On Saturday, June 15th, I graduated from college. My family drove up to Chicago, attended the ceremony, indulged my weird eating habits, and then Mom returned home while my dad and sister went to her college orientation at a nearby midwestern university. This weird reverse-bookending thing happened after high school, too – as soon as I graduated, my sister was ready to start. So you’d think it wouldn’t seem so novel. But, yanno, it does?
I think part of the weirdness is going to be a result of the fact that our experiences will be very different. For one thing, her orientation is happening months ahead of the start of classes (and includes events for parents) instead of happening during the week before classes start. By contrast, we went to the same high school, so I thought I knew what she could expect (I was wrong, but the delusion was nice to have).
Another thing is that I really hope her college experience (omg that phrase is starting to sound incredibly meaningless) is markedly different from mine. Not because I regret what I did and how I did it, but because I recognize that for her, and maybe even for me, there are other ways to get what I got.
A lot of the last four years have been frustrating. I’ve been frustrated at my classes, at the demands of picking a major, at my total lack of time to work on any of my own projects (a glance through this blog will show you how many small blogging projects I wanted to start and just could not finish because I didn’t have the time). I think the main reason I decided to major in English (beyond, like, the amount of frustration I developed for certain social sciences) was that I could take writing workshops, meaning that at least once a year, I’d write something creative. That way I could try to avoid the self-loathing that many writers know comes with unproductivity.
At the same time, I recognize that the frustrations I felt were temporary, and maybe even necessary. They definitely helped me gather up my thoughts, made me even more dedicated to the little writing I could do, when I could do it. I also had some really positive experiences – I got to know a lot of amazingly intelligent people, professors and students, who challenged me to think harder about things, and who took me seriously. I can’t tell you how much that meant, and still means to me. Because of those people, I know that there are always new challenges ahead, always new things to consider, always new questions to ask. I hope I don’t forget that.
Anyway, thinking about my sister going into college (along with the rest of her classmates, who are probably the last cohort of students entering college that I’ll know for a long, long time – CONGRATS YOU GUYS!!!), and thinking about my own four years, and talking nonstop for weeks about What College Meant to Me, I’ve realized that there are some things that have just been affirmed and reaffirmed by my experiences. I wanted to write them out, mostly as a reminder to myself. These aren’t new ideas – a lot of them I got as advice, or I read somewhere – but they’re good ones. I think.
So here are some things I know are probably true.
- You have to work to get to do the work that you want to do. No one is going to let you do whatever you want, whenever you want it. And if your passion is some kind of work, whether that’s artistic or scientific or whatever, it’s probably not going to come easily to you. Meaning, it’s either going to be hard, or there are going to be a lot of people who want to do it, too. Or you’re going to have to juggle it and your other obligations. I’d write all day if I didn’t have to eat. But, you know, we can’t just do what we like all day, unfortunately. To quote a character from the truly genius Scrubs, “Nothing worth having in this world comes easily.” That includes the ability to do your work. Carve out that time, take that job, slog through those readings, whatever you gotta do – do the work that lets you do your work.
- The amount that you fail is proportional to how much you challenge yourself. If you’re messing up a lot, it means you’re doing something that’s hard. Keep at it.
- You need people. You’re only as good as the people who you surround yourself with. We’re familiar with the saying that goes, “You’re judged by the company you keep.” But it’s more than that. One of my pretty brilliant professors once said, “Birds who flock together grow similar feathers.” It’s true. If you surround yourself with people who only want to have shallow discussions and hang out, then all you’ll do is have shallow discussions and hang out. Instead, surround yourself with big, complicated, passionate people who have brains, hearts, and minds that fly off the edges of the map. That way you’ll have adventures.
- Be nice to yourself. At the same time that you need people, you need to be on your own side, too. No one is ever going to know you as well as you do. Only you can be your best advocate. Period. Trust that you’re a smart cookie and you’ll let yourself do things that you love and surround yourself with good people.
Another piece of advice that I want to write down here is something that’s been said to me in exactly the same way by two brilliant women, both professors here: Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it.
Think about that one for a while. The first time I heard that, it basically blew my mind. “You’re not obligated to do anything unless you want to.” The second time I heard it, I interpreted it a little differently. “There are always ways of using what you’re good at to do something that you’ll enjoy doing, even if it means that you don’t take the route that people think you should.”
And finally, something that I learned that I think might only be applicable to me, but is also something that I’ve had to keep in mind, and something that’s helped me through a lot of rough times. It’s something about writing: Come back to the blank page. It loves you.
I know that sounds insane. I was just writing about how unproductivity drives me crazy, and the blank page should be a reminder that I’m not doing anything, right? Well, it turns out the opposite is true. The blank page is a happy little cradle for your baby ideas. It’s a void that needs your filling. It’s a place to put the racket in your brain. It wants you, needs you, loves you. Always remember to go back to it.
Good luck, future me. Try not to forget too much?