If Money Didn’t Matter…Turning a School Project into Real Life Advice

This week was Back-to-School night at my younger daughter’s high school. Walking around campus, I was painfully aware that all of the fresh-faced parents I’ve known since our teens were just tots in elementary school have become, well, to put it mildly, older.  And that if I’m calling them “older”, I have to look in the mirror and acknowledge that I’m there, too. I was also mindful of the fact that this was the second-to-last time I would ever go to a back-to-school night. EVER.

My daughter had told me ahead of time that her history teacher was one of her favorites and that he coincidentally had a great deal in common with me (UCLA grad, fan of music) and her Dad (back-packed through Europe in his younger days). As expected, his classroom was my favorite: as we walked in, we could smell fresh-brewed coffee, the lights had been dimmed and the John Mayer Pandora station played in the background. His presentation did not disappoint and the parents were given one of the same assignments he’d given to the students that week: to watch a popular, short video making the rounds on YouTube and social media called “If Money Was No Object” and write a response to the video focusing on advice, hopes and dreams for our student’s future.

Naturally, my engineering/math-brained husband looked in my direction and my eyes lit up at the prospect of a creative writing assignment.  I’m not sure if I was the first parent to turn in their paper the next day….but it’s very possible.

I don’t know if youth is truly wasted on the young, but I certainly felt a small pang of longing when I read my own words and realized that I could have been better at taking my own advice, say, 35 years ago. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I’d like to believe that there are still a few nuggets here that apply to us older and wiser folks.  In case I’m right, here are a few excerpts from my response to “If Money Was No Object”. These were the pieces of advice I crafted for my daughter, with a little commentary plugged in for us older folk…

  • Explore your options now, while you’re young. While I don’t regret the path I took, I do have the “what ifs” from time to time. What if I’d gone back to school right away and pursued an MFA in creative writing? What if I’d studied a semester abroad and done more traveling? What if I’d parlayed my college tutoring job into a teaching job or, early in my career, moved from marketing and PR in the technology realm into an area I was more passionate about like music or sports? Explore the things you are passionate about now, while you’re in high school and for as long as you can in college and early in your career. It’s hard to change direction when you’re 40 or 50.

Ok, so for those of us who are getting up there in age, admittedly, it is hard to change direction entirely. But not impossible. And if you can sprinkle just a little of what you love or do just one thing each day that keeps you in touch with those earlier passions, you’ll still be exploring those options, if not making a radical move towards them.

  • Find ways to travel early on. See the big, wide world. Look for opportunities to study abroad in school. If you’re a dual citizen, as my kids are fortunate enough to be, go to school or work abroad. Grab the opportunity and see what’s out there.

Great advice for the young, but of course, easier said than done once you are settled into a career (unless it happens to involve world travel) and have a mortgage and college tuition to pay for. But when those opportunities arise, take them.  Add a few days onto that business trip and see the city you’re working in.  Plan to use that bonus money for a weekend somewhere you’ve never been instead of upgrading those bathroom floors. I truly believe that travel is the best education there is. I can’t tell you how many people make comments about Sweden, its culture and system of government to me and my Swedish-born and raised husband without ever having stepped foot in that country. Not surprisingly, they are usually all wrong. Go, see, and learn for yourself – there’s nothing like it.

Quick illustrative story: I was once on a press tour in New York City with the CEO of a start-up I was working with. He told me that he’d been to New York numerous times in his career but had never been to the top of the Empire State building or seen a Broadway show. I asked him why not and he couldn’t answer, but for some reason, on this trip, he decided to change all of that. We went to the top of the Empire State building after our meetings and looked at the glorious view. We saw not one, but TWO Broadway shoes on that business trip!  A few months later, he passed away unexpectedly; while on his regular, early morning walk/run with his dogs, he had a heart attack. He was only 51 and left behind a wife and two young kids. I felt fortunate that I got to accompany him on that very special trip to New York.

  • Rekindle and/or nurture your love for reading. Reading expands your mind, opens new doors, and teaches you empathy. Beyond that, as I advised my daughter, reading improves all of those great communications skills you need in virtually every college class you’ll take and every job you’ll ever have.

This is advice that applies to anyone, at any age. There is always time to read a book, just like there is always time to fit in a workout – you just have to want to find that time. 10 minutes here and there – waiting in the car to pick your child up from school, while dinner is in the oven, on your lunch break from work, 10 minutes before turning out the light at night.  I truly believe that reading is the single easiest thing to do to keep your mind active, continue learning, expand your horizons and visit new places virtually. Bonus: it’s enjoyable and relieves stress!

  • Remember that there are trade-offs. This is where we have to acknowledge that money does matter and that means there are compromises and trade-offs to be made. If you’re passionate about traveling, find a job that allows for it, or be prepared that you’ll be backpacking through Europe and sleeping in youth hostels, not four-star resorts. Living in this area and having so much, our children sometimes get the message that having the latest iPhone or the coolest car are things that matter more than what you spend time doing each day. Some jobs don’t come with a big paycheck, but my message would be, try it when you’re young. If you truly love it, it will be worth the trade-offs.

As adults, we are always making trade-offs.  The hope is that when you’re in the rocking chair at 80, looking back on your life, you’ve made the right ones. I live in an area where people seem to “have it all”. They don’t have to decide between that expensive vacation, redoing their kitchen and paying for private college tuition. That doesn’t mean they haven’t made trade-offs. To afford that lifestyle, one or both parents may not be spending as much time with their families as they’d like.  Maybe the wife gave up a great career that she misses to stay home so her husband could have a job that involves a great deal of travel. Or maybe they are both working at jobs they really don’t love just to keep the wheel spinning. We all make trade-offs and compromises. The key is to figure out which ones you can live with.

