Over the last few weeks, my wife and I have made a concerted effort to “divide and conquer” more with our kids. Instead of always treating our girls as a unit, we’ve spent more time with each individually. This has been great—for them and us. Rather than dealing with competition for our attention, which often leads to acrimony, we’ve had opportunities to have deeper, more meaningful conversations, and quality, one-on-one time with each of them.
It happened in a blink, but our eight-year-old daughter, in particular, is starting to ask more questions about the big world outside of our family unit. She wants to know more about what high school will be like, what college is for, and how people make a living. It’s apparent to all of us that there is nothing she would rather be doing at this point in her life than creating art, so she’s particularly interested in how people craft creative careers. We explain to her that every book she reads, every song she hears, every garment she wears, and every picture hanging on a wall was created and sold by someone who had a vision and the gumption to bring something new into the world.
Right now she is curious. She wants to learn. She’s like most kids at this age—eager to soak up information about what’s to come and what’s possible in life. There’s a reason that kids aspire to be astronauts, professional athletes, dancers, and the President of the United States. They haven’t been told yet that their ambitions are too high. Unfortunately, as we get older, “reality” starts to set in. We extinguish the flames that light us up during our youth.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But for those who transcend life’s obstacles to truly and fully live life on their own terms, it doesn’t happen by accident. Passion and zest for life’s possibilities must be nurtured and cultivated. There is a great deal we want to teach our kids about what’s important, and what’s not, regarding life.
When they’re ready, here are nine things we want them to know, which are lessons that I believe all kids should learn.
1. Work Hard on Things You Love.
It has become a cliche for people to say that: “No one on their deathbed looks back and wishes they had spent more time working.” There’s a lot of truth to this statement, but it’s too simplistic. If you love what you do, if you derive meaning from your work, if you affect people in a positive way, then work hard—harder than feels comfortable at times. Become excellent at what you do. Have pride in the contribution you make. Don’t make work everything, but when you do work, make an impact.
2. Try Life in a Big City.
We’ve lived in big cities, and now we live in a small town. When we lived in Chicago, we were young, didn’t have kids, and life was more carefree. It was the right time to embrace the energy of a big city before settling into the slower pace afforded by a small town. And we appreciate what we have now even more for having experienced the opposite. Take advantage of your youth and freedom to try living in a big city. Just don’t get caught up in the rat race and forget that the electric-powered lights of a city skyline are no substitute for the bright stars in a big sky.
3. Be Happy for Other People’s Success (and Expect the Same from Those Around You).
Envy is toxic. There will always be someone smarter, richer, and better looking out there. Don’t play the comparison game. Don’t chase status. Don’t base your own happiness and self-worth on other people’s opinions about your choices. Be unabashedly you. And be happy for other people’s success. Look at the amazing things other people are doing, and instead of being discouraged by how you have fallen short, be inspired by what’s possible. And, perhaps most importantly, expect the same from those around you. Run in circles of people that lift each other up, not drag each other down.
4. Know What’s Right (For You).
Some of your friends will backpack the world. Others will take seemingly exciting jobs in fast-paced environments. You may choose to do these things, too. But do them for the right reason: because they are right for you. Have self-awareness. Pay attention to what makes you happy and do more of it. Conversely, and this sounds simplistic, avoid things that don’t make you happy. Just because this sounds simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are infinite choices ahead of you. There is conventional wisdom about what the American Dream is all about, most of which emphasizing chasing, acquiring, and striving. But remember that the American Dream, at its core, is really about one thing, which is putting yourself in a position to live life on your terms. Don’t let anyone else tell you what’s most important or valuable. Know what’s right for you—know your “Why”—and never let it go.
5. Know What’s Enough (For You).
I’d be lying if I said money is not important. It gives you options. It validates hard work. It provides you the freedom to try new things, and the security you need when you fail—because you will. If you’re always trying to figure out how to pay the rent, you can’t access the parts of your mind and creative spirit that will make you remarkable. Money is not everything, however. Not even close. Far more important are relationships, curiosity, and new experiences. There’s nothing wrong with financial success. And don’t begrudge others who have more than you. But make money a byproduct of a life rich with the things that really matter. If you don’t know what “enough” is—for you—then you’ll always be chasing more. You’ll never catch up, so don’t even try to play the game.
6. Get Outside as Much as Possible.
Never lose your childhood passion for being outside, and playing and exploring nature. Nothing makes you happier now, so I hope that you will remember this lesson throughout your life. When the stresses of life get to be too much, when you need to recharge, when you need clarity about a tough decision you have to make, retreat to nature. Few problems can’t be solved while on a hike amongst the tall pines.
7. Read, Learn, and Do.
The odds are that culture will continue to shift away from books. People will increasingly consume on-screen, on-the-go, bite-sized content that is meant to entertain more than to inform. Always cultivate your love of reading. This will give you an advantage as you grow older because you’ll be able to draw upon the lessons of those who came before you. Many of the smartest people who have ever lived have poured out their wisdom in books. Why stumble through life? Read old books and learn from other people’s mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself. More importantly, put the ideas you learn into action. Many people get caught in the trap of learning but never doing. Create a virtuous cycle of reading, learning, and then doing. Take action. Fail fast. Do it again.
8. Choose Your Own Educational Path.
The reason that reading is so important is that education never ends. At least it shouldn’t. Successful people are lifelong learners. As Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” Don’t buy into the idea that earning a college degree means you’re “educated” or “learned.” College should be an option for all kids, but it doesn’t mean it’s the best one. On balance, you’ll have more opportunities and greater security if you earn a degree, but don’t blindly make the decision to devote four or more years of your life, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, if college isn’t the best route to what you want. At the age of 18, it’s hard to keep in mind that you can always go to college later in life. But if you go immediately and waste your time or find it’s not for you, you’ll never get your time (or money) back. There are many ways to learn. Answers to every question are available at your fingertips. What’s not available, whether online or in a classroom, is the experience of solving hard problems and demonstrating leadership in the real world. And that’s the best education of all.
9. Choose Yourself.
“Choosing yourself” is a concept popularized by author James Altucher. It’s based on the notion that if you wait around to be chosen by an employer, friend, mate, publisher, or other gatekeepers, you’re putting your fate in someone else’s hands. You need to carve your own path. You need to seize your own opportunities.
You need to make your own choices. You must understand that life is abundant. Never adopt a scarcity mindset. The only thing that can stop you is your own limiting-belief about what’s possible.