Congratulations on your graduation. I’m sure you’re feeling celebratory right now, and you’ll likely stay that way for at least another month. Soak it in; making it through college is quite an accomplishment. You’ve spent much of the first two decades of your life studying hard to get to this point. Not everyone gets the kind of opportunity that you have, so give yourself time to savor your success.
I am writing to you from the future—11 years into the future, to be exact. No, I’m not gonna tell you everything about the next decade because that is not the point of this letter and I’d rather not rob you of the thrill of not knowing. All I can tell you is that it’s not a great time to be alive, but it’s manageable; you’ll turn out just fine. Anyway, I’m writing to give you the kind of pep talk I wish I had when I was your age, not to dampen your mood or anything, but to help you prepare for what lies ahead.
As the elation fades and the reality of adulthood sets in, you’ll have every opportunity to validate what you’ve known and believed in. Up until recently, your life revolved around doing well in school and seizing every opportunity to achieve to 1) graduate on time with honors, as you just did, and 2) make the people around you proud. You’ve always believed that academic excellence, as evidenced (rather ineffectively, as you’ll see) by good grades, is the key to success, as you may have heard from grownups far too many times already. This belief is what drove you to aim for the top spots in class every term, join academic competitions to boost your cred, and tune out anything that distracted or could distract you—be it sports, extracurriculars, or your short Web Team stint back in high school.
To be fair, the grownups were right. Come to think of it, you are already successful. Bagging the Best Thesis award, let alone finishing a thesis in one term, is no simple feat. Graduating cum laude is a goal many students share, but few manage to realize. You managed to accomplish both, and I’m sure your loved ones and friends couldn’t be prouder. You were never a teacher’s pet, and growing up you’ve given your mentors a fair share of headaches, but I’m sure they couldn’t be more delighted about how you turned out to be; you owe it in large part to them, and you may soon find yourself seeking every opportunity to pay it forward. You have already accomplished so much, and you’re just getting started.
But all of that is in the past now. In the coming days, weeks, months, and years, you’ll be working not anymore for good grades, but to establish yourself in your chosen career. I’m sure you’ve spent copious amounts of time recently imagining what the next ten years will be like. Perhaps you’ve imagined yourself making it big as an IT professional, managing to leave librarianship to pursue your passion at some point in the future. Perhaps you’ve imagined yourself in the comfort of your own home, driving around the city in your own car, and buying the gadgets you’re drooling over with your own money. Perhaps you’ve imagined yourself traveling quite a lot, either out of your own pocket or as part of your job. Dream on; it’s free, and so long as you don’t overdo it, it doesn’t hurt.
You were never wrong to aim for good grades and academic honors; meritocracy is still a thing and will likely remain so. But if you think that these accomplishments are enough to send you soaring to stratospheric heights, as I’m sure you’ve been inclined to all these years, you’re sorely mistaken.
Once upon a time, intellect was everything. Study hard, the grownups said, and the good things of the world will come to you—opportunities, fame, and fortune. But times have changed. You’ve shuddered at the thought of not making it through college, but the game-changing companies you look up to—Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, to name a few—were founded by college dropouts. In the coming years, you’ll see that people who manage to succeed in what they do and build significant influence are not necessarily the brightest ones in class, but the ones whose passion drives them to achieve more. It’ll seem unfair because you’ve studied so hard as a student to land a good job yet these people who don’t have as many credentials as you have are simply taking a stab at it, having fun doing what they love, and making a lot of money and clout in the process. But that’s the way it is.
You don’t have to be Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, or some YouTuber with millions of subscribers to realize this. As you grow in your chosen career, you’ll see that your accomplishments as student matter less and the way you work matters more. Academic excellence helps a great deal; I’d be lying if I told you it hasn’t helped me somehow. But self-confidence, grit, and EQ are just as essential as IQ for success, if not more so. Now these are things you couldn’t be bothered with when you were younger, right? You thought they were unnecessary at best and a distraction from your quest for high grades at worst, right? And it shows: your vision of success is vague at best, you kinda suck at handling fellow humans, and you couldn’t be persistent enough to plow through hurdles to achieve your goals. I don’t mean to offend you just now, but I’m telling you; these deficiencies will eventually start to bite, and you’ll badly want to catch up.
