The coolest advice I’ve ever read wasn’t on a meme-studded list or pseudo-psychological article on my newsfeed. It was written more than a century ago, nestled within the six-year correspondence between poet Rainer Maria Rilke and student Franz Kappus. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of Rilke’s letters to Kappus, published a few years after Rilke’s death. Kappus, a melancholy student agonizing over what to do with his life, wrote to Rilke in 1902 asking for criticism on some of his poems. Rilke—ailing and travelling through Europe in search of respite—refused to critique Kappus’s work. Instead, he substituted endearing observations about art and life in general for trite criticism, initiating an epic conversation between himself and Kappus.
What’s so striking about Rilke’s letters is the way he deftly teases out Kappus’s tensions. This is mostly conjecture, but I suspect that Kappus, like many young people, yearned to do something meaningful with his life, something he loved, that would contribute in a substantial manner to the world around him; to understand himself, to be someone. And Rilke not only grasps these anxieties but soothes Kappus’s fears, he instantly dismisses the notion that everyone must be a writer or artist (in fact, he says it’s absolutely fine if that’s not your thing: put down your MacBook, stop gnawing on stubby pencils in a slightly ironic fashion, and try something different), instead focusing on the ways Kappus (and every millennial) can learn to develop his own opinions, understand himself, and make his own choices.