Note: I wrote this last year, but not for this venue. I was reminded of it by all of the graduation photos I am seeing in my various social media feeds.
Learn new languages in the places where they were born; drink all night with international strangers; kiss girls or boys from other countries; eat strange foods; see this world. Burn into your mind images of how other people live; provide for yourself context for your opinions and ideas. See enough to realize that you are tiny, that you don’t know anything, and that this is a beautiful and oddly assuring fact.
Take whatever money you make while working as a line cook this summer, save it, and spend it on a trip throughout Autumn. Buy some books, learn everything you can about some place foreign to you, and go there immediately. If you withdraw from your classes now, you will be off the hook for the Fall Semester, and you will be all the better for skipping it. People who lack confidence in their own abilities will tell you that if you put off school now, you will never go back, but you know that you are capable of doing whatever you are Hell-bent on doing. Traveling will make you a better student anyway and all the cool positions will be filled by curious, well-traveled applicants over done-in-4-years college graduates anyway. Doing this will open your eyes in a way that they have not yet been opened, and it will offer to your study some context that you can’t find anywhere else. You have all the time in the world to do this, you think, but doing so as soon as possible and hitting the road right now will ensure that you actually get around to it, and it will do you a lot of good.
You will eventually get around to traveling, thankfully for me, but not until long after you make and squander thousands of dollars on over-priced coffees and other unmemorable crap. You’re 18-years-old; you’re more or less invincible; go out into the world and get to know where you live.
Sure, your jobs at the restaurant and mall are fun and everything, but after a while, there is only so much retail experience you really need when you are young and have access to nearly infinite resources at your fingertips. In a handful of years you will find yourself seeing how people in the Balkans, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories live and your eyes will be opened to the immensity of the world. You will meet smiling children and weathered adults; you will see houses riddled with bullet holes; you will share time with beautiful strangers. Even though you were told that everyone hates Americans these days and that you should lie and tell those you encounter that you are Canadian, a Palestinian cabdriver will tell you, “Everyone thinks we hate Americans and we don’t. We all know what it is like to be held captive by a government uninterested in its citizens’ best interests.” Your mind will be blown and while we both know that you are not a person who puts a lot of emotional energy into regret, you will definitely wonder what you were waiting for those past handful of years and why slinging coffee, making nachos, or selling t-shirts stood between you, adventure, and better understanding this giant, beautiful rock. It is something of a cliche, but only because it is true: No one will ever look at their time spent at menial jobs during their youth and wish they have done more of that; most will look at that time and wish that they had occupied more of their youth exploring the world and themselves.
On a somewhat related note, stop wasting so much time with people who have finite aspirations and love in their hearts. This isn’t to suggest some ambitions are lesser than others—in time you will meet some full time moms with more fire in their bellies than the worldliest of travelers, janitors with more gumption than the most powerful of players—but try to assess who you give your time to on the basis of the amount of love, passion, and care they put into living out their days. Not only are these people substantially less emotionally draining than those who don’t, you will progress with each other, support each other, be there for each other. They will encourage you to do the things that will make you grow, and out of concern for you, they will challenge you when you pursue sloppy, wasteful endeavors. They won’t naysay your plans when you share with them your dreams, where you plan on going, what you hope to be. They will exchange your stories for their own and you will revel in them and grow together. You will write them letters and share and you will cheer each other on.
So what are you waiting for, kid? Buy the ticket, take the ride.