Allow me to digress a bit. I’m sure that growing up you’ve been frustrated countless times by not being able to do something because you were too young, and this frustration must have led you to think that adulthood brings freedom. Well, it does, but there’s a catch: you are accountable for every decision you make, and if said decision doesn’t work well for you, you’ll have to suck it up and move on—grownups won’t be coming to your rescue, and rightfully so. You’ll have the opportunity to make your own money, but whether that’ll lead to a better life or not will depend on how much you spend and what you spend it on. You now have the freedom to court the girl you’re interested in without worrying about repercussions if your grades start to slip, but there’s a lot more to love than sparks and enjoying time together. You have to be ready.
Anyway, as I was saying, you’ve already done enough in the knowledge and credentials departments; so much, in fact. But neither your Best Thesis award nor your Latin honors nor earning your degree from a leading university will get you promoted (but a master’s degree helps—think about it) or closer to being the great and successful JM you dream of becoming. In fact these accomplishments, important as they are, won’t matter much anymore once you’re at the workplace; your bosses won’t be looking at how well you did as a student, but at how well you do at work. You’ll need a healthy amount of these as well:
Intention. Of course you want to become successful, but whatever your idea of success is, you have to be able to set clear goals and milestones to aim for, and more importantly, have the resolve to see them through. Learn to chart your own course. Don’t just let life happen to you; you may believe in divine providence and perhaps serendipity, but you always have to do your part.
Self-confidence. This is probably going to be quite an upgrade for you, and rightfully so; you’ve hated being the center of attention, and you’ve always been too anxious for your own good. Remember back in high school when you’d just freeze when the teacher calls you to recite or speak in front of the class? That’s the problem. You may not be as handsome, or as full of charisma, or as articulate, but you’re no slouch either. Why not make the most of your talents and skills to break the spell for once? Do it; you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.
Grit. This sounds overrated, but its importance cannot be understated. Grit is having the courage to pursue your passions and dreams despite the hurdles, the perseverance to keep moving forward amid adversity, and the resolve to see your goals through no matter what. Things can and will be difficult at times, and you will be reminded of this reality much too often, but difficulty should prevent you from pushing on. Do whatever you can to control the things you can control, and entrust to God the things that you can’t. Just because you couldn’t get parallel parking right after a dozen attempts doesn’t mean you should stop learning to drive. Just because the path to being your own boss is fraught with hurdles (e.g. not knowing enough about business, not having enough money to invest) doesn’t mean you should spend the rest of your life working for someone else. Always remember that you should never allow yourself to be a victim of your own circumstances.
Emotional intelligence. One of the reasons I like computers and pursued a career involving them is that they’re easy to work with: they just do what they’re told, they don’t argue with you, and they don’t take it against you when you don’t pay enough attention to them. But the fact of the matter is that you will not be pursuing your passions alone. You will be working with people. You will be given opportunities to inspire and influence people. People will eventually start looking up to you. And people are complicated. You have to be sensitive enough to understand where they’re coming from, what their needs and wants are, and how you can help them. You need to work well with them, even if their personalities and views are in opposition to yours. You need to learn to appreciate even the smallest things they do for you, at the very least to say “thank you” and give credit where credit is due. Help them succeed whenever you have the chance to do so; their success is yours as well. Don’t waste the opportunity to tell your loved ones that you love them; better yet, make them feel how much you do. And—this is VERY important—never let your feelings prevent you from being at your best or trying again when you fail, and don’t be too hard on yourself.
Your greatest challenger is none other than yourself. Opportunities to succeed, achieve, and influence won’t be served to you on a silver platter on account of your academic performance, I’m afraid, and you’ll have to work just as well, if not better, than anyone else. Take note; work well, not hard. There’s a difference.
You have a great life ahead of you, JM, and I believe in you. All these years you’ve been aiming not to be the best, but to be at your best, and you know the difference very well. Keep moving forward. Don’t let anything bring you down. And I know this probably won’t make much sense to you now, but God knows you well enough to know your innermost desires and aspirations, and He would love to help you succeed if you’d only let Him. I hope I haven’t just thrown ice water on your jubilation; I just wanted to reach out, and I hope this letter will help you realize your full potential in the coming decade and beyond. Aim high because you can. Aim high because it means being at your best. Aim high because it glorifies the God who equipped you with the hardware and software to do so.
Again, congratulations, and stay awesome.