This post is in response to an exercise that has been circulating on the internet. It’s premise is deceptively simple: If you could hand your 8-year-old self a letter, what would it say? Knowing what you know now, having experienced what you’ve experienced, having learned what you have learned thus far in life – what would this letter look like?
Well, here we go then, I suppose.
The first thing you should learn about life and its rules is that living one’s life by a predetermined set of rules is foolish and juvenile. It is the stuff of child’s play, and one should not aspire to remain a child for long. Greatness does not, generally speaking, belong to the domain of children.
Do not ever be ashamed to ask for help. At the same time, realize that asking for help rarely accomplishes as much as you think it will, and rare is the person who is truly and wholly capable of helping you. The fact remains that most of the accomplished and competent are far less so than they appear. Understand that seeking help will always demand its own price, in its own way.
Do not let the vitriol of lesser individuals affect your character. There are many who unwisely choose to remain children for the rest of their lives. You will soon come to realize that sacrifices must be made in war, that justice and vengeance can sometimes be the same thing, and that too often those around you will lack the will to do what is necessary. Regardless, if you do find yourself in negative company, send them from you quickly rather than subject them to the slow poison of your bile. In destroying others, you destroy yourself. Once you allow grief to turn into anger, it will never go away.
Understand that there is no true substitute for competence, and that some lessons are more important than others. Perhaps not today, nor tomorrow, but there will come a moment in which you will be held fully accountable to the extent of your abilities. Recognize quickly that not all people are made equal, and that it is inevitably vain to assume that they are.
Cultivate compassion, but retain a ruthless heart. Compassion without the will to act is a snake without venom. Always remember that your moral justifications are, in the end, your own. Take heed of the judgments of others, but do not let yourself pander to the mob. Learn cowardice, for it is the skill that distinguishes rebellion from revolution. Be graceful under pressure. Avoid, above all else, a tendency to be ineffectual, for a sense of agency is the only thing that defines each and every one of us in the comprehensible universe.
Hold on to a childish optimism for as long as you possibly can. Realize that no tragedy is permanent, no individual is beyond redemption, and no set of negative circumstances is so distressing as to continue on forever. Take immense care to preserve a heart of goodwill, lest it become irreversibly hardened. Anger is a bitter brew to swallow, and once shattered cannot be mended. The loss of faith in one’s compatriots occurs once and only once, following which the world is perpetually colored through a lens of suspicion and apathy. We will all have our grievances and moments of sorrow. It is a piteous choice to make, indeed, but when the days are dank and the sky is dark, remember that it is always better to anger than despair.
Understand that the entirety of your life will be spent with others, and prepare yourself accordingly. Do not ever dismiss a relationship without careful premeditation, for even jesters have their uses. Find yourself an intimate group of individuals whom you admire. Do not settle for mediocrity. Realize that in order to achieve mastery over others, you must first achieve mastery of yourself. Be shrewd in your dealings with others, and cunning in their catalogue. Flattery is the lubricant of good intentions, but as with all useful things, you must learn to develop a keen eye for employing it in relation to the gains acquired. Always assume ulterior motives, and understand that while ulterior motives are not always vile, the vile ones are usually the ones that matter.
In positions of power, remember that while love provokes loyalty, fear provokes efficiency. Understand that there is a time and place for both. Be sparing in your praise, but genuine when you deliver it. Do not cultivate a reputation for mercy, for it will render your acts of grace ineffectual. Be strict, but fair. Fairness is essential not because it is kind, but because you will be found faultless in times of difficulty.
Do not assume that everyone deserves second chances, for there are those who do not. At the same time, realize that we are all ultimately defined by what we have to hide. Reward beneficial rather than correct action, as the latter runs the risk of encouraging martyrdom in your followers. Cultivate the ability to distinguish between insolence and constructive dissent. Dissenters bear their own value, but do not hesitate to remind them that they will also bear their own consequences. Be tolerant of divergent ideology, but always remember to first define the parameters yourself. You would not want to find yourself caught in your own contradiction.
It is a naïve endeavor to befriend every individual you will meet in life. It is therefore in your own benefit to at least learn civility, if not respect. One does not need to respect his enemy to engage him in civil relations. Do not make a habit of collecting enemies, although you should not be afraid to do so when it is necessary. Avoid growing lazy and indolent with your dispersal of judgment, for it is unwise to assume that one always reaps what he sows. As a rule, be quicker to compromise than to aggress, but if you do choose to take action against your enemies, crush them wholly and swiftly. Be absolute in your vengeance, ruthless in its execution, and take care to leave no opportunity for recovery. Cruelty is rarely the only alternative in times of adversity, although it is usually the most satisfying. Do not be afraid of collateral damage. Be wary of sentimentality, and do not flaunt the value of friendship. Forgive, but never forget. Trust, but verify. It is better to die alone than to suffer a life of insignificance.
Do not claim nobility for your vices, for we all have our faults. Accept criticism with a student’s eagerness, and understand that criticism is a privilege, not a right. Stumble humorously, lose gracefully, surrender honorably, fail courageously, and above all else – move forward.