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Don't Dream Big

Semi-Subversive Secrets of Success in College

Going to college, you are surrounded by platitudinous clichés about how special and smart you are, how you should study hard, follow your passion, and aim for the stars. In other words, you are in dire need of a reality check. For some tips that will actually be helpful, check out the following list.

College is not a test of smarts. Smarts are a dime a dozen in America, despite any conclusions to the contrary you may be tempted to draw by looking at our political class. College is not mainly a test of smarts. After all, I could determine your IQ in a 30-minute test. I don't need four years for that. Your intellectual abilities will not necessarily be tested hard in college, but your patience will be. What college chiefly tests is your ability to maintain your composure under stress over time, because that is the ability work life in America, for good or ill, requires most.

Let's face it, most of the specific information learned in college is forgotten soon after graduation. And ten years from now, nobody, including you, will remember your grades. Your future employers don't care about your grades, or much about your major, for that matter; just ask all those physics majors at Princeton that are going straight to Wall Street after graduation. Your future employers care that you've demonstrated enough focus, discipline, maturity, commitment and mental resilience to stay at it for four years. That kind of tenacity is what you demonstrate by graduating.

The big moments don't matter much. The quality of your marriage has nothing to do with how expensive, lavish, or well-photographed your wedding happened to be. It has everything to do with your daily habits of coexisting with and relating to your partner. Your success and happiness in general depend much on your daily habits and routines. If you brush and floss everyday for five minutes, you will in the long term save your teeth, and maybe your heart as well. Brushing and flossing for five hours once a year will not do the trick. So focus on developing sound daily habits of work, study, and self-care.

Don't dream big, and don't aim for the stars. Contrary to what you've heard, big dreams do not characteristically produce high achievement. In fact, high achievers tend to dream at the middle distance. They focus on a target that is challenging, but possible with effort. Once there, they can turn their eyes to the next step. Let your dreams grow gradually along with your skill level.

Walk toward your problems, not away from them. In the old story, a kid plays near the railroad tracks. Suddenly, he hears a whistle and before he can react, a train runs over his hand, cutting off a few of his fingers. Years later, that kid--now an adult--is visiting with friends. Suddenly he hears the whistling teapot in the kitchen. He rushes over, grabs the teapot and smashes it on the floor. To his astonished friends he explains:"You have to stop them when they're little!" College problems are pretty much inevitable, and they need to be addressed early, before they turn from teapots into trains.

Relax, you're not that special. American culture is quite oppressed by this notion that worth is derived from uniqueness. People who want to flatter you or make you feel better often tell you how special you are. But in the big scheme of things, odds are you're not special at all. And if you define self worth as being special, you're not likely to find much true worth. Moreover, in a culture where everyone is special, being special loses its special meaning. Instead, recognize that you are much more like everybody than you are unlike anyone. Recognize that the fact you're not special is not a bad thing. It means you're not alone; you have affinities with many others, from which strength and pleasure can be derived. It also means that if you have a question in class, you should not worry that you're the only one who has it. Odds are many other students have the same question, and they will appreciate you representing their interests by asking it.

Don't follow your passion. Many students believe that the route to success is to follow their passion. However, your passion may not become clear to you until later in life. And passions are often shifting, as your doomed high school romance has surely taught you. It's better to follow your aptitude. Even if you have a clear passion, following it is only one half of the equation. If you have a passion for dancing, but are clumsy, then you will not make a successful career in that field. What you need is to find something you love and are also good at-or can become good. In other words, within the area of your passion, find your area of greatest aptitude, and aim your efforts there.

Think about what not to do. Someone asked the late great jazz trumpet player Miles Davis about the secret of playing good jazz. "It's not what you play that matters," Davis said, "it's what you don't play." Similarly, success in college depends not only on what you do (homework, papers, parties, pizza), but also on what you don't do (steal your boyfriend's Ritalin to stay up two days in a row cramming for finals; download term papers from the internet; hurl on police officer's shoes; binge anything). You get the drift. If you don't throw many interceptions, you can win the game even without making big plays.

Everything worth doing is worth doing half-assed. The great singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

In other words, learn to love imperfection. Your failure at perfection is as guaranteed as your failure to sprout wings. In fact, it's no failure at all. It's humanity. Don't beat yourself up for your mistakes, failures or occasional fatigue. Accept and honor your humanity above all; of all the possible reasons for your mistakes and failures-most of which will remain unknown, unverifiable, or untrue--your humanity is the one indisputable cause.

We tend to protect what we value. If you devalue yourself, you will not improve-in fact, you are more likely to descend into a cycle of self-loathing and neglect. It's useful to imagine what a good parent would say to a young child who had just failed at something. Would the good parent call the child stupid? Would they beat the child up? So don't do that to yourself either. Parent yourself well.

Don't study too much. Your professors are surely right in emphasizing to you the importance of working hard and acquiring knowledge. But here's a secret your professors may not tell you: We all die stupid. Nobody goes out having figured the thing out. I often tell my students that if they have all A's, they are studying too much. A big part of college is learning how to get along with other people and make good social connections. So socialize; party; travel. Contrary to myth (often spread by your professors) play is not a frivolous activity. It is essential for mental health and well being. Pound for pound, socializing is the most bang you can get for your time-investment buck. In research, social engagement is one of the solid consistent predictors of school success (along with general cognitive ability, achievement motivation, academic skills, and self efficacy). Social involvement also carries long-term dividends. Your college friends are much more likely to be lifelong than your high school friends.

Moreover, success in college can also, in a nontrivial way, be defined as enjoying the experience. Regardless of what the future brings-most of which will not be very closely or directly or solely related to your college experience-four good years are better than four bad years. Viewed correctly, every stage in one's journey is not only a means to an end, but also, on an important level, an end in itself. You're only young once, but if you do it right, once is enough.
Do it right.

A corollary of this principle is, have good sex. True, there is no direct evidence that I know of linking sexual activity with success in college. There is, however, ample evidence that many college students are sexually active. Many people in this country see that as a problem, and think the solution is for students to stop having sex. This solution may appeal to a niche group within the student population, but it's difficult to see how it could be scaled to serve as a general solution, at least without the nontrivial side effect of theocratic rule. The actual problem appears to me to be not that young adults are making love-I, for one, am more troubled by young adults making war, the adverse effects of which having been well documented-but that, when they choose to have sex, they are forced to have it in an atmosphere of guilt, fear, ignorance and shame, instead of being encouraged to learn how to do it well.

As an American, you are entitled to your sexual life, liberty, and the pursuit of sexual happiness. I suggest you insist on honoring and owning your sexual self. Yes, there are risks. But any life endeavor worth pursuing involves risk. You take on a measure of risk when you get up in the morning, get in your car, go to the store, fall in love, or get married. The correct answer to the reality of life's risks is not to run away from living. Your life should not be lived from a place of fear, but of courage. And yes-good sex may or may not be vanilla; may or may not include intercourse; may or may not be casual. May or may not be hetero, or partnered. Your definition of good sex is up to you to discover, construct, and live up to. And one thing a good college student should know is that to learn about something, you need to engage it.

Your life is always now. Yes, the past informs the present, but it need not determine it. Yes, future plans and goals are important to consider, but as the Yiddish saying goes, "Man makes plans; God laughs." So put your energy into now. This is no dress rehearsal; in the words of the great Zimbabwean singer Oliver Mtukudzi:

Wake Up
Open your eyes
Don't waste time