Welcome to an amalgamation of advice spurred by the past two semesters as a transfer student. After a tumultuous freshman year in a dance program downtown, I came to Barnard last fall as an excited, inexperienced, and nervous sophomore. All three adjectives still apply.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “everything in moderation.” Though typically associated with situations involving food and consumption, it is applicable to everything. After this year, the greatest principle I can present to you as one to consider is balance.
Advising balance is ambiguous and contradictory. That is what makes the following the best advice I can give, in the sense that it will apply to everyone who is reading this. Abstraction allows for applicability.
Final disclaimer: This may seem like a series of obvious caveats and unnecessary contradictions (if so, lucky you). But as an impressionable young person who tends toward extremes, remembering to maintain moderation helps me calibrate my actions and thoughts. So please receive this series of advice like one of those cheesy motivational bulletin board projects: Take what you need!
1. Ask for help when you need it, but also try to be self-sufficient.
Feeling scared, lonely, or confused? All are good reasons to ask for help. Oftentimes, people will shy away from vulnerability or stubbornly refuse to show weakness in lieu of useful problem-solving. Pride and ego are not valid reasons for refraining from reaching out. Human beings are social, reliant creatures.
On the flip side, there is such thing as too much assistance. Becoming overly needy and dependent is not ideal, particularly when it results in a loss of personal agency. Though seeking guidance is productive, an excess results in an overwhelming jumble of contradictory opinions. I have realized that in order to prevent confusion, I must become more active in choosing what advice to seek and accept.
2. Be open-minded and curious but also remember your preferences
Coming into this school year, I became so preoccupied with challenging myself to try new things and stretch my comfort zone that I lost sense of what my comfort zone even was. Discomfort became normalized, and I lost sight of what I genuinely wanted to involve myself in.
I would advise everyone to push themselves to engage in situations that they don’t typically envision themselves being in, in pursuit of self-growth and understanding. Engaging with that class, party, or person might seem scary, but you’ll likely gain from the experience (at worst, you’ll learn that you don’t want to engage with it again). However, excessive exploration without evaluation can result in tolerance for discomfort that lends itself to loss of preference. I’m trying to be more aware of which fears are worth pushing against and which comforts I can and should lean on.
3. Be easier on yourself, but also be disciplined with yourself
Self-care, self-care, self-care. A mantra that is preached by millennial Twitter users and Spec Opinion columnists alike. Taking breaks, getting more sleep, and treating yourself to small indulgences are all good ideas. In the self-identified bubble of stress culture, Columbia students are advised to forgo that eleventh hour of studying in exchange for a fuller night’s sleep or to treat themselves to that slice of cake after a hard day. I have been advised to drop that class, quit that club, and make more time for myself.
Being gentle with yourself is a great idea—until you’ve gone so far that you’ve settled into a routine of immediate gratification and overindulgence. This can lead to boredom and general unfulfillment. As someone who is overly self-critical, I had resolved to release myself from unsustainable personal standards and relax. After a lifetime of structure, pressure, and business, I dialed back my commitments this semester and finally flirted with free time. However, I learned that it’s not only quantity but quality of activity that will determine fulfillment. Instead of emptying my schedule and settling for vacancy, I’ve realized that it’s better to refocus my attention on refilling my schedule with more satisfying ventures.
4. Balance your passion with the practical
Though life is (hopefully) a continuous confrontation of interests to pursue, attending college requires you to choose a major. This means committing to a focus in a (scarily) concrete way. The advice I’ve been given regarding the decision-making process of selecting an area of academic study has been overwhelmingly contradictory.
Follow your passions, or else you may spend the remainder of your life bored and sad! Pursue what interests you! If you go after inherent interests and talents, you will be successful! This advice is valid in the sense that education is experiential and should hold some immediate value to you. Also, playing to your strengths is critical in the obvious way that you shouldn’t study something that you’re hopelessly lousy at.
However, the other camp of consultants promotes practicality. If you’re going to invest in an education, be certain that your degree allows for employability! Take the opportunity to gain some technical skills! If you put in the work now, you’ll have the rest of your life to pursue interests!
There also seems to be a third party that totes every liberal arts school’s favorite selling point: “Major doesn’t matter.” Anecdotes of philosophy majors at investment banks and art history majors turned into math Ph.D.s not only undermine the significance of academic concentrations, but also unintentionally imply a desirability or repulsion with certain professions.
With all of these points in mind, the best advice I can give is that your decision should weigh in on both practicality (whatever that means to you) and your abilities and interests.
5. Be skeptical and give trust
Be cautious out there! Don’t give too much away, refrain from excessive vulnerability, and protect yourself. Exercise doubt and remember that you are the only one who prioritizes your best interests. These warnings are relevant and all-too-familiar to people (like me) who can be naïve or easily hurt.
However, there is something to be said about letting your guard down. If you consistently hold back, you’ll miss out on meaningful, fulfilling connections that can be gained through human vulnerability and intimacy. I am learning how to give more, and consequently experience more, in my interpersonal relationships. It’s overwhelming to think about the people I’ve met and learned to love this year. The patience and unconditional giving that I have received is something I never expected or knew I desired. It’s definitely what I’m most grateful for as I conclude this sophomore year.
6. Be intentional, but don’t take things so seriously
If you’re the type of person who lives without much intention or awareness with regard to certain domains, you probably should tune in more to those areas. Everyone focuses on something, and it’s important to consider where your focus tends to go. I find myself being silly in situations where sincerity is necessary and concerned in cases where I should really just relax.
This year I have learned to dial back the intention with which I act, especially as someone who focuses a considerable amount of attention on personal behavior and decision-making. Although it is certainly valuable to be thoughtful and cautious in the act of living, I take myself so seriously in certain domains that I experience a paralyzing sense of worry. I have learned that it is freeing to stop overthinking and simply do.
Ultimately, I want to take control of letting go. It’s pretty ironic. So here’s to structure and spontaneity, to being careful and making mistakes, to loving and leaving, to being human. Here’s to practicing everything—to an extent.