My dad wrote to me every day during my semester abroad in college. An email a day for 100+ consecutive days (with the exception of the days he visited me in London!).
He didn’t tell me he was going to do this; his first email was waiting for me when I arrived in the Charlotte, NC airport for my connecting flight to London.
It was comforting to see his name in my inbox as I sat in the airport, alone, about to board an international flight for a 4-month adventure. (Sitting at the wrong gate, I might add. A story for another day. And I remember texting dad to say, “Don’t tell mom.”)
Receiving an email from my dad was not unusual … He sends emails to my sister and I all the time. We talk all the time, too, but he appreciates summarizing his thoughts in writing. He likes to share ideas, articles, advice … general encouragement about anything and everything.
I studied abroad in London in the spring of my sophomore year of college. I felt excited and anxious. I’d been planning for years.
I chose to live at home in college to save for study abroad. That said, I’d never been so far from my family, or lived with strangers, or traveled independently. This was not like dipping my toe into the water. This was like diving headfirst into the deep end.
I don’t know if my dad has any clue how much his daily words of encouragement shaped my study abroad experience. On both good days and bad days, I always looked forward to reading his emails.
Let me also note that these emails were in addition to our frequent text messages (a fam group chat) and Skype/FaceTime sessions. In an age when instant messaging is the norm, my dad took the time to pen intentional letters to his daughter each day.
The advice I’ve quoted from dad’s daily emails is pretty simple. You’ve probably heard it all before. But my dad understood something I think the rest of us forget — we need daily reminders because it’s all too easy to get bogged down by the frustrations and challenges of this world.
I know how blessed I am to have such an encouraging role model and mentor in my life. My parents are incredibly wise people and I would not be the person I am today without their love and support.
In a time when so many of us are facing big life changes, I wanted to share dad’s advice — because there will always be seasons of life that push us to grow (whether extraordinarily difficult or extraordinarily rewarding).
So this is especially for those of you who don’t have a strong father figure in your life. You can reap the benefits of my dad’s wisdom, too.
You never feel ready
“A new chapter starts now! If you are anything like me, you are never ready when these types of things happen. I can tell you I certainly wasn’t ready in a number of situations … when I went overseas the first time in college, when I moved to Orlando for my first real job, when we brought you home from the hospital …
School doesn’t prepare you for these seismic changes. And neither do your parents. We do our best, but sometimes you just have to jump in.”
This is true of everything in my life! If you wait until you feel “ready,” you’ll never get started. There is no formula for 100% preparedness. You’ll learn so much just by doing.
Mistakes are inevitable
“Don’t worry about making mistakes — I can assure you there will be mistakes over the next 4 months. Don’t get caught up in them.”
“Rush toward ‘better’ knowing you will fail and make mistakes. If you get knocked down … dust yourself off, get up, and keep moving forward.”
I’m a perfectionist. Nobody knows this better than my dad. I needed the reminder that avoiding mistakes or imperfection is no way to live life. Accept that mistakes are inevitable, and the only thing you can do is learn from them and move on.
Be comfortable (being uncomfortable)
“If you’re like me, your inclination is to remain within your ‘comfort zone’ and not venture too far off the beaten path. But growth only occurs when you push against the boundaries.”
“Be willing to challenge yourself. Don’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”
“Be comfortable (being uncomfortable)” was the subject line of one of dad’s emails. My roommates and I still reference it to this day. But it couldn’t be more true. The things in life that are most challenging for us, or the most uncomfortable, are often the most rewarding.
Even though study abroad was something I’d wanted for a very long time, the experience pushed me out of my comfort zone in so many ways. Sometimes it takes an external situation or circumstance to push our boundaries (because we’re certainly not going to do it ourselves!).
Celebrate small wins
“Be happy with any little ‘wins’ throughout the day — go ahead and pat yourself on the back for the smallest things you accomplish.”
“Make sure to take time to ‘slow down’ and appreciate what you have accomplished. I think you will realize it is quite a bit.”
I felt a lot of pressure to be “productive” in London, to make the most of my time. I’d sometimes feel frustrated if my plans didn’t work out exactly as I’d hoped.
And my dad reminded me to slow down and enjoy the small moments, to celebrate the ‘little wins.’ In the first few weeks, it was about navigating the tube, or cooking a meal in my flat, or learning how to use the ancient laundry machine.
