A letter to 18-year-old self

Some pointers to help you in life: Your grades won’t define you; Talk to someone new every day; When attracted to someone, get to know them first

happy birthday

Dear Siddhartha,

A very happy 18th birthday, and congratulations on finishing your schooling. Here begins the most thrilling phase of your youth, one that the writer Roger Kahn so poetically described as a “point in life when one is through with boyhood, but has not yet discovered how to be a man.”

The next few years will whizz by. Much will happen, and yet you will look back and wish you had done more. There will be stacks of books unread, hobbies neglected and skills unlearnt. Time will expand and collapse in unusual patterns. School life may have revolved around a fixed schedule. College life — and beyond — is often about coming to grips with your freedom.  

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Here are some pointers that may help you along the way:

* Your grades won’t define you. Whether you shock everyone with 95 per cent or stay true to form with 70 per cent — which will prompt nosy relatives to shamelessly ask your mother if you are developing “habits” — your intelligence, creativity and the core of your personality will stay the same. Your family and friends will still stand by you. A set of poor scores may feel like a harsh blow in the moment, but over time it will matter far less (if at all). 

* Most of what you have learnt in school will seem useless now. All those passages from Shakespeare, all those historical dates you memorised: these will gradually fade from your memory. Between poring over engineering texts and guidebooks — not to mention all the extra-curricular activities and the “experiments” you will undertake — there will be little time for fiction and poetry, for keeping a journal or for making art. More reason to consciously nourish your imagination. To read the great novelists and poets, and to jot down passages that call out to you. Feel your fingertips quiver as the pen writes out sentences from the great books. It will remind you of the power of words.     

* Learn how to cook. It may appear an un-manly pursuit — and you will never cook as soulfully as your mother or grandmother — but it will liberate you in ways you hadn’t expected, especially when you are pining for a taste of home. It is only when you shed tears over onions that you will appreciate those who cook for you. And the kitchen will give you a chance to explore the world, stirring up flavours and aromas across cultures.  

* Talk to someone new every day. This could be a classmate, a professor or someone in the administrative staff. A store owner, a bookseller, or a barber. Engage with people across the spectrum (in secure environments, of course). Learn what interests and irritates them. Not only will this introduce you to new ideas, it will make you a more empathetic person. 

* When attracted to someone, get to know them first. Peer pressure will drive you to go on a date and to quickly get to first base. Stop! The more satisfying approach demands patience. Words carry a powerful intimacy. They build trust and solidify relationships. Gauge how engaging your conversations are. See if you can find comfort in each other’s silences. Understand how forgiving each of you can be. Everything flows from there.

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* You are likely to make many friends in college. A handful will be genuinely interested in your well-being. They will put you at ease and bring out your best — while not expecting anything in return. Hold on to them for dear life. Invest time in strengthening these bonds. Once done with college, your time will be limited. Your priorities will change. Career, family, money: all will loom large. That is when you will see the value of these friends. They knew you at your most vulnerable. They know where you come from. 

* Often you will feel inadequate. Especially when surrounded by people smarter, fitter and more talented than you. You will meet students who are more accomplished, and others who are more articulate. Some will be better read; some will look better than you. But as the writer Neil Gaiman has said: you are the only you. Whatever anyone else achieves, there are things only you can do. Find those things. And do them as well as you can.

Yours truly,

(The 39-year-old) Siddhartha 

(Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer and editor based in Seattle. His debut novel What’s Wrong with You, Karthik? is out from Picador India)


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