The last time I wrote a long letter to my daughter was when she was less than eight years old. She completes sixteen today, and being a teacher (with a man-with-the-hammer syndrome) I could not think of anything better to offer her than sixteen lessons on living a good life.
My dearest Kavya,
Wish you a very happy birthday.
The last time I wrote a letter like this to you, I rued the passing of the first seven-and-a-half years of your life, which went by like the blink of an eye.
Now, as I write this, another eight-and-a-half years have passed, and the thought is bittersweet. As you move further away from my protective arms, I worry about how the world will change you.
Over these past sixteen years, you have gone from being my newborn princess cradled in my arms to my little princess experiencing the joy and independence that life can bring. You are smart, strong-headed, bold and confident, and I can already visualize the wonderful woman you will be one day.
And like I wrote to you in my last long letter, being a father to you has helped me discover my own potential, and that was important because there was no other way I could have showed you by example how I want you to live your life.
Today, as you complete sixteen years, I wish to offer you sixteen lessons on living a good life. As you go through these lessons, I hope you remember that you will always be my greatest gift and one of my most significant achievements in my life. I share these lessons with you in hopes that they will serve as a compass on your journey through life, helping you to pave your path, achieve your dreams, and find your joy.
Here I go.
1. Love yourself above all else: Your worth is not determined by your looks, your weight, or by some other person in your life. You do not have to be prettier, smarter, cooler, quieter, or stronger than you are. Never wait for someone to make you feel complete – because you are already whole. You are enough – just as you are. And so, always love the person you are.
2. Choose joy: While happiness happens to us, joy is a choice we make. Happiness depends on external factors. Even though we may seek it, desire it, pursue it, etc., feeling happiness is not a choice we make. Joy, on the other hand, is more than emotion. It is an attitude. It’s a lens to see the world through. Learn to take every moment as grace. It’s a choice you make. And with this choice, you will get to joy.
3. Don’t change who you are to fit in: Be true to yourself, live your own dreams, and be proud of what makes you unique instead of feeling the pressure to follow the crowd. Have friends you can talk to and associate with, but beware of changing who you are to fit in with a certain group of people.
4. Have courage: Life is not always easy. But you get through it with courage. There will be times in your life where you’d rather hide or run or bury your head in the sand than face whatever challenge is in your way. In those times, I want you to remember to be brave and show courage. Also, do not be afraid to take risks. You can accomplish great things by taking the right kind of risks. Do not also be afraid to make mistakes, but make sure you learn from them. There are, after all, no mistakes…only lessons. Most importantly, when you fail, get back up, dust yourself off, and try again.
5. Be kind, always: Put kindness first. Kindness is when you empathise with others in their troubles, when you treat others the way they want to be treated, when you think and act selflessly without expecting anything in return, when you appreciate others for their work, when you forgive others for their mistakes, and when you carefully listen to someone sharing their problems. “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle, everyone’s lonesome,” said Marion Parker. Given this, learn to deal kindly and compassionately with others. That is your only hope to happily live yourself and leave this world a better place than you found it.
6. Live with acceptance: Life is unpredictable. You will not always get what you want. A lot of things can happen that will transform who you are and have an impact on your life. Cultivate the ability to truly accept whatever comes and embrace it. Of course, life will bring many challenges, and it is not easy to embrace them when you are suffering and wishing those things would have never happened. But if you start cultivating acceptance in your life, you will likely cope with future crises in a different way and view them from a different perspective. Now, acceptance does not mean that you are resigned to a life of just putting up with things. Acceptance is not resignation, failure, or agreement. It is simply accepting the truth and allowing things to be as they are. That approach to life is truly liberating.
7. Seize each day: When Steve Jobs was your age, as he shared in his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, he read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ This is what Jobs told the students – “It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past thirty-three years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” Keep this perspective that you don’t live forever and should focus on doing what really matters, today. This moment, this day, is all you have. Seize it.
