Culture

Dear 17-Year-Old Me: To Win at Life, You’ve Got to Get Messy

by Melissa Johnson

September 11, 2015

“A Letter to My Younger Self” is a series of letters from awesome women to their younger selves—telling them, just when they need to hear it most—what it takes to become the doers and dreamers and builders they’re meant to be.

Dear 17-year-old-Melissa,

It’s me! (I mean you.) Does this letter find you fluffing your permed-up, double-decker bangs with one hand and eating a spoonful of chunky peanut butter topped with Gushers with the other? I hope so. Oh us.

It’s 20 years later. I live in Los Angeles now but I’m back in Syracuse visiting Mom for the holidays. She’s selling the house and said, “All I want for Christmas is for you to please God finally get your crap out of the basement.”

It was going okay until I came across this box, almost too heavy to move. Full of all the trophies, plaques, ribbons, rings and certificates that you’re currently killing yourself to acquire. There’s so much shiny, sharp hardware and primary-colored nylon it’s like a Medieval Times threw up in here. Suddenly, my face is wet with tears and I desperately want to hug you. Because I know what’s behind all of this.

You leave prom early so you can get to a basketball tournament in Albany. You beat yourself into an emotional pulp for anything less than 100 percent on Regents exams. For missing the last shot at semi-finals in Glens Falls. For that time you confuse effect with affect in Mrs. Tully’s class.

One Friday night when you and your sister are fighting, Mom says, “TOBY! You’re not allowed to go to that party tonight.  And MELISSA! You’re not allowed to study.”

You think that being a perfectionist is an honorable thing—the path to true love, professional success and a house in the Hamptons guarded by a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Sir Licks-a-Lot. But my close, personal friend Don Draper said it about happiness and the same holds true here: What’s winning but a moment before you need more winning?

That box will never be full because it’s a black hole in disguise.

Where did your perfectionism come from?

Exhibit A: You’re the middle child between a bonafide genius IQ and “the Muppet”—a.k.a. most adorable kid alive. You needed a way to assert your place in the family and you’re too afraid of piercings to make it as a Goth.

Exhibit B: You have parents from hardscrabble roots who worked tremendously hard to give you the opportunities they never had growing up. So earn it. Cut to: Dad’s childhood home. Single light bulb in kitchen.

Exhibit C: You’re 6 feet 4 inches tall—literally, could you stick out any more? You hope that winning will protect you from the boy who wrote FREAK on your election poster (“Reach New Heights, Vote for Melissa!”) And from the Queen Bee who obliterated your confidence as you strutted down the hall in your brand-new size 12 Sambas. Perfectionism is your shield (“How could I be a loser if I quite obviously do nothing but win?”) and rocket ship to transport you to some faraway land where you belong (Denmark, maybe?)

It’ll take you more than a decade to embrace becoming a filmmaker and writer. It’s harder for you because being an artist entails two things you categorically hate: messiness and not winning. It’s like placing a cat into a tub of water. You scratch and claw and want nothing more than a nice office and 401(k) but the stories you need to tell won’t leave you alone. They ambush you around corners.

The good news is that once you accept your path, you will fail a whole lot.

To turn on the light and shake hands with the boogieman named Monsieur Failuré is the only antidote. He’s not that bad a guy; it’s the fear of him that’s the problem. It’s not fun hearing ‘no’ from every distributor in town, or, “You’re just a little too raw for us.” It breaks your heart when South by Southwest says, “Your film almost made the cut!” twice in a row on projects that took three and four years apiece to create.

But you acquire something more valuable than notches on your lipstick case: GRIT.  Bottom line, kid: In order to live your best life, you must let go of your idea of a perfect life.

A year from now you’ll accept a full basketball scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill. You’ll then give it up and transfer to Harvard where you captain the team but tear your ACL and suffer a disappointing finish to your athletic career. Yet, riding the pine and truly observing the game proves invaluable training for your career as a documentary filmmaker. You’ll risk your life’s savings on your first film, believe all is lost, but ultimately sell it to Showtime. You’ll direct films for ESPN and work with Eva Longoria and John Singleton. You’ll embarrass yourself in a fan-girl pile of goo when you meet Steve James and thank him for making Hoop Dreams, but he’ll be cool about it.

You’ll work a billion hours a week, have many breakdowns and eat a lot of cereal for dinner. But you’ll travel the world with your films and connect with people. You’ll make a humorous, autobiographical film about dating as a tall woman. After screenings when strangers approach you like a sister you’ll know, undoubtedly, that you have chosen a hard road, but a true road.

I’m more weathered these days, a little beaten up. But I’m also tougher and smarter and sexier, dang it. I listen to myself first and everyone else second. I like this version of us better.

Still, I say I’m a “recovering perfectionist” because I’m always at risk for falling back into old habits. So I vigilantly embrace my abundant flaws instead of being shamed by them. Sometimes, in the great Navajo rug tradition, I’ll even make a mistake on porpoise.

This means that the older I get the more of a rebel I become. We’re Benjamin Button-ing! Our old woman self is sure to be boss—with hot pink hair and a neck tattoo that reads: Practice makes imperfect. I hope she sends me a letter soon.

***

I saved a couple awards to remember you by and carried that box outside to the curb. It was snowing—those famous fat Syracuse flakes that make everything look clean for a day. Before long the box was an indistinguishable white mound next to last night’s Thai dinner remains.

When I got home to sunny LA I was introduced at an event as “an award-winning filmmaker.”

Everyone clapped and smiled. The old fix. Sure, it felt good—but not too good. I know better—and that’s my prize hardest won. Besides, I’m too busy thinking about the next project: my first attempt at a scripted film. Almost everyone fails at this. 

Let’s get messy,
Melissa

P.S. That Queen Bee will send you something now commonly known as a "friend request."  And Denmark is beautiful.

Illustration by Tuesday Bassen

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Dear 17-Year-Old Me: To Win at Life, You’ve Got to Get Messy