Five Things I Would Tell My Kids Before They Went to College


Disclaimer:  I’m the father of two gorgeous daughters and one awesome son.  They’re all younger than six.  That being said, I’m an ardent feminist, grandson, and son of feminists, proud husband and father.  So I beg your patience with me when my thoughts might not parallel the current fads.

  1. Before you reinvent yourself, imagine how you want to be perceived when you graduate. 

Steven Covey calls it “Begin with the end in mind.”  As it says in the Jewish poem L’cha Dodi, Shabbat was the last action but the first thought.  In essence, everything in the beginning was created to facilitate the end.  Before you do something, figure out where you want to go.  As logical as this is, it is highly unpopular today for one reason: it requires you to be responsible and disciplined in achieving your long term goals at the expense of your short term ones and/or your immediate desires.

A personal antidote:  I spent my first year in college trying to be everything I wasn’t in high school.  In a word, “cool.”  Then, after some “soul searching,” I spent my senior year convincing my contemporaries that the wild frat man (or as close as one could get to that at UCSD) wasn’t really me at all.  So who was I?  Truth is, I’m still figuring it out.  But I wasted a lot of time trying to develop a persona that I knew I didn’t want to be.  What’s the proof that I knew I didn’t want to be the person I tried to be?  I remember one day in high school going with a friend of mine to deliver something now legal in Seattle to his older brother, a thirty year old entrepreneur.  All I could think to myself was, “Wow, I don’t want to be doing this stuff for fun when I’m older.”  I knew that the party man wasn’t where I wanted to be long-term.  I’d venture to say most of you know it’s not where you want to be as well.

So why do we do it?  Mostly to reject or reframe or fit in.  The problem is that when you live as someone you aren’t, it’s harder to shake people’s initial perception of you than you might think.  “Who cares what people think of you?” you might ask.  YOU do.  We’re very social animals, and how people perceive us matters to all but the most socially unconscious.  So imagine how you want to be when you graduate.  Do you want to be a leader?  Confident?  Set in a path towards greatness?  Above the “freshman nonsense” that so many upper classmen talk to me about?  So act like that now, and you’ll find yourself becoming what you want, instead of becoming what works just for now.

  1. You don’t need a boyfriend/girlfriend.

Well, this is uncomfortable.  Of course you think you don’t NEED one.  Do you really feel like you don’t need one?  Ok, so then how about getting into a relationship if one so-to-speak comes along?  Now imagine a relationship doesn’t come along, but everyone else seems to pair up.  Maybe you’re in the friend zone and want out.  Do you really not need a relationship?

The world tells us that college is the time for young men and women to meet.  Not to date per say, like we did in my day, because the youth are too cultured for that.  But maybe to “hang out.”  And be friends.  And beneficial friends.  And then have the talk.  Then have more benefits.    Soon the Facebook status changes from single to “discussing an exclusive contract.”  It could even go to full on “exclusive.”  And once the relationship is exclusive, then comes the drama.  Quickly it becomes too much for one, and not enough for the other.  She’s all over the place with her friends, and he’s too clingy.  Or vice versa.  And what about grad school?  Or a job in Texas?  What about that?  What’s more important, my girlfriend or my future trajectory?

This of course brings up another fundamental issue.  Who do you chose to date?  Does it matter where they are going long term?  Or who they are, what their background is, or their religious affiliations?  Since you don’t know where you’re going, can you date anyone as long as they are cute, funny, or will give you attention?  Do you settle or lower your expectations to what is available around you?

A few pointers here.  Relationships require a crucial ingredient called commitment.  If you aren’t ready to commit, you aren’t ready to date.  Not because you can’t, but because you can’t be in a successful relationship (for both people…that’s implied by ‘relationship’) until you’re all in.  The other person’s needs are more important than your own.  What he or she wants is your OBLIGATION to oblige.  It’s not about being happy or being comfortable in the short term.  Go ask any old (or not even old) happy couple how much of their lives they spent pursuing their own happiness or their own needs.  Most likely, if they’re happily dating/married, it won’t be too long.  Once you find that person that you want to commit to, you MUST make their needs more important than yours.  And yes, they have to do the same for you.  “BUT WHAT IF THEY DON’T???” people ask me.  Not your problem.

