Coming of Age Advice

Photo by Flickr user Brian Hillegas, used under Creative Commons.

Not long ago I received a phone call from a friend whose son was turning eighteen. My friend said that as his son set out in the world (or at least went off to college, where he could stay out all night without repercussion), he would need some words to follow. For his son's birthday, my friend was asking a few select men to give him their words of advice.

No doubt the astute reader has already seen several glaring holes in this request. For one thing, my friend was not soliciting advice from women, though perhaps he realized that one day his son would get married and this would take care of itself. It is also true that we were all eighteen once, and I distinctly remember what I was interested in eighteen and it did not include advice from fifty-something codgers. I paused for a delicious moment, remembering the paths down which my youthful interests had led me.

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"Ken? Are you still there?"

Yes, but it's a miracle I am and my survival into my twenties and beyond was not due to intellect.

"So," my friend asked, "are you in?"

Of course, I told him. I'd be happy to jot down some advice, but it wouldn't be easy. Probably the one thing I am now certain of at 53 is that I shouldn't be giving anyone advice. Could I have until, say, his 30th birthday?

My friend, who is a newspaper editor and accustomed to wheedling writers, demurred. He would need the advice in a week.

After he hung up, I gave myself some advice. This is important, potentially life-changing stuff. My friend's son would probably keep this advice forever, consulting it on youthful Friday nights before going out and breaking every dictum I gave him, running his callused fingers along its curling yellow edges in the waning years of his own life in bittersweet remembrance. Start writing right now, I advised myself, so that by the end of the week you'll have something worthy of an eighteenth birthday.

I can only say that when I finally did sit down to pen the following advice, it was not as soon as I hoped but not as late as anyone's 30th birthday...

Love someone. Love more than someone. This one's beyond words. But, selling it short, when you love, and are loved in return, you'll know a joy and satisfaction that's unimaginable. There are tough times too. But if just the thought of that person brings a smile to your face, the tough times will pass.

Be curious. Life is a wonderful gift. There are amazing things in the very smallest places. Don't miss them. Don't become inured to them. Erase the word cynic from your vocabulary. Don't give a damn if other people see you peeking behind the curtain.

Be respectful of others. They may not look like you, they might not act like you, they may make mistakes and sometimes do the wrong thing like you, but they are just trying to make their way in life like you. Plus sometimes you'll be surprised how just a little respect and reaching out on your part will come back to you in happy ways. And you can learn so much from those who seem different from you. Treat them with grace.

Listen. Not easy to do, but no one ever learned anything from the sound of their own voice.

Be a good friend. One day you'll probably have a family and it's easy to surround yourself with just them. Raising children is one of the most important things you'll do - if not the most important thing - but don't forget the friends in your life. They may need you. You may need them. Plus they're just fun.

Have fun. Don't get too serious about things. Life really can be short. Life really is a gift. Do ridiculous things. Look ridiculous (but don't make other people look ridiculous). Be rash. This is it. Enjoy the hell out of it.

Do one thing every day that scares you. I'm stealing this from Eleanor Roosevelt because it's one of my favorite pieces of advice. You'll figure out how to apply it.

Do things for others. This will do for you too.

Never stop appreciating. The roof over your head, the freedom to do what you want, a healthy breath, parents who love you.

Be yourself.


That was it. I kept it short. As I said, my friend is a newspaper editor. I didn't want to give him the opportunity to do what he does.

I don't know if my friend's son ever read what I wrote. He left town and went off to college, where he is no doubt occupied with plenty of other things he doesn't want to read. But, if by some miracle this last bit of advice falls into his hands, I hope he takes a minute to think about it.

There's nothing wrong with advice from others. But it's your life, and your one chance. The best advice is the honest advice you give yourself.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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