Periodically I get the opportunity to speak at colleges and universities around the country. As you may know, I love public speaking. I’m a big hambone for starters, so I love the attention and the applause. I also get great personal fulfillment from teaching and inspiring young minds.
Given what I do for a living, whenever I lecture I'm asked lots of questions about show business. Students ask me how to get an agent. They ask me how to get their films produced. They ask me how to become successful actors, writers and directors. Those are all important questions and I answer them as best I can. But as I look at life from my vantage point today, what I wish someone had told me when I was in school is something altogether different.
My family immigrated to the United States when I was eight years old. I started the third grade in a new country, not knowing a single word of English and without a single friend. I was an outsider. I was disoriented. I wanted desperately to assimilate.
Throughout my youth, the people positioned to guide my thinking told me all the things I couldn’t do. Things I couldn’t do because I was an immigrant, or because of my height (or lack of it), or because our family was not rich. No doubt they were trying to help and protect me, but the advice I got from these so-called mentors was wrong. What I want to pass on to you is what I wish they had told me instead.
Don’t let fear paralyze you. There is nothing innately wrong with fear. It may save your life one day, figuratively or even literally. Fear is a survival mechanism hard-wired into our reptilian brain. Let fear work for you when necessary, but don’t let it overtake you. Too many people don’t follow their dreams and live unfulfilled lives because they are afraid to fail. They are afraid to be rejected. They are afraid to look foolish.
You be the opposite. Be afraid not to try. Be afraid not to risk. Be afraid not to live your life as fully as you deserve. Take at least one chance every day on behalf of your heart. Take at least one chance every day in your career. Take at least one chance every day in everything that gives your life meaning. You’ll win a few and lose a few. You’ll laugh more than you can imagine and cry more than you think you can bear. But you’ll never regret reaching for the stars. Les Brown, the well-known motivational speaker, likes to say that when most people die, their epitaph could easily read “dead, but not used up”. Don’t just exist, my sweet daughter. Live!
Have a love of learning. I don’t necessarily mean academics, although they often go hand in hand. But I hope as you continue to develop you’ll love to read. I hope you’ll have a native curiosity about biology, or literature, or comparative religions, or lacrosse and its lore, or fashion, or astronomy, or any of the things that make life and humanity so miraculous. I was never a particularly great student, but somewhere along the way I fell in love with reading. I found that books helped me escape to faraway places. I found that they gave shape to my innermost feelings and gave voice to my opinions and beliefs. Books have given me an appreciation of the beauty of language that has enriched my life immensely. May you have that same glorious experience.
And finally, believe in yourself. Others will perceive you as you perceive yourself and to quote Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. My father’s father (your great-grandfather) was a fascinating person. You would have loved him, and he would have adored you. He was intelligent, passionate, caring, and courageous. When I was in college he and I spent many hours at his dining room table discussing everything under the sun. While my grandmother fed us until we were ready to burst we’d talk politics, love (he and his wife were married for more than sixty years), religion and anything else that crossed either of our minds.
By then he was already in his mid-seventies. In the mid 1940’s, when my grandfather was about fifty, he moved his entire family from Europe to South America to start a new life. He did not speak one word of Spanish at the time. Imagine that! Imagine having to start all over at fifty in a distant land where you don’t even speak the language. Yet your great-grandfather did just that. He learned Spanish, and then he rose to a high level at the company where he worked in Montevideo. I suspect running from the Nazis was a pretty good motivator too.
At age seventy, he and my grandma Lilly decided they wanted to be closer to us, so they picked up and moved continents again. My grandfather spoke no English, but he got a job as a bookkeeper in Cleveland because he didn’t want my grandmother and he to be dependent on my parents. At seventy! I once asked him how he managed to do all that in his life. “I believed in myself”, he told me, “and I knew if I believed in myself then others would too”.
Mackenzie, you have been blessed with God-given gifts. As I write this letter you seem to have a passion and a talent for the arts. Maybe those will remain life-long pursuits. But who knows? You’re ten. Maybe as you get older you’ll discover that you have a privileged mind for science. Maybe as you get older you’ll love carpentry instead, or archeology, or planting flowers. Maybe you’ll understand the value of baseball cards and make a life out of that. Maybe in the future when you look under the hood of a car you’ll see art.
Use these gifts however they unfurl. Savor them without apology. Go forth and fulfill your destiny. And may all your impossible dreams come true.
All my everlasting love,