A Letter To My Younger Self
I was asked to give the keynote speech at the University of Toronto Blues Engineering Annual Luncheon. It was an honour to meet so many young athletes in a challenging program; these are the people who will solve the worlds most complex problems in the future. Trust me, I am as excited to see them succeed as they are to go forth to solve these issues.
This is what I wrote for them. And don’t worry, I’ll get that winter running post up as promised shortly.
Thank you for having me. But really, thank you. I thought back on different presentations I have given, different ones I have seen. Isn’t it the worst when someone ‘talks at you?’ When they come to speak with no intention of making it about you. I kept that in mind when I wrote what I did for you today.
This summer I had the opportunity to do a workshop on GRIT at the Girls Leadership Conference at the MLSE Launchpad. Leadership camp, those things you may have done when you were younger. Not at all like the ones you have done. They asked me to delay my day so the two girls who had just moved in with new foster parents could be there from the start. Oh my heart. It was one of those days I will never forget; it’s one of those days you carry with you forever.
That day inspired what I wrote for you today. I wrote something for you, but also for me
Before we get started I have to be transparent and honest with you. I’m going to read. Not because I don’t respect you, but because I have to. One of my weaknesses is my short-term memory.
I hope you enjoy it. I hope it is meaningful. I hope it inspires you.
So here goes our adventure together today!
A letter to my younger self:
Whomever said you have to grow up is wrong. The stereotypes – You must get a good job. You must find balance. Find a husband. Get married. Have 2.5 kids. Don’t drive a minivan.
You don’t have to grow up in the traditional sense. You can stay young at heart. You can pursue what is important to you. But you do have to learn to be kinder and more sensitive on your path to success. Remember your definition of success may not be someone else’s definition of success.
Get ready to fail. Get ready to fail hard. But those failures when you look back will be insignificant.
When you fail your first test you will be embarrassed and sad. When you fail your first final you’ll think the world is ending. Don’t worry the world is still spinning. When they tell you at the beginning of the year ‘if you fail the final you fail the course. If you fail this course we will not welcome you back into second year’ they might not be telling the whole truth.
These failures will teach you lessons if you are open to listening. They will teach you how to cope. How to be strong. Even how to be resilient. But you really have to listen.
Academic failures will seem like the end of the world. And they will be the end of your world. But only for the briefest of moments. These will be some of the moments that define you. These will be the lessons you carry forward.
You will remember how you failed a test the first time you fail on the track. First it’s a workout. Next it’s a race. Next it’s a race on the world stage. All of these will break your heart. All of these too feel like the world is ending, your world is ending. Again the earth is still spinning. All of these come with a silver lining.
Your parents will give you enough rope to hang yourself. Being the all purposeful see’er that you are, you think you know more than them. You think you know what is best. You will take that rope as far as it will go. And then that rope will pull you back. It will snap back so fast. And you will have wrapped that rope around your neck and jumped freely off a cliff. And you thought an academic failure was bad; the consequences of these unintended actions seem unfair, avoidable, and unbelievable.
Your parents won’t bail you out, at least not in the traditional sense. They won’t give you money. They won’t go fix your problems. You feel like they are failing you; but it was only you who failed you. Your parents will give you the tools so you can help yourself.
Along the way, your relationship goes from parent-child to best of friends. You will forge a relationship that most people do not dream of as a possibility. You don’t know at the time but this will be one of the greatest gifts life ever offers you. Looking back you are so thankful you accepted this gift.
While you were daddy’s-little-girl growing up your mom becomes the greatest role model of your life. She will challenge you to think in ways you cannot even imagine. She will do things that to other parents, to other children, to other people seem cruel. But they don’t know the real woman inside. They do not realize that what they see as cruel or harsh is really only your mom telling you the truth. The truth is not sugar-coated or hidden behind a veil. The truth is reality, so why cover it up. She knows what she is doing. And as your mother she knows what she gives you, not only will teach you to cope with whatever is presented, will teach you how to thrive.
As a mother, she is only giving her daughter the best things that life has to offer, the tools to become the best she can be.
Your mother will teach you that through a value lens of kindness and integrity you can change the world. She will teach you that while others may see things differently, they are not necessarily wrong; their lens is not your lens. She teaches you that the stereotypes do not matter. She forges a path. Not only do you look up to her along the path, but she gives you the strength to branch out on your own. From your mom you learn how sweet the success of hard-work and dedication really tastes.
