It’s time for the next installment of Dear me, future psychologist, a gradPSYCH Blog exclusive in which a prominent psychologist writes a letter to his/her 16-year-old self. We hope you enjoy these letters and glean some invaluable wisdom and guidance as you decide whether to enter graduate school in psychology, as you navigate the challenges of graduate school, and as you make decisions about your career and life.
This letter is from Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, ABPP. Dr. Kazdin is Sterling Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University. At Yale, he has been Chairman of the Psychology Department and Director of the Child Study Center at the School of Medicine. Currently he is Director of the Yale Parenting Center. His 750+ publications include 49 books that focus on research methodology, interventions for children, parenting and child rearing, and interpersonal violence. His parenting work has been featured on NPR, PBS, BBC, CNN, Good Morning America, 20/20, Dr. Phil, and the Today Show. In 2008, he was President of the American Psychological Association.
FROM THE DESK OF ALAN KAZDIN:
I am sorry to have taken so long to write you. Writing to you was on my to-do list, which I misplaced several months ago. I finally found the list when I decided it was time to do my laundry. In any case, I am here now and so pleased to be in contact with you.
A task set out for me is to offer advice based on the perspective of time that has elapsed from when and where you are at age 16 to when and where I am now at age 71. As you will know in some distant future, as a general rule I am reluctant to give advice to anyone but I really love to receive the input of others, whether I follow that or not. With that in mind, I am not going to give you advice now even though I care about you deeply and actually am tempted.
I know you are really caught up in the present and truly enjoying yourself. As it turns out you will look back on this period with enormous warmth, joy, and amusement but also it will have enduring impact in relation to your very modest roots. Your style in the next decades will continue to focus on each present period without a long-term plan or even seeming goals beyond the immediate horizon. As odd as that may sound, I urge you to stay with that style—it will serve you well. Moreover, you will always be pleasantly baffled as to how you ended up here and there in your personal and professional lives, given that you were not thinking very far ahead.
There are some things you might consider as guides as your life and world continue to expand. Perhaps keep in mind that one (you) can (almost) never be:
- Too kind to others;
- Too forgiving and merciful;
- Too helpful for those less fortunate, whether through no fault of their own or who have seemingly played a strong role in their own plight;
- Too caring, intense, and loving;
- Too connected to family; and because I know you and how you think,
- Too funny.
After a very long and wonderful life, your mother has passed away quite recently, but she was fond of prizing you throughout your life for your enthusiasm and said that was the best gift she gave you. (She, and for that matter her entire cohort, were not genetically or epigenetically informed and knew little of the many domains [e.g., microbiome, connectome, environome, interactome] that influence affect, behavior, cognition, socialization, and health. Consequently, she pretty much took credit for your having that enthusiasm, and she had that as well.) Along with that, you have a somewhat naïve and occasionally Don Quixote feature about you. (I think next year you will be assigned to read that book—the real one, not those yellow Cliff Notes of which you are especially fond.) Soon, college will start to sculpt and then polish these features of you and eventually help you integrate them. (Apologies for the life spoiler—yes, believe it or not despite your fooling around so much now, you are going to college. I know you will provide an acknowledging smile when you read this—at this time in your life; you are taking high-school extremely seriously, except the part about classes and academic work! There is a potential spoiler here too but I will hold back. If you can save this letter and read it again in 3 or 4 years from now, you will understand and be happily astonished.)
As you move forward to your job and career (I am not telling what that is), direct any training, talent, or skill you have to helping people at the level of the individual but also at the level of society more broadly. There is enormous suffering and astounding inertia, indifference, and illusory efforts (all talk) to help. On the other side, there are many people already working to help and in amazing and creative ways that can and do make a difference. Use your enthusiasm, Quixotic naiveté, and intensity to connect with like souls, and join the battle in whatever way you can. There is so much to do and so much need, it is easy to find ways to contribute.
Above all, enjoy yourself and your family and keep your natural focus on the present. The main insight of your distant you (me) is how quickly life can unfold and pass. Probably the last thing on your mind at this moment is the prospect that in a relative flash of time, you may be old and asked to write a letter to your 16-year old self. By that time, quantum states may have been mastered and you could be in the same room at the same time and be both the 16-year old and the older wrinkled version who writes you now. Quantum computing is almost here and probably there will be quantum Skype or FaceTime right after that so if you are not in the same room, perhaps you and I can still chat and see each other. Either way, I am so pleased to be entangled with you now. Enjoy yourself.
Un fuerte abrazo,
Editor’s Note: Dear Me, Future Psychologist is inspired by the Dear Me book series by Joseph Galliano. Special thanks to David A. Meyerson, Ph.D. for creating this series for the gradPSYCH Blog. Please check out other letters in this series: