01/28/2016 09:21 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

'What Advice Would You Give to a Room Full of Students?'

A few years ago I received an email from a woman who was invited to meet with the parents of children at a school, asking me: "You've been working with children and teenagers for a long time. What advice would you give to a room full of parents?" I answered her, and that became the basis of a column I wrote, which then became a TEDx talk I gave. But I've often thought, if someone asked me what advice I'd give to the students, instead of the parents, what would I say?


You have a job to do, just like I have a job to do. It's called school, and it's important you take it seriously. It may seem now as if you are being asked to learn things that will have no relevance in your future life, and in fact you may be correct, and in the not-too-distant future school curriculums may be completely revised. But for now there are people far smarter than you and me who think it's important that we learn things like polynomial equations, a foreign language, the periodic table, and the French Revolution. If you live in the United States, as wonderful a country as it can be, and with as many opportunities that if offers, it's an unforgiving place in the sense that if you fall behind early in life, it's hard to make up for that later on, certainly harder than when I was in your shoes. So take school seriously and work hard at it, and know that you are going to need more than a high school diploma to be successful in whatever career you choose. It may not be a four-year college degree. (I personally believe we put way too much emphasis on that, with young people now taking on life-crippling debt burdens.) But you will need to obtain some kind of education and training beyond high school, be that in welding, repairing cars or software coding.

Develop a hunger for knowledge. Learn as much as you can about a wide variety of things. And when you get a sense of what you are really interested in, bore down on that. If it's music, wonderful, learn all you can about the greats, from Mozart to Gaga. If it's about buildings, and how things are constructed, gobble up your math, your physics, your Frank Lloyd Wright. Learn as much as you can, intending to one day become an expert in your field.

Stay up on what's happening in the world. Listen to the NPR headlines on the way to or from home, then catch the national news on television each day. (Do what I do: DVR it and then fast forward past the commercials. It saves a lot of time and erectile dysfunction commercials.) You want to know what's happening in your country and around the planet. You'd better, because my generation is handing over the decision-making to yours soon. And just letting you know, we haven't done such a good job. It's pretty much of a mess. I'm hoping you do better, which means you need to be well-informed.

Stand up to bullies and those who would intimidate others. I can remember kids who were bullied when I was in school, some of them mercilessly, and I did nothing, even the year I was class president, when I certainly was in a position to do something. That's one of the biggest regrets of my life, that I stood and watched others be mistreated. Don't do that, and instead look out for the kids who aren't popular or who have something they are struggling with, be it a physical or emotional difficulty. Those are the kids you want to befriend.

Achievement brings satisfaction. We unfortunately over-emphasize achievement in sports, while there are so many other areas in which you can excel, like playing a musical instrument or being in a play. But I think the greatest achievement of all is being a good friend. Someone whom others can rely upon. Someone who is loyal. Honest. To embody those qualities is a great achievement.

Life is full of disappointments. Sorry to break that to you, but it's true. You're not all going to make the Honor Roll, or the premiere soccer team, or be voted Homecoming Queen or King. Some of you will, but many of you won't. There is a Buddhist saying I adhere to: "Disappointment is the great teacher." Why is that so? Because disappointment reveals to you the things in life to which you are attached. And attachments cause us to suffer.

Drugs and alcohol will be offered to you, waived under your nose, if they have not already. At some point you will try one or the other, if not both, but please, delay this for as long as possible. I work in the field of caring for at-risk and addicted teenagers, and I probably get one call a month from a parent I know whose teenage son or daughter is addicted to drugs or alcohol, and those parents are absolutely frightened. They're watching their child go down the tubes, drinking or injecting or smoking their brains out, and they are panic-stricken. Don't do this to your parents. Don't do this to yourself.

Your values are going to be challenged. I guarantee it. Maybe not in high school, maybe not in college, maybe not in your first job, but at some point you are going to be asked or encouraged or demanded to do something that goes against what you believe. Cheating on a test. Covering up someone's date rape. Forging checks. I can't predict what it will be, or even what area of your life, but it's going to happen, and you are going to have to be strong. You will have to go against the grain. And it will be hard, and there will likely be a cost, financially or socially. But tests like these will show you what you are made of. They will reveal your character.

Above all, believe in yourself. Don't underestimate what you are capable of, in any regard. Whenever I see one of those questions on Facebook, "If you could go back in time and give your younger self some advice, what would it be?" my answer is always, "Don't sell yourself short. Don't be intimidated by what you think your peers are able to do and accomplish in school, in sports, in romance, in anything. You are capable of a lot more than you think you are."

It's true. I was. And so are you.


Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.