Dear John George,

I’m thrilled to be your Secret Santa this year, because it has been so inspiring to watch you grow into the impressive young man you already are today. Since I’m no good at knitting hats or baking cookies, here’s something less fun, but hopefully more lasting: a few hard-won observations about what makes life worthy and worthwhile. The world you are inheriting comes with greater challenges and more exciting opportunities than any previous generation has ever faced. Here’s my take on how to take it on…

To become admirable, admire. Boys are taught to be leaders, but the world needs more followers than leaders, and those who follow with distinction of greater use than unworthy leaders. If you cultivate veneration for the magnificence of others, rather than feeling threatened by it, you yourself may emerge as a leader someday without campaigning for the position.

Learn from all. Strong mentors are invaluable; seek them out among both men and women. On balance, however, you may learn even more from children and fools than from sages, often by recognizing yourself in them.

Seek and embrace dissent. Don’t surround yourself exclusively with people who share your beliefs and attitudes. The algorithmic intrusions of technology will increasingly bombard you with appealing regurgitations of your own thoughts and preferences. To push back, cultivate human variety in real life. Converse frequently and openly with those who challenge your views. Make technology your servant and never let those roles reverse.

Reflect upon your nights and your days. Before you leap out of bed each morning, reflect immediately upon your night-visions. The mystical narratives of your dreams contain profound messages; these are, however, only briefly decipherable in the twilight haze of awakening. By breakfast time, they will have evaporated beyond memory and meaning. Later, before you drift into slumber, take a moment to review your day. You’ll notice that how you feel about it has less to do with actual events and more with how you responded to them.

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A good man is a good person. Ignore people who tell you to “man up” or “be a man”. Men and women are more similar than different. Toughness, intellect, purpose and assertiveness are just as important to women as receptivity, compassion and vulnerability are to men. What good is a sailor who has the strength and determination to hold the rudder steady, but no sensitivity to the ever-changing wind? Your hardness and your softness are both superpowers – the trick is learning when to deploy which. (For clarification, watch “Moana”).

Be circumspect with your word. In a world in which the truth is increasingly elusive and disputes run rampant, a reputation for candor is priceless. Work hard at not offending others and harder at not taking offense. Conflicts are best settled by looking forward, not back. While wrongs need to be acknowledged, digging deeply into old wounds risks reopening them. Focus instead on what possible future will most delight all parties concerned.

Smile calmly at bullies. Bullies are people in turmoil, unconsciously struggling to solve their inner conflict by igniting outer conflict. However, they require you to provide the spark. If you neither cower nor let yourself be provoked, your composure alone will often suffice to defuse their instigation.

Question the existence of God. Question also the non-existence of God, and approach it as a personal matter, not a public debate between intransigent zealots. Some of our greatest scientists have been true believers and some of the most exalted preachers have not. The world has method, madness and magic, no matter whom or what you attribute it to. If you find no other path, let love be your religion and kindness your sacred practice. Whether or not it is so, live as if your every thought, word and deed matters.

Find freedom in the center. Without the progressive impulse, that which needs improvement cannot be improved, and without the conservative tendency to maintain the familiar, things that have time-tested value may be unfortunately dispensed with. If you make it a practice to examine all sides of an issue, you will become increasingly free to see the truth clearly, while those who cling like sports fans to one particular disposition become ever more immobilized in the dogma of their chosen prejudice.

Support girls and women. Both collectively and individually, they carry the inherited burdens of inequality and mistreatment. Seek to alleviate and compensate for those however you can. As to the few differences that do distinguish the sexes, approach women like a mindful traveler in a foreign country, eager to learn about the local customs with respect and sensitivity, noting similarities and distinctions with curiosity and openness. Learn to honor the nuances of their language and ways and you will be well received.

Give yourself to the world. What you give to life matters more than what you get out of it. As a man, you will feel expected to achieve, accomplish and succeed. Yet you will learn more from your failures than your successes. Worry less about the scale of your contribution than the quality. Under certain circumstances, a single candle may shed better light than a stadium of fluorescent bulbs.

Don’t confuse sex and love. Love without sex can be shared with anyone and everyone all the time. Sex with love will leave you with an afterglow. Sex without love will leave you with an aftertaste. It may, however, take a certain amount of the latter to develop a true appreciation of the former, so explore as you feel inclined without guilt, nor shame.

Faith does not require religion. Cultivate faith, if only as a powerful repellent to the doubt that will constantly try to creep into your heart. Learn also to nurture hope without expectation; while expectation is an invitation to disappointment, strong hope will always win the battle against fear. Faith and hope, when coordinated properly, are your wings.

Welcome heartbreak. You will witness the immense suffering, pain and horror that exist alongside the beauty, thrill and majesty of life. If you are lucky, romantic love will both enchant and shatter you, but the world itself will break your heart over and over again with its cruelties. When your heart heals, it becomes stronger. Don’t numb yourself to life, nor run from its manifold pains, or you will deprive yourself also of its great joys. Strive to better yourself and you will better the world in the process.

You are not your identity. You have likely been taught not to prejudge nor define a person by their race, gender, age, nationality, religion, sexual preference and other group memberships. Do yourself the same courtesy and refrain, too, from defining yourself by category. Your character and personal ideals say more about you than your identifications ever could. Acting upon your ideals develops integrity; acting out of identification may render your thoughts and feelings generic.

You are part animal, part angel. In your lowest, beastly nature you harbor the capacity for brutal rage and violent destruction. In your most elevated spiritual potential, you have the power to rise above those impulses and act with grace and dignity even in the most challenging circumstances. Whichever of these you exercise regularly will take over in crucial moments.

Smile at Bullies (and Other Life Hacks for My Nephew)  The Good Men Project