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Three Lessons From Life after High School

Ana Polanco


My goddaughter’s High School graduation was Friday and while I should be writing about aging parents, I really find myself drawn to talk about what we can learn from looking back at life transitions.   

High School graduation is such a defining moment in a young woman’s life and represents what I consider one of many conscious transitions into shaping who we want to be in the world. Much like our first menstrual cycle, High School graduation is another jump into the unknown and really tests how comfortable we are with not knowing what’s coming next.  

As I reflect on my own graduation, I can safely look back and see how many ways I was and wasn’t prepared for the transition that lay before me. My mom had definitely covered the basics – work hard, don’t be wasteful, do your own laundry, cook, clean and the eternal sex talk which boiled down to --- Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get pregnant and did I mention… don’t get pregnant. Sound familiar.  While these skills were really important for general self sustainability in the dorms, there were really important reflections that she had raised a good kid and she took great pride in that.

Looking back, the real teachings had been in all those transitions in my mom’s life that profoundly affected me. My mom’s life and her willingness to embrace change were important life lessons that I have reflected on often over the course of my life. My mom is one of four sisters from the baby boomer era. My mom, the rebel in her family, has lived an adventurous life. She left her native home of Bogota, Colombia in her early 20s to pursue a place where women could be more than mothers and the husband of so and so, to really define her own life.

She has always lived on her own terms. While she was definitely scared as she made all the transitions, she never let fear drive her life. In the face of difficult relationship breakups, she dealt with money issues as she became a single parent, and had a deep desire to graduate from college and change her life. My mom was resilient---with a big R! While her transitions were not always graceful and sometimes hard and lonely, she met each turn with great defiance. Each challenged faced proved how strong and malleable my mom was as life through her a literal obstacle course of challenges.    

As I stepped out into the world after High School, I was met with a whole other set of challenges. My mom's experiences prepared me for some of those experiences. Except, now as an independent college student and adult, I had choices to make and own. While I avoided some hard lessons based on my mom's experiences, others were harder to shake. For some time, it was easy to blame my mom or others for not preparing me for these lessons. Blaming others for my own limitations was a way of avoiding my own problems. Once I began taking responsibility for my own choices, I had a greater sense of personal power and real appreciation for making my own decisions and owning my own mistakes. By taking more ownership over my life choices, I began to really appreciate the fantastic, horrifying and ugly transitions life brought me. 

While not all our experiences were the same, my mom has taught me three important life lessons that helped me meet life's challenges. Today, I can look back and really appreciate them:

Tell fear to take a back seat. Fear is always present. My mom really taught me to look fear in the face and respectfully tell it to take a back seat. Fear is an important emotion. It has practical uses like warning us not to touch the fire on the stove or cross traffic when you don’t have the right of way. And fear also shows up when we’re about to do something outside our comfort zone. Being fearless is not the goal. Instead invite fear to be present and also remind fear that they are not the driver. Instead let other emotions or parts of yourself take the wheel like creativity, adventure and discovery.

Obstacle courses make us stronger. While you may be super annoyed about every obstacle that has come your way, the truth is that those obstacles help us grow, stretch and change in important and even unexpected ways. We tend to cover up our obstacles or low moments out of shame or fear. People of all ages are more resilient than we think. Sharing stories of adversity and change help young people transition into adulthood and show us each other how to be truly authentic and desirable human beings. Teaching each other to be open and vulnerable also creates an opportunity to receive love from others as we share these stories and how we overcame challenges.    

Resilience. The number one lesson I took from mom is the important of resilience. While the universe conjures up the next cocktail to force you to move on from wherever you are, Remember if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger! Find your resilience and praise it every day. Looking back what are the stories of resilience in your family and within your community? How can you honor those and remember those when the going gets rough.

Remember to celebrate what happens between the big milestones. Graduations, your first period, weddings, the first time you walked, were all milestones of your early years. Let’s also celebrate those lesser known milestones like getting out of debt, surviving your first break up, passing that class, listening to your friend without zoning out, telling the truth, being vulnerable and even finding your own voice. If you are present to your life, you can celebrate a new milestone each day. That will make the big milestones all the richer.     

It’s your turn. How are you present to your own life? How can you celebrate a milestone every day?