At the end of every school year, Chicago Academy for the Arts holds a senior lunch for the graduating class where each senior — there were 32 this year — is individually toasted by a faculty member.
The students listen as their teachers and administrators describe highlights and achievements and quirks that made that kid uniquely that kid. Often there are tears. I’m crying just typing about it.
Also at the senior lunch, head of school Jason Patera offers what’s come to be known as his Annual Dispensing of Unsolicited Advice.
I’ve gotten to know Patera through a couple of years of writing stories about his students and his West Town high school — Zachary Jeppsen, the teen dancer who commutes to the school every day from his family’s farm near Whitewater, Wis.; “Columbinus,” the spring play the students staged based on the Columbine school shootings, among others.
When Patera posted this year’s list of Unsolicited Advice on his Facebook page, I was immediately hooked. More people need to see this, I thought.
I gave him a call. He agreed to let me reprint his tips and offered a little context for each one.
“One of the exercises I do with myself all the time is ask, ‘If you could write a letter to your 17-year-old self, what would you say?” Patera, 43, told me.
That’s the root of his Unsolicited Advice, which he collects and compiles all year. Here are my favorite 10 from this year’s list.
1. “Art is really important. Whether or not you actually end up making it, you have a responsibility to support it, with both your time and your money.”
2. “Community is also really important, and it’s almost certain that you will never find a community like this one again. That’s OK — you shouldn’t just be looking for communities anymore, you should be building them.”
3. “Being someone is always better than seeming like someone. Be a great artist. Be a good person. Be happy. Don’t just waste time trying to seem like it on Instagram.”
4. “The more you get, the more you want. If you think you’ll be happier when you have more of something — more money, more stuff, more power, more success — you’re never going to have enough. ‘More’ becomes ‘normal’ shockingly fast, and when the novelty wears off, you feel exactly the same as you felt before.”
“Those first words are lyrics from a Van Halen song,” Patera told me. (“Right now,” for the record.)
5. “Instant gratification is not the same as happiness. Much of the modern world — your phone, your Juul, your credit card — is designed to trick you into thinking you’re happy. They’re really just stealing your time and your money.”
6. “There’s an old joke that you should take to heart: ‘How did the artist end up with a million dollars? They started with $2 million.’ Become an expert with money. Start today. It is not hard to be the smartest person in the room about money, and Google will teach you — for free — how to do it. Keep in mind, though, that money and happiness are pretty much unrelated. If you’re miserable when you’re broke, you’re still going to be miserable when you’re not.”
7. “Be sober. The more you believe that alcohol and drugs help you do anything, the more it means you have work to do when you’re sober. Sooner or later, we all have to operate in reality, and living cleanly will illuminate paths for you that will take you anywhere worth going.”
Patera said he repeats the sober tip every year.
“I’ve been surrounded by alcoholism and addiction in various forms from various sources all my life,” he said. “This is a particularly strong piece of advocacy I try to take on. In the arts, there’s this pervasive myth that somehow drugs unlock things for you. I reject that notion. That’s all inside you to begin with, and I find that thinking to be pervasive and counterproductive and really damaging.”
8. “Whether they were really high, or really low, no one will ever again care what grades you got in high school. Most of your college professors are going to be so terrified of social media attacks and helicopter parents they won’t give you anything less than a ‘B,’ regardless of what you actually deserve. So decide right now to hold yourself to a standard — a much higher standard — that’s not related to letter grades, praise or recognition. Demand more from yourself than anyone else could ever expect, embrace criticism and don’t expect anyone to care about your feelings.”
9. “Develop the courage to be disliked. Have high expectations for the people around you. Think for yourself and don’t be afraid to express well-founded but unpopular opinions. Have uncomfortable conversations. Don’t be an a------, but also don’t be a clone or a pushover.”
“‘The Courage to be Disliked’ is the title of a book I bought, which wasn’t about what I hoped it would be about,” Patera told me. “But that phrase really stuck with me. I find that we make so many bad decisions because we’re worried about people liking us. We fall in line with whatever the popular opinion is. We don’t want to make waves. We don’t call out bad behavior. We lower our expectations. It creates a temporary lack of conflict that always manifests itself in feeling worse later.”
10. “Reject mediocrity. If you haven’t already, you’re going to discover that other people get uncomfortable when you set big goals and work incredibly hard to reach them. Don’t let those people slow you down, even when they’re your friends. Most of what you think are the limits of your potential are illusions, so never, ever, apologize for having and pursuing big dreams.”
Good stuff, right?
“I’m not at all suggesting, ‘Hey, I’ve always done these things, and my life is perfect, so you should be like me,’ “ Patera told me. “I’m painfully aware what it’s like to not become an expert with money by the time I’m 20. I’m painfully aware of not having the courage to be disliked earlier than I did. I’m saying, ‘Hey, these are some of the ways I’ve screwed up. Maybe you can learn from me.’ ”
I’m certain we can.
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