While packing up my life a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon something interesting: my old journal from the end of eighth grade. I was thirteen at the start of it and fourteen at the end. This isn’t the first time I’ve stumbled on old works (I actually use my old novels as a reference tool for writing young characters), but I hadn’t read one of my old diaries in years.
It was surprising. Not because of the contents, which were about 50% boredom, 25% frustration, and 25% preparing for some post-apocalyptic world where the reader didn’t know who the president was in 2005. That was expected and probably the result of reading too many Royal Diaries books. It was surprising because it was my voice. Just as sarcastic, just as observant (albeit from a different point of view), just as well-read. Younger, less experienced with feelings and relationships. A bit “rAndOm”, which was the cool counterculture in the world of middle-schoolers at the time.
But very much me.
So here we go. The following letter applies to all smart, bored kids. I’m just writing it to the smart, bored kid I know best.
Dear Thirteen-Year-Old Alex,
It gets better.
The look you’re giving me right now tells me you don’t believe me. I know, I know. Adults have been telling you that for years. They told you it’d get better in middle school, when your peers would grow up a little, and that was a lie. And they’re telling you the same thing right now about high school, and that’s a lie too. They’re refusing to let you try home-schooling, and the alternative schools you’ve written to aren’t being helpful because they insist they need to talk to your parents. You spend math inventing writing systems and science designing weird chemical machines, but don’t have the vocabulary to ask people to help you nourish that interest. You’re isolated, which is partially your own fault.
You’re bored, frustrated, and intelligent. Everyone keeps telling you to “just be yourself”, and promptly punishing you for doing so.
And that’s okay.
You grow into the type of person who doesn’t have a ton of regrets, even when they make mistakes. I’m not going to tell you not to get drunk at your Sophomore Homecoming dance, I’m not going to tell you to wear your retainer, I’m not going to tell you to get a different orthodontist that actually used Novocaine. I’m not even going to tell you not to waste ten years of your life on a false friend.
You learn from all that, kiddo. Telling you to avoid it would be telling you to avoid life. You’re going to hurt, you’re going to be hurt, you’re going to screw up. I’m sorry, it sucks, but that’s life. There’s only one piece of advice I’d give you, and it’s this.
The world owes you nothing. Don’t “be yourself”. You don’t know who you are yet.
Instead, work on turning yourself into the person you want to be.
I’m not saying you aren’t unique. I’m not saying you’re doomed to a 9-5 job for the rest of your life. You’re actually incredibly lucky and you’re not going to figure that out until later. But being smart and lucky is nowhere near enough to turn you into the person you want to be. You have to work for it.
That doesn’t mean paying attention in school. It means learning. It means focusing on the stuff you’re interested in beyond just dabbling. If you’re going to be smart, if you want to be a special snowflake, you have to back it up with who you are as a person. Which is good news for you: you love to get riled up and fight. Rather than protest that the world is unfair, show them you kick ass. None of this sorry-for-myself I-don’t-belong-here stuff.
No, you don’t fit in well. That’s growing up. It’s okay.
Stand out and shine.