  • What will your verse be? The famous line from Whitman’s poem and the words that Robin Williams famously spoke in “Dead Poet’s Society” are words that haunt me a bit every day. Make sure that something you do in life makes you feel that you’re contributing, giving back, adding something to your community, to society, to the world at large. Find something that has meaning not just to you, but to others.

While I haven’t figured this one out completely, I’ve taken little steps here and there to be sure I’m moving in the right direction. Is there a specific cause or issue you believe in passionately? Give your money and more importantly, your time to it.  Write about it.  Or to come full circle to the assignment and “If Money Was No Object”, make a video about it and share it with the world. Someone might listen and be inspired.

What advice would you share with your kids in response to “If Money Didn’t Matter”?  And do you think that advice is helpful for all ages for just for those of a certain, youthful age?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Thing Worth Remembering: Thoughts on the Anniversary of September 11th

 

imagesWe awoke to an unremarkable Southern California day. That is to say, it was brilliantly sunny and warm with blue skies – unremarkable for our little corner of the Earth.

It was a workday and a school day and like most families, we were preoccupied with our morning routine. My husband and I were getting our then-eight year old ready for school and preparing breakfast for our then-three year old. I would take our oldest to school, our nanny would arrive so my husband could go to work and then I’d head into my home office to start my workday.

The phone rang. It was my Mother.

“Are you watching the news?” she said, a little breathless.

“No, we don’t have the TV on in the morning,” I answered, a bit irritably. Our days were typically a jam-packed juggling routine and I didn’t have time to watch — much less chat about – Good Morning America or whatever else was on that time of morning.

“Turn it on,” she commanded. “You won’t believe what’s happening. New York is under attack.”

Like millions of Americans, I tuned in that morning and for weeks could not tune out. Smoke was billowing from one of the World Trade Center towers. The scene was unreal – like something out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. This couldn’t be the actual news, could it?

We stumbled through our routine that morning, in a murky haze of uncertainty. Our younger daughter was too little to understand what was happening. Our older daughter had a vague notion that something bad had happened and airplanes had crashed into important buildings in New York, but of course, at that time of the morning, no one knew the hows and whys. Would school be cancelled I wondered? As the scene unfolded before us on TV, the entire country woke up to the nightmare of September 11th. Neighbors and friends began calling and talking, wondering and worrying. Did we know anyone on those planes? In the towers?

I remember scattered fragments of the day.

I remember taking my older daughter to school, reassuring her that everything was fine and it was a safe place to be, all the while realizing that my whole notion of “safe” had been turned upside down. Nowhere was safe. Every parent dreads the day when his or her children begin to realize that Mom and Dad can’t protect them from all the bad things in the world and the events of September 11th underscored this all too well. The tragic events brought home for all of us the fleeting nature of life, the way it can all be swept away so suddenly and without any warning.

I remember arriving at our elementary school, walking my daughter to the square in the center where the students recited the pledge of allegiance, the administration made announcements and the teachers and students lined up to file into their classrooms every morning. On this completely foreign morning, our principal talked to us about how important routine can be when and event like this occurs and how letting our children attend school and have a “normal” day was the best thing we could do for them. We envied our children their normal day in the middle of such an abnormal circumstance.

Parents who had barely spoken to each other before, hugged in the courtyard and clung to each other, speaking in hushed tones about waking to the tragic news. We left our children reluctantly, knowing how hard this simple act would be today. It was pre-smartphone and pre-social media days – we did not know how we’d wait six hours to see or hear from our most precious treasures.

I remember that no one could focus on work that day and no one expected us to. My husband stayed home. We took a walk around the lake by our house in the afternoon. We still didn’t know how to process what had happened. The skies were eerily quiet since no planes were allowed to fly.

That night, I remember not being able to sleep, laying in bed, listening to the complete and utter silence outside and wondering if it was over, if the terrorists were done, or if there would be more devastation. We still didn’t know all of the details and Los Angeles was mentioned as a potential target. I remember thinking that this sort of thing just didn’t happen in our country. But now it had.

Over the next few days, details emerged, names and photos of the missing and dead began appearing. All of us felt touched deeply by the tragedy, but we also all knew someone who had been affected more personally, whether they had been in New York at the time, had family there or had a loved one who worked in the twin towers. Some of us even had family and friends who died that day. It was a painful time and tears flowed easily.

A few nights later, our neighbors, like many others across the country, gathered at our community park just up the street from our house, with candles lit to remember the fallen, to pay tribute, just to be with each other in our sorrow and grieve together. We had a new family who had just moved into the house across the street and diagonally from ours. I had not met them yet, but when I stepped outside that evening, the parents sat on their front porch with their two year old daughter in their arms, holding candles, the Mom with tears streaming down her face. We acknowledged each other with a small wave, understanding that we didn’t need to speak.

The remarkable thing is that it still hurts. To watch the footage of the towers falling still causes me to gasp and turn away. To watch video of the tributes from those in the public eye on that day, whether it be interviews with the firefighters and police who valiantly stayed to search and repair, addresses by Mayor Giuliani, the late night talk show hosts or the stoic news anchors who simply couldn’t remain stoic, still brings tears to my eyes. I know I am not alone.

But what also remains is the feeling of bonding together during that time – not just friends, family and neighbors, but even those we barely knew, the strangers on the street, the heroic first responders we might never know save their weary faces in newspapers and TV, those we never agreed with and might still not, but in whom we found temporary kinship and solace. We were all impacted by this terrible nightmare. We were all one nation.

Though “cherish” is a strange word to use when remembering a terrible tragedy, that bond we felt to our fellow humans may be the thing I cherish most from those long and sad days. With so many things about that day we don’t want to recall, that human bond, the way we came together in love and acceptance, may be the one thing we so desperately need to remember and cling to each and every day of our lives.