Letter To Students Of Fort Vancouver High School
05 August 2013
This is a post from last summer, but a recent conversation with a friend inspired me to move it back up. We were talking about how our youthful notions of "success" have disissipated as we've gotten older. We were wondering if that was just another way of saying that we've lowered our ambitions or whether we've in fact expanded our definition of success. Perhaps that's a sign of maturity. Or lazines. Or both.
This was originally posted on June 25, 2012
Recently an English teacher at Fort Vancouver High School in Vancouver, Washington asked if I'd write a letter to his students about "success." He explained that 75 percent of the students at the school were on a free or reduced lunch program. He said that many of his students barely understood the meaning of success, let alone how to achieve it. "They have heard me talk about success ad nauseam," he wrote. "I think if they see a letter from you and other writers it would carry more weight."
I offered the following thoughts. I wish I knew what other writers this teacher approached and what they had to say. I could always use more advice in this area.
June 15, 2012
Dear Students of Fort Vancouver High School,
Your teacher asked me to write something to you about success. I'm flattered by the request, as it implies I have some first hand experience with the subject. But in sitting down to really think about it, I realize I'm not sure how to talk about success. In fact, in many ways I'm not even sure what it means. I hear you might be similarly confused on the matter, so I guess we're in this together.
At different times in my life I've defined success in different ways. For instance, your teacher asked me to write this letter on letterhead stationery. I don't have letterhead stationery. I'm a freelance writer, which means I work from home, sometimes in my pajamas, and use plain old printer paper for letters. Letterhead stationery is generally for people who work for companies or run their own businesses or are fancy big shots in some easily recognizable way. There was a time in my life when, if you'd said to me, "when you're grown up you're not going to have letterhead stationery" I would have been very upset. Back when I was your age I thought the definition of success was putting on expensive clothes everyday and going to a shiny office and doing important, interesting work with other people wearing expensive clothes. When I reached my mid 20s, I'd mostly gotten over that idea. By then, the kind of success I wanted involved being a writer who never had to work in an office. So I guess the fact that I'm sitting here in my pajamas writing this letter to you means that I've attained some level of success, though it doesn't always feel like it.
And that's what I want to talk to you about: the fact that it's so hard to recognize your own success sometimes. Mr. J__ told me a little bit about your school and what life is like for many of you. He told me that many of you don't think you can be successful. I want to tell you two things. First, you absolutely can be successful. I don't care how bleak your life feels right now or how much you might think you've messed up. You can still turn things around. You can decide right now that you're going to do things differently, that you're going to work as hard as you can and delay gratification as much as you can bear and not worry about what other people think of you. And if you do that long enough you will slowly begin to change the story of your life. If the cards are stacked against you, you can start to unstack them. If you've messed up in the past, you can begin to clean up that mess to the point that one day there might barely be any trace of it left.
All that stuff is important. But the second thing I want to say might be even more important. While you're working hard and delaying gratification and keeping your head down and ignoring all the stupid, negative things that stupid, negative people are saying, you might lose track of something. You might lose track of what success even means. You might have gotten the idea that success means making a lot of money or dating a super hot person or maybe even being famous. You might feel like you haven't found something you're truly good at or passionate about and that this means you're doomed to a life of failure.
Guess what? You'll be wrong. That's because success is one of those things that you don't always recognize right away. It can sneak up on you. Like growing taller or stronger, it's one of those things you notice after the fact. And that's why it's so important to believe in it. You have to believe in success--especially you're own potential for success--because you can't always see it. In fact, success is often like an invisible gas.
But it's gas that can run your engine. Imagine that you've been working hard toward a goal for a long time. Imagine that the harder you work, the more distant that goal seems. Imagine telling yourself that you might as well just quit, since you seem to be going backward instead of forward. Then imagine that you wake up one morning and realize that you actually have achieved something. Maybe not your whole goal or even half of it. But you notice that, in some small way, you're better than you were before. You're stronger or faster or more competent. Maybe you just realize that you're more confident than you were before. Maybe you feel a little more grown up, a little wiser about the world, a little more tolerant of the people around you. That is what success looks like. It does not always look like a trophy or big house or a wad of money. Like I said, a lot of the time, you can't see it. You can only feel it and, even then, you often just feel it for a passing moment. But those moments are like trail markers. They remind you that you're on the right path after all.
I'm going to email this letter to your teacher and explain that I don't have letterhead stationery. Maybe he'll want me to print it out on a plain piece of stationery and sign it. Maybe he can just print out the email and that will be good enough. Maybe you're thinking "this person is writing this in her pajamas; why should I take her seriously?" I can't really answer that question; only you can know if this means anything to you. But I can tell you that once upon a time I was sitting where you are. I'm not saying I had the same exact problems and fears you have, but I'd bet you'd recognize a lot of them if I told you what they were. And in the years since, I've failed at lots of things. Moreover, I've felt like a failure more times than I could possibly count (here's a hint: almost every day, often several times a day.) But I've found that when I can remember that success is an invisible gas, when I can find it in myself to believe in it even when I can't see it, I'm more likely to experience a moment when I notice that I've taken more steps forward than back. Your teacher asking me to write this letter was one of those moments. Maybe he'll ask you to write a letter one day. I hope you'll oblige him, even if you don't have letterhead stationery.
Los Angeles, CA