If Only I’d Known. Letters to Lost Years: 1989.1

Everything you’re doing now affects your future.  What you pay attention to is your life.  And the things you avoid don’t disappear.  All actions (and inactions) have consequences. 

You may think you are too young (or old) for your decisions to make much of a difference; but life is cumulative –a ladder – and we even though we can’t see the uppermost rungs from where we are, each step we take (each decision we make) shapes the one above.

After a childhood spent over-achieving, I entered high school embarrassed by my nerdy reputation and rather distracted by other (shall we say less productive?) interests.   I didn’t try nearly as hard as I had in the past – didn’t keep up with homework, didn’t study as much – and consequently, all my classes seemed much more difficult. 

Eh – it was only ninth grade, how could it really matter?  College was so far away.  I was so young.  What impact could it really have on my life?

With that frame of mind, I blew off most of my freshman and sophomore years.  Then, thankfully, I met one of those people who I refer to as a “right-tracker” (someone who put me back on the right track).  Lenny was an honors student at Choate-Rosemary Hall (President Kennedy’s alma mater).  He was also a star soccer player getting ready to apply to the Ivy League. 

Lenny showed me that you could be interesting, well liked and fun, yet still work hard to achieve.  He taught me that actually, working hard and doing well could be attractive qualities!

Junior year, I began to notice all the people around me who were working hard and getting really good grades; suddenly, I was embarrassed that I wasn’t one of them.  That was it.  I began to work.  Hard.

By the time I started to apply to colleges senior year, my transcript was spotty, but not unimpressive.  Fortunately, my essay writing skills were well developed so I sent an additional essay to the schools that were most important to me, explaining the lessons I’d learned from my freshman year on.  (I also wrote about how I was going to rebuild the United Nations to make it an effective super-governmental organization.)

I am proud that I was accepted at Cornell and happy with the direction my life has taken.  Certainly, I owe to that great school many of my nearest and dearest friends – and through one of those friends, I met my husband.  Still…

I was wait-listed at Harvard, which was my dream school.  It’s not that I think my life would have been better if I’d gone there – although, I’m sure I would have loved living in Cambridge (Boston having just a tiny bit more to offer than Ithaca).  But I can’t help wondering what might have been different in my life if I’d gone to the country’s (and by some accounts, the world’s) best university.

If I was able to get wait-listed with mediocre grades freshman and sophomore year, it stands to reason I could have had a good chance of acceptance if I’d done well those first two years.

Imagine if I’d done all my homework in geometry and asked for help when I needed it…

Imagine if I’d read all the books in English class (books I’d come to learn years later I really enjoy)…

At 14-years-old, without realizing what I was doing, I closed to myself an opportunity that might have profoundly changed who I am and what I’ve become.  Out of sheer laziness and misplaced priorities.

I’m a big believer in the idea that life gives you the opportunity to learn the lessons you need to learn and attending Cornell has shaped my life in a lot of ways.  I just don’t like thinking that the choice wasn’t mine – I threw away an option because I didn’t do my best.  I didn’t try my hardest.  I didn’t do what was asked of me.

Today’s homework assignment matters because it affects how you’ll understand the material on tomorrow’s test.  Tomorrow’s test matters because it impacts your grade.  Your grade matters because you are building a foundation of who you are. 

Good grades don’t tell admissions officers that you are smart; what they actually say is that you work hard; you take responsibility seriously; you try and you get the job done.  That’s not only what the college admissions want to know, but what any employer wants to know.  

Again you may think you’re a kid now and have plenty of time to change and prove yourself; but the habits we establish when we’re young can be hard to change.  Why not create good ones to start?  Why not put your best foot forward from day one?  You may really struggle, but no one can fault you if you’re trying your best and doing what is asked of you.

I know that many schools are flawed and don’t accommodate people who learn differently.  Grades don’t always accurately reflect an individual’s interests, abilities and efforts, but that isn’t an excuse not to study and turn in the assignments.

Some of us know early on what we want to do and some classes simply aren’t relevant; again, that’s no reason to blow it off.  Remember that who you are now isn’t necessarily who you’ll be.  It’s worth keeping options open and learning as much as possible.

We all know when we are actually working as hard as we can and when we are making excuses for ourselves to give up or phone it in.

I remember getting so far behind that I was afraid to even ask a teacher to help me catch up.  I know when there’s something unpleasant to do, it’s hard to face that conversation or task.  But these things don’t get easier if we avoid them… in most cases, they get harder.

What we have to remember is that there is almost always someone there to help us.  Someone who will walk us through what we need to do.  Teachers, friends, mentors – they want us to succeed and will pave the road for us if we need.  But we have to ask.  And we have to try.  We have to take responsibility for ourselves.

Nothing feels better than facing up to something difficult and just getting it done.

And when we do it, we give ourselves the chance we need to live the best life we can.  We make the best impression on others when we are giving 100% of ourselves.   It may not seem like it to a teenager, but most people truly do respect effort and achievement. 

And you never know how all the pieces are going to fit together.  How the impression you make on someone at 12, 22, 32, 42, etc., will stick them.  And maybe that someone has a bigger part to play in your life many years later. 

So whatever it is before you, do the best you can.  If you need help, ask for it.  If you are struggling, find a solution.  Don’t hide and hope it goes away.  Don’t blow it off because you think it won’t matter. 

You just can’t possibly ever know what will and what won’t matter in the long run.  So act like it all does.  Give 100% of yourself.  Live without regrets.



Published in: on July 19, 2013 at 10:09 am  Comments (2)  
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