At AoM we’re great champions of the lost art of letter writing. Emails, texting, and the wide variety of other digital mediums available to us in the modern age are convenient and efficient, but they can’t hold a candle to the warm, tangible, classy nature of handwritten correspondence. Letters are the next best thing to showing up personally at someone’s door.
Of course, snail mail doesn’t need to replace our digital messaging — it’s just a satisfying activity (and even hobby, if you’d like) to take part in from time to time. It’s nice to have a pen pal or two you correspond with through real letters; being able to open the mailbox and find an envelope addressed to you is a true delight.
Beyond basic correspondence, there are 7 types of letters I suggest every man write at least once before they turn 70. Each kind of letter described below covers a different part of the human experience, and provides a benefit to both the writer and the recipient (though you don’t have to send them all). The former gets to participate in the exercise of putting words to feelings, a process that can hone gratitude, humility, and perspective on life. The latter gets to open an envelope filled with comfort and encouragement. It’s win-win.
With most of these types of letters, doing it once is definitely just the minimum goal. Making their writing a regular habit will keep the benefits flowing to you and the lucky recipients of your notes – until you’re 70 and beyond.
1. A Letter of Congratulations
The personal pride one feels from reaching a goal is certainly satisfying. But having others recognize the accomplishment definitely makes it all the sweeter. We want others to see in us, what we see in ourselves.
Acknowledging the milestones of others with a letter of congratulations warms the heart of the recipient, and helps keep us humble as well. Watching for and describing the achievements of those around us not only serves as an antidote to narcissism, but inspires us to keep striving for our own goals.
Congratulatory notes can strengthen both personal and professional relationships, and regularly sending them to loved ones and colleagues is a great idea. But you should also consider occasionally writing a longer letter of congratulations when someone close to you reaches an important milestone, makes a particularly positive decision, or achieves a goal that leaves you especially impressed. Such a letter provides both the writer and the recipient the opportunity to reflect on how far they’ve come, the setbacks they’ve surmounted, and the positive attributes that helped them reach their goal and will continue to serve them well in the future. Maybe your brother just joined the Marines. Maybe your friend set a new record in the 400-meter dash. Maybe your daughter is about to become the first person in your family to graduate college. Let them know that you’re proud of them – that you see them.
2. A Letter to Your Father
No figure looms larger in a man’s psyche than his father. For better and for worse, our dads are our first models for manhood.
Every boy hopes for the “perfect dad.” Our fathers sometimes fall so short of this model that we ache in disappointment for what might have been. Or they may be so close to the ideal that we worry we’ll never live up to the example they set. Either way, our relationship with our father shaped us as no other, and our feelings about that relationship run deep, whether we can even acknowledge them or not.
Most of us have never taken the time to really thank our dads for everything they’ve done for us, or on the flip side, fully faced the painful realization of how much they’ve hurt us. Yet if we don’t understand how we feel about our dads, we can’t understand how they shaped us, and we can’t understand ourselves and why we turned out the way we did.
Writing a letter to your father is an excellent way to reflect on these questions. You don’t have to send this letter if you don’t want to – it can be an exercise you do just for yourself. The purpose is simply to articulate, and thus better understand, your feelings about your dad.
3. A Letter of Condolence/Sympathy
Of all the letters you will write during your life, the sympathy note is arguably the hardest to pen. It can be very difficult to find the right words, or any words really, to say. We worry about saying the wrong thing, or we feel awkward talking about such a serious matter. It’s thus often tempting not to dabble in this correspondence category at all. We tell ourselves that the grieving person knows we love and support them anyway.
And they probably do. But everyone would rather hear it from you themselves. They want a tangible reminder that you are thinking about them during their hard time. Your words can bring a brief, but very real moment of comfort. I can tell you that it really does mean a lot when someone takes the time to say, “I know you’re in pain and I hurt that you’re hurting.”
The sympathy letter is not only one of the hardest on this list to write, it’s one you should work the hardest to make a recurring habit rather than a one-time event. Whenever a friend or loved one loses someone close to them, take the time to pen them a note. Whether you live close to the person or far away, whether you knew the person they lost well or not at all, make it a priority.
4. A Letter to Your Future Self
At a certain point in your life — if you’re like me, it will happen in your late twenties — the person you were as a boy and a young man will begin to seem like another individual, someone separate from your grown-up self. It’s a strange thing to experience. It’s not that you lose memories of your past, or change so radically from your younger self you don’t recognize him (though that might be the case), but simply that your boyhood self and your current self come to seem like two distinct individuals. Almost like the younger is an ancestor of the older; the child is truly the father of the man.
Because of this cleaving between our past and present, we are able to fairly objectively reflect on and examine who we were as a young man. But what would that young man say if the tables were turned and he was sizing up your current self?
