Dear Me,

 

As I thought about how to go about writing this letter, I remembered a quote by a great philosopher who you will come to love someday:

 

"Youth can not know how age thinks and feels, but old men are guilty if they forget what it is to be young."

- Professor Albus Dumbledore

 

In our case, not only can I imagine what it feels like to be you, I can vividly remember it. So I want to frame my advice in a form you will find relatable and familiar: Through the lyrics of a Billy Joel song. Yes, one of his songs is a hauntingly accurate representation of the mistakes you will make (and are making right now) in your life. You'll be relieved to know it's not "Angry Young Man," "Miami 2017," or "Captain Jack." Nor, as I recall we feared, does your life come to resemble something from "Allentown" or "Big Shot."

 

However, there's one song of his that we've always loved, but which we failed for too many years to take seriously. In this letter, I wish I could change the trajectory of our behavior.

 

The song is "Vienna."

 

Slow down, you crazy child

You're so ambitious for a juvenile

But then if you're so smart, then tell me

Why are you still so afraid?

 

I know the fear you hold like cards close to your chest. And deep down, beyond the fear, is the fear that it is your fear itself which gives you an edge. It isn't.

 

Recently, I got to see one of our comic book heroes, Doctor Strange, represented on the big screen. It's one of the things you can truly look forward to: Movies about our heroes that look amazing (not like the "Glidden Commercial Doctor Strange" from the 70s) and tell incredible stories. In this particular one, The Ancient One calls b.s. on the very same logic that you have about your fear:

 

The Ancient One says, "Fear is what has held you back from true greatness. Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all."

Strange asks, "Which is?"

The Ancient One: "It's not about you."

 

Let it be about other people. Don't force yourself into the middle of the picture, the heart of the crowd, the center of attention. Be generous with the spotlight and you will be amazed at how much MORE it works in your favor in both the long and short run.

 

Where's the fire, what's the hurry about?

You'd better cool it off before you burn it out

 

"Burnout" isn't even a term in your vocabulary right now. You have infinite stores of energy. Remember back at the third grade square dance when three teachers tried to tire you out? And they all ended up panting on the sidelines. Good times.

 

But even though you know this intellectually, you need to get it into your bones. Life isn't an elementary school dance. Learn now how to pick. Learn how to prioritize. Learn how to say "no" to things that may be fun but ultimately take more than they give; to things that don't look fun but you do out of guilt; to things that are worthwhile but not as worthwhile as the other choices in front of you.

 

Because overworking yourself seems like a noble cause until you open your eyes to see paramedics standing over you, your shirt cut open, and someone saying "charge, 300, clear!"

 

You've got so much to do

And only so many hours in a day

 

I know in your head it feels like the valiant thing is to accept all the challenges, take on all the quests, and fight through the exhaustion and confusion. Trust me when I tell you that choosing NOT to do something (whether that means "ever" or just "right now") is a braver choice than taking it all on and arriving at the finish line battered and bloody and unable to function until you heal. That fear the song mentions? We have a more precise word for it here in my day: FOMO, or "fear of missing out." You won't miss out on anything. You won't arrive at the performance, the meeting, the class, the party unprepared.

 

But you know that when the truth is told

That you can get what you want or you can just get old

You're gonna kick off before you even get halfway through

When will you realize, Vienna waits for you

 

You "know" it, and you're wrong. It's marketing. It's propaganda. It's brainwashing by a youth-worshiping social machine bent on forcing everyone to work harder, deliver more, create more "value" – not for you, not for your family, not even for your retirement. But for the company. For the shareholders. For people who are already so rich they literally have more money than they could ever possibly spend.

 

Don't fall for it.

 

Slow down, you're doing fine

You can't be everything you want to be before your time

Although it's so romantic on the borderline tonight

Tonight,

 

You've been raised from infancy on the idea that you can be and do anything you set your mind to. I'm not here to say that's not true. What I AM here to tell you is that you can't be EVERYTHING you set your mind to. And you absolutely cannot be everything that you want, all at the same time. When we were little we could say we were going to be an actor-president-astronaut-marine-biologist. Now it sounds silly. Because we should know that choices open some doors and permanently close others. That might make you feel wistful, but it shouldn't make you feel sad. You shouldn't regret the consequences of choosing so much that you refuse to make the choice all together. Because NOT choosing is itself a choice, and has consequences, and closes the door on opportunities just as much.

