Thought exercise: Open “stickies” or “notepad” or grab a real piece of paper. Write the words “Dear ___ year old self,” filling the blank with an age at least 10 years younger than you are now. Now, for five full minutes, write whatever comes to mind.
What’s the Big Idea?
Chances are whatever you wrote contains some variation on the phrase “don’t worry about…” with the ellipses representing some preoccupation that time has revealed to be meaningless, unproductive, even harmful. It’s likely, too, that your advice to yourself contains something of more general value – the kind of sage advice that almost never comes to mind when you’re explicitly trying to advise someone else.
We asked Henry Rollins – a guy who at the age of 20 left his responsible job as manager of a Haagen Dazs to tour the country as the frontman of the hardcore band Black Flag, and has gone on to build one of the most diverse and unprecedented arts careers ever, as a musician, author, spoken-word artist, television actor, and world-traveling photojournalist – to improvise a “letter to a young American,” coming of age in a time of, at best, “cautious optimism.” The result, as we’d hoped, was a letter to a young Henry Rollins, full of invaluable advice for just about anyone on trusting in your own ability to learn and become whatever you want to, no matter what obstacles you face.
What’s the Significance?
Nobody’s perfect, but Henry Rollins has done a better job than most of approaching life courageously. Like his hero, Abraham Lincoln, he’s a voracious reader and autodidact in multiple fields. Too busy working his way through high school to take acting lessons, he invented his own form of performance art – a mix of motivational speaking, and strident sociopsychopolitical comedy – developing his unique voice onstage as he went along. Never formally taught what not to do, he has dared to make his mistakes publicly and had the humility to learn from them.
In a recent article, Why Are Harvard Graduates in the Mailroom? Adam Davidson of NPR’s Planet Money points out that many of America’s comfortable middle-management jobs have disappeared. As a result, he says, many ambitious young professionals without “something to fall back on” are diving into the jungle of Hollywood or other creative professions in which legions of drudges vie for promotion to a few top spots.
An Ivy League education still looks good on a resume, but if “the best” formal education is no longer a guarantee of (at least monetary) success, then what do you tell a bright kid who wants to get ahead in the world? “Work hard, be honest, and trust in yourself,” the sage advice Henry Rollins stole from Abraham Lincoln and wants to pass on to the next generation, seems like a pretty good place to start.
Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter
Image credit: Shutterstock.com