I recently participated in a Career Day at my high school. Since I have only just begun my career, I thought, rather than explain my trajectory (forward) and accomplishments (few), I would offer three pieces of advice that I wish I had heard when I was a teenager.
- Do hard things
- Question your gifts
- Don’t measure yourself with other people’s rulers.
Do Hard Things
If you want to fight for social justice, you should know what injustice looks like. You should know what hardship and failure look like. Elite institutions don’t prepare you for that.
Choose classes that challenge you. Participate in activities outside your comfort zone and outside your neighborhood. Fail at something.
Question Your Gifts
To get into this school, you had to be a relatively intelligent 6th grader. After that, you’re surrounded by smart people, taught by smart teachers, and most unfairly, simply assumed to be smart. Question that.
There’s a word that’s thrown around in a lot of social justice conversations- “privilege.” It’s rightly used to call people out on preconceived notions and wrongly used to silence questioning, uncertain, and tentative attempts at understanding.
So instead of telling people (like myself) to check their privilege, I like to say, “question your gifts.” Accusations of privileges make me defensive. Reminders of gifts make me grateful.
I was given a gift in my family. I was given a gift in the education and preparation for one test that determined my entire educational trajectory. I was given gifts and worked hard to attend the school that I wanted and to graduate with pride in both what I had accomplished and for the love and support that had been given to me, unconditionally.
It’s that unconditional part that I am most grateful and most proud of. No one told me I had to “give back” to be loved. No one told me I owed the South Bronx a few years of earnest educating, before I decamped to a real career. My family, my friends, my karate sparring partners- everybody who got me here- said “here’s everything I’ve got. The best I can offer, for you to cherish and grapple with. Go do something worthwhile.”
There were no conditions, except the ones I set for myself. What was the most worthwhile thing I could do with my time? Teach. Done.
Don’t Measure Yourself With Other People’s Rulers.
Measure yourself by how excited you are to get up in the morning. Measure yourself by how excited you are to talk about what you do. Measure yourself by the most important criteria- are you proud of what you are called, or are you proud of what you do?
I don’t have an impressive-sounding job, or title, or office. I don’t have business cards. I don’t care. I have aspirations and a competitive streak and my workplace has plenty of competition and rivalry and petty politics. I’m beginning to think that is unavoidable in any group larger than one.
But I am so proud of what I do. I am so often so happy to do it. That’s more than a gift, that’s more than a privilege. That is a calling. It is not some unsustainable, post-collegiate burst of missionary zeal, but a certainty of purpose that through all the shoals of early-twenties New York life and post-collegiate malaise, the breakups and the let-downs, I have stayed my course, my own sincere way.