See, Judaism is based on obligations, America is based on rights.  Americans say “what is my right?”  In other words, “what is owed to me?”  Judaism is based on obligations, or “what is owed to the other.”  As much as I love this country, rights lead to wars.  And if my history serves me correctly, Judaism as a world view hasn’t facilitated any wars in the last two thousand or more years.  Sure we’ve had to fight, but we didn’t start it.  To avoid wars, or even drama, do what the other person wants happily.  You’ll be shocked how fast they will want to take care of you.

Once you find yourself obligated to another, you’ll love them more.  You’ll be happier.  Heartache and upset will be all but squashed.  BUT, it requires you to commit.  Which means you have to know what you want and be ok with what you have.  And also not settle.  For freshman that is SERIOUS business because everyone claims they aren’t ready for it.  Ok! So see rule number 2.  Boyfriend and girlfriend imply exclusivity and commitment.  Hooking up means offering what people used to pay for in commitment and nice dinners, for free.  It devalues you and what you’re offering.  EVEN if it’s fun for you for the moment.  Being in a relationship means locking yourself into putting their needs first.  For most people, that’s too much this early in life.

  1. There are no substitutes, even though it looks like there are. 

A body next to you doesn’t mean you’ll feel connected.  A room full of people doesn’t mean you’re having fun.  So-called “benefits” doesn’t mean you aren’t being used, and definitely doesn’t mean that you’re being respected.  A degree in your hand doesn’t mean you’ll be proud of it if you didn’t do the work.  An internship doesn’t mean you’ll have someone ready to hand you a job.  And a job doesn’t mean you’ll find meaning in life.  And even if you think you’ve found meaning in life, it might not be what life is all about.

Everyone knows these ideas are true.  But deep down inside, everyone hopes they are lies.  The brilliance of marketing and advertising is in creating and framing the reality in which the potential customer lives.  For all of his genius, Steve Jobs was a master marketer—that was how he changed the world.  The reason why Apple is what it is, or Coke, or Porsche, or Tory Burch, is because the company CREATED the image we have of it.  As Macklemore said (with our without the long nose and beard), “Fifty dollars for a t-shirt…I call that getting tricked by a business.”  Yes, I own more shirts with Alligators on them than I’d like to mention, and I convince myself they’re better than the ones Costco sells for $14.99.  But are they really?  Well, only because I delude myself to thinking an alligator on my shirt means I’m a trendy, successful gentleman.

College, and the lifestyle attached to it, is all about marketing.  Just try to keep it in mind.  I sat with someone who explained to me how cocaine makes you have a great time.  I was like, “what’s wrong with just having a great time without the cocaine?”  He told me you couldn’t party as hard.  I replied “who says a person is supposed to party that hard?”  He didn’t have a great response.  In one of my many walks late at night on Landfair Avenue trying to find someone to turn down the EDM or Drake or whatever the flavor of the month is so my children could sleep, I overheard a girl say to her friend-zoned male escort, “Ew, I always get groped when I go to parties at such-and-such a place!”  I think to myself, “if I would go somewhere and get groped, I’d never go back!”  I was sober though, so that made sense.  Why would people repeatedly do things that aren’t fun with the hope that one day they will have fun?

I’ll come out and say it.  Drinking gives the impression you’re having more fun than you are.  Hooking up makes you think you’re more valuable in someone’s eyes than you might be.  You feel like you have more worth than if you were to go home alone.  Understand that marketing frames reality for the buyer.  It doesn’t make it true.  Value, meaning, and happiness all has to come from inside.

  1. Invest in yourself now, not in your future.

If you’re always looking ahead, you’ll never take the steps you need for now.  As John Lennon said 800 years ago, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”  As Al Pacino said, “football and life is a game of inches.”  In college we train ourselves to throw for the end zone.  We think and focus on what CAREER we want, and which INTERNSHIP we need to get.  A dear student of mine laments, “everyone’s got it figured out but me.”  What does she mean?  She means everyone else seems to have their long term plans intact.

