I cannot in good faith start this letter without addressing one particular fact, which you must know and accept:
You will collect your diploma and literally ask yourself “Now what?” because you have no idea what to do next. Four years from now, on a hazy day in May, you will pack up your stuff, get rid of most of it, and move back home with your parents for the summer.
With that clear, do not worry! College should not be about securing a job. College is about doing as much as you can, learning about obscure topics, meeting people from different backgrounds, stockpiling experiences and wrong turns and unlikely interactions until time runs out and you’re freed to the Real World with bright eyes and an empty bank account.
I have revealed that your biggest fear — joblessness — is inevitable, so you can free yourself from agonizing over it. The remainder of this letter aims to make your next four years worthwhile by introducing you to five important truths.
In no particular order:
Drill this in your head now: there is so much time ahead. Remember this when individual decisions and occurrences seem weighty. You think now that every decision will have a lasting impact. Each missed opportunity will fly away, never to reappear. (You college kids refer to this as FOMO.) I am here to tell you most of college melds together regardless of your efforts to crystallize each detail. You have decades to come where you can focus. For now, do not spend an iota of time trying to make sense of all of the noise and madness and fun and sadness in your life.
You will feel alone, even when surrounded by people. That feeling does not go away. Get used to it, embrace it, grow with it. Even if (when) you move to New York City and have twelve million neighbors, you will encounter this isolation again and again. Find comfort in its familiarity, and in knowing it is fleeting and does not mean you are doing anything wrong.
As seasons change and you do not see progress, you will think you are wasting time. You are not behind schedule. You have permission to use the next four years as ongoing research and development, a time where nothing will fit together. Do not overanalyze. College life will be a jigsaw puzzle pushed off the table, pieces strewn all over the floor. Leave the pieces there and move on. Find new pieces, add to the mess.
The best way to fulfill this mission of hoarding pieces is encapsulated in Truth 2:
Do things now, worry about figuring out the reasons later (if at all).
Try everything. Go everywhere. Throw events, make art, start clubs. Do not worry if they will fail, do not try to think of how to scale them. Getting things done is better than planning on doing them perfectly and never getting started. Volunteer, go to lectures, take on odd jobs.
Doing things helps you figure out what you definitely do not want to do, and gets you closer to what you do. Learn to start somewhere instead of someday. You will always be able to come up with an excuse to hide behind, same as when your paper is late or you get in trouble with your rectress. Make things, not excuses.
Do not get caught up in the minutiae. As long as you promise to show up, to contribute and to improve, the path of your four years will appear as a giant mess on a map but the slope will be positive and that is the way it should be. Beware the easy route. Surprise yourself, seek discomfort.
Learn to create and create to learn. This cycle can continue in perpetuity and its effects apply far beyond the classroom. When you look back on college, you can find the patterns and justifications for whatever transpired. Do things without reservation. None of the decisions you make have to be final.
Whenever you get the opportunity (or better yet — create the opportunity), do things with others. Finding collaborators makes for a colorful journey, which brings us to Truth 3:
By the time you are in your mid-twenties, you will have yet to find a problem that cannot be solved by communication. Remember that when you are feeling stuck or in a funk. Talk to someone. Do not be afraid to ask for help. It gets easier if you know what you need help with. In turn, offer your help, or even just an ear to absorb and a shoulder to support.
Talk to people about your ideas. Ask about theirs. You cannot help each other if you close off your visions. Plus, it is more fun to talk about ideas, rather than things or people. (This sounds obvious but everyone gets caught in the trivial gossip trap from time to time.)
Keeping stuff to yourself for too long crushes your confidence. Open up to move forward, or sometimes to move on.
Four years of classes from now, you will realize that teamwork and communication eclipse any skill you are tested on. It only takes a few days in the working world to realize your classmates are among the brightest. Show up and participate in group meetings. These experiences will advise you long after the project has been turned in.
Whenever you read and reread this letter, stop at this point and
before advancing to Truth 4:
As a Catholic school kid since age five, you probably think this line is overplayed to the point of banality. But have you paid attention to what it tells you? The sooner you accept that the only way to keep this commandment is by truly loving yourself, the sooner you can fully open up to others. It is not selfish to take time to ground yourself. So take time. Write things down, walk around aimlessly, stare at the wall, breathe.
Every second spent worrying about what will happen in the future is a second that could have been put to use on making yourself a better person — mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally.
Take care of yourself — you will be a better daughter, sister, friend, student because of it. For insight on your best path to intellectual evolution, read on to Truth 5:
Fear nothing but indifference. Stay curious and don’t accept anything at face value. Failure is impossible if you learn something from your actions, from your mistakes, from your wrong turns.
Trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results is how we define insanity. Accepting when things go wrong, and applying what you picked up along the way, will lead to growth.
Take matters in your own hands. Challenge the status quo until you forget it exists.
Whenever you are paralyzed by uncertainty, remember that action cures fear. Do your homework (in and out of class) then jump! Be ready for action and also ready to deal with the inevitable obstacles along the way. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” takes on new meaning when you put your own fears under a microscope and realize that fear itself is, in fact, at the root. Be bold, develop grit, stand up for yourself.
Take a look around campus, at your classmates and your peers. Remember you are all worth it, and you are all figuring yourselves out. You will be for the rest of your life. Give it your best shot but keep in mind that each morning brings about new possibilities, a new chance to start. Look not at what is, but what could be. You are already on your way.
One more piece of parting advice:
You will only regret the ones you do not send.
>> This letter was published as part of the anthology A Letter to My Freshman Self: Domers Reflect on Their Undergraduate Experience. © 2016 by Corby Publishing, LP. Thanks to the University of Notre Dame, and in particular Lily Kang (’16) and Ian Tembe (’16) for leading this project. All proceeds support a scholarship for incoming freshmen at Notre Dame. Visit www.lettertomyfreshmanself.com to learn more.
>> The full book is available now at the Hammes Bookstore on Notre Dame’s campus. Oh, and on Amazon:
>> I messed around to create accompanying images using Paper on iPad.