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Earlier this year, I started thinking about a graduation gift for my two oldest children, Jack and Elly. Jack is moving on to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Elly will be attending graduate school at the University of Memphis.
I wanted to gift them something they could hold on to for a long time, and I also hoped for one last opportunity to be heard. Lord knows, there’s no greater challenge than parenting children through early adulthood. You do the best you can, pray a lot, and trust that you’ve built a foundation that enables them to make good choices and surround themselves with people who have passion and strong character.
I started writing down life lessons that have been important to me over the years—through good times and bad. I also reached out to several successful friends. The group was a mix of business leaders, entrepreneurs, athletes, entertainers, coaches, educators, and most importantly, men and women who are great spouses and parents filled with peace and contentment.
I asked each of them the following question:
“If you had one piece of advice to share with a graduate—and only one—what would you share as they enter this next phase of life?”
The sharing and feedback from the group were tremendous. I sorted through a long list of valuable life lessons and came up with the eight that touched my heart the most. Why eight? The number eight signifies a resurrection, a new beginning, and in Chinese culture, it’s a lucky number that symbolizes harmony and balance.
8 Lessons Everyone Must Learn
Here are the big takeaways I want to share with everyone. These are valuable not only for those entering the next stage of life: They also guide anyone going through a transitionary period, no matter their age.
1. Always Show Up
No matter how great the challenge, always show up. There’s an old Yiddish expression, “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht,” which translates roughly to “Man plans, and God laughs.” We don’t always get the outcomes we want. But don’t quit—play it through. You never know who you may meet or the lessons you learn for another day.
2. Be Mentally Tough
This generation of young adults struggles with handling criticism well and allowing praise to skew their sense of true value. Don’t fall into this trap. Tom Brady, one of the most successful athletes of our time said it best: “Being mentally tough is putting all the bullshit aside, everything that has happened, all the noise, all the hype and just focusing what you’ve got to do. It’s no excuses. It’s did you win, or did you lose? End of story.”
3. Your Attitude is Everything
Your attitude is going to determine your whole life. If you have a lousy attitude, people will duck into the bathroom to not have to be around you because you suck the energy out of them. If you have juice, if you have energy, and if you care about people, they will gravitate toward you.
4. Make Real Friendships
Pay attention to friendships. Make them naturally, add to them selectively, nurture them through the years, and appreciate them always. Friends keep you healthy. They center your thinking and have a significant impact on your character.
5. Life Breaks Everyone
Despite what you see on social media, there are no perfect people or fairy tales in life. Behind every smile, expensive toy, and photo taken in an exotic location, there’s pain and people dealing with problems. In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway writes, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” How you act after facing challenges determines whether or not you’ll stay down or get back up.
6. Ask for What You Want
To get the things in life you really want, you’ll have to do things you’ve never done. You will have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and have the courage to—like Maya Angelou once said—”ask for what you want, and be prepared when you get it!”
7. Knowing the Right Question is More Important than Knowing the Answer
Our education system rewards students for having the right answer, not for asking a good question. There are no right answers to wrong questions. Knowledge is having the right answer, but intelligence is knowing the right question to ask. Master this, and it will be much more difficult for people to mislead you.
8. Only Compare Yourself Against Your Best Self
Competing against or comparing yourself to someone other than your “best self” is a recipe for disappointment and failure. Actor Matthew McConaughey drove this point home in his acceptance speech for Best Actor at the 2014 Oscars. “To my hero . . . that is who I chase. When I was 15-years-old, a very important person in my life came to me and asked who is my hero? I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve got to think about it, give me a couple weeks.’ I came back two weeks later, and this person comes back to me and says, ‘Who’s your hero?’ I said, ‘I thought about it, and you know who it is? It is me in ten years.’ So I turned 25 ten years later, and that same person comes to me and says: ‘So, are you your hero?’ I said, ‘Not even close! No, no, no . . . my hero is me at 35.’ Every day, every week, and every year of my life my hero is always ten years away. I’m never going to be my hero. I’m not going to attain that, I know I’m not. That’s fine with me, because that keeps me somebody to keep on chasing.”
My Hope for This Letter
I don’t know how impactful this list will be today. Still, I’m not going to live forever, and I hope that Jack and Elly can look back later in life and comprehend the intentionality of each tenet listed above, and maybe even share them with their children someday. In a decade, I also look forward to passing this on to Barrett and Harley, my younger children. I don’t anticipate too much on this list changing between now and then.