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Urgent Life

I wrote and rewrote the first few paragraphs of this story three or four times because I kept worrying about being politically correct. I worried over leaving someone out of the matrix that went along with the story.

I kept writing, crossing out, re-writing, not wanting to come on too strong, not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, but every time I would re-read my PC version I'd found I'd buried the lead. So let me get this out of the way to be sure it's being said.

Time to Wake Up

This is a message, or a wake-up call to high school kids and college students just getting started; actually anyone between the ages of, say, 16–25.

I'm gonna be real blunt here. I know you guys think you have all the time in the world to make decisions and find your place in life but the truth is this: If you aren't beginning to define yourself and your path by about 25 years old, it's highly likely you're going to struggle for the majority of your life...

Struggle with finances, marriage, relationships, home ownership, debt, cars and anything else you might like to add; 'cuz if you haven't figured this out yet brothers and sisters, they're all connected. I don't think it was always this way -- this urgent -- but it is my observation that it's getting more and more this way every day.

The "definition by 25" that I speak of should be followed up by a pretty clear idea of a life path by age 30. You need to know where you are going if you ever want to get there, right?

I know some of you, parents and children alike, are reading this right now and shaking your heads. In your mind you're thinking of certain people who defied the odds, started getting on track late and turned out fine. Those are exceptions to this rule. So if I may be so bold... you're wrong. Things are different now and the likelihood of turning out incapable and unproductive is much higher than it used to be.

The glut of high-paying factory jobs that people without some sort of special talent could fall back on are long gone. Our country has become host to much more service industry and much of the labor industry is farmed out overseas, or if it has remained local, it is seasonal or part time. Yet I don't see the Gen-Xers looking too worried about this.

You know the one thing I seem to find that really differs between my generation and the next is the lack of any "urgency" in the agenda. From the tattooed mono-syllabic fast food kid to the multi-earring discount store cart pusher, no one seems to be in any hurry anymore.

It's a far cry from the keep-the-customer-happy "Have it Your Way" hustle that I recall from my first few years among the ranks of the employed.

Now if you talk with these people and ask why they're so laid back they shrug and kind of laugh at you, responding with that hoarse kind of droopy eyed "stoner" look and say, "Hey... whatever."

Well guys, I gotta tell you, indeed, as you indicate, whatever will be will be but the "will be" has a vast carnival about it and if you don't begin to save yourself a seat somewhere on one of those rides you're gonna wake up one day and find that the circus left town while you were napping between shows.

Now is the Best Time

I remember when I was finishing high school there was this group of my peers that were deliberately going to delay college or trade school for a year while they backpacked through Europe. Certainly a romantic notion and perhaps, for some, a learning experience, but I recall thinking, even back then, this is just a way to put off the responsibility of growing up.

You ever notice that you and your work mates are just as excited about work getting cancelled on a "snow day" as you were when you were kids and school got cancelled? We're all pretty much formed by about age six, folks, and we don't change that much. The backpackers wanted another year off before life got too serious.

What was that putting off? Well for one, it put off decisions about where they were headed. Many came back from Europe and had lost a lot of momentum and never followed up and made the commitment to school or a trade or anything.

I caught up with some of them at my five-year high-school reunion and more than one asked me if the place I was working at was hiring. A few of the same ones asked me the same question at the ten-year reunion.

The sad thing is that if you don't make decisions and get in the habit of making decisions about your life, your life makes the decisions for you.

And while some people steer well through these waters, you have to know there are so many potential pitfalls, so many critical intersections of life where things can take a bad turn, that if you don't take some control and make some tough decisions the results can become permanent and affect your life right through until the end of it.

No Chicken Little, the sky isn't falling but friends, the weathervane isn't necessarily stable. Notice the chart on page xx. In that matrix, you'll see seven or eight stages where life's critical intersections present themselves. At some of these stages there are options, like whether or not you choose to go on with your education. These you have control over.

At some, like whether or not your birth was planned or unexpected, you have no choice in the matter and you were handed a bit of an agenda by your parents. Some of the critical intersections are within your parents' control. Maybe they should have sent you to preschool. Maybe they wanted to send you but couldn't afford it. Maybe they tried to send you and you cried too much. Maybe they forced you to stay and you became an insecure person.

In any event, I provide this chart for your consideration. Begin at the bottom and work your way up. There is a path that you'll find that embraces the most desirable route through life. I know very few people who have lived their entire life so ideally.

The thing you must realize is that the balance is so very delicate; those moments and passages in life where things can go wrong are so abundant (within and outside of any control), that it takes more than a roll of the dice to find yourself one day living the American Dream of being strapped with a mortgage, car payment, kids that need braces, a dog that ruins your carpet and fathers-in-law that falls asleep in your chair on Sunday afternoons...

Oh, uh, well anyway I may have drifted a bit. The thing is, bright kids come out of all walks of life. So do not-so-bright ones. Good minds go to waste because of social and financial problems. Unwanted children seem to catch on early in life that they are more of a burden than a blessing.

Parents and teachers can enhance a student's growth just as fast as they can stunt it too. All of these factors come into play throughout life. There is no guarantee of which influences will set in or which ones will roll off your back.

My point is that with so many variables, why not cut the risk of messing it all up by staying steadfast with the things you can control. The sooner you establish your life patterns and the better those patterns are, the better chance you have to succeed and enjoy the rest of your life.

As your personality becomes cemented in high school you should be taking inventory of your development. As inspirational writer/speaker Jim Rohn says, "You must constantly ask yourself these questions: Who am I around? What are they doing to me? What have they got me reading? What have they got me saying? Where do they have me going? What do they have me thinking? And most important, what do they have me becoming? Then ask yourself the big question: Is that okay?"

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy once said, "Superior achievements or making the most of one's capabilities, is to a very considerable degree a matter of habit. This was why Joe used to say to the children, 'We don't want any losers around here. In this family we want winners.' They were encouraged to be winners, leaders, and victors in whatever they set their hand to... to develop the habit."

Look again at the matrix. Every single stage could be preceded by any of the previous blocks. Unchallenged kids could still excel. Challenged kids may still fail. There is no guarantee of the route as you move block to block.

The point is to try to achieve a probable, likely transition from one good block to another and since you can't guarantee that, the safest route is to minimize the risk, and the way to do that is to choose a path, revise your goals, keep moving forward, and so on, and so on.

But I don't see anywhere in that upward climb that the best idea is to get more body piercings, speak poor English, delay your education as long as possible, bear children out of wedlock, experiment with lots of drugs and alcohol and resist the lessons of those who raised you.

See maybe, we as parents and examples were so worried about you guys being as over-challenged and worried as we were in our youth that we set the bar too low. Maybe we've gotten so good at consoling ourselves over second place we forgot the importance of making sure you strive for first.

We've made losing "okay" all the time. At least you tried. No real pressure anymore. None. Maybe you need to be a little tougher on yourselves. Ask yourself some tough questions.

Are you really getting all you can out of yourself?

Are you taking advantage of the advantages your parents have given you?

Could you reach higher, push yourself a little more? Probably not; after all you must be exhausted from all those hours of productive video games you played all night. I hear you're the best.

Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks, a metropolitan park system that encircles Cuyahoga County and includes more than 20,000 acres of natural land, six golf courses, seven nature centers, a variety of special interest facilities and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Ron can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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