If I could do it all over again, I would take that Ceramics class.
Mid-way through my college career, I passed up taking Ceramics because I was pretty sure that, while I'd enjoy the process, I wouldn't be especially good at throwing clay pots, and might not get an A in the class, no matter how hard I worked.
I don't remember what class I took instead, or what grade I got. What a waste.
Other regrets? While I was studying in London, I met a dashing doctoral student passing through town after a year of field work in Africa. We had a wonderful weekend, going dancing and visiting pubs and talking into the wee hours. However, come Monday, we parted ways, because I had classes that morning, and he had a flight home to the U.S. that afternoon. It never occurred to me to cut school to spend a few more hours with him.
If I could do it over again, I would do that.
Another flashback to my junior year abroad: I was traveling in the English countryside with my friend Leslie, and we happened upon a wonderful tea room in a tiny town. We had a positively delicious lunch, capped by a perfect piece of cobbler for dessert. Leslie, a willowy blond, ordered a second slice. I was too self-conscious about my weight to do the same.
I should have had that second helping.
These are the sorts of regrets I have when I reflect on my life so far. None of them have to do with major life choices; those all pretty much worked themselves out. I just wish I had let myself have more fun along the way. I have spent too much time being punctual and counting calories and saving money, and not enough time having a blast.
This is all front of mind because I have been spending time with some of this year's Hillel's Lewis Summer Interns (http://www.juf.org/college/lsip.aspx), college students who recently completed intensive, eight-week work/study internships in the Chicago Jewish community. The program is a very competitive one, and the young Jews who have been selected for it are accomplished, intelligent and all-but bursting with potential. These are Millennials in their prime, and before I met with them to talk about their future careers, I remembered the prevailing wisdom: Patience is required when dealing with members of this generation, because they are so spoiled and self-satisfied.
Except that they are not. At least, that has not been my experience. If these kids have been raised to believe that they are Very Special, one would never know it.
In fact, I find that many of them are scared senseless about the future, and anxious beyond reason. They seem to live in a state of perpetual dread, worried that they are squandering what they expect will have been the best years of their lives.
These young adults go to top-flight schools, but worry about whether they have chosen the right major, whether their grades are good enough, how to pick the right grad school, whether they will get into grad school, and whether it even makes sense to go to grad school.
Most have held a wide variety of impressive internships, and many of their parents are well-established businesspeople, but they fret over how long it will take them to find a job, whether they will ever find a job, and if they will enjoy whatever job they do land.
They are afraid that they will never be able to afford a nice apartment or pay off their student loans. They view marriage as a far-in-the-future luxury that comes to those who succeed and can afford it. They seem to feel vaguely unworthy of success. They are hungry for advice, desperate to do whatever they are supposed to do to weave a virtual safety net for themselves and to ensure their future happiness.
So here's my advice for my Millennial friends:
1. Don't underestimate the satisfaction that comes with sweat equity.
No, you probably won't live as well as an independent twentysomething as you did in your parents' home; you might not be able to afford to trade up every time the newest i-Phone hits the street, or go to every friend's out-of-town bridal shower. Dinners out will become a treat instead of a convenience. Here's the trade-off: You will discover that there is a true sense of satisfaction in working hard for what you have, and you will feel worthy of your success. John Locke, one of my favorite political thinkers, said that you could only own that with which you "mixed your labor." So own your life.
2. Whether you like your job will depend a lot on who you work for and with.
We spend lots of time at work, and lots of time with our co-workers. When you interview for a job, consider not just potential responsibilities, opportunities for advancement and salary/benefits, but also whether the workers and supervisors you meet are people you think you will like and respect. This makes all the difference.
3. Find a cause or pastime you can be passionate about.
Do something that feeds your soul, beyond what you do for a living. You must remain aware that you are more than your career. Learn to cook, raise money for cancer research, study Torah, rebuild vintage cars, join a book club, become a literacy volunteer (http://www.juf.org/tov/literacy.aspx), plant a garden.
4. Live alone at least once in your life.
It's important to figure out how you like to live when left to your own devices: how you prefer to spend your down time, what you like eat and when, how you like to spend your money. No parents, no roommates, no spouse or partner. You need to get to know yourself before you can share your life effectively with anyone else.
5. The most important decision you'll ever make is who you choose to spend your life with.
At Joel's and my wedding ceremony, I remember Rabbi Shapiro promising that if our marriage was good, we could withstand life's inevitable trials and tribulations, but that if our marriage was not good, nothing—no amount of money, no fancy car, no name on the office door—would ever make up for it, ever. He was right. Choose someone who brings out your best self, someone who will be a haven instead of part of the storm.
6. Remember that having kids should be fun.
It's truly not all about diapers and bills and drudgery; it's about seeing the world again through new eyes. Having kids is a vote of confidence in the future, and it should be joyful. There's no greater triumph than your son tying his first shoelace, no greater delight than your daughter telling her first knock-knock joke. And there's no greater thrill than hearing your child recite a Bracha for the first time. (An added bonus: No one, not even your dog, will make you feel as important when you walk through the front door after a day at work.) You will never stop being amazed that you made this incredible human being from scratch.
7. Quit worrying and have a beer.
You are not allowed to think too much about any of this until you have at least two years of college under your belt. And even then, you are only allowed to think about the future sparingly. Instead, you should be enjoying the present.