In college, you will be told all kinds of things from the well-intentioned people around you: life advice from your parents, polished mantras from university administrators, sage tips from your professors. Most of what you hear will drift through one ear and out the other… but every once in a while, something sticks to your brain like a bristled little foxtail seed. My collection of foxtail seeds have stuck with me throughout my time in school and changed the way I approach life, beyond college. Not all of these will resonate with you, but if just one makes you stop and think, I will have accomplished my goal.
The first seed of wisdom was delivered to my ears on the very first week of school. During his welcome speech, the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam stated that the best advice he could give us was to “just breathe.” He urged us to slow down every once in a while, take a look around, and simply.. breathe. “Take a moment to appreciate this amazing place filled with amazing people and opportunities. Soak it all in.”
Slow down, look around you, and just breathe. Take a moment and soak it all up.
-Harry J. Elam
It sounded cheesy, but he was dead serious. And he was right – too often we get caught up in the details of the day-to-day, and our tunnel vision obscures the beauty around us. When we take a moment to “just breathe,” we are connecting ourselves to the present like a flyaway train anchoring itself to the ground.
Throughout my four years, there would be times when I was feeling down from a test or a heavy workload, and his words would resurface in my mind. I would look up from the handlebars, around at the tall palm trees, the clear sky, green grass, and… breathe. And I would feel a bit better every time.
During New Student Orientation, I attended a mini-lecture by Professor Hank Greely on navigating career paths. Professor Greely discussed his own circuitous route from the pre-med route to political science to law school, and eventually becoming a professor of both law and genetics, directing research on legal and ethical issues in the biosciences. Many eager freshmen, myself included, leaned forward in our seats, waiting for the bombshell secret that would liberate us all from the anxiety of our professional uncertainties. What came next, though, was nothing resembling the black-and-white answer we were hoping for. “There are many doors open to you,” he told us. “Try to keep them open for as long as possible. But, there will come a certain point when you must choose one.”
I had a mental image of the nightmare doors in Monsters, Inc. Did it really have to be this way?
In a sense, yes. There is only so much time in one day and so much intellectual energy at one’s disposal. The days of the Renaissance Man are largely gone, and the exponential growth of human knowledge has created hefty prerequisites to entering any field. Combine this with the increasing trend towards specialization, and it becomes near impossible for a modern-day person to make meaningful contributions without funneling their efforts into a single (or at most a few) area of expertise.
Keep your doors open as long as possible, but there will come a certain point when you must choose one.
So, following Professor Greely’s advice, I spent my first year-and-a-half exploring and exhausting all of the alternate futures I’d imagined for myself. I researched solar cells while contemplating a career in the sustainable energy industry, took a design-thinking seminar hoping I might someday work at Ideo, and read half of an introductory logic textbook before abandoning the idea of becoming a math major. As time ticked on, I began to focus my activities and sought specific experiences in the career path I had chosen. I made this career choice late enough so as to be fully certain of it, yet early enough to begin building up my experience while I still had the means (and the university resources and opportunities) to do so.
And as for when, exactly, the choice must be made? As you might surmise, it’s different for every person. You’ll just have to trust your gut.
Something else that stuck with me came from the mouth of the former Dean of Freshman, Julie Lythcott-Haims. Early on the in the year, she challenged us to do the following:
Help your classmates. Not only will they learn from you, but you will learn even more from them.
I took her words to heart, and apparently so did my classmates, for everywhere I turned I quickly found willing collaborators. My classmates and I studied together, discussed concepts on shared whiteboards, and tutored each other in a fair trade of weaknesses and strengths. We cheered each other on before midterms and commiserated together after finals. Not once did I experience the horrors of sabotage and textbook page-ripping, rumors of which circulated to us from other collegiate lands. At Stanford, it was this culture of openhearted collaboration that allowed us to learn so much, and so deeply. It is something that I believe every successful workplace should strive to create, and something I hope to bring with me wherever I go.
These seeds of wisdom, seeds that they are, have rooted themselves in the soil of my experience and grown to occupy a place among my planted beliefs and values. What are some seeds of wisdom that have influenced your life? I would love to hear and learn from them.
Happy Holidays from all of us in the Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid. Stanford University offices will be closed December 19, 2015 through January 3, 2016. All offices will reopen January 4, 2016 at 8:30 a.m. (Pacific time). (more…)
The freshman class is beginning to take shape, with acceptance offers sent to high school students from 48 states and 34 countries.