Tomorrow during lunch I will have the opportunity to go into my old high school and former employer, South Hunterdon Regional High School to speak to a group of athletes during lunch. I’ve thought about what I was going to say for the last 2 days, and I couldn’t come up with a speech that felt right.
Sitting around tonight I thought about what I would say to myself if I sat down in front of 18 year old Matt Walker. What would I tell him?
I think I would start by explaining that there was no way to give an 18 year old a 31 year old’s perspective, but to just know that some things will be the same, and at the same time, things will be completely different.
I would say that times are going to get tough as you go forward through life, but that the whole “best time of your life” mentality is bullshit.
The best time of your life is right now. Nostalgia allows us to think that high school, college, and our early twenties were so much better than everything is now. But that’s not true. For me the best time of my life tends to be the moment when I realize that I enjoy what I’m doing at the exact moment I’m doing it.
Now, this doesn’t mean live completely in the moment and forget about the past without learning lessons, and that doesn’t mean never plan for your future. It just means to look for what you enjoy, and notice what is happening around you and within you in the present.
Never has wishing it was 10 years ago led to me feeling better. Never has feeling sorry for myself made me feel ok. Never has regretting something I did or didn’t do changed the fact that it happened.
Since I’d be talking about athletics, I would highlight how much you wish you could play sports at the level of an 18 year old again. I would talk about how I didn’t try off of the practice field or during games to get stronger, to lift, or to run until I was a Junior, and that when I did that, I became a viable member of my teams. I would talk about how I wish I cherished the time with my teammates more, about how I still look back at my senior year in football and know that I actually gave it my all that one year. I would mention that there was never another time in my life when I spent 2-3 hours every day not worrying about anything other than the task at hand. It makes me wish I had that mentality for 4-5 years instead of about 18 months.
When I was a kid I was always worried that I was missing something. I was worried about having a night out ruined because I had to go home early, or because I wasn’t with the right group of friends. I would talk about how most of my memories are actually from those times at basketball camp, between double session in football, on the bus, or after practice, just bs’ing with my teammates.
I would talk about how things can change on a dime, and about how when that happens it is really easy to think about how much you missed a simpler life without complications. I would say that everything I did take away from competing on that athletics field did prepare me for these chaotic moments in life to some extent.
I would talk about how everything I worried about as a teenager wasn’t always what matters looking back with hindsight. I probably would say that I don’t miss much from that period of my life, except for the chance to compete in organized sports and time spent with family and friends.
I would talk about the significance of growing up in a small town where you could play sports with the same friends for 10-12 years. I would talk about the opportunity awarded to a school like South, because of its underdog status. I would talk about how coming into a game with 300-600 less students and competing prepares you for life, and gives you the chance to do something amazing almost every day.
I would talk about how that mentality helps me now, that I am fighting a disease that tends to win more than 50% of the time. I would talk about how important it is to keep going forward, to not say “fuck it” when things get hard. I would talk about how even if you fail 5-6 times, nothing will compare to the feeling you get when you get up again, and finally win, because not everyone understands what it means to come back again and again.
I would talk about how great it feels to look around you and know that everyone gave it everything that they had. I would talk about how dumb I was, even though 18 year old me would be looking at me as an out of touch old man. I would tell the teenager that your thoughts on everything will change over time, but that staying true to yourself was the only way to stay positive and to really experience the life you wanted.
I would make the 18 year old me promise me that he would never try tobacco, as it is the number one regret of my life. I would make the 18 year old me realize that he’s not invincible and going to get old one day. I would try to make the 18 year old me stop looking forward to things and wishing time would move faster, because I missed out on the now waiting for my driver’s license, for a chance to talk to a certain girl, for college, and to turn 21.
I would talk about how you couldn’t imagine a life where you work with people from Twitter, Facebook and Google daily. About how you never even considered living in California as an 18 year old, and that now you couldn’t consider living anywhere else. I would talk about seizing the moment. About living without regrets, and about making good decisions in this area of your life.
I would talk about overcoming adversity, and how it’s in all of us. About how 18 year old me would be shocked to know where the next 13 years of life will take him. About how he will be still standing and on the verge of thriving at the end of this rocky path.
I would talk about how you can’t win if you don’t try. I would talk about how the fear of failure causes hesitation, and how I never look back happy about the chances I didn’t take towards positive goals. I would talk about how, as much as I loved Penn State, I don’t talk proudly the same way as I used to about only applying to one college after I got into Main Campus in 2 weeks.
I would mention how going as hard as you can towards a goal never ruined a person, and never made someone feel worse, even if the ending seemed like a loss.
I would talk about living for yourself, while respecting and caring for others, is the only way to go. I don’t mean this selfishly, I mean that only you can achieve the things in front of you. Sure, family and friends will help, and in my case they surely did. But, overall, you have to live life the way you want. You are the only person that can bring a sense of achievement to your life, and you are the only person that can truly make you happy.
I would tell me to smile more, to talk to more kids from school, and to actually listen to other opinions as you may learn something. I would remind myself that I feel best about the times I stood up for what I believed to be right, and that I never feel good looking back at times I did things I didn’t want to do, just to look cool.
I would want me to prepared for the future, when MS comes knocking at my door, when college falls through the cracks and when times seem so hard. But, I wouldn’t want me to fear these things, as I’ve made it through all of them to this point, and they are what made me the person I am. I would want me to be more confident, while being more humble than I ever was. I would want me understand that 31 year old me will still be that same kid that was wearing Abercrombie and listening to Eminem 13 years ago, but with a whole new perspective and with many new experiences.
Most of all, I would want to let myself know that life is about those experiences. Learning from the bad ones and fully experiencing the good ones is what life is about.
I would want 18 year old me to realize that 31 year old me lives 3000 miles away from Lambertville, yet still cherishes a chance to come home. Because we may not get to pick where we grew up, but all of us who grew up here got very very lucky.