at this point. Keep going.)
“If your determination is fixed, I do not counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance”
While diligence and skill will not guarantee your success, a lack of them will almost certainly ensure failure. And, in case you’re wondering, this is not merely the voice of a selfish father with one eye on scholarship awards. Well-developed skills, and a determination to excel, are foundational to your success.
Have determination, but know your limits. There will be things you attempt to do at which you won’t be any good, no matter how much you persevere. When you find out what those things are – and the sooner, the better – move on.
Have confidence in, and be proud of, what you know – just don’t be obnoxious about it. You’ll quickly realize that you know more than you think you do. Trust yourself to make sound judgments, but don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. Remember that the questions you ask should help you to reach your own conclusions, not to blindly adopt someone else’s.
Avoid the temptation to focus on what you don’t know, for only you know the extent of your knowledge. And always remind yourself that you will learn more when you’re listening than when you’re talking. You have two ears and one mouth; use them proportionally.
Learn the power of independence – and of loneliness, too. The loneliness of independent travel inspired me. It’s not the same for everyone and may not be for you, but I found that loneliness made things happen. Even as a confirmed social coward, after days of not speaking to a soul, I felt an inspiring rush of desperate courage to talk to anyone who might listen – and to not care if they didn’t. It’s actually quite refreshing.
Rather paradoxically, I started to appreciate the true value of companionship through independent travel. The serene sunset, the natural wonder, the obscure local custom are all the more enjoyable when you can turn to a companion – whether a newly-met acquaintance or a spouse of many years – and say, “Did you see that?” You will value your friendships and relationships all the more if you can learn to also live without them.
Accept differences. Be sensitive to other cultures. Learn a language. While I know I’ll never be an accomplished linguist, you’ll be amazed how much more responsive people are if you at least try to start a conversation with them in their native tongue. Speaking a foreign language is not merely English, louder.
Also, you’ll find that exposure to different cultures isn’t just rewarding, it changes how you think. I left Russia more than 15 years ago, yet I still hesitate when someone moves to shake my hand across a threshold; and I always place an odd number of “X’s” on the cards I send to your mother. After Switzerland, it took me a while (and a few suspicious glances) to stop greeting everyone when I joined them in an elevator, but I still feel a little disrespected if my clinking glass of “Cheers!” is not accompanied by solid and steady eye contact.
But cultural sensitivity is more than understanding what people in other parts of the world do differently, and how easily the seemingly innocent act can insult; it’s an understanding that it is actually possible to do things in a different way – and that different doesn’t mean wrong. In the words of one of your favorite songs, it is true that, “Ignorance, and prejudice, and fear walk hand-in-hand”. If you can avoid the first two, the third won’t even occur to you.
Oh, finally, and before I forget, if you could try not to fall into the trap of saying “like” after every other word, I would really appreciate it.
My daughter stands still, looking out on the ocean, the waves of the incoming tide gently splashing against her ankles. She holds her newly-purchased skim board in front of her, patiently awaiting the optimal combination of incoming and outgoing waves. The moment arrives. At an unseen signal, she moves quickly from right to left, throws the board in the water, launches herself upon it – and sails majestically across the surf. The board, with my daughter still upon it, comes to a rest after 20 yards. As she picks it up, the world, that earlier in the day had held its breath, is illuminated by her smile.
It was a small thing but, if a portent of a new determination, I’ll take it.