Writing a letter to your future self gives you a chance to find out. Pen a letter that you don’t intend to open for a period of years or decades. Express your hopes for the man you will be when that envelope is finally ripped open. What do you hope your future self is doing for work? Does he have a wife and kids? Is he still active in his faith? What ideals do you hope your future self hasn’t given up on? You may find when you eventually read the letter many years hence that your goals and ideals have changed a great deal, but that you actually don’t mind, because you traded them in for better ones. The naiveté and earnestness of your youthful voice may cause you to smile and chuckle. Alternatively, the passion of the younger you may create a great sinking feeling, as you realize how far you have strayed from how you once hoped to turn out. Perhaps you have become a man that your younger self would be ashamed of. His time-traveling entreaties may bring you to your senses, revive your old dreams, and inspire you to change the course you’re then taking.
5. A Love Letter
It’s not always easy to express our feelings to our significant others. We’d rather show our love through our actions. While women definitely appreciate these concrete manifestations of our commitment, their brains are quite a bit more language oriented than ours. They want to hear the words behind the actions. They want to know exactly what’s in our hearts.
Yet it’s hard to not only find the right words to express how we feel about someone, but to also make it flow and sound real purty. It’s especially difficult when you’re sitting down with someone and trying to remember exactly what you wanted to say. Enter the love letter.
We often associate love letters with days gone by – the eras past when men went off to war and left on journeys that took them away from their loved ones for months or even years at a time. In reading biographies of great men, I’ve been continually impressed with the passionate love letters they penned to their wives; while we often think of men of the past as being more stoic than us, some of them definitely had us moderns beat in the romance department.
Yet your sweetheart doesn’t have to be far away for you to write a love letter to her. A love letter is appropriate even when you’re sleeping alongside your special someone every night. It’s a chance to express your feelings in a more ardent way than you do on a day-to-day basis.
A fervently romantic letter (or a whole year of them) becomes a testament in the history of your love. Such a letter constitutes a record of your relationship that she’ll hold onto for the rest of her life, and that your grandchildren will read and “awwww” at.
6. A Letter of Encouragement
We’ve all had times where we’ve struggled mightily with setbacks and doubt, times when we were tempted to abandon our path and beat a retreat. If we were lucky, someone we trusted stepped in at the right moment to offer us some words of encouragement — a shot in the arm that helped us gain perspective on our challenges, see a vision of the light at the end of the tunnel, and gain the strength to keep journeying on.
Receiving such reassurance face-to-face is always quite effective and desirable. Nothing like a literal arm around the shoulder. But in many ways, it’s even better to have such encouragement delivered via letter. Not simply because being physically present with someone is not always possible, but because a letter offers the struggler a permanent record to which they can return again and again for succor. In the midst of a pep talk from a friend or parent, our spirits soar, but when we’re back alone their words become fuzzy and our hearts sink. A letter can be read and re-read during times when the sojourner once again falters; it serves as a prick to his memory — something to which he can hold fast and renew his confidence.
A letter of encouragement tells someone in the midst of a hard time that you’ve got their back and have faith in their ability to continue on or find a way out. Perhaps your niece has gone away to college but is feeling depressed and thinking of dropping out — you had a similar experience and can share some advice on how to cope. Perhaps your son has broken up with his first love and thinks it’s the end of the world, and you can offer your assurance that it’s decidedly not and there are plenty of fish in the sea. Or maybe your friend has been hit with a wave of homesickness while at boot camp, you were part of the process he used to make the decision to join the military, and you can remind him of how he arrived at that choice.
7. A Letter of Gratitude
Gratitude is one of the hallmarks of a life well lived. It is a virtue that we intuitively know profoundly impacts our personal happiness and the quality of our relationships. And research has repeatedly proven the validity of this viscerally understood truth.
Nothing else can buoy up both our personal and professional relationships quite like gratitude. A warm word of appreciation can instantly thaw the ice between people, and strengthen an already solid bond.
Taking the time to articulate our gratitude humbles us with the realization of how dependent we are on the kindness and help of others, and how lucky we are to have them in our lives. Expressing our gratitude also helps us put the not-so-good things in our lives in proper perspective by showing us that even in tough times, we still have a lot to be thankful for.
Write thank you notes early and often, for things both big and small. While it’s often tempting to send a message of gratitude via email (and it’s certainly better than nothing), it’s incredibly heartwarming to receive such a message inscribed with pen and paper. If something happens during the day that brings a smile to your face or warms your heart, jot off a quick note to the person responsible. If someone goes above and beyond at work, leave them a short note to let them know how much you appreciate and recognize their efforts.
In addition to these quick notes, at least once, hopefully several times, take the time to write a longer letter of gratitude to someone who’s had an especial influence in your life – your wife, your favorite teacher growing up, a best friend. Reflect on all they’ve done for you, and the difference it’s made in your life. Get as specific as you can as you recall these things – people’s hearts are truly warmed when they see that you noticed their attributes and efforts, and remember them well.
How many of these letters have you’ve already written? Which types of letters are your favorite to write and to receive?
Brett & Kate McKay