8. Embrace your imperfections: As we wade through life’s muddled waters, especially as young adults, we tend deep down to be hopeful that we will eventually manage to settle down well and find perfection in a number of areas. We dream of one day securing healthy relationships, deeply fulfilling work, happy family life, and the respect of others. But life, as it is, has a habit of springing surprises, and rushing us in its overwhelming tide. It sometimes deals us a range of blows, leaving our dreams shattered. And like a favorite cup or plate, we sometimes crack. We may even break.
Obviously, you must not throw yourself away when this happens. Instead, you can relish the blemishes and learn to turn these scars into art – like ‘kintsugi,’ an ancient Japanese practice that beautifies broken pottery. In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of a ceramic pot should be carefully picked up, reassembled, and then glued together with lacquer inflected with gold powder. The Japanese believe the golden cracks make the pieces even more valuable. It embraces the breakage as part of the object’s history, instead of something unacceptable to be hidden or thrown away.
It is beautiful to think of kintsugi as a metaphor for your life, to see the broken, difficult, or painful parts of you as radiating light, gold, and beauty. It teaches that your broken places make you stronger and better than ever before. The times when you get hurt and broken, you can feel totally rotten. But there can also be a strange beauty in the way you process the cracks in your life and the lessons you take from them afterward. You can decide to cover up, or you can decide to walk out into the world as yourself, with your cracks shining gold.
9. Find your true desire, then live it: In a thought-provoking lecture many years ago, British philosopher and writer Alan Watts told the audience this –
Students…come to me and say, ‘We’re getting out of college and we have the faintest idea of what we want to do.’ I always ask the question, what would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life? …Students say, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows, you can’t earn any money that way. Let’s go through with it, what do you want to do? When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him: you do that and forget the money. Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid. Better to have a short life full of what you like doing, than a long life, spent in a miserable way. After all if you really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually become a master of it. The only way to become a master of something is to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is…Therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: What do I desire?
What you desire is the reason for which you get up in the morning. Go, search for it. And till you find it, keep looking and do not settle.
10. Live with an inner scorecard: Never let anyone tell you can’t do something or measure you up on whatever you have done. That’s like living with an outer scorecard, which is an external measure of success that attempts to answer elusive questions like, “What do people think of me, my success, my image?” Maintaining an Outer Scorecard means being concerned by how the world sees you and thinks of you, and then acting according to that. Inner Scorecard is intrinsic. It defines who you are at the core of your values and beliefs. When you live with an Inner Scorecard, you focus on being the most authentic version of yourself and doing the right things instead of what other people think you should do. The world is indifferent to what we often want. But if you can find joy and satisfaction in your work, because you live with an Inner Scorecard, you will not need to look anywhere else for happiness but within.
11. Love your family: Few people in this life will provide you unconditional love and support that your family will provide. Now, there are two types of family I am talking about. The family you were born with and the family you will choose to keep — your closest friends. Whether you are family by birth or choice, the bond is forever.
Invest in your friendships because this investment will stay with you forever. Your true friends will love and care for you despite your flaws and imperfections. They will pick you up when you fall and will be your greatest champion. Your family will elevate you to achieve all your dreams and life’s ambitions. Regardless of where you end up in life, it would be best if you always remembered where you come from.
12. Live like a verb, not a noun: I recently came across this thought-provoking paragraph from the English actor, comedian, and writer Stephen Fry, while browsing a notebook I had scribbled thoughts in some years ago – “Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it. That is your punishment. But if you never know, then you can be anything. There is a truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing — an actor, a writer — I am a person who does things — I write, I act — and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”
Learn to give yourself permission to ‘do’ what brings you the greatest joy – except, say, getting involved in drugs etc. That’s the way you will find satisfaction in life. What will lead you to a fulfilling life isn’t the nouns you may use for yourself – dancer, writer, investor, teacher – but the verbs you will be – the growing, learning, and pursuing that will happen in the process.
