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    Advice to my teenage self

    Advice to my teenage self

    I turn 40 today, and as I get closer to finishing my autobiographical novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the person I was before the events detailed in my book took place.

    In case you are unfamiliar with my story, here is a quick synopsis: In 1997, my adoptive parents received a phone call out of the blue informing them that I had been separated from my biological family in El Salvador during the country’s civil war and that they had been searching for me for 14 years. After taking a blood test to confirm my identity, my adoptive family and I flew down to Costa Rica in December to meet my birth family for the first time. It was an incredible reunion, after which I spent the following years visiting and getting to know this new family.

    I was only 16 years old at the time, and I didn’t yet understand the long-lasting impact that joyous and yet challenging event would have on my life. I didn’t know that I would spend the next two decades chasing something that was never really obtainable. I was unaware of, or unable to process, the feelings of grief and loss that haunted me during that time. I was still trying to find my place in the world and trying to make sense of the absurd reality that I had been presented with.

    As I look back on the past 20 years or so, I think about what advice I might give to my younger self. The life lessons I would share with him to help with the journey ahead. I also wonder if he would listen. I was, and still am, a person of strong will and fierce determination. The only difference is that now I know that I don’t have all the answers. So, I have no idea if that naïve kid would actually listen to this advice, but here it goes.

    • Don’t define yourself by the stories in your head. You will tell yourself stories that limit what you can do, like, “I’m not a person who does that” or, “I’ve never been good at this.” You may think these are factual statements, but in reality, they are simply limitations you put on yourself.
    • Don’t define yourself by the stories of other people. People will try to tell you who they think you should be, don’t let them. Most of the time, they aren’t doing this out of malice but because they want what is best for you. Despite their best intentions, you will need to find your own path forward.
    • Play in the sandbox. People will want to know, “What are you doing with your life?” You’re not supposed to know. I still don’t. Try different activities and pay attention to what you like, but more importantly, pay attention to what you don’t like. Use those feelings as a campus and let them guide you towards the work that is most meaningful to you.
    • Doing what you love is no substitute for hard work. In fact, doing what you love simply means that you will be willing to work harder at it than in other endeavors. You will need to remember this because making an impact with your art will require more effort than you could imagine.
    • Fear and danger are not the same thing. You will spend way too much time being afraid. When you ask someone out, volunteer, or take a risk, you may feel a deep-seated fear of rejection. While it’s ok to feel that way, try to understand that your life is not actually in danger and that it’s simply our primitive brains overreacting.
    • Don’t run away from hard decisions. It never works. Over the years, you will face many difficult decisions, don’t hide from them. Hiding only makes it worse. That doesn’t mean you have to rush into anything, take as much time as you need, but you cannot make those choices go away by ignoring them.
    • Opportunity does not guarantee success. You are very fortunate to grow up where you did, with the people you did, but that doesn’t mean the world will give you what you want. You have to wake up and fight for it every day. In the end, that fight will be more rewarding than any success that comes from your efforts.
    • Sometimes hard work isn’t enough. People will tell you that if you just work hard, then you will get what you want. It’s not true. Hard work is essential, and you need to do it, but it’s not always enough. Sometimes, there are forces beyond your control that will mess up your best-laid plans.
    • Failure is an event, not a person. This one comes from your mentor from afar, Seth Godin, who got the quote from his mentor from afar, Zig Ziglar. Not achieving your goal does not make you a failure. It is simply part of life. Try not to take failure so personally and realize that it’s merely part of the learning process.
    • The work will lift you up. You’ll get this one from Twyla Tharp, who got it from Stella Adler. It means doing great work, regardless of the outcome, is the secret to fulfillment.
    • You are not entitled to the fruits of your labor. Sometimes, it takes a while for the people who need your art to find it. Watch Searching for Sugar Man and read The Rise. You will see what I mean. I’m not saying you should work for free, but don’t always expect to make money off your labor.
    • You are not your work. When someone doesn’t buy what you are selling or like what you have created, it’s not a reflection of how they feel about you. Sometimes what you are producing just isn’t good enough yet. Try not to take that rejection so personally.
    • Know the price and be willing to pay it. Everything has a price, but not always monetarily. Sometimes that price will be in the form of a lost relationship, a squandered opportunity, or wasted time. If you aren’t willing to pay that price, you will never make it through The Dip.
    • Money is mostly a story. Learn to manage it, but try to understand that it is a tool, not a reflection of your self-worth.
    • Don't fixate on the visions in your head. Life will never turn out the way you imagine it, so learn to let go of those daydreams and stop obsessing over the “what ifs.” Easier said than done, I know, but you can’t change the past, no matter how much you may want to.
    • You are not alone. While your experiences are unique, and at times you may have trouble relating to others, there are more people in the world like you than you know. It will take many years for you to find them, but you will.
    • You are stronger, more resilient, and more capable than you know. Life is hard. There is no other way to say it. You will be put in many difficult situations that will make you feel overwhelmed and broken. But, these challenges will not break you, and just when you think you can’t take them anymore, you will find a way forward.
    • Finally, be kind to others, but more importantly, be kind to yourself. You’re not always going to get it right, and you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but never forget, despite those mistakes, you are still worthy of love and acceptance.

    P.S. If you're interested in getting updates about my up coming book, you can sign up for my email newslettler, and when you do, you will get to read the first three chapters.

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    Nelson/Roberto

    Separated from my family during El Salvador's civil war, by death and adoption, I am a writer, photographer, and storyteller.

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