Welcome to the conclusion of my blog-to-book project: Life After High School: Secrets To A Successful Life By Those Who Have Had Twenty Years To Think About It (or) What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. This chapter is the Life Lessons Recap and Analysis. If you missed the last post, click here, otherwise, you can start at the beginning here.
After interviewing these forty-one classmates and four of my high school teachers, I am amazed at how many similarities there are in the ultimate conclusions people have about life. After thinking about it for twenty years (or longer), they seem to have arrived at similar answers.
Yes, there are plenty of differences, including different life philosophies and diverse perspectives, and yet there are some commonalities that most people in my study found themselves aligning with like a magnet pointing true north.
When I review my interviewees’ lessons, I see common themes. Most of the participants seem to put their emphasis on the importance of getting off your butt and taking action on goals, valuing family and friends, being true to or finding yourself, finding your passions and calling, and having gratitude for life and health.
No one seemed to dwell on the traditional symbols of “success,” like money or accolades, other than to say that you should work hard at your passions, set and achieve goals, and never give up (while having enough money to avoid the debt collectors is probably a good idea too).
To create this highlight real of wisdom, I pulled a few of my favorite quotes, taking the liberty to paraphrase and abbreviate where necessary, combined what appeared to be universal principles and distilled it into a summary. If you are one of my participants and you don’t like how I compressed your words, I am sorry. In all fairness, your direct quotes are found earlier in the book, so I hope you’ll cut me some slack in this final chapter.
You may or may not agree with the way I categorized the points, and I encourage you to draw your own conclusions. Still, I made my best effort to distill the truth and wisdom from all of the interviewees into a clean four themes.
Here is the list of my favorite concepts and themes that seem to be repeated through many of the interviews and may represent more or less a pattern.
Go For It Now
I call the first theme, Go For It Now. This was arguably the loudest theme among most of the participants, although not everyone emphasized this.
Several participants talked about setting goals and having patience, like Wes Howard, who said, “Have patience when it comes to achieving your goals—if you work hard, they will come in time.”
Twice I heard the idea of boldly going; assume you are invited to do the thing. Adrian Kraft said, “Boldly going on adventures creates as much energy as any failure extracts.” And Phil Elverum said, “I might have been raised with a built-in assumption that I can do what I want, or that I am not excluded. This inherent confidence has served me well, let me plunge into places and projects I would have been hesitant about. I often tell younger people to assume that they’re invited to do the thing and to not get hung up on their own insecurities.”
Although it has become a cliche in some circles, there were several mentions about being able to do just about anything if one sets their mind to it, and many reminders to not sell oneself short. As Jackie Gibbon said, “Don’t sell yourself short and never say never. If you want to do it, make up your mind to get it done, and go for it. I never say never anymore because once I do that it’s usually the next thing I’m doing. As a nurse, we are taught to trust our intuition, and I’ve come to rely on this in all areas of my life.”
William H. Mosley succinctly pointed out, “Life is what you make of it. You have to strive to achieve what hopes and dreams you have. If you fail, keep trying. It is only when we give up that we fail.”
Several others focused on the hard work route, or the never give up adage. Some pronounced go big or go home, live your adventure, or do what you are good at. Others simply advised younger people to do well in school.
Jesse Schenk said, “Go big or go home. If you are going to do something, make it spectacular, either a massive failure or a massive success. When the lion wakes up in the morning, it has to run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it starves. When the gazelle wakes up in the morning, it has to run faster than the fastest lion, or it gets eaten. When you wake up, you have to start running, or you will starve, or get eaten yourself.”
Chris Ellis had a similar point of view: “You gotta do things right the first time, or you will revisit your work, and you’ll have to fix it. You will only appreciate the things you work for. Work can mean any labor; physical, emotional, or just torture. Learning things the hard way is the best way.”
