It’s a Brave New World, Take This With You

Last week I took my youngest son to his college orientation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville(UTK). These days college orientation is often a two-day affair, happens before move-in day and includes parents. After getting him checked into the dorm where he would be staying for the evening, we both sat in the intro session where current college students walked us through what to expect for the two long days we would spend on campus Then all the incoming students leave the room, and they run the kids on one track and the parents on another one.

It’s pretty cool, to be honest. Colleges and universities have come to understand that parents need orientation to this life transition as much as the incoming students do.

After working through the brass tacks like tuition, healthcare, housing, parking, etc. and covering the different academic and extracurricular opportunities that the students will have, the staff at the University begin to tackle the hard stuff: well-being.

In a jaw-dropping statistic, we parents learned that 65% of the conduct violations committed by UTK students last year were made by Freshmen. Of those Freshman violations, 32% were alcohol-related, and 12% were drug-related.

So basically 1/3 of all UTK student violations were due to first-year students getting their first taste of adult responsibility.


When I went to school back in 1993, I don’t think my parents had a conversation with me about alcohol or drugs. Not because they didn’t want to (though they may not have wanted to), but rather because it was in a category of things that were pretty taboo to discuss at that time. Even though I’m not sure, I don’t think a single day went by during my Freshman year where alcohol or drugs weren’t being plotted on or consumed.

These statistics, along with some frank discussions around mental health, social pressures, and sexuality, brought up a lot of memories of the struggles I encountered in during my college career. It also made me think that many full-grown adults struggle with the same things that these incoming students are about to face. My understanding of how to properly navigate life didn’t somehow magically come after I made it through my first year of college.

If you’ve been reading The Grind, you know I’m still figuring it all out.

So I thought about what might have been helpful to 17-year-old Marcus, and how I might be able to give that to my son as he is just a few short weeks away from beginning an independent life. Without much thought at all, the answer was obvious. Principles.

Telling him to study hard and often, or not to drink is not very helpful. This is a very experimental time in his life, and if he’s anything like me, there will be times where he won’t study, and also a day that he will drink. And the minute he does either of those things, my words would have been negated and their effectiveness lost.

Instead, if I offer him some principles to ponder, he can consider them as he is faced with new decisions and challenges each day. Tools he can use to process his life’s experiences so he can make the best decisions possible at the moment. No matter the outcome of each moment, he can reflect on it with a principle in mind.

Because I have this practice of writing to you each week, I thought I’d think out loud a bit and share what I’m currently thinking of sharing with him before he leaves home. No worries, he doesn’t read my stuff 🙂

I know he won’t remember more than three things. So I’ve limited myself to three principles that I can stuff guidance for numerous situations into. Also, I’m trying to make these principles “stage appropriate.” He’s going to college, his job there is to
1. Be successful in his classes,
2. Grow up and be a positive member of the UTK community,
3. Take care of himself.

So I’m trying to orient these principles around these three key objectives.

For my son, a few principles to live by from Dad:

1) Human communication is hard, and doing it well is your responsibility.

As children, there are many instances where people understood we were developing our ability to communicate and gave us a pass when we came up short. This isn’t as true for adults.

I struggle to think of a skill that is more critical for you to develop in the world to both survive and thrive than communication. When I say communication, you likely think that I mean how well you articulate. And yes, I mean that. But I also mean that if you need someone to know something, you must ensure that they know it. This responsibility can not be shifted to the person you are communicating with.

You must become an incredible listener. You must listen actively with your ears and your eyes. You must process tone. You must determine intent. You must discern if people are genuine or conniving. You must do your best not to misinterpret or misunderstand mission-critical information.

You must ask for help when you need it. Period.

You must be aware of when danger is approaching. You will encounter danger. You must know whom to communicate with when it happens, and how to communicate under the given circumstances.

You must know how to apologize when you’ve made a mistake. You will make mistakes, so learning to apologize is not an option.

You must know how to express gratitude. This is as much for your well-being as anything. Don’t become a person who takes things and people for granted. Don’t just be grateful on the inside. Express gratitude every day.

You must learn to say no. No one ever accomplishes anything meaningful without learning to say no to things that other people want them to do. It will be uncomfortable, and that is a sign of how important it is for you to do.

You must also say yes. When presented with a challenge that makes you scared, but that will healthily (and safely) stretch you, train yourself to work through your fear by merely saying yes.

All this and more is your responsibility and yours alone. Your life depends on your commitment to communicate well. Remember that.

2) Factor in travel time.

You are about to start figuring out what you want to do in your life. You’ll figure it out again and again and again, but now you begin the process of really exploring it, which is fantastic.

In-between where you are now, and any goal you set, is travel time. Whether it’s getting to class each day or getting an A on a test, there is a road you will have to travel. You will not get to your goal by standing still (except if the goal is mindfulness, but that’s for another lesson).

The very first time you attempt to arrive at your destination, you are learning the path. You are figuring out your way of traveling. Do your best to stay present while traveling, because traveling is the only way to get to your goal. You have to become a great traveler.

If you have never before traveled on a path towards a particular goal, build in extra travel time. Always.

Don’t seek “shortcuts.” There are no shortcuts, but there are fast lanes, detours, and paths less traveled. If you are an experienced, skilled traveler, you can take advantage of fast lanes. Sometimes your usual path will be obstructed, and you will be forced to take a detour. There is no avoiding it, so when it happens, try to enjoy the longer route. And you can always explore new paths on your own to keep things fun.

3) You have a lot more time than you think, but you don’t know when you’ll run out of it.

I thought several times about this one because it seems wrong to bring up mortality to a newly minted adult. However, this is the one concept that I most associate with my maturity. It’s a paradox of time on Earth.

When it comes to the things that we want out of life, two opposite forces must be dealt with in different ways, but both can stop us from joyously accomplishing what we want to achieve.

First, anxiousness. I don’t mean the anxiousness that we often talk about as a mental health challenge; I mean anxious as in “wanting something very much.” In youth, when we haven’t had many experiences in life yet, some ideas that have been built up for years can make us very anxious. This anxiousness impairs our ability to think clearly. We are basically all hopped up when we are eager to experience something, and we lose our rational thinking ability.

Second, procrastination. I don’t think I have to clarify this one.

These two forces, when combined, tell us a lie about our lives and the things we want to do in them.

The cocktail of anxiousness and procrastination tell us that we need to get something done right away because time is running out, but that we can take our time in doing the things we need to do to get there. It’s a flywheel of dissatisfaction. So much unhappiness comes from seesawing between these two states.

The opposite is true. Life is long. There is no rush to get things done. I’m 43, and I can’t believe how much more life I have in front of me. I also can’t believe how much life is behind me. If you are healthy, there is so much time to get it all done. There is no rush.

At the very same time, we’re not promised tomorrow. That means we should not waste today. When we set out to do our work, we should actually do the work.

Our relationship with time is a dance. The key is to find your rhythm. Time bends and takes on a different meaning as we age. But managing anxiousness and avoiding procrastination are practical keys to finding your rhythm. Don’t take life too seriously. Prioritize relaxation, enjoy each day, and do your work for the sake of doing the work, not only for the promise of a future payoff.

I can’t believe I’ve raised two human beings. That feels like it alone should be a lifetime worth of work, and yet I feel so young and as if I’m just starting on my journey. A journey that allows me to reflect back on when I was my son’s age, to offer him now that which I wish I had back then, wisdom.

Life is funny.

Thanks for reading. Have a grateful day.

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