As much as you learn from your failures don’t forget to look for the lessons in your successes. If you want to repeat what you did you have to reflect on what you did to make it work. Was it your head? Your feet? Your heart? Your preparation? Or lack there of? Were you able to let go and let your body perform the way you’ve pushed it day in and day out.
You will rediscover reading. While reading was your least favourite part of grade school it will become a love in your life. It will become first a distraction, then a hobby, next a passion. Your dad always called the television the idiot box. But it wasn’t an idiot box in the traditional sense. He didn’t mean it in a negative way. As his child he knows how your brain works. The escape you thought you might find in television you will only find in books.
One book in particular will change your life. It will be a blend of science and prose. It will be so eloquently written that despite borrowing it from the library you must own your own copy.
You think you want to leave engineering and become a doctor. Doctors do good in this world. You have worked for both the public and private sectors and none of these jobs ever leaves you feeling satisfied. It seems only natural to want to be a doctor since both your parents are doctors.
Your dad will give you one of the best pieces of advice you ever receive. Being a doctor does change the world, but you, you can change the world in bigger ways. Your passion for sport. Your ability to coach and inspire people. Your love of math and science. Your thirst for knowledge. Do not limit yourself to only being a doctor. You think he is insulting doctors but he is pointing out that the world holds a host of opportunities. This is one of the greatest compliments you ever receive. You hold it close to your heart. You realize that there are so many ways you can make a difference if you open your eyes.
Oh and that book in case you’re wondering is Siddhartha Mukherjee’s the Emperor of all Maladies: A biography of Cancer.
You may meander but you’re always on a path. You find a supervisor who’s passion to change the world is as great as yours. He sees you not as a research monkey but as a whole person. He supports you, no he encourages you, to chase your goals and dreams. He even makes you think you can chase even more. He will also hold you accountable to the academic commitments you have made.
People will ask you how you live with the sacrifice. The sacrificed social life. The sacrificed income. Sacrifices you haven’t even thought of. People will look at you and be envious that you can say ‘This is not a sacrifice. This is a choice. This is my choice to pursue my passion.’ Not everyone is as fortunate as you to be able to chase their goals and dreams. Sometimes it is circumstance. Sometimes it is a lack of confidence. Sometimes it is because choices were made for them by other people. Don’t be afraid to relentlessly pursue your passion.
Love freely. Love deeply. Love widely. Find a partner that respects you. Find a partner you can respect. Not just a verbal ‘I respect, love and trust you.’ Someone whose guttural reaction is ‘I respect you.’ Find those people. Surround yourself with them. Keep the others at the periphery, even let them go. The ones that don’t respect you, those are the ones that will hold you back. Those will be the ones that will make you a chameleon. Sure you’ve changed to match your surroundings, but it’s not the true you. Find the people who truly let you be who you were meant to be.
Give back. So many in this world will give you so much. And you, you have so much to offer to others. There is someone out there who will need your help. The lessons your parents taught you, offer them those. Offer them a hand not a bail out. A shoulder to cry on but not a door mat. An ear to listen but not to judge.
But also do not be afraid to say no. You will want to do it all. And you will want to pursue it all with excellence. You only have so many fun tickets, so many molecules of glucose to spend in a day. People will respect you even if you say no. If you say no with integrity no one will fault you. But you cannot let people down. It will happen. Apologize. But not an empty apology, apologize with all your heart. Because to that person this was so important.
And smile. Hold your head high. Look people in the eyes. Capture their soul for a moment and share your love of this life, of this world. Smile with your lips. Smile with your cheeks. Smile from your heart so even your eyes share this smile. A smile can turn a tragedy around. A smile will relax you when you need it most. And a smile will disarm the harshest of fiends.
Live each day. Not necessarily like it’s your last. But really live each day. Go forth with kindness, generosity, and integrity. Work hard. Work really, really hard for the things that are important to you. Surround yourself with love. Show the world respect, even when it doesn’t show you respect (two wrongs never made things right). And always say ‘thank you’ it is amazing the power that these two little words have and the world of possibilities that they can open up.