A few days ago, my 14-year-old son and I had a long conversation. It started with him wanting some input on his Wellness homework and ended with a discussion about what to do with your life.
At some point, he confessed that he was scared of what high school would hold for him… that he would have to work much more than he did currently, and that he would have no time for his other interests.
He said, “So what I have to look forward to is, get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to school for 7 hours, do my homework, eat dinner, do more homework, have maybe an hour of free time if I’m lucky, go to bed. And then do the same thing again the next day.”
My reply was, “Welcome to the real world! That’s how most people actually spend their lives.”
He paled visibly. “And when am I supposed to follow my passion and actually live?”
“The weekend,” I said, “like everyone else.”
I could tell he was shocked by this sudden confrontation with reality. He looked like he was going to cry any moment.
I said, “But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t HAVE to become a part of the rat race. There are alternatives.”
He looked at me without hope. “Like what?”
“Well,” I said, “you can strive to become financially independent as early as possible so you don’t have to work 10 or 12 hours a day. You could work, say, 5 or 6 hours and spend the rest of the day doing what you really want.”
“Don’t talk about money again,” he interrupted. “You’re always talking about money.”
“That’s because it’s the path to your freedom,” I said. “Making a lot of money is not necessarily about being rich; it’s about being free. It gives you a choice of what you want to do with your life.”
He didn’t look convinced.
“And then,” I continued, “there’s also the other option: live extremely frugally. If you don’t have any debt, or a mortgage, or any other financial obligation, and you don’t need much to live, you can get by on very little money, which also gives you the freedom to do what you want.”
“What if I want to see the world?” he asked.
“I would encourage that,” I said. “A lot of Americans never get more than 50 miles past where they were born; even more never leave the United States. I think it’s a great idea to take off six months or a year after high school or college and go see the world. Save up $4,000 or $5,000, buy a plane ticket to Europe, and see how far you get.”
He glanced at me doubtfully. “What would I live on?”
“You can always work to get by,” I said. “Play your clarinet in a pedestrian zone and collect enough money to keep going. Take some odd jobs wherever you can find them. Talk to people and ask them for work in exchange for room and board.”
“And what am I going to do when I run out of money?”
“Then,” I said, “you can call me and ask me to buy you a plane ticket home.”
We talked a lot more that night, and the questions ran from “How do you leave the people you care about behind?” to “What is all this about?” to “What is the meaning of life?”
“The meaning of YOUR life,” I told him, “is something only you can know. It’s up to you to find out what gives your life meaning; I can’t tell you. But what I CAN do is give you some tips along the way.”
#1. Always work hard and do your best, no matter what you do.
Even if you work a summer job at McDonald’s, make sure you’re the best burger flipper the company has ever seen.
Take pride in what you do, and in doing it well, and never be ashamed of honest work.
#2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
It’s called learning.
Human beings learn through making mistakes. Sometimes they even repeat the same ones until they finally get it.
Be gentle with yourself when you do make mistakes; beating yourself up isn’t going to help.
Guilt is not constructive. Resolving to do better is.
#3. Go with the flow and don’t try to control things you have no control over.
In today’s overachiever society, we’re all control freaks—we have lost the concept of “surrender.”
It’s easier to surrender if you believe in a Supreme Being or a guiding spiritual principle, something that’s greater than yourself.
Humility can only come in the face of the Divine or the truly magnificent.
#4. Follow your passion.
You don’t need to be a millionaire to do that.
And if you can manage to turn your favorite hobby or heartfelt passion into your occupation, you will never have to work a day in your life.
Also, you’ll never have to worry about retirement… because if you don’t work, there’s nothing to retire from.
#5. Act with honor and integrity, so you can look at yourself in the mirror and smile.
#6. Strive to reach your full potential.
Have heroes and role models, but don’t try to emulate them too closely.
Instead, try to become the best version of yourself that you can possibly be.
Don’t worry if it takes a while. Some people peak in high school and it’s all downhill from there.
The truth is that conscious evolution is a lifelong task, so don’t expect to be done anytime soon… or, like, ever.
“So is that what you want to teach me about life?” my son asked, eyeing me curiously.
“No,” I said, “this is what I’m teaching myself about life by saying it out loud.”
Maybe that’s the meaning of life, after all—finding out that you had all the answers, all along.