3 Things I Was Too Dumb To Realize About College

Hindsight isn’t free, so borrow mine.

Photo by Max Letek on Unsplash

I’d like to slap my 18-year-old self.

That’s for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I utterly failed to appreciate three uniquely wonderful things about that time of life.

I’m not going to go on about how “college is the best time of your life” because, frankly, it isn’t. At least it shouldn’t be.

Just the same, it does make three things easy in a way you’ll probably never experience again.

Given the chance to travel back, here’s what I’ll tell myself right after that firm but well-meaning smack.

Cultivate a simple life while it still feels natural

Yeah, there’s the stereotype of subsisting on ramen whenever you can’t snag free pizza at some event. That sometimes hits the mark, but has little to do with simplicity as I mean it.

It’s not about champagne tastes on a beer budget, nor about desperation and struggle.

So what is it about?

Finding satisfaction — deep, abiding satisfaction — in the fact that you’re there: living, breathing, strong, hopeful, and just wading into vast oceans of potential.

If you can’t find happiness walking across campus in the sunshine, then you won’t find it driving a fancy car.

If you can’t find peace in a cozy corner of your cramped apartment, then you won’t find it some McMansion.

If you can’t find joy in freely studying a plethora of interesting topics, then you won’t find it in elaborate entertainment.

However rich or poor you grew up, odds are good that college is the materially simplest time of your life. Of course it’s all relative, but that’s the point. That relative simplicity is a respite from distractions. It’s a chance to fortify your mindset without the fun, yet fleeting and corruptible, appurtenances of professional life.

Those distractions will inexorably increase over the years, so don’t belittle or underestimate the joy of grateful equanimity. That state of mind isn’t some cheap thrill that you only pretend to like as a broke student. It’s a steadily simmering tranquility that can transcend whatever else follows — if you let it.

Make friends practically by accident

Take a bunch of people, all the same age and similar life circumstances, and cram them into old apartments with way too many bunk beds. Throw in enough stress and confusion that everyone’s eager to find their way, to find sure things to cling to. And sprinkle on top a few hackneyed adages about “trying new things.”

What do you get?

Well, some isn’t quite fit to mention here. But also, a lot of friends in very little time.

Shared experience is the surest and most natural way to bond. And this awesomely unnatural situation of navigating ages 18–22-ish with a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand peers is something you’ll probably never experience again. Or maybe you will, but at least not at this scale and for this duration.

So enjoy, be grateful, all that good stuff.

Cling to that lesson later, too, when you’re trying to carve a new life from the cold, stony surface of a new city and are dying for even one person to commiserate, rejoice, or simply walk alongside. That time feels hard. It is hard. But you’ll wistfully realize how easy it was for four years.

And later still, when life is again full of friends whose paths you’ve crossed (or perhaps never strayed from), you’ll keep a keen and compassionate eye out for those who are struggling alone in that same post-grad predicament.

They, like you, may have underestimated the difficulty of forging new ties. You, in turn, may be the friend or mentor they long to find but cannot.

Seize the flood of opportunities that are yours for the asking

As a college student, you’ll find people bending over backwards to give you a foot in the door. Perhaps it comes from hope for the future, perhaps from mere pity, or perhaps from a calculating desire to find cheap future employees. Maybe all the above.

Buy by and large, we have a marvelous tendency to help those who are venturing out on a path like our own. Use that to your advantage. There’s no need to settle for the low-hanging fruit, because they’re all low-hanging, juicy-ripe and ready to fall into your lap.

Curious what someone in an interesting profession actually does each day? Wonder if there’s a way to reconcile your oddest interests in disparate fields?Just ask.

There’s a high chance you’ll get a front-row seat. And when they see you act on their guidance — action is critical — they’ll likely bend over backwards to ensure you can keep moving forward as their budding protégé.

You can engineer that degree of access later in life, too. The power of asking (followed by action) is greater than most of us realize. But as a college student, you can do so with especial ease and low stakes. Just bear in mind their expiration date.

Now, a word of warning: an easy foot in the door does not entitle you to skip one inch of the journey from that point on. And without gratitude to whoever opened the door, you’ll find yourself promptly and rightly locked out of it and blackballed among their network.

Besides, patience counts. All the really good stuff, the Great Opportunity you think you’ll someday tell your kids about, comes with experience. And experience is focused patience.

If you’ve got the enviable opportunity of spending four(-ish) years at college, then it’s crucial to understand exactly what makes this period special.

The knowledge is always available for free, but the freedom to explore it is not.

Use it wisely, use it gratefully, and save yourself the pain of a slap from your time-traveling future self.

Field notes from a (sometimes) simple life.

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