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Purpose  •  Connection

What Matters Most

Most people grossly underestimate the transformative power of connection—of all kinds—to bring to pass pretty much every good thing in life.

This is especially costly for young people. Because they aren’t taught what really matters in life, what tells life’s tale more than anything else, they fall under the thrall of our society’s conventional wisdom, that what matters most is being “the best”. Many high school students work under enormous pressure to get into the “right” school. I experienced it myself along with my classmates as we were told that getting into top schools was all that mattered. That this was a rather shallow and materialistic goal didn’t seem to bother anyone. Being #1 was what counted; its blind pursuit would separate the wheat from the chaff.

In the years since I graduated from high school in 1968, numerous studies have dug into what makes for joy and fulfillment in life and unearthed the facts—the actual truth—as to what actually leads to a happy, long, and rewarding life, and what does not.

Guess what? Going to a so-called top school doesn’t make the cut. Sure, if you do go to one of those schools, that’s fine, but it’s what you do at those places that tells the tale, not the prestige of the diploma you walk away with.

But if the goal of high school, and college for that matter, should not be putting up top grades, athletic captainships, starring roles in plays, and club presidencies, then what should be? What does the research prove to be the best use of these precious years?

The truth I needed to hear back then, and what kids still need to hear today, is simple enough, and makes all the difference.

The truth is this: the purpose of your years spent growing up is to fall in love.

Fall in love with a person, sure, but even more important, fall in love with a book or an idea, a subject, an activity, a time in history, a Great Woman or a Great Man, indeed develop and fall in love with your own vision of what greatness actually is, fall in love with a dog for sure, or a horse, or with a shooting star or the moon, with a movie or a play, with making music. Fall in love with preparing a perfect dish, fall in love with solving equations, or fall in love with the newspaper-delivery business you started in 6th grade—fall in love with whatever your imagination delves into.

Just think about it. Doesn’t the degree to which you find your life meaningful and close-to-all-you’d-hoped-for now directly correlate with the depth and number of your loves? And didn’t many if not most of those loves take root before you turned 25?

How much time is wasted by our most creative and brilliant students silently, if not desperately, contriving ways to get into the “best” college or the “best” professional school?

How many of the seeds of cynicism and disappointment are sown by that pursuit, doggedly doing the right deed for the wrong reason, as the most savvy students sacrifice their tender ideals and their nascent loves in an unquestioning, misguided pursuit?

How many deadening life-long habits of dishonesty and kissing-up begin in that frenzy of test-prep, interview coaching, grade-grubbing, and clandestine stabbing the competition in the back?

Years later, we may wonder when and why our innocence went poof! But it didn’t go poof! It slowly gave up, buckling under the weight of Forbidding Realities. We find ourselves asking, “Whither has it fled, the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” while the answer, the liberating and restorative answer, is still there, while bombs burst in air, ready to free us even now, begging to be seen, if we will but take it in.

The answer is: return to your loves. For heaven’s sake. Give them a shot.

Better yet, when they’re new, when you first find your loves, from that moment on feed them, tend to them, cherish them as if your life depended on it—because it does—work hard in their service while they’re fresh and they’re new and you don’t know exactly what you’re doing.

The studies—so many of them now—have put the truth on full display for all to see, if only we will look, if only we will believe what our eyes can see and what incontrovertible evidence proves.

I’ve learned that for some grown-ups, this can be too much to take. They’ve worked so long and so hard in the worship of winning, of being # 1 that to tell them that winning is not, in fact, what makes the difference in life simply can’t penetrate their protective shields. But no matter, I owe them the truth, if not an understanding. An understanding they have to generate on their own. So I tell them that it’s love that makes the difference. I can almost see their silent smirk and feel their hidden derision when I deliver this truth. The adults, experienced in the Ways of the World, dismiss me as a peddler of fairy dust, a naïve and misty-eyed dreamer, an impractical sort whom they hope their children will ignore.

But then there are the kids.

When I speak to students and tell them what they need to do while they are young is to fall in love, when I go on to explain the much more expansive, explosive, disruptive and wide-open terrain of love, they sit up.

I can almost hear their combined sigh of relief and cheers of great joy, as if to say, At last! Because they know I am right. They haven’t yet learned to demean enthusiasm altogether or mistrust love out of hand. They are just looking for some validation, some encouragement, some hope. They are cheering love, the lasting, unmatched, radical power of love.