Looking too far ahead is dumb.  The Talmud says, “Don’t plan for tomorrow, because maybe you’re planning for someone else’s tomorrow.”  Certainly I’m not advocating we should all be James Dean and “Live like you’ll get rich and die trying” (I’m kidding-just seeing if you’re still reading).  James Dean said “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”

We need to live like we’ll live forever.  Living forever means there are consequences to what we do.  We need to live a life we’ll one day be proud to share with our kids.  There’s a secret to life.  You never reach an age where it is easy to do the right thing.  If you don’t make a habit of doing the right thing now, you won’t do it when you’re older.  Maturity is a decision, not an age.

Dreaming like you’ll die today means to dream big.  Too often, we dream wayyyyy too shallow.  We don’t have dreams.  And if we do, how big do we dream?  The greatest potential we have is right now.  Our future isn’t here yet, and our past is over.  We can do anything now—today.  We can make good choices or bad choices.  Dreaming like we’ll die today means that we should dream about being great now, making the right choices now, and not thinking that somewhere down the road we’ll become great.

Donald Trump is famous for saying if you’re going to dream, dream big.  Do we do that?  Do we tell ourselves that today is my big day?  I only have today, so I’m going to be happy and go for it?  That’s called investing in yourself, now.  Whatever things you aren’t great at, work on them today!  If you’re not happy, or don’t have good self-esteem, admit it today and figure out a way to get there.  If you’re not happy, or can’t make decisions, or don’t have clarity, even if you do get the dream job, house, or life, those parts of you that you don’t like about yourself won’t go away.  You have to work on them now.

In short, you don’t know where you want to be when you’re forty.  And even if you know how you want to make your money, there’s more to life than career.  To be successful in life, you have to work on YOU, not just your future income stream.  And that kind of work can and should be done today.

  1. Be proud of who you are, and where you come from.

College for many is a jump into a much broader world.  It is exciting and fun to broaden your horizons.  However, a lot of times we compare ourselves to others in this much larger pool of people.  We wonder why we aren’t as smart, fit, popular, well-adjusted, fearless, etc. as the next guy.  We look at our world as too small and compact, and that the broad world is so much more intelligent and cultured than ours.  The theme song I hear is “I want to broaden my horizons, Rabbi.”

There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s good to broaden.  But broaden doesn’t mean dumping who you are or where you come from.  A fundamental teaching of Judaism is that you have all the tools you need, and the place where you find yourself in life, is exactly where you need to be.  R’ Nachman of Breslov says that the moment you were born was the moment that the entire cosmic structure would not be complete without you.  Little you, with all your imperfections.  There will never be another like you again.  You are rarer than the rarest diamond.  In all of human history there has never been you, and in the future there will never be another you.  You are important.

There’s an idea that G-d only gives us what we can handle.  That means that anything that happens to us in life is tailor-made for us, and we can handle it.  Maybe it seems more than we can handle, but the fact that it happened proves we can overcome the challenge.  We can solve all our problems.  And we’re unique.  And fantastic.  And who cares what other people have, or can do.  What matters is you, and who you are.

The Jewish people are very old, yet vibrant.  We’ve seen it all.  We’ve survived it all.  As Mark Twain writes, “the only thing immortal is the Jew.”  It’s a crazy idea, but we’ve been around for a long time. In that long time, we’ve learned and experimented with every other religion, philosophy, and social milieu that has popped up.  And we’ve been phenomenally successful in most of them.  But since said concepts and ideals aren’t immortal like us, they haven’t sustained us, and the Jewish purveyors of those philosophies have seen their own children and grandchildren looking for another way to find meaning.

Yet this year, come Rosh Hashanah, Jews will listen to the same sounds from the same instruments that they did 3,000 years ago.  And believe it or not, we’ll be listening to the same instrument on the same day for the next 3,000 years.  It’s a powerful idea.  So maybe there’s something to be said to looking in our own backyard before we look in someone else’s.  Be proud of who you are, and what nation you come from.  Without demeaning anyone else, the Bible calls us a nation of priests and royalty.  It says we are beloved to G-d.

To wax poetic but perhaps contemporary, I remember as a kid watching a rabbi telling a kid from the project that he was a prince.  I related to that.  Not because you can call my enclave of suburb a project.  The only projects I knew about were the ones I did in school.  But the idea of inspiring the youth to see their own inherent cultural greatness was something I loved.  I tried to do that a little in my own life for others, because people did that for me.


Then, of course, after the long rant, I’d tell my kids I love them, I am proud of them.  Because of both who they are now and who they will become.


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