I was surprised and delighted that so many of my classmates actually saw a lot of hope in the future and that their suggested path was about overcoming fear and getting off our duffs. This implies the ability to be in control of our own destinies and permission to design one’s life, as opposed to a defeatist attitude, or a predestined slide down to failure.
“Don’t let fear stop you from trying,” said Miranda Weller. Eric Pope had a lot to say, but I thought one of the funniest off-the-cuff responses was the best: “Stop playing video games and live the adventures, so you have stories to tell your grandkids.”
Zach Rue probably had the most direct advice: “Don’t get caught up in personal and political bullshit. Be honest and a hard worker, and you can accomplish all your goals.”
Jon Lemberg suggested risk-taking while enjoying the here and now: “Getting out of your comfort zone and taking some risks is a good thing. I look forward to the future but enjoy the present.”
Kwok Yang (Jack) Ng, said, “Do what you’re good at, learn from your experiences to become better at what you do, and never give up.”
With a bit of wry humor, Kimberly Griffen left us with a reminder about our need to take action even though we knew so little compared to now: “Run for president while you know everything. Life only goes faster.”
Finally, one of our teachers, Laurie Julius-Carver, said, “Be responsible for your own life. I see kids not taking responsibility. They are passing the buck and blaming others. This is especially true after high school.”
Know, Find, or Create Thyself
The second theme I noticed was one that runs concurrently with the first. I call it: Know, Find, or Create Thyself.
The commonalities running in this theme thread their way through most participants, even if showing up in a greater variety of angles. Things like, be true to yourself, be the best you that you can be, true happiness comes from within, find your purpose for life work, wealth, and health.
Jessica Reik said, “Trust your gut… Always.” Some of them focused on exploring or learning and encouraged us to keep trying new things until (poetically) you find where your soul belongs.
Some people kept this concept very simple, with just a few words, like, “Grow, adapt, love.” Or “Do what truly makes you happy.” And some of them warned us to “Take what others say with a grain of salt.”
Scott McKinstry grappled with this theme while attempting to tie in the issues of balance, family, health, and calling: “I’m still searching for the best way to have the Good Life. I know it involves the usual suspects: Strong family and friendships, a sense of purpose, and (probably) a life’s “work” that reflects this, sufficient wealth (which means not fearing a phone call from a collection agency, being able to take a vacation now and then, and buy good food), and health.”
Tanya Sydnor said, “And at the end of the day, one must live with oneself, so be true to yourself and love those around you.”
Todd Rouleau agreed poignantly: “True happiness comes from within. When you’re happy people will be drawn to you. Your energy, positive or negative, is felt by others around you and it’s your choice which to radiate.”
Hayley Berrey said, “I spent so much of my high school life caring about what people thought of me, trying to be what everyone wanted me to be. I tried to fit in with everyone and not judge others for their faults because we all have flaws. Don’t change for anyone.”
I love what Suzanne Earles had to say about this; “Don’t be afraid to keep trying things until you find where your soul belongs. Don’t be afraid to change your way of thinking and who you are.”
Jason Mann, quick to add a touch of sardonic wit to every conversation, reminded us that being ourselves is most often accompanied by judgment: “Happiness is eating a donut, satisfaction is looking in the mirror and admiring the way you look and feel because you didn’t eat the donut. I’d rather pursue satisfaction than happiness. When people give you advice or judge you, it is them seeing your life through the lens of theirs. Always take that with a grain of salt as you’re the only one that knows what make sense to you. It’s okay to be the smartest person in the room. It’s not okay to tell everyone.”
Carly Murdock said, “What is important to you at that time probably will not be important to you in 20 years. Don’t make excuses or worry about what other people think.”
On the other side of this coin, Isaac Gregg offered a warning: “Don’t put all of your efforts into one thing, one passion or desire until you are sure that’s where you belong, or you will end up like me: almost 40 and still confused.”
Kimberly Griffin reminded us that our true identity will affect relationships, and made a reference to what many of us call that still small voice: “You can’t make someone love you, and you can’t bring someone worthy into your life until you love yourself. There are three voices inside of us—listen to the one that whispers.”
