June 22, 2015 —
Dear teen about to graduate or starting life after high school,
Let me see if I can describe what's going on right now: Your friends seem to have it all together. They are confidently projecting that they know who they are, what they want to do, where they want to go to college, if they want to go to college, where they want to 9 to 5 after college, and they have pretty much every other minute detail of their lives figured out. You, on the other hand, stare at them blankly on social media and think, I am the ONLY one in the whole wide world who doesn't have a clue.
Honey, first of all, no one -- and I mean no one -- has it all figured out. I'm in my 40s (you will be that "old" some day too), and there are days when I still don't know who I am or who I want to be. "I think I shall write a book!" I proudly proclaim one day. "I am going to create a documentary!" comes out of my mouth the next. Before you know it, I am a counselor, teacher, author, photographer, nonprofit founder, and any or all of the above depending on my mood (cue the friends and family who nod in silence at my latest whim with a half-smile that connotes a tone of ambivalence and amusement because they know I'm just exploring out loud).
But isn't that what life is all about? Exploring?
Perhaps your version of exploring goes something like this: Monday you are dreading school (cough, cough, "Mom, I feel sick," you try for the umpteenth Monday this year as you swear off any further education for the rest of your days). You rationalize that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg don't have college degrees, and they turned out just fine. And just rich. "I'm gonna be like them and skip the whole college scene," you declare (fist pump for added emphasis).
By Tuesday you've rationalized that, OK, college is probably not a bad idea. Everyone seems to be pushing that degree on you so it must be the right thing, right? Wednesday comes and you feel organized, empowered, together. You have lists of your dream colleges, applications downloaded, and you begin professing to the mail lady and everyone else in sight that you are going to be an Ivy League graduate. You will make six figures right out of school. You will change the world.
Thursday rolls around and your calculus teacher tosses that mid-term on your desk without saying a word. The glaring D+ at the top says it all. I hate school, you think. As soon as this year is over, I'm outta here. Forget that, I'm going to the bathroom now and never coming back because I'm joining the Marines. Just as soon as I can do a single pull-up. By Friday, you are texting friends to see who wants to travel the world with you after graduation (How can we do that with no money? you and your cohorts scheme).
And so it goes. Ideas rattle around in your brain like those melted peanut M&Ms in the bottom of your backpack.
Whether you're still in high school, just starting college, entering the workforce, or about to enlist in the military, if this sounds the least bit familiar, I will give you the same advice I gave to my teen son last night: No one has it all together. And if they say they do, they don't.
"No, I'm the only one," he retorted rather dramatically. "The. Only. One."
"No, cutie," I tell him. "Everyone just pretends. We're all just winging it."
"When does that stop?" he asks.
"Never," I say.
And that's the truth, you guys. Life is a constant up and down of winging it, of exploring. No one really knows what they're doing. How could we? Every day we wake up to be older than we've ever been before, to a day we've never encountered before. We progress through one phase of life to the next acting like we got this, but how can we possibly know how to do something we've never done before??
It's OK to not know what you want to do after high school, who you want to be when you "grow up" (don't you hate when adults ask you that ridiculous question? Many adults still don't know that answer.). It's kinda like when my younger teen asks what's for dinner -- while he's eating breakfast. Sweet child of mine, I don't even know what I'm doing in 30 minutes, let alone 10 hours from now. And 10 years from now? Please.
Is every day, every phase like this? Of course not. There will most certainly be times when you are never more sure of something. Times when nothing else matters but accomplishing a goal that has you fired up. Times when the universe seems to roll out its proverbial red carpet and say, "Here you go." Grab a hold of those days, tuck them under your arm like a halfback, and run like hell.
If all goes according to plan, you'll have your share of these moments of clarity. You'll also have moments of "WHAT THE..."
"What was I thinking??" you roar. I do not want to be working here, sitting in this class, hanging out with these people, heading to boot camp, whatever. But you don't dare tell anyone because, remember, they all seem like they do want to be working here, sitting in this class, hanging out with these people or heading to boot camp. Instead, you convince yourself that something must be wrong with you.
This cycle is irrational, anxiety-ridden, and pointless, of course, because it happens to everyone. And more often than you think.
So here's the deal: You don't have to decide the rest of your life right now -- or ever, really. Take that pressure off yourself. (You're welcome.) You only need to trust your instincts, follow your heart, make some well thought-out decisions, and move forward in one way or another. If you are waiting for someone to knock on your door and beg you to take this lucrative job or go to that illustrious college, sweetie, it's not gonna happen. You will not miraculously become your dream when you wake up tomorrow. You have to wake up every day and decide what that dream is and how to get it. Just don't get immobilized by the magnitude of decisions out there.
Transitioning to adulthood is not easy. And trust me, neither is being one. During those what-do-I-do moments, you will grow more than a little. You will learn more about yourself than ever before. You will come to the awesome realization that life is filled with amazing opportunities and choices.
So if you're feeling not-so-together right now, know this: You are not alone. You are going to be JUST FINE. And you are going to land in the right place. Worry less about what your friends are posting on Snapchat about their sometimes facade of a "together" life and focus more on what feels right to you. Then keep winging it along with the rest of us.
I'm cheering for you.
Deborah Dunham is a writer, an activist and someone who is focused on serving and empowering our teenage generation. Her interest in the human spirit and social change spans much of her career, having worked regionally and nationally on some of our biggest cultural challenges including health and wellness, youth, education and social justice. Deborah has been a professional writer for 10 years and has been profiled and recognized in many newspapers and magazines–including being published regularly on AOL and the Huffington Post, as well as being quoted in the New York Times. She has served on the board and committee roles in numerous organizations and has been honored with several achievement awards. Deborah is also the founder of Marathon High, a regional nonprofit that challenges at-risk teenagers to train for and run a 13.1-mile half-marathon as a means to building confidence, character and positive futures. She is on a mission to change the way the world views teens and, more importantly, the way they view themselves.