Last week, I put my almost 21-year-old daughter on a plane to Geneva. A semester abroad with a handful of elite young trailblazers, about to take on exciting NATO/NGO internships and all that neighboring France, Italy, and Germany have to offer. I knew before I hugged her tightly goodbye that she would return a fundamentally more evolved human being the next time we hugged. I’m not sure when I stopped teaching and started learning, but I suspect that with her, it started long ago.
When I sat down to write her a special note for the plane ride, something brilliant and pithy, I struggled.
She’s passionate about many things. And like a lot of young people, those things change dramatically day to day. A unique mix of high intellect and empathy, she has the mind of a lawyer and the heart of an activist. What tall tales of wisdom could I impart onto this remarkable person, who everyday shows me what the true potential of the human experience can be?
Potential that, of which I must admit, I fell well short.
I began to think about my own passions. What were they? And how have they guided my own life choices? I remembered how much like her I think I may have been as a child: energetic, outgoing, smart, likable, curious. I do remember once being that person who was really into school, laser-focused, animatedly engaged with others. Fearless in so many ways.
I remember a lot of dysfunctional family dynamics. Discovering my own sobering limitations. Disappointing role models. Cynicism. Self-doubt. With puberty, my own true passions became harder to clearly see. I remember having the qualities I see in her, but they’d become shrouded over time in layers of complex feelings that kept all that good mostly locked away. An unharvested crop.
I remember a few friends in high school who knew right away what they wanted to be. I envied their clarity of purpose. As strange as I felt, I knew I had much to offer humanity. But what exactly was that? And how would I fight through the corrupted soil of my own family farm to richly feed myself and others?
A neighbor got an ROTC scholarship to a local college. Easy enough, I did the same. When I wasn’t partying, I did just enough in my studies. Then a guaranteed job after college sailing around the world, a young man trying to lead other young men doing hard things in a hard world.
I worked hard because it was what was happening to me. I was well-liked and made friends, but I felt nothing for the military, so I left it when I had the chance. I got an MBA because that’s what people like me did. I joined a company, and then another, and then another. I added and subtracted well. I talked quickly and processed information easily. I chased profit for godless entities, and I did it well enough to always be welcomed in by some team in some corner of the corporate game.
Finally writing them down was the only way I could ever finally get my racing mind to sleep. I started sharing my weird stories with others, and I reveled in how it made me feel when my friends reacted to them. I found others like me, “different,” their writing obsessions not yet “out” to the world.
I kept up over the years with one particularly passionate Navy buddy. I tracked him through several Commanding Officer tours, culminating with him taking major command of a squadron of combatant ships on deployment, flying around on fighter jets with guys who worked for him. My college roommate last year became the CFO of a major bank in our home state. I’ve watched friends of mine—people with whom I shared a cubicle—actually ring the NYSE closing bell, a gang of happy millionaires that still bore stark resemblance to the friends of my youth.
After years in the closet, I’m proud to say that I am out. I love writing stories. I love it more than anything else I’ve ever spent time doing. And it doesn’t matter how many readers or how little money it brings me. When just one person reads and reacts to what I write, it completes the human experience for me.
After my trip through memory lane, I jotted this note onto a card, slipped it into my yellow-highlighted copy of The Atlantic, and slid it into her carry-on.
This study abroad and internship is just one more competitive opportunity of which I am sure you will make the very most. But remember that stringing together endless lists of impressive accomplishments, while nice, isn’t the ultimate goal. Finding your TRUE passion is the holy grail! Look for it in Geneva. Watch for it in Boston, or D.C., or wherever life takes you next. If you don’t find it this spring, don’t worry. Keep doing something you’re good at and the world values with all your energy. But while you’re doing that, never stop looking for the thing that ignites your deepest passion. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to find. It doesn’t even matter what it is. Just don’t ever stop looking.