A Letter to My 14-Year-Old Self

Life is funny. It’s also hard. It’s not fair and it has a way of exploiting your weaknesses. For all that, you should be optimistic about the future and joyful in your journey. You are lucky to be around in a time when diseases are largely under control, you’ll likely never go to bed hungry more than a few times in a row, and you carry around a smartphone that has what seems like the entire world inside it. It’s a pretty exciting time to be alive.

If there are just a few suggestions I can give it would be these: be kind to people, work hard, do hard things, and read lots of books. You should also take everyone’s advice with a grain or two of salt because no one really knows what they are doing, and that includes me.

Be kind to people

Everyone else has a life as full of emotion, expectation, and promise as you do. They feel like they have good reasons for their decisions just as you do. They usually do the right thing but sometimes mess up, just like you do. Don’t hold anyone to a perfect standard. They won’t measure up, just like you won’t. There are bad people in the world and you need to be aware of them. Give people the benefit of the doubt and they’ll prove themselves one way or the other pretty quickly.

If you have to choose, choose to be kind. The things I regret in life involve my temper with others, my mistreatment of others, and my lack of faith in others. I have never regretted being nice to others.

Work Hard

You may have some talent, but it doesn’t count for much in the real world. Being responsible, dependable, and working hard trumps talent every time. If you work hard in the areas you have talent in you’ll have some really great experiences. Work hard in the areas you don’t have obvious talent in and you’ll have life-changing experiences. Hard work wins out over talent every single time.

Do Hard Things

I wish someone sat me down as a teenager and beat this into my head. Hard things are good. You have to challenge yourself, push past your comfort zone, and learn to seek out difficult things. Most people hate doing hard things and avoid them at all costs. If you want to be like most people just avoid doing hard things. If you want to have a full, successful life you need to understand that doing hard things is necessary. Almost nothing worthwhile in life is easy.

The things I am proudest of were so hard at the time. Learning a language, learning to play an instrument, winning a race, completing a degree, getting married, raising kids. If it’s something significant you can count on it being difficult. The trick is to “embrace the suck,” acknowledge the difficulty, and learn to enjoy the process. The things I look back on, the significant growth I experienced, was never at the finish line. It was all during the process of doing hard things.

Read a lot of Books

The physical, paper book format isn’t the key here. It’s the act of reading. Learn to enjoy getting lost in a book. Learn how to glean at least one piece of wisdom from every book you read. Make books your default leisure activity. Over time you’ll discover the types of books you enjoy and you’ll get better at applying the things you learn to your work and your life.

I used to worry that I was reading the wrong books or reading books that weren’t impressive. That’s silly. There’s no such thing as the wrong books. Read everything, but don’t be afraid to stop reading a book if you don’t like it. Life is too short to struggle through books you don’t like. Maybe you’ll come back to it in a few years and feel differently. Maybe it’s something you’ll never come back and read. Move on and read something else.

Reading will take you around the world, introduce you to amazing people and ideas, and teach you wonderful things. Read, read, read.

I wrote this after an interesting conversation with my son who is 14. As we were talking I was struck by the thought, “am I saying this because it’s what’s best for him or because it’s what I want to hear?” After some thinking, this is the result.

Thoughts on Letter Writing

One of my mentors growing up was a local man named Tony. Tony was in real estate and seemed to know everyone. He volunteered at church and spent a lot of time with the young men in my youth group. Even though he was older, he went with us on campouts and was always up for an adventure. A great man!

One of the things I took for granted during the years Tony was part of my life were the notes and cards he sent.

If your name ever appeared in the local paper for honor roll or a sporting accomplishment, a few days later you’d get a letter of congratulations. My first public talk at church was terrible, but Tony sent me a thank you note a few days later. Every note was hand written and always included a Tony dad joke.

Seven years ago I moved back to my home town and Tony and his wife still lived in the area. The first time my son gave a talk in church, a note arrived in the mail a few days later from Tony. Through most of this time Tony was suffering from pancreatic cancer and was in a lot of pain, he never stopped showing gratitude and spreading joy with his terrible jokes. At his funeral last year many people mentioned receiving letters from him over the years. I decided I would try and keep a bit of Tony’s spirit alive in me by becoming a letter writer.

I’ve had mixed success. One of the hard things with writing letters today is that hardly anyone responds in kind. It took me until the middle of last year to decide I would write my letters by hand and that seemed to make a difference to how I felt about the letters, even if it didn’t improve my response rate. There’s something about writing a letter by hand that makes the process more meaningful. I think I usually get more out of the letters than the people I write to.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at letter writing, here are a couple of resources that I found useful:

A couple of things have made letter writing a lot more enjoyable for me. I started using a fountain pen. I’m definitely a novice in that world, but I do really enjoy the feel of the pen gliding over nice paper. It makes the experience something to look forward to. Nice paper makes a surprising difference. I bought a ream of heavy writing paper, cut it from letter size to half sheets, and made my own stationary.