Exactly 40 years ago this week I began my freshman year of college. My entire life was ahead of me and I felt as if I had the world by the tail. Today— exactly four decades after I left home— I have returned to the same campus. This time with my son, to begin his freshman year. He probably feels as if he has the world by the tail. I just feel blue.
He will major in business administration with a minor in accounting, then go to culinary school for two years to become a chef. He will then spend the next two years working for friends of mine in the industry in Italy and New Orleans. After eight years I told him he could come back and work in one of our restaurants, but he’ll start at the bottom like everyone else.
After helping him move into his room, his mom and I offered our final farewells in the parking lot. It was a tearful moment. After our last hug, he started walking towards the front entrance of the dorm. I don’t know if he’s ever looked more like a man than in that moment. I sat behind the steering wheel of my truck and watched him walk away for a bit until the car behind me honked and I had to pull away. I turned to get one last look just as he walked behind a column near the entrance. He was gone.
I will see him again in two weeks, but it will be different. He will be a college student and ages away from the little boy who used to wrestle with me on the floor of the den, or the one I used to check out of school to take to superhero movies dressed as the superhero. He’s no longer the husky little fella I drove to pee wee football practice or the one who went to Saints games with me dressed in matching Drew Brees jerseys. He’s been my fellow food enthusiast who has eaten thousands of breakfasts with me across the United States and Europe. In many ways, he was my running partner as of late. Those days are over. I blinked. We have officially entered the next stage.
Before I left his dorm room, I slipped this letter into the drawer of his desk.
I am excited that you are entering the next phase of your life. There is no other time in life that equals one’s freshman year of college. You are now becoming an independent man, and I hope and pray that your mom and I have given you the necessary tools over the past 18 years to set you up to be a productive citizen and fine Christian example for others to follow. We’ve done our job. You’re a man now. It’s time to do what men do— prioritize your life in a healthy manner
You are in college to absorb and understand as much as you can about your major field of study and your electives. School comes first. Your social life is about to get kicked up to another level. Your mother and I want you to have fun. But be responsible, and never forget why you are there— to learn. Period. End of story.
We are always a phone call away. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night. If you need your mother or me, call. Never hesitate. Never.
I will tell you exactly what I told your sister four years ago. When it comes to college classes, there are three hard rules you need to follow for certain success in your college career.
1. GO TO CLASS— I can’t overemphasize how important this is to the success of your higher education. When you wake up one morning and you don’t feel 100% and realize that mom isn’t there to push you out of bed and make you go to class, you have to man up, dig deep, and make yourself go to class. No one— not even the smartest person— can be successful in college if they miss class.
2.) SIT AT THE FRONT OF THE CLASS— Do whatever you can to sit on the first row on the first day (and every day thereafter). The farther one goes into the back of the classroom, the greater the distractions become. Always sit up front and always pay attention.
3.) TAKE THOROUGH NOTES— You can use your phone to record lectures, but that should only be a backup to your hand-written notes. When it is time to study for a test, take your notes and re-write them to use as your study guide. Trust me. It works.
Outside of the classroom, you know what I always say, “Make good decisions.” It took me a long time to learn that the difference between intentions and decisions is that intentions are always followed by more intentions. Decisions are followed by action. Never be afraid to take action. Just make sure you think before you act.
You’re going to make mistakes. That’s ok. Try to keep them limited to small mistakes. And then don’t dwell on your mistakes once you’ve made them. Learn from them, and move on.
Be humble. I had been out of college a long time before I learned that humility is not when you think less of yourself— it’s when you think of yourself less often. When your head begins to swell, your mind stops growing. You are about to need your mind more than ever, so keep your ego in check.
Help others (especially the underdog).
Always know that if you take care of the “possible,” God will take care of the “impossible.”
Pray every day. Don’t worry if you’re good at it or not. Trying to pray is praying. You either believe that prayer works, or it doesn’t. There’s no grey area there. Trust me, it works. You should always pray like it depends on God but take action like it depends on you. And when you pray, don’t worry. Because if you’re going to worry, there’s no need to pray.
So, don’t worry. It’s not productive. Take it from me, I’ve lived through more of the worst stuff that NEVER happened in my life, than the real stuff that actually DID happen. Put your faith in God.
You’re about to learn that way too many people suffer from Yard of the Month Syndrome. Don’t worry so much about what the outside of your house looks like. Focus on the inside of your house. A happy life is all about your heart, not your head. It’s a good rule to never compare your insides to other people’s outsides. Be you— it’s a good you— and be bold.
I was 40-years old before I learned that the best things in life aren’t things. The best things in life are relationships with your family and friends. Know that you probably haven’t even met your best friend yet.
My grandfather used to say, “You can judge a man’s wealth, not by the size of his bank account, but by the depth and breadth of his friendships.” He was right. He also said, “A rich man has his first dollar, a truly wealthy man has his first friend.” He was right about that too.
So, make friends. And when you think you’ve made enough friends, make some more. In the next few years you’re going to meet most of the men who will eventually be groomsmen at your wedding.
Be humble. Keep your ego in check. The mind is a great servant, but a lousy master, so lead with your heart.
Don’t confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure is fleeting. Happiness lasts. It took me a long time to learn that until you give up the idea of happiness being somewhere else, you’ll never find it. Once you’ve reached a comfortable level of happiness then strive for joy. Joy is happiness with peace and serenity thrown in. Peace and serenity come from always doing the right thing.
You have so much to be grateful for. So, be grateful. Grateful people do grateful things.
Now is a great time to start giving. It doesn’t have to be money. Give of yourself and give of your time. The only thing you’re going to take from this world— the real currency— is what you gave away. Your life will truly begin when you stop expecting the world to give you something and you start trying to figure out what you can give to the world. Start now.
Son, life is really short but it’s the longest thing you’re ever going to do. This isn’t a rehearsal for something else. This is it. This is your life. Be bold. Live it. Enjoy it. Be kind to everyone. Go to class and call your mother.