Two of our teachers centered their advice to recently graduating seniors on this theme of self-discovery. Kevin Miller, Retired Educator: “Trust yourself, don’t just go to college because they have a big football team, find your niche, please be open to change, maintain an open mind, and develop self-confidence.”
Ruth Backlund, Retired Educator, said, “Look at yourself and what brings you fulfillment because you are going to be spending a lot of your time doing something, so make sure that all the things around it match up with who you are. If where you live gives you a lot of pleasure, then that should be an important thing, not just the dollar sign.”
My own advice concerning this theme is to stop caring about trying to please everyone, since you always end up looking like a jerk and on the off-chance you are momentarily successful at it, other people get jealous.
Faith and Gratitude
A little less hard-driving, but equally essential seems to be the theme of having faith and showing gratitude. I put these two ideas together because it seemed that most people who indicated one most often mentioned the other.
Although not quite as common as the first two themes, there was a sense that at least several people felt a lack of control. The warning to never say never, as life is unpredictable, and some things in life are not in our control.
A few mentioned that their highest recommendation was simply to have faith, whether that be in God, the universe, or in serendipity. In regards to belief in the process, we see obedience is only the fullness of compliance, and by itself is its own reward.
Others mention how fortunate we are to be alive and advise us to look forward to the future while enjoying the present. Everything happens for a reason, and it serves you, so smart people know when to quit when something isn’t working or doesn’t seem meant to be. You can’t control anything, but you can have control in things. This reminds us that we must only focus on things that we can actually control, like our responses to things that happen to us. Of all the voices we can listen to, we should give priority to the little voice inside that whispers.
Elicia De Leon said, “The sooner we can grasp that everyone else is focusing on themselves and instead become genuinely interested in others, that’s when your life will become fulfilling and exciting. When I was younger, I used to wish I didn’t have such a strict upbringing. Now I am so grateful and appreciate that I had parents who actually helped me avoid many of the pitfalls life can present to teens. I’ve learned too, that if you don’t like what your life is, you are entirely able to change it at any time—it’s up to you.”
Jill Testerman said, “Although it can be challenging to practice self-compassion, it is an integral part of being able to emit positive energy towards others. No matter how much you might wish it to be so, some things in life are not in our control.”
Scott Bjerk, in an admission of his faith (unapologetically), said, “Remember, The best way around is through. Obedience, by itself, is its own reward. I firmly believe God is real and that he allows us to be nearly godlike in our own way (“Made in His image”). Faith in Jesus is trusting that He became the substitute for our shortfalls, the sacrifice for our sin. More than that it is believing that when we pursue His way of life when we seek Him, that such an experience is the one ultimately best suited for us.”
Kyna Gonzalez said, “Do what makes you happy. Whether it’s family and children, traveling and living life outside in foreign lands, or just have a genuine smile each day. Enjoy your coffee or tea each morning, and just remember how lucky we are to have grown up in a great place, live in a great area and be able to enjoy the significant parts of life.”
Karen Marie Chase said, “Everything happens for a reason. Even if we don’t understand it at the time, There are more significant reasons and grander plans. Old clichés you hear as kids are true, the older you get, the faster it goes! People weren’t kidding about that!”
Megan Murphy said, “I think the biggest lesson that I have learned is that everything happens for a reason. I try not to dwell on the past or worry about things that I can’t control.”
Alejandra Meza-Tabares, cut to the chase with, “Plans change! Life is unpredictable.”
Kimberly Griffin said, “Smart people know when to quit. While you can’t control anything, you can have control in things. It’s not about waiting out the storm but dancing in the rain.”
One teacher made a statement that I thought was poignant in this area. Scott Burnett, said “Nothing ever stays the same. The highest moment and the lowest moments aren’t going to last. Change is a natural part of it, and they have to find the center in themselves that doesn’t change. Relationships, jobs, physical health all change.”