Keep a daily journal
“So before you get caught up in everything — please make sure to keep a daily journal. Again, just 5 minutes a day. I think it will make a huge difference not only when you get back (so you can tell me about everything you did), but also 30 years from now when you want to look back over your adventure.”
My dad suggested I follow a simple template, something like:
- What went well today
- What didn’t go so well
- What I did today/Highlights
We both use the app Day One (highly recommended). I did keep a daily journal that semester; some days I wrote short paragraphs, other days quick bullet points.
I am so thankful I took a few minutes each day to document my experience. Day One has a feature that allows you to print your journal as a bound book — so I’ve got a physical hardback copy of my digital journal, which is priceless to me.
Be a friend to others
“Focus on helping others. You aren’t the only one over there who is ‘anxious’ about things. Others may hide it … but everyone is looking for a friend. Be a friend to someone.”
This was a frequent theme in my dad’s emails. One of the best ways to get outside of yourself is to focus on others. And he was right — we were all in the same boat, living far from home, traveling independently for the first time, experiencing new cultures, taking classes. Every one of us was in need of a friend.
You control how you respond
“You can’t always (or ever!) control other people. However, you have TOTAL control over how you respond to virtually everything.”
“Appreciate the challenges you are facing (every day) understanding that the way you respond will either help or hurt you going forward. Choose to use these things to make yourself stronger.”
Life is not always fair. You will get hurt. But you have a choice — will you let it make or break you?
Focus on where you want to go
“I hope all of us stay focused on what we can do, and not what we can’t do.”
My dad titled this email “Look at the hole …” as a reference to a childhood rhyme he made up when my sister and I learned to ride our bikes. We’d take our bikes out to this big lake in our neighborhood.
There were two wooden bridges to cross, and there were large wooden poles at each end to keep people from driving cars across the bridge. And we’d stare down those poles and get so nervous and wobbly on our bikes that we’d slam into it.
Dad taught us to aim for the space to the right or left of the pole, rather than focusing our energy on avoiding the pole. We’d chant “look at the hole, not the pole,” as we approached the bridge. And it worked.
Think about where you’d like to go, and how you’ll get there, and stop dwelling on the obstacles in your way.
Time has a way of “smoothing edges”
“You’ll have these memories with you for the rest of your life. And time has a way of ‘smoothing the edges’ so you will only remember the best times.”
New experiences or big life changes can be challenging in the moment — but when you come out on the other side, you’ll look back through rose-colored glasses. The growing pains are just a memory.
There were plenty of day-to-day challenges I faced in London that I would have completely forgotten were it not for my daily journal. Now, I see the big picture experience and how it shaped me over the course of the semester.
Set new goals; there are no limits
“Don’t limit yourself. And certainly don’t let anyone else limit you. Set goals that excite you and motivate you. You have the gifts and talents to make a ‘dent in the universe’ (as Steve Jobs once said).”
“Make sure you keep pushing. You don’t have to ‘fall’ back into your old life when you return. In fact, that probably isn’t even a possibility anymore. You are a different person than when you left in so many ways.”
Studying abroad in London was a big goal for so long that I didn’t know what could “top” the experience. As my semester came to a close, I remember thinking, what’s next?
In a way, it did feel like it’d be impossible to return to the life I’d known because I felt like a new person. And that’s ok. Continue to look forward, and set new goals.
“When you left way back in January, I knew it would be tough initially for you to be on your own. So many changes coming at you at once. I thought it would be great to remind you every day that we were still here. We love you and we will always love you — no matter what and no matter where you are! This was my little way of letting you know we were thinking of you.”
These lessons were applicable to me as a college sophomore studying abroad. But they’re still applicable to me today, as a post-grad navigating the adult world of career and relationships.
If we “zoom-out” for the big picture, there’s another takeaway — daily habits add up over time. I don’t know if my dad set out at the beginning to write an email every day, but he did, and it’s one of the most special things to come out of my London experience.
I have the memories and friendships, of course, but when I think about my semester abroad, I remember the love, encouragement, and advice I got from my dad’s letters. As he’d intended, his emails were a link to my home, my family.
And another thing — you may not think that the small things you do for someone makes a difference. To be honest, I didn’t even respond to more than half of dad’s emails at the time. But I read every single one.