A Talk With My Niece

My niece is fifteen years old. She’s a social girl with a kind heart and just enough social awkwardness, intellectual curiosity, and introspection that after spending five minutes with her, you can’t help walking away thinking that the world is potentially her oyster. Among school subjects, she’s most passionate about mathematics, but she tends to not advertise that fact because many people identify math as being highly “boring” and “nerdy.” If you haven’t figured it out, I adore the girl and I sincerely hope that when my daughter is fifteen, she’s as well rounded as my niece.

Given all that, I can tell from conversations with her that, to a degree, she’s lost right now. I am the only person in her extended family that went to college and got extensive exposure to a life outside of our hometown. She has that same mix of introspection and intelligence and parochial attitudes and thoughts that I see in my own writings from my high school years, and though I made a lot of good moves from there, I made some bad ones, too.

I’ve decided, then, to have a talk with her over the Christmas holiday. Rather than doing the typical “preachy” thing, I’m going to basically talk to her as though she’s an adult and preface it with the simple fact that I recognize that she will probably make it “out,” too, and let her know that I think the world is her oyster.

Here are the points I want to hit.

Listen to your heart above all else when deciding what to do. Your mind’s job is to mold your heart’s desire into something great, but without that desire and passion, nothing will happen. If she enjoys math as much as she seems to, she should give mathematics a try in college. I allowed myself to get talked out of that very major by people who were under the stern belief that I couldn’t “do” anything with it – and I’ve regretted it ever since. If you know what you’re passionate about, just follow that – your passion will make you great at it and your mind will figure out how to make a living with it.

Debt will become your prison if you let it. The only way you’ll live your dreams is by spending less than you earn from day one. Never, ever get trapped into “needing” some sort of consumer item – it will come to you eventually if you really want it and keep up with the “spend less than you earn” philosophy. What’s the big payoff? When you’re in your thirties, you’ll be riding high without a worry while everyone else on your block will be drowning. If you hate your job, you can quit – the rest of them will be trapped in place.

You will make mistakes – don’t make them into excuses. Everyone’s going to mess up a time or two – I know I sure have. The danger, though, is to use that mistake as a crutch or an excuse to not do your best. When you mess up, admit to yourself and anyone else you need to that in fact you did mess up, and figure out exactly what you can learn from it, then move on with life. You’ll do so much better at every avenue of life if you do things that way instead of passing the buck.

Be nice to everyone, even the people who seem “below” you. What goes around comes around, and thus the more kindness you share with others, the more it will come back to you. Reject any urge to belittle or be snarky towards others and find ways to compliment them and lift them up. If you take a moment to lift the spirit of someone and do it regularly, it will come back to you in some way that you likely cannot foresee.

The highest paying job is rarely the one you want. In my life, the higher the salary, the more stress and responsibility the job has brought to my life. Each person has a different sweet spot in there, but I’ve rarely seen a person whose best fit is the highest paying, highest stress job. Salary isn’t everything – don’t just go for the job that pays the most. This is even true right now, in high school – the most useful and valuable ways to spend your time are likely on a volunteer basis.

Will it matter right now? Probably not. What I hope for, more than anything, is that at some point afterwards, something I’ve said will click in her mind and she’ll make a better choice than I did, and that alone will have made our conversation worthwhile.

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