One punch came at me, I ducked. Another punch came at me, I could not quite duck. The punch landed square on the side of my helmet. I turned starry eyed and fell back into the lockers. My teammates were standing around, cheering loudly — pushing me back into a boxing match with my senior teammate. The punches kept pummeling me. I tried as best I could to hit him, but I was a scrappy 140-pound freshman. There was nothing I could do but endure the punishment from my senior teammate — he was a good 8 inches taller and 60 pounds heavier then me.
I suffered through it, and then waited for the next week when I would be forced to box another one of the seniors on the team. This was how you “manned up” — all the freshman on Varsity lacrosse had to box all of the seniors on the team. It was our right of passage. It was brutal, scary, and certainly did not make me a better lacrosse player. In fact, it just made me scared shitless on my walk back from field to the locker room — “Would I have to box Josh or Andre today” — I never knew until we came back in the locker room and the seniors announced it was “boxing time.”
Is this Normal?
As a young man, I thought this was normal: men were just brutal to each other and going through punishing physical rites of passage was the way to man up and prove oneself. Many young men at my school created their own rites of passage — from racing cars to violent physical battles. I was lucky to make it through my adolescence without a serious injury but others as my school were not so lucky. Some died in gang violence; others died drunk driving.
Across our country, young men from all backgrounds are initiating themselves and the results are terrifying: There are over 1,000,000 adolescents in gangs around the country; over 90 percent of them are young men. Numerous young men at fraternity hazing over the years. What young men need is for older men to put them through a curated, trying, but ultimately caring and safe rites of passage. They need older male mentors who have “been through the fire” to help guide them on their journey to manhood and teach them that being tough and loving are not mutually exclusive as our dominant cultural message of masculinity suggests.
To help young men on their journey through adolescence, I now work as a mentor, educator, and wilderness + mindfulness trip leader. Years of observing and engaging with adolescent men in their schools, their communities, and the backcountry have allowed me to see what was missing for me at that age. These accrued observations guide my work to ensure young men are equipped with the tools they need to step into manhood with compassion, self-awareness, and true power.
Below are ten things I wish one of the seniors on my team had told me when I was a freshman. They are lessons I now pass along to the young men I mentor and lead on wilderness trips:
1: How My Brain Worked
For young men in particular, it is important to teach them about hyperrationality — the balancing in your brain between perceived risk and consequences. According to neuroscientists, the adolescent male brain is the most susceptible to dangerous risk-taking. I used to take physical risks frequently — jumping off bridges, driving cars too fast, diving off moving boats. It wasn’t that I was unaware of the consequences (like crashing the car, hitting the river bottom, or getting in a boating accident), I just didn’t think any of it would happen to me. But bad outcomes do happen, especially to young men: They represent nearly 4 out of 6 teenagers that die every day in car crashes in this country. Because most young men are never taught how their brain development affects decision-making, they are more likely to make rash decisions. I teach my young men how their brains work. That way they can make smart, informed decisions — especially when those decisions could yield irreversible consequences.
2: Be Myself, Don’t Perform Myself
Young men want to be liked, accepted, and seen. To have all three, they feel they have to perform the person they think others want them to be. Young men are terrified they’ll be rejected if they reveal their authentic selves. I performed a lot in high school, but deep down, I yearned to be able to express myself fully — my love for dance and appreciation of the natural world. But I didn’t. I too was scared I would be judged as “uncool,” or not exciting enough to hang out with. Many of the young guys I work with feel the need to perform as well: they have to pretend to not care at school (even though they do) or disregard their emotional worlds (even though they yearn to express themselves). Interestingly, most of these young men have an awareness of the difference between performing versus being themselves, but they don’t stop performing for fear of losing friendship or face. I tell my young guys that if someone only likes them when they’re performing, that person isn’t a true friend. Your true friends are the ones you can be real with. And you won’t find out who that is until you stop performing.
3: How to Manage My Anger
As a young man, I often burst into violent fits of anger. Sports provided me with a culturally appropriate outlet for my anger: playing defense in a game of lacrosse allowed me to whack my opponents with a 6-foot titanium stick, for example. This is one of the most common things I find working with young guys: They have a lot of anger and don’t know how to deal with it. Young men express anger in different ways, but few young men have healthy ways of confronting this anger, which can lead to violence, even death. In 2013, males ages 15 to 19 were three times more likely to die by suicide, 7 times more likely to be victims of homicide, and 8 times more likely to be involved in a firearm-related death than were females of the same age.
But once I quit sports I had no outlet. The big shift came when I was 19; I learned to meditate. During my first ten-day meditation sit, I truly faced my anger for the first time. Introducing young men to mindfulness practices is a powerful and effective tool I use to help them address their anger in a healthy, direct way — not to squelch their anger, but to acknowledge it, sit with it, and most importantly make sure that you do not react from a place of anger to make a stupid decision that will harm yourself or someone else.
4: Accept My Range of Emotions
When I was a young man, I tried to suppress everything. In the midst of playing sports and training my feelings into submission, I remember telling myself, you don’t have emotions. I thought that having emotions would get in the way of succeeding in sports, academics, and later, in my professional life. The older men around me didn’t seem to express emotions other than my anger or boredom, and it was rare that I allowed myself to fully experience emotions other than those I saw modeled. If I did, I would judge myself for it. I wish someone had taught me, just as I do to my young men, that it’s natural and beautiful to feel the full range of emotions; this what it means to be fully human. And there’s nothing “unmasculine” about it. In fact, the opposite is true. Really knowing what’s going on internally enables you to be a more powerful, self-aware man.
