“Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem.”
At the age of twenty-one, artist and writer James Harmon chanced upon a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and found himself mesmerized. Rilke’s elegant exploration of the deepest human concerns — love, fear, art, doubt, sex — prompted young Harmon to wonder what the best advice to young people might be a century after Rilke — something that stood as an antidote to the “toxic cloud of tepid-broth wisdom” found in books “with the shelf life of a banana” that the contemporary publishing world peddled, so he reached out to some of the most “outspoken provocateurs, funky philosophers, cunning cultural critics, social gadflies, cyberpunks, raconteurs, radical academics, literary outlaws, and obscure but wildly talented poets.” For the next decade, he dedicated himself to this labor-of-love project, released in 2002 as Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — a compendium of sensitive, no-bullshit, luminous, life-tested letters of advice, including Martha Nussbaum on learning not to despise your inner world, Judith Butler on doubting love, and more contributions from such cultural icons as Mark Helprin, Lynda Barry, Katharine Hepburn, Cindy Sherman, George Saunders, Bette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.
One of the most refreshing letters in the anthology comes from the American novelist, essayist, and journalist Florence King (b. 1936). Her message — about deconditioning our compulsion for instant success, cultivating the building blocks of self-esteem, and learning what it really means to be present with ourselves — runs boldly against the grain of our culturally-entrenched convention with a kind of Cheryl Strayed brutal, poetic honesty and applies just as poignantly to recent college graduates as it does to anyone, at any stage of life, looking to rediscover their inner center.
But adding to the timelessness of King’s advice is a peculiar kind of timeliness — anyone who has ever tussled with the stereotypical millennial in the workplace or the classroom would instantly see what wonders King’s counsel could do for the generation typified as entitled, impatient, devoid of humility, and allergic to hard work.
When I was getting ready to graduate from college in 1957, I was fed up and ready to drop from exhaustion, but still my mind kept telling me, “Hurry, hurry, hurry.” I felt I had to do something, go on to the next step, whatever it was — career, graduate school, as long as it was important.
This is an American disease. Put yourself on cruise control and go into limbo for a year. I’m not talking about a neo-grand tour; don’t bop around Europe, you’ll just get in trouble. Nor am I talking about what your parents’ generation called “dropping out.” I mean forget about success for a while, get yourself an ordinary job, an ordinary place to live, and live without worrying about what Americans call, in uppercase, the Future.
Go somewhere different, but stay away from big cities. If you’re from a place you call “godforsaken,” go to a small city in another part of the country…
Get a dead-end job — they’re plentiful now because nobody wants them. Tell your employer the truth: that you’ll be around only a year or so, but promise to work hard. Keep your promise. Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem. If you do well in such a job and make yourself indispensable to somebody, you will realize Robert E. Lee’s farewell words to his men after the surrender at Appomattox: “You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a knowledge of duty faithfully performed.”
Live alone, even at a financial sacrifice. If you have a roommate, the whole college uproar will just start all over again. Get a one-room apartment, or simply a room in the home of a nice widow. Get to know her. She’s dying to tell somebody the story of her life, so listen.
Have a radio for emergency news, but no TV. Read, read, read. When you don’t have to worry about passing exams on them, subjects you studied in school suddenly become interesting. Read my “desert island book,” the one I’d want with me if I were shipwrecked: The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale, a novel published in 1942. Girls will love it, and boys will learn more about women from it than anything I know of.
Stay chaste during your limbo year. Sex ruins reflection and self-knowledge; you’re so busy analyzing the other person that you never get around to analyzing yourself.
What I am recommending is traditionally called “finding yourself.” The difference is, there is no bohemian excess here, none of the “experiencing everything” that comprises nostalgia de la boue. It’s productive, constructive goofing-off. The widow will remember you ever afterward as “the nice boy/girl who used to live here,” and your employer will shake his head wondering and say, “By God, I wish I could find more like that!”