Open Letter to High School Students


My friend solicited open letters to high school students for a project for work. Here is what I wrote last Friday afternoon. I found that I was really writing it as reminders to myself based on things I’ve recently been thinking about and learning, so in multiple respects it was a great and fun exercise. 

Dear Reader,

We don’t know each other, but some of the best advice I’ve ever received has been from strangers. In fact, everything you’ll read here I’ve learned from others. There are things I think I know now that I wish I knew when I was in high school. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to really hear it, or I didn’t have the context for understanding its relevance. Here are some of the things I wish I started doing earlier, which are as much reminders to myself to do them now as they are advice to you.

Have empathy. You may have heard the phrase “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy is listening to and learning about someone else, and acknowledging their experience as something real and valid even if it is different from your own or you don’t completely understand it. Empathy is not the same as sympathy—a proactive concern and desire to improve the situation of others. (This great animated video demonstrates the distinction between sympathy and empathy.) We should all strive to be more empathetic, and to be open–really open–to listening and learning from everyone around us. 

Avoid silos. Be interested–in the world, in people, in how things work, in new topics. Make plans, but don’t be so focused on them that you miss out on opportunities to learn or try new things. You may be very passionate about one topic, but make sure you spend time learning about other ones because your passions will change over time. Don’t silo your experiences or learning; break down silos completely and learn how everything is connected and builds on each other.

Give yourself space to feel. You will go through at least one difficult or traumatic experience, if you haven’t already. It’s okay. If you go through something hard, give yourself space and permission to feel that pain and sadness. Realize the gravity of what you are going through, whether it’s something many others experience, or if you think you are the only person in the world going through it. Find people you trust to help you through the process, and don’t feel like you have to bottle-up your emotions or pretend everything is alright when it’s not.

Travel. You’ll hear this advice a lot. But don’t travel to some exotic country to “help the needy” or see how “others” live. Don’t stay for two weeks and then leave. Stay in the same place for a few months, or a year. Travel because you can learn more about yourself and others in the process, and see how you adapt to new environments. And don’t think of money as a barrier to travel. You don’t need to cross the globe for this experience. Travel to a different borough, city, state. Learn how to be somewhere new on your own. And then call your loved ones.

Ask why. Question your actions and beliefs. Question those of others. Don’t ask why something exists a certain way, and then stop. Ask why again, and again, until you can’t ask why anymore. There’s your real answer.

Have an opinion. Learn how to be diplomatic and respectful of the opinions of others. But also know where you stand and what you believe. Be open-minded to changing your opinion, but don’t have so much desire to be liked or respectful that you never express what you really think.

Don’t burn bridges you may need to cross. It’s okay to end relationships with employers, friends, or lovers. People change and move on. But always end on a good and honest note. You never know when they might come back into your life.

Say thank you. Be thankful for the people who help you, and remember your 5th grade teacher, college counselor, friend, or acquaintance and thank them for influencing your life and supporting you. Thank them in the moment, and thank them 5, 10, 15 years from now.

Do things. As Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe says, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

Hopefully this advice will be valuable in your life, whether you use it now or later. But most importantly, your gut instinct is almost always right, so always listen to that first and last.




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