Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Teen Power!

Teens are smarter and tougher than adults often credit. But they face difficult questions and mixed messages, and going through adolescence is confusing and very hard on a person (and that's not to mention how tough it is for parents!).

A few years back, I wrote a post with some goals I would have liked to have achieved as a teen. It was a response to a friend's post on the same topic. In honor of the start of the 2013-14 school year, I thought I'd revise and consolidate these two posts into a single list. The best part about this advice is that it really doesn't have expiration date: it is good for all ages!
  • Stick up for someone. A lot of adults will tell you that the some of the deepest shames in life stem from failing to stick up for a weaker kid. Cowardice is a behavior, not a trait, and it can become habitual unless you find some courage in yourself for someone else's sake when it's called for. You can do it! And the alternative sucks.

  • Make art. Join the school theater, get into the choir, play a musical instrument, start a band, write a story, take a drawing or a painting class. And don't just make it - perform it, put it on display, integrate it into your social life. This involves some risk, which is part of the point. Honing a creative skill nurtures something inside of you that is very different than what is built from the raw competition of academia or athletics. But more immediately, it's fun as hell.

  • Exercise. No need to be a jock. But don't phone it in: move around with some purpose. Screw the dieting crap, just eat right and keep the junk food to a minimum. Walk a mile or ride your bike every day is all the exercise you need.

  • Learn a language. Sure, I studied Spanish in high school, Finnish in college, and dabbled in French as an adult. But I still haven't become fluent in any additional language to my satisfaction. I think my life is poorer because of it. When you can read in another tongue or converse comfortably with a native speaker, then you have opened up your world immeasurably. So really learn it - do extra credit, put in time at the language lab, go to a language camp, take that semester abroad, join a club - whatever it takes. This is on my list of things to do before I'm dead.

  • Get a job. Even if you don't need the money, having a part-time job is great life experience. When you are an adult, no one will care about how cute you were or how well you pranked the substitute teacher or bounced a basketball. Being part of an organization that measures your worth in what you can do for it and that is wholly dedicated to making money is good preparation for the "real world." 

  • Start a savings account. Did I really need to spend that money on the bullshit I bought? If I had saved just twenty bucks a week in my teen years, I would have had $5200 by the time I turned 18. That's enough for a real adventure abroad, a significant investment, or some other substantial purchase. To be able to plan and execute a long term goal, especially a financial one, is truly a life skill worth learning and having. I'm a lot better at this now, but it took me way too long to get here. Put some money away for something big. You won't regret it.

  • See how the other half lives. The city in which I live doesn't have a shanty town or even an above-average unemployment rate. Even so, there are homeless shelters and food shelves and people on the street. Go lend a hand. Poverty is experiential and even a trivial brush with it is transformative.

  • Don't worry about what you want to be. I'm 44 years old and I'm working my second career. I don't expect to stay in this career until I retire. Heck, when I was 15, the job I have now did not even exist. There are young people out there who have the singular drive and interest to pursue a particular career as teens, but in my experience most people are not like that. So don't worry about what you're going to be when you grow up! But...

  • Develop interests and skills. Find something you're passionate about and go for it. It doesn't matter what it is, it is likely to have dozens or even hundreds of facets to explore. The ability to find and develop an interest is itself a valuable skill. Just caring about something other than who kissed so-and-so and where the party is this weekend makes you a better person. It may even turn into something you could get paid to do.

  • Finish high school. There's no excuse for not finishing high school. In an information economy dropping out of high school pretty much dooms you to a life of poverty which means you're making your problems into society's problem. So be serious and finish high school.

  • Don't have a boy or girlfriend. If you're under 18, casual, low-stress social mingling is more fun, more instructive, and ultimately more fulfilling for you than intense relationships that you may not be emotionally ready for. If you go to a buffet do you fill up your plate with apple cobbler? Hellz no beotch! You sample lots of different things.

  • Break clique boundaries. Hang with the jocks. Hang with the clowns. Hang with the partiers. Hang with the nerds. Don't be hidebound by your "natural" peer group. Find interesting individuals, don't settle for a group in which you feel comfortable. Getting along with a variety of people isn't a life-skill, it's living.

(Hat tip to TK for granting permission to use his post. Thanks, amigo!)

Update: of all people, Kareem Abdul Jabar recently wrote a piece on the very same topic. His piece is titled "How to Become A Man," but most of his advice holds true for both boys and girls looking for an enlightened path into adulthood.

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