A note to my 12-year-old daughter, on the eve of her history fair project due date. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also writing to myself:
I have some thoughts on how to complete a project—and how to live well—that I would like to share with you, as difficult as they might sound:
You have grown up in privilege. You have two parents at home who love and support you, as well as a large, healthy, extended family with whom you have wonderful relationships. We have enough money to provide for your basic needs, plus many, many extras that 99.9% of the population will never be affluent enough to enjoy. In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (look it up), I gave birth to you in a hospital on a floor somewhere between self-esteem and self-actualization. A great many of the world’s population are thrust into a world that will never provide for their basic physiological and safety needs at the bottom of that pyramid: food, warmth, water, rest, security, safety.
In other words, you have suffered very little.
The upside of this is that you are happy, healthy, well-adjusted, and have virtually all of the ingredients to make the same sort of life for yourself after you become independent. The downside is that you are accustomed to not having to work very hard to enjoy the spoils of such a life.
Do I want you to suffer? No. It is a parent’s greatest desire to protect her child from suffering. But I am willing to make you uncomfortable now in order to keep you from suffering later in life. I am willing to live the valley of the shadow of your pre-teen frustration in order to teach you the skills you need to succeed this year in seventh grade, later in high school and college, and beyond as an adult, an employee, an employer, a partner, a friend, and a mother if you choose to become one.
In the meantime, here is a short list of what is not acceptable in your academic career:
- Doing careless work is not acceptable.
- Not being prepared for classes, quizzes, and tests is not acceptable.
- Waiting until the last minute to complete an assignment is not acceptable.
- Not asking for clarification if you don’t understand a concept or an assignment is not acceptable.
- Feigning understanding because it’s embarrassing to raise your hand is not acceptable.
- Doing only what is asked and nothing more is not acceptable.
Stated in a positive view, here are my expectations of your academic career:
- Take your time so that you do your work carefully.
- Prepare for your classes, quizzes and tests.
- Get your work done not just on time, but ahead of time. If you are asked to have your work done by Monday, have it done by the previous Friday.
- If you don’t understand a concept or assignment, ask for help—from your teacher, classmates, or your dad and me.
- Raise your hand if you have a question. Most often, someone else in the class wonders the same thing and will be grateful that you did. Plus, teachers like to see that you want to learn.
- If you are asked to write 5 paragraphs, write 6. If you are asked to cite 6 sources, cite 7. Always do more than is expected of you. In fact, be more than is expected of you.
You can get a staggering amount of work—and play—done if you do these three simple things:
- Understand the scope of work, and budget for unexpected delays.
- Set, organize, and prioritize deadlines.
- Keep a record of some type (time sheet, calendar, work flow chart) so that you stay on track.
The reason that I am writing this is because you have had two months to complete your history research assignment, and on this, the frustrating day before it is due, you were reduced to tears because you didn’t have the last two primary resources in your annotated bibliography. This, in spite of the fact that you have had two months, a home library, unfettered access to the computer, as well as my repeated offers of assistance and urging to accomplish your tasks. Yet consistently, you have found more time for your friends, your phone, your fashion, your rest and your entertainment than you have for your research. I hope for the sake of your social life that you will have pulled it off, in spite of your eleventh-hour effort.
There is a proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” One can have the desire, the intention, to achieve or complete something, but intentions alone mean nothing. Nobody has ever written a book or finished a marathon or become a doctor simply by intending to do it. There is a great deal of work and sacrifice and organization and thoughtful effort that goes into achieving a goal. And along the way, there are infinite—infinite—reasons that obstacles are not overcome, or deadlines are missed, or expectations are not met. Almost always, there is a good excuse to explain those small failures away.
Nobody gives a shit about your good excuse.
People—educators, employers, children, spouses—want you to be the kind of person they can depend on, no matter what the world throws in your path. They want to know that you will figure it out, whatever it is. And you, as a strong, sovereign woman, should want that for yourself.
The thing that you must learn to do is to anticipate those things that will threaten your success. Birthday parties and holidays, infatuations and illnesses, spontaneous social invitations and the demands of other teachers. If you have two months or two hours to finish something, figure out how to use that time so that you accomplish your goals ahead of schedule. And do it with:
Your maternal great-grandfather told your Grammy when she was a girl, “If you must do something, do it graciously.”
Graciously: (adv.) done with good reason or courteously.
I submit that you take it a step further. If you must do something, do it excellently.
Because, why be average? Why do only what the typical person does? I’m not saying every moment must be superheroic, I’m saying you should strive to be the very best that you can be. And because you are so bright, so capable, so good, that is a high standard indeed. Please don’t waste time bemoaning your status. Be grateful, and be excellent.
I don’t care if you don’t end up becoming a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, though I sincerely admire your current and long-standing desire to do so. If you want to be a dog-walker, or a teacher, or an astronaut, or a Broadway performer, or a politician (no scratch that, political life is certain misery), do it excellently. Do it with your whole heart, all the time. Don’t make excuses when you mess up, just admit it and then fix it, thoroughly.
And remember that even when I’m angry enough to write a manifesto, I still love you. I will always love you. I might not save you from your own mistakes all the time, but I will be suffering—deeply—alongside you as you learn these difficult life lessons. I don’t want to police or audit you. I want these things to be intrinsically valuable to you on your own. I will be constantly urging you forward, far beyond mediocrity, because I know you have it in you to be the greatest You in the world, and the world needs the best You you can give it.
*Due to the many requests to republish this blog entry (thank you!), I have made a few changes to the unedited version so that it might be applicable to an audience broader than the original one.