The last semester was the most difficult semester I had. If I could go back in time, here are 12 lessons I’d tell myself.
Pay attention to your purpose. Your purpose is a cause you’re interested in and believe to be important.
For a while, you might be tempted to pursue the idea of ‘freedom’, a post-college life where you’d get full control over how to spend your time. However, pursuing ‘freedom’ as a goal is meaningless because it is so ill-defined. Instead, pursue your purpose. Work on something you find meaningful and enjoyable. From there, your purpose will craft itself. A more strategic way to arrive at your purpose can be to work on an important problem in your field. When you work purposefully, you’re building a portfolio that will take you closer to freedom.
Your accolades are worth nothing. Your value lies in the positive impact you have on the world.
Awards, certificates, test scores are simply another way of saying “Congratulations, you’ve managed to hack Test X designed by University Y!” You’ve pursued them for the longest time because they promised financial security. But the earlier you break free from validation by your test scores, the better. Seen in another light, they’re just measures of obedience, subordination to the system. Your worth does not lie in your paper qualifications, but the value you create for others.
Validation from people you respect is a better indicator that you’re going in the right direction.
You think you want everyone to like your work. What you actually want is for people you respect to like your work.
Who are the people you look up to in your field? Aim to produce work that they will find valuable. As you create, picture them reviewing your work. If possible, get them to critique your work. Even better, strive to become good enough to approach them and request for their mentorship.
Design your semester workload such that you can hone different skills simultaneously. This way, you can prevent burnout. You also end up sharper.
You think you want a semester filled with exciting modules and great professors. What you actually want is a semester that doesn’t require you to only read a million pages and write countless essays meant only for the professor to read.1 What you actually want is to work with both numbers and words.
Do you remember how you, in your previous semester, managed to alternate between tasks that demanded radically different skills? You could switch from running multivariable regression on R to writing essays about the global political economy of finance, and then to analysing the UN’s role in governing global migration.2 Juggling statistics, social science and public health modules wasn’t tough. It was easy, even fun. As you switch between disciplines, a part of your brain can rest while another is activated to work on a radically different task.
So, please don’t take an essay-heavy workload again. Next time, read an epidemiology or biostatistics module instead of a sociology one.
Take risks. Now’s the time to pursue things you’ve always wanted to.
Once you graduate, the obligations will kick in. It’ll be harder to dabble in side passion projects when the time comes. What better time than now to discover a hidden talent, newfound passion?
Ditch shallow work and instant gratification.
Ditch all shallow web novels, social media and meaningless browsing of the web. Limit checking your email to shallow work periods only, not whenever you pick up your phone. Switch off all notifications save for the absolutely essential apps.
You think that by distracting yourself for a couple of minutes helps you ‘take a break’. But what actually happens is that your attention becomes fragmented. Those couple of minutes make it more difficult to focus when you return to back to work. Over time, these ‘breaks’ chip away at your ability to perform deep, focused work. Instead, go stretch, stare at the clouds or take a walk outside.
Get to know your professors. This is more important when classes are boring.
You think that by taking modules reviewed to be (1) interesting and (2) are taught by great professors means that lessons won’t be boring.
You’re wrong. They can still turn out to be the most mind-numbing subjects of your life. This can happen even if you’ve done your research beforehand.
In times like this, get to know your professors. What do they find most fascinating about their modules? What are their research interests? Why did they enter the teaching profession? This can add a personal touch to the module that might just make it a little more tolerable.
When inspiration hits, start working immediately.
If you let inspiration pass you by, it’ll never come back. The worst thing you can do is to put it off. The best thing you can do it Ride on the energy to develop the idea to the fullest. Draft an outline, write an email, draw a sketch. Dedicate a full Pomodoro session if you can. That way, you have something concrete to return to once you have the time.
Sleep early and wake without an alarm.
This will allow your body to tune in to its circadian rhythm. You’ll feel much better rested once you’re no longer jolted awake by an alarm. Also, you can say goodbye to the guilt of snoozing your alarm.
Be patient when learning something new.
Don’t be too hard on yourself when you’re starting out. Remember, beginner’s mind requires beginner’s time.
When you’re stuck, (1) lower the stakes, (2) seek feedback, or (3) take a walk.
Stuck on writing an article? Write a paragraph instead.
Still stuck? Ask for help. More often than not, all it takes is another pair of eyes to help pinpoint the roadblock. Others can usually see things you can’t. If not, take a walk to mull it over. Bill Gates does it. Cal Newport does it. It’s also worked for you.
Track your finances.
Use an app. Automate the process as much as possible. What gets measured gets managed. You’ll realise that your monthly subscriptions add up. One-time purchases can burn a bigger hole than you think. Tracking your income and spending will go a long way.
Surround yourself with people that inspire you.
Being the introvert that you are, it’s easy to retreat into your own shell. But it’s college! You’re surrounded by crazy intelligent people! Imagine the things you can learn. So, reach out to them. They’ll teach you, stretch you, push you to your ultimate potential. You can find them among your friends, professors, even professionals that you’ve only learned about online.
So here we are, the twelve lessons I’d tell myself if I had a chance to re-live the last semester all over again.
Here they are:
- Pay attention to your purpose. Your purpose is a cause you’re interested in and believe to be important.
- Your accolades are worth nothing. Your value lies in the positive impact you have on the world.
- Validation from people you respect is a better indicator that you’re going in the right direction.
- Design your semester workload such that you can hone different skills simultaneously.
- Take risks. Now’s the time to pursue things you’ve always wanted to.
- Ditch shallow work and instant gratification.
- Get to know your professors. This is more important when classes are boring.
- When inspiration hits, start working immediately.
- Sleep early and wake without an alarm.
- Be patient when learning something new.
- When you’re stuck, (1) lower the stakes, (2) seek feedback, or (3) take a walk.
- Track your finances.
- Surround yourself with people that inspire you.
- This semester, you studied: Origins of the Modern World, Emotions and Social Life, International Conflict Analysis, Nationalism and the Arts, Nanoscale Science and Technology . It didn’t help that some professors weren’t your cup of tea; or that module content wasn’t exciting enough. Work was admittedly tougher, but that wouldn’t be a problem if it was fun or flexed more than just your literary muscle. You got by, but with great reluctance. ↩
- The semester before, you studied: Global Political Economy, Global Governance, Methods for Social Research, Introduction to Public Health, Independent Study Module (you did an epidemiological study about HIV infection in Myanmar). ↩