13. Forgive over and over and over: You are going to have your heartbroken. Whether it’s a fall out with a friend you thought you were close with, or that career that you wish you got. It’s life, it’s going to happen. Take it for the lesson it was and move on. And never hold on to grudges against others and yourself. When we harbor unforgiveness and blame others for all our misery, it slowly eats us away, breeding hatred, and destroying our relationship with that other person, and also with our inner self. But when you decide to forgive, it is like an instant miraculous healing process. It is the key to moving on.
When people do not act as you would wish them to, exercise the muscles of your good nature by shrugging your shoulders and saying to yourself “Oh well.” Then let the incident go. Also, try to be as kind to yourself as possible, by forgiving yourself for mistakes made. The Greek philosopher Epictetus advised, “Do not measure yourself against others or even against your ideal self. Human betterment is a gradual, two-steps-forward, one-step-back effort. When you learn to forgive, others and yourself, and let go, you will be surprised to discover the lightness and freedom that unfold thereafter from within you. Forgiveness won’t necessarily erase all your pain. But it does mean that the hurt is no longer center stage.
14. Take good care of your health: I know you feel invincible now, but you will not always feel that way. Your health is important, much more important than you think. Eat right and stay active. Go on walks, run if you want to. Go to bed at a decent time. You will thank your older self later.
15. Do not take life so seriously: At your age, you know this better than me. But lest you forget as you grow up, remember to always have fun. Our DNA is 96% chimpanzee, so what’s the point of taking life any seriously than a chimp does? Laugh at yourself when you make mistakes. Do not worry about things you cannot control.
You get around 80-90 trips around the sun. Embrace them and enjoy your ride to the fullest. 99% of what you will think as problems won’t even be real problems anyway, just situations your mind would make into some big and unnecessary drama. So, remember to relax. Do not live in your head so much.
16. Chop wood, carry water: Let me tell you a story. A young boy became a monk. He dreamed of enlightenment and of learning great things. When he got to the monastery he was told that each morning he had to chop wood for the monks’ fires and then carry water up to the monastery for ablutions and the kitchen. He attended prayers and meditation, but the teaching he was given was rather sparse. One day he was told to take some tea to the Abbot (head of the monastery). He did so and the Abbot saw he looked sad and asked him why. He replied, “Every day, all I do is chop wood and carry water. I want to learn. I want to understand things. I want to be great one day, like you.” The Abbot said, “When I started I was like you. Every day I would chop wood and carry water. Like you, I understood that someone had to do these things, but like you, I wanted to move forward. Eventually, I did. I read all of the scriptures, I met with Kings and gave council. I became the Abbot. Now, I understand that the key to everything is that everything is chopping wood and carrying water and that if one does everything mindfully then it is all the same.”
Many of us get caught up in the end results of what we’re working toward or the way things will be when we finally achieve something. Many of us think that once we achieve some future state – promotion, financial independence, enlightenment, the top of the mountain, etc. – we will finally be content. We tend to live in the future or the past … in our heads. But the truth is that none of these destinations will bring lasting contentment. Further, getting to where we want to go or being successful doesn’t mean that the work that led us there goes away. Instead, we must realize that contentment can only be found in every ‘now,’ in being fully present with ordinary daily activities – with chopping wood and carrying water. When you’re able to find fulfillment in these ordinary activities, you can finally be at peace in life.
So, these were my sixteen lessons for you, Kavya
Even as you take these lessons, it’s your own life to live, so live by your own means.
Being alive means we must make the most of the life we are entrusted with, Life is not ours to possess – it is a precious gift that we must treat as if it were placed in our care. And whatever lifespan we are given, we must take the utmost care to give it back.
Remember that life’s worth is not measured by its duration – long or short. What is important is how you use the life you are given.
The experiences, the suffering, and the pain you are going to endure over the next few years will make you the adult that you are going to become. It might seem harsh and unfair at the time but in the end, it will turn out to be one of the biggest gifts of your life and you will remember these years forever.
You will soon learn about what you really can achieve when you set your heart, your mind, and every muscle in your body to it. Because remember, you are enough. And I love you.
Happy birthday once again.