 

Too bad but it's the life you lead

You're so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need

Though you can see when you're wrong, you know

you can't always see when you're right. you're right

 

You know what our motto ought to be?  "Ready, FIRE!, aim."

Meditate more. Think more. Stop more.

Learn to taste your food. I know you think you already do, but trust me on this one, you don't.

Learn to savor. Books. Concerts. Moments.

Only when you do that, will you be able to see that some of your choices were correct, but you switched them last-minute because you second-guessed yourself.

 

You've got your passion, you've got your pride

But don't you know that only fools are satisfied?

Dream on, but don't imagine they'll all come true

When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

 

You are already driven to succeed. You already have a well-developed ego to help you get past small failures and minor criticisms. Don't let that turn into the stubborn bluster you grew up seeing around you. It's OK to take the critique and just get down to the hard work of improvement, without equivocating. Not every correction requires you to explain why. Just say "got it" and get to fixing it. And when you realize those criticisms are piling up, that time after time you are missing the mark (and they will, and you will) it's OK to graciously recognize that this isn't your game, no matter how much you want it to be. The hero who is astonishingly good at everything is a stupid trope, unrealistic in the actual world, and even in fantasy books it's just a sign of lazy writing. Don't make it a standard you look up or aspire to.

 

Slow down, you crazy child

And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile

It's all right, you can afford to lose a day or two

When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

 

The phone. You have no idea right now. You're going to need to take this on faith when I tell you that the FOMO I mentioned earlier will only get worse, aided and abetted by a confluence of technologies you literally cannot imagine. And it's your imagination, now, that is planting the seeds of your downfall. Your ability to hide inside your mind, to go off on mental adventures, is going to be augmented later on, and the result will be broken relationships, frustrated family members, and distant friends. Develop the skills now, the strength of character, the willpower to understand that not every moment needs your instant attention. Or your attention ever. By definition, the people nearest you are the most important. They are the ones who chose to show up, to stay, to be in your company. Give that choice the respect it deserves.

 

And you know that when the truth is told

That you can get what you want or you can just get old

You're gonna kick off before you even get half through

Why don't you realize, Vienna waits for you

 

Do you know what Billy Joel's "Vienna" really is? It's a place where people of all ages have active lives; where they do important work regardless of the wrinkles on their face or the thinning hair on their head. The song is saying "slow down" because you literally have your whole life in front of you to do whatever you want to do. To continue to make choices, to learn new things, pursue new dreams, to pick up threads you'd dropped before. But that's only if you keep your mind and your life in order. It's only if you don't break all the dishes trying to put them away before the commercial break ends.

 

You have time. We all do. You want proof? Bram Stoker didn't write Dracula (or anything, really) until he was 50. Debbie Harry didn't start singing until she was 31.  Leonard Cohen didn't start until 33. Charles Bukowski wrote his first novel at 51. Julia Child wrote her first cookbook when she was 50. Grandma Moses began her painting career at 78. You. Have. Time.

 

I know this seems like a tall order. I know it seems like you have to change every aspect of your life. But that's not true, and there's a very simple key to all of this.

 

First, doing this is simple like the song itself is simple. There's really just ONE thing to do: slow down. Slow your breathing. Slow your pace. Slow your decisions. Just take time.

 

Second, the key is right there in front of you: Listen to Debbie. She's not always right, but she's more often right than wrong. And even when she is wrong, she's less wrong that most. She sees you in a way that you will never be able to see yourself. So recognize that her perception of you is the true one, and the one in your head is skewed. Listen to her advice, even when it seems insane. Especially when she talks about what you should do next, or how much salary to negotiate, or when it's time to move on.

 

Slow down, you crazy child. Know that here at the other end of this letter I'm thinking fondly of the me I once was, without shame, guilt, or deep regret. Know that you're going to make it through mostly OK. But also know that future-you (that's me) would be deeply grateful if past-me (that's you) could make this one little change.

 

I wish you all the best on the rollercoaster you've got ahead of you.

 

Love,

Me