Dear Penn Freshmen: Focus on Others

Hi, Arjan.

The next four years are often referred to as a journey and a discovery with the ultimate goal of “finding yourself” — who you are, what you want to do, what you’re good at, what you should improve, and so forth. And you should, but that’s not the point of this letter. You already know that. What I am going to encourage you to do here, my friend, is slightly different: focus on others, not just yourself.

People around you will be worrying about themselves. They’ll go through existential crises, they’ll get mad at people walking slowly in front of them on Locust Walk because they’ll be late to their classes, they’ll get frustrated at others for interrupting whatever it is they are doing, and they may secretly, or not secretly, get upset at others for “being better” than them. I’m asking you to take a step back. If my own — and soon to be yours — experience serves me well, at the core, people here (read: and everywhere else, too) want to be understood, they want to feel appreciated, they want to feel loved. Be that person that connects with others.

Put yourself out there. Maybe you’re afraid, but be afraid and embrace it, and do it anyway.

Enjoy other’s success. It’s important to be there for people when they are in times of conflict and despair. Equally as important is the way in which you celebrate other’s wins — no matter how small or how big. Take a genuine interest in others, congratulate them, celebrate them, promote their well-being. And don’t underestimate the power of the high-five. Maya Angelou was right — they’ll likely forget what you said, they’ll probably forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.

Listen to those around you. People move towards those that listen to them, attentively, thoughtfully and curiously. It’s a magnetic force that will draw people to you, make them unfold and expand. You’ll be amazed by what this will do.

Make it a goal of yours to understand people both alike and different from who you think you are. I used to tell myself “talk to everyone.” And by that, I did not mean I should not let one person go by without saying hello, but that I should go a little out of my way to chat with a classmate I haven’t met, the security guards on campus, the person whose interests are totally the opposite of mine. But, what you really should be doing is this — don’t just talk to “everyone”; try to understand them. I think some of the most important words you can tell someone is I get you. You’ve also recently heard and will continue to hear people push you to realize something along the lines of “your GPA does not define you” or “don’t let a fraternity put you in a box.” But, most people will not tell you, “don’t define someone else by his or her GPA” and “don’t allow yourself to put others in a box because of who they hang out with or where they are from or what they look like.” While it is important not to let yourself become defined by outward, easy-to-observe associations, it is even more important (and harder) to not define others in that very same way.

I’m not going to tell you how to specifically do these things or any concrete steps to follow. Because that’s on you, my friend. Though you should know this — at a time when figuring out who you are is put on a pedestal as the most important goal, it can actually be really hard to find yourself. You cannot just go look for it as if it were a coin you dropped on the floor.

Focus on others, get to understand those around you, radiate, radiate, radiate, with integrity and effort and love — and I promise you, that through that, you’ll come to a better understanding of yourself.

With much excitement for you,


PS — hang this up on your wall:
“Admit something: Everyone you see, you
say to them, “Love me.” Of course you do
not do this out loud, otherwise someone
would call the cops. Still though, think about
this, this great pull in us to connect. Why not
become the one who lives with a full moon
in each eye that is always saying, with that
sweet moon language, What every
other eye in this world is dying to hear?”

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