5: Stay Present
With all the pressure that I felt to go to a good college, I agonized all the time over the future. When I wasn’t living in the future, I would ruminate on the things that I had done wrong in the past. The dumb thing I’d said to a girl, the pass I dropped, or the easy test question I’d missed. I remember staying up late one night in my bed concluding that life was about collecting experiences, like trophies, rather than enjoying what is. The notion of living in the present wasn’t even a remote possibility because I was scared of what would bubble up from my interior. I have seen over and over in mindfulness retreats that young men are scared to sit still because they do not have the tools to deal with the feelings that naturally arise. They would rather play with their phones, move around, or do almost anything other than sit with uncomfortable inner states. In an extreme example, a recent study showed that men choose to give themselves electrical shocks rather than sit with their thoughts and emotions . Luckily, mindfulness meditation again offered help; the practice allowed me to understand dwelling in the present moment as a real possibility. This is why I incorporate mindfulness into the work I do with young men in the classroom, mentoring, and in the backcountry.
6: Live in Gratitude
There were so many things in life that I took for granted as a young man. My family did their best — we would take a minute of silence before dinners. But I did not have a relationship with the feeling of gratitude. Because I was so focused on getting somewhere or thinking of what I didn’t yet have, I never fully appreciated what I did have. As a young man, I was never taught how to practice gratitude — meaning how to actively develop and grow a sense of gratitude. Research shows gratitude is a practice that you can actually grow and cultivate. When one of my mentees came back from being in the wilderness for a long time he felt a sense of gratitude that he never had before. He appreciated his home, the clean water, his parents, and the food at the table. When he got home, we established a practice for him to access gratitude to ensure he didn’t slip back into taking all of the things in his life for granted, as it is so easy to do. One of the main reasons I take young men into the woods is to develop and cultivate a deep sense of gratitude for the natural world — and for everything in their lives back home.
7: Develop Real Relationships With Women
At my high school, it was all about the hook up. For me and my friends, the measures of success were how many girls you could hook up with and how “hot” they were. (It was not even a possibility for an athletic guy to come out as gay at my school — he would be hazed and isolated.) This hook up culture prevented me from having emotionally intimate relationships with young women. Without men who modeled this kind of emotional intimacy, it took me years before I learned how on my own. I talk a lot with my young guys who are exploring sexually with woman about noticing what different interactions with women feel like. Does it feel good to have an emotion-less hook up? What about emotional intimacy feels intimidating? What does a healthy relationship with a woman look like? By developing this awareness, they can start to learn how to develop healthy, loving relationships.
8: Build Intimate Emotional Relationships with Men
I had a lot of good buddies in high school, but it was not until late college that I started to develop truly intimate emotional relationships with men. This was in large part because of the stigma against emotionally intimate male relationships. Express vulnerability to another guy and you’re “gay” — meaning weak — the cardinal sin of masculinity in our culture. In a radical perversion of our culture, being emotionally open and real has been attached to gender identity. There is so much fear amongst young men of being called gay that they protect themselves by never showing vulnerability around other men. The result is young men who keep their inner lives hidden from one another. The consequences are deep and long lasting: Many young American men leave high school without knowing how to develop authentic male relationships and go through their lives never experiencing deep male friendship. I teach my young men that being open and real with their male friends is the best way to develop an understanding, compassion, and true brotherhood with one another.
9: Prepare for Life After Sports
Sports were my singular passion growing up. I played football, track, basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, and excelled in lacrosse. I swam every summer, and starting at age 12, I was determined to play Division 1 sports. I achieved my goal when I was recruited to play lacrosse at Brown University. But when I got there I realized my dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I thought that somehow if I played a Division 1 sport, I would’ve made it; I’d be happy. During my freshman year, I started hanging out with men outside of sports who valued sweetness, intellectual curiosity, and a deep focus on social justice. I realized that I no longer loved lacrosse and wanted to move on. During this transition, I had little guidance from coaches, friends, or family about how difficult this transition would be. It proved to be brutal: I derived my sense of self-worth entirely from being a good athlete. In the absence of mentorship, I went on a soul searching solo trip around the world. I now work with many young men now aspiring to play Division 1 sports. I remind them that there is much more to life to being an athlete; in the long run being a thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent man will be more important than anything they accomplish on the field.
10: Decide What’s Important to Me
I felt enormous pressure to go to a “good” college. But my parents and teachers didn’t put this pressure on me; I put this on myself. As a result, I did the things high schoolers are told to do to gain acceptance to elite institutions. I got good grades, became a member of National Honor Society, and took a ton of AP classes. I did do some things that I naturally cared about. I did actually love sports, some of my history classes, and spending time out in the mountains of Colorado and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. But since I was so “on track” I didn’t have time to really step back to ask myself what was truly meaningful to me. What did I really care about? Many students who are on “track” and go to good schools (and others who do not) bump up against these questions of purpose as they navigate life post-high school. I wish mentors had been asking me questions about what was important to me. Why was it that I went through high school without ever having to confront the most important questions in life: What kind of human did I want to be and want did I want to give to the world?
At the end of the day, how are you going to start crafting your own life after adolescence if you can’t answer the big questions about purpose and values for yourself? I tell the young men I work with that, ultimately, they’re going to have to decide what is meaningful to them — not their parents, not “society,” or what is expected of men in our culture. They must follow what makes them come alive, what’s good for the world, and what their heart truly cares for. If young men were taught to follow their hearts more, we would live in a very different world. Instead, most young male hearts are wounded and armored. Laying down the armor and opening up the heart is the first step to experiencing the true fullness of a deeply meaningful human life. True, it can be scary and ambiguous, but it is what I needed to hear most from an older guy on my journey though adolescence.