Love Thyself, Health, Family, and Neighbor
The fourth and final major theme that I identified as running throughout most of the interviews had to do with love in one form or another. I call it: Love thyself, health, family, and neighbor.
Even the interviewees who stressed hard work and a take no prisoners approach to life, often qualified it with treating other people well at the same time. The right relationships are precious and take work to maintain and should not be taken for granted. Most of them, even if it was not the first thing they mentioned, followed up their life advice with a comment about how the family is incredibly important and valuable. Most people reminded us while striving to do the right thing.
Overall, even though it was our quietest theme of the four, and many were gentle reminders in the interviewee responses, the idea of becoming genuinely interested in others, and being respectful was essential.
Similarly, a big part of being able to love others is to love yourself first, and to do this requires the ability to say no. It’s also okay to be the smartest person in the room as long as you don’t go around telling everyone.
I think that it can be summarized with an easier-said-than-done statement: Simply love.
Tara Starokich’s central message was, “Simply to love. Live a life of kindness and compassion for others. It’s so vital. Simply love.”
Damien Brehmer said, “Relationships with others are gold and the key to happiness.”
Regardless of her trials, Jamie Serowicz still insists that “There is someone out there for everyone.”
Nick Stewart, a little reticent to even participate in my survey, admitted the importance of “Staying healthy and having good friends.”
Jesse Schenk said, “Compassion, above all. Striving to be excellent means helping those along the way. You do not need accolades or thank-yous. You do it because it is the right thing to do.”
Tia Austin pointed out: “Don’t take the people in your life for granted, even though they may irritate you! You never know when they will be gone, and you’ll have things left unsaid. Be an essential part of someone else’s life.”
Nathan Wolfe said, “On your death-bed, you won’t regret the day you did not go into the office but will probably regret the birthday or event you did not spend with your family.”
Chris Gillman said, “Treat people with respect; you can be successful and a good person at the same time.”
Stacie Quatsoe said, “The only mistake that I feel I have made is that I have lost many friendships that I had in High School. I wish I could reconnect with those people because many of them were inspirational to me, and we went through some great moments together.”
As a successful businessman, I expected Kwok Yang (Jack) Ng to focus mostly on goal setting and success principles, but a significant proportion of his advice was about relationships. “I’ve learned to respect elders and others in general, to be generous and forgiving, to be a part of the community, and that you should never be afraid to ask for advice.”
Sarah Henry said, “Be humble, kind and assume goodwill – you never know what someone else is going through. Nothing in life is permanent, so enjoy the ups but also know that the downs won’t last forever. Laughter can cure all and don’t take yourself too seriously. Live every day to the fullest—travel, learn another language, take risks, and love hard.”
Holly Gold focused on what she would teach her own child; “School matters. You can’t escape it, don’t even try. Put family first—Always. They are the ones that will be there. Don’t break those bonds. Be yourself, but keep yourself forward moving… Always.”
Polly Anderson said, “I’ve come to appreciate and realize how important family is and how truly lucky I am to have such dedicated and loving parents.”
Kimberly Griffin had a bullet list that covered all of our themes, and perhaps the simplest and wisest was, “All you really have in this life is yourself and your shared experiences. Everybody gets put in the barrel, so have some compassion.”
I hope that you pass these lessons and these life stories onto young people in your life. Countless graduating seniors are seeking wisdom, but they sometimes need to hear it from someone other than their parents and teachers for third-party validation.
Besides, who wants to listen to their mom nagging at them? Mine still is! I can hear her now: “Jesse! Drink your juice! Jesse, wear your sunscreen!”
If anything here spoke to you, I encourage you to write it down, reach out and let others know about it and spread the message. I implore you to please share this with a young adult graduating high school, a college student, or a parent who needs to give a little encouragement to their young chick who is about to leave the nest. You never know when you might get to shine some light on this long strange trip we call our life.