Dear Silicon Valley Teens,
My heart is aching for you. In the past three months I’ve read four articles about suicides and the unbearable stress of navigating high school in the shadow of Google, Facebook, Uber and Apple.
So that’s why I’m writing you (and every high schooler for that matter). I’m an overachiever to the max. I’m a double-degreed Stanford engineer; I rebranded a Fortune 500 company and got my professional engineering license before I was 30; I earned a 4.6 GPA in high school (14 honors/AP classes); I captained my varsity high school volleyball and basketball team; and I was voted prom queen, Math Club president and pep rally commissioner. I was you 15 years ago.
And I’m inviting you — no I’m imploring you — don’t jump in front of the train. Jump off it!
Jump off the checklist achievement train. It’s destination isn’t happiness. That’s just what the system wants you to believe. It took me 29 years and two near-death experiences to figure this out. I don’t want it to take you that much time or drama to learn too.
I get it. I really do. I understand what it’s like to feel suffocated by the need to achieve. It sucks. A lot. I used to wish that I’d break my leg or get really sick during my high school volleyball practices. I was exhausted and wanted more sleep. I wanted more free time, more sanity. But I didn’t want to be a quitter.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I went to the best public school in Southern California and was destined to be the middle of five kids who all ended up at Stanford. My parents’ love and admiration weren’t dependent on my grades or accolades. Neither were my siblings’, my teachers’, nor my coaches’. But I couldn’t help it. I have competitive genes, an iron will and an insatiable need to please that I’ve only recently learned to tame. (Alright, I’m still learning to tame it). I wasn’t sure that I could bear the disappointment of not being good enough. So I made sure that I never had to find out what it felt like.
I thought when I got into Stanford the stress would go away. It didn’t. I was surrounded by amazing people doing amazing things. I needed to be worthy of my admission, worthy of the company I held. So I never slept. I overcommitted. I did great things but at great costs. I was always sick. I gained 20 lbs. I had anxiety attacks. I was constantly worried. A doctor once prescribed me Xanax. I never filled the prescription. I was determined to do everything on my own. And I refused to let others see me struggle.
I remember sitting in my dorm room on my 22nd birthday. My graduation was only eight weeks away. I felt a heavy cloud of sadness. I had just accepted a spot in the civil engineering graduate program. I’d have to do another year of this. And then what? When would I be enough? When would I have enough success or credentials to feel happy? To feel worthy.
The answers to those big questions didn’t come swiftly and they didn’t come easily. They came in the form of a trip to the ICU and an emergency plane landing. In both instances I had to evaluate my own life in a split second. There was no board or teacher or rubric I could use to give myself a pass or fail. It was just me in a hospital bed and then hovering over the world at 30,000 feet.
In those moments guess how many darns I gave about going to Stanford? About my SAT scores? About my grades? About being prom queen?
I gave ZERO DARNs!!
Guess what I did care about? I cared about my family who I loved not because we all went to Stanford, but because we made each other laugh; we held space for each other; we stood up for each other; and we cheered loudly for each other. I cared about my friends, not because they had fancy jobs and fancy degrees, but because they were kind and loving and fun and good and they loved me and I loved them.
In those instants I measured my life in love and kindness. I didn’t need a grade. My life was enough. I was worthy of it.
And I wanted more of it.
I got it. Now I’m doing something with it.
For my 29th birthday I jumped off the checklist achievement train. It was hard and it was scary.
Who am I kidding? It’s still hard and scary.
For the first time in my life I don’t have a plan. I am actively doing things that I know might fail. Like writing and teaching yoga. I’m making almost no money doing either of those things. I don’t know if I’ll get fame or fortune from either of them. Heck, I don’t even know if they’re sustainable livelihoods. I might have to go back to a corporate gig at some point.
But guess what?
I am happy. I am confused. And the world isn’t falling apart. My parents still love me. My siblings still love me. My friends still love me. In fact, they’re cheering me on…just like they’ve always done.
My story’s not done. Neither is yours. So please, don’t jump in front of the train. Jump off it.
Your family will catch you. Your friends will catch you. Your teachers will catch you.
And as for me, I’ll hold your hand if you hold mine back. We can leap together.