Advice is as hard to give as to take

Being a high school student is one of the most frightening occupations out there. I certainly couldn’t be paid enough money to go back.

I should buy my former high school counselor a drink next time I see him; chances are good that he’d need it.

My brother just started his senior year at the high school in our hometown. He’s an aspiring multimedia designer with an eye toward a future that might include coming to Tech like his older brother, or perhaps a (cheaper) school closer to home and friends.

The anxious tone in his voice becomes more severe with each phone conversation, and the tone of the questions changes from joking to desperately sincere. He could say just as easily, “I’m afraid. I have no idea what I want to do. I don’t want to end up penniless and alone. Please help me not screw up my life.”

The melodrama of the looming high school graduation is simultaneously feared, reviled, romanticized and admired in popular culture.

The implication that high school represents “the best four years of your life” is a cruel sentiment disseminated among an already nervous population of worried, hopeful young adults at the end of the structured, well-defined period of their lives.

No one wants to believe their best days are behind them. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a great deal of fatalism inherent in events like the prom, leading the collectively fearful and hormonal to awkward after-parties for two in cheap hotel rooms and the back seats of parents’ cars. (That’s a story for another time.)

That’s not to say college students don’t face similar problems. Our questions just run deeper and reflect a greater existential dilemma. It’s not merely, “What am I going to do after I graduate?” anymore, like it was in high school. We have that figured out.

But now the questions, like the coursework, have become more complicated. We ask ourselves, “What does it mean for me to live a good life? How can my limited time in this world be spent in a way most fulfilling to me?”

Personal philosophies are not constructed in a vacuum. Life experience shapes our views and carves out a niche for how we process new information.

That’s why even the most brilliant people in the world often have different opinions. High-minded platitudes will often not stand up to the scrutiny of day-to-day living; truth is completely relative to the individual.

This is why experience is so important. It’s impossible to say with certainty what you value until you have experienced a test of those beliefs.

What makes this idea so intuitive and universally applicable is also what makes it completely useless as advice. Unlike my brother, I was fortunate not to have a relativist giving me advice on life after high school graduation.

Philosophers rarely give practical advice. Words of wisdom don’t often translate well to reality.But what else can be said? I don’t have the key to my brother’s lifetime happiness anymore than I have the key to my own.

If there’s anything experience has taught me, it’s that you can do everything right and still fall short. Conversely, you can do it all wrong and somehow luck out. I imagine most people’s lives to be a series of decisions and turns that fall somewhere on that continuum.

My brother, like all of us, will probably stumble in the dark until he finds something that seems like a good enough idea that it’ll work. More ambiguity is not what high school students want to hear, but it’s almost certainly what’s in store for them.

How counselors, mentors and motivational speakers deal with the paradox of assuring students that everything will work out is a combination of glittering generalities and small lies, but I don’t envy them any more than I blame them for trying.

After all, it’s not like life’s events are completely random. There are many cases where the work we put in is equal to the reward we get in return.

As long as you keep things in perspective and take the opportunities where you can to move infinitesimally towards your goals, chances are good that you’ll end up somewhere in the ballpark of contentment. If not, at least you’re less likely to have regrets about how you lived your life.

Maybe that’s the right advice to give.