When our eldest son, Andrew, went off to college, I shared with him some thoughts about how to thrive in his first year and beyond. Personally, I struggled through college. Sure, it was a challenge academically (my undergrad GPA over time was an avoidable u-curve: strong start, burnout, recovery). But, more than that, I didn’t have a good sense of how to approach college in a way that would help me take full advantage of the amazing opportunity to grow and, quite simply, to be happy (and we are way more likely to be productive when we are happy – it’s a really nice example of a “virtuous cycle”).
Beyond their experience on campus, the habits and mindset that young adults establish while in college are vital to setting them up for success in the years beyond when they are fully independent. And, frankly, while many colleges are more attuned to holistic student “wellness” now than they were a generation ago, these efforts are nascent and resource-constrained.
Likely, too, sharing these thoughts with Andrew helped me make better sense of what I had been trying to teach him, and what I was still learning at this stage of my own life. It was also an opportunity to fill in some gaps about things I hadn’t said, or to reinforce (and soften) things that I had. Andrew just graduated recently; a semester early, actually (thanks, Andrew!). He excelled academically, has a great first job – and, more importantly, seems genuinely happy and eager for what comes next. Though there is only so much a parent can do, don’t underestimate the vital role that you play as your own children launch off into this next phase of their lives.
Following is essentially the same set of ideas that I shared with Andrew, somewhat revised for his younger brother, Matthew, who started college this past fall (Andrew helped me edit it). Yes, it’s kind of long and some might think over the top. But, starting college is one of those transition points in life where we are most open to ideas and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to share what I now know (and what I wish I had done differently).
Feel free to share this or a modified version of it with your own children as they set off on their journeys towards independence (and though written for a college freshman, it would be relatively easy to customize it for an adult child heading off to their first full-time job or graduate school).
Following are some notes about how to approach college (and life). Indulge me. I am a professor who studies wisdom and well-being; how could I resist? The ideas in this are not all my own. Some came from your mom, others I read elsewhere, and some follow years of watching you grow up, and almost as many years teaching college students.
Very little in these notes will be new to you; you have heard and even have experienced much of it over the years. But, knowing is just a start. Most people know what things they should be doing (and not doing). The challenge is in actually doing – and balancing the very many things that we want and should do in ways that are good for us now and in the future, and good for others who we affect as well. In other words, the challenge is to be wise! … where wisdom is simply the intentional practice of making choices and acting in ways that promote our well-being and others’ well-being, both now and in the future. A somewhat easy thing to appreciate, but it takes a lifetime to master. College is the first real time that you will have the resources and freedom to figure out what this means to you. It really will be a microcosm of what comes later, after you graduate. You will be making these choices daily and weekly, and some outcomes will come quickly and be obvious, others take time. Amongst other things, this is your chance to define what success, thriving, and well-being mean to you.
You will make mistakes. We all do. What matters most (other than avoiding those that are easily avoidable) is to take the time to learn from your own experiences (and from others’ as well). In other words, to notice what is going on in your life and to reflect on what choices and behaviors are working in your favor, and which you need to change (and how). If there is one secret that I have learned about living a good life, it is that wise people take the time reflect and then adapt. And it is a continuous “practice.”
Even then, you can only control so much. We are affected by the circumstances around us and the people around us. In good ways and bad. While we can’t control everything (not even close!), we can build buffers that make it easier to respond to and deal with things that happen to us. There are a lot of different buffers, or resources, that you want to build. Good relationships. Saving money (hard at first). Your health (don’t take it for granted). Some of your choices, then, need to focus on what you can do to increase your capacity to deal with what comes to you in life, especially the things we don’t expect or want.
But most of what is coming ahead is good. You have a lot to look forward to. Life is about to get even more interesting (and rewarding).
We are super proud to be your parents. You’re a kind, fun, smart, curious, funny, cool, and thoughtful person. You have the resources (physical, emotional, mental) that you need to succeed in college and beyond; to really thrive. Protect, develop, and nurture these resources.
Make the most of this time by being intentional. The lists that follow are some of the things to be intentional about. Make a practice of revisiting these lists relatively frequently at first, and over time turning this into your own philosophy of living well. These notes are only useful to the degree that you make a regular practice of using them to reflect on your lived experience, and to use the insights you gain from that to reinforce what is going well and to make adjustments as needed. Re-read and reflect on these for 30 minutes at a regular time each week (Sunday after dinner, maybe?). Over time, reflecting on your life in this way will become a habit and you won’t need a written list. That is why I am sharing this all with you now – to help you develop what can be a really powerful and rewarding life practice of reflective wisdom. Otherwise, it’s just an interesting list of truisms that you will agree with in concept but soon forget.
We are here to help you, anytime, with anything that you need from us. Anything. Just ask…
We love you, Matthew.
- Treat your body well. Everything else depends on it.
- Don’t fall behind on sleep. Sleep really affects mood, and physical health. Challenges look a lot more manageable when rested. And there is only so much your brain can absorb in a day anyway.
- Exercise 4+ days per week (or more). It could be club soccer, or even try one of the many, many (free) classes that rec sports offers on campus. This is super important, and your body and mind will benefit in many ways. Keep searching and trying things out until you find activities and a schedule that works for you – but schedule this in.
- Eat whole, minimally processed foods. Lots of whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. The vast majority of serotonin is produced in your gut along with other neurochemicals that regulate mood and cognition; the good bacteria that produce these thrive on fiber from these foods. Minimize sugar, chips, and other processed foods. Treats are ok periodically (if more than periodically, they are not treats – then they are your diet). Meat should be only a small part of your diet; try to completely avoid processed meats (e.g., bacon). And red meats are bad, too; sorry. Processed + red meat (like bacon) is the worst for you (well, along with sugar).
- Oral hygiene! This affects how people respond to us (good breath), and it has a big effect on health (beyond your mouth – it even affects the immune system). Brush right when you wake up, and ideally after each meal (or as soon as you can).
- Alcohol and drugs can turn smart, caring people into idiots. Most people who do stupid things under the influence think “that’s not really me.” But that doesn’t make them less responsible for their behavior and how it affects other people. If you drink, be in a safe environment, with people you trust, and be an example of restraint and moderation to others. And, just as important, prioritize your health. Drinking is ok at best, but no amount is good for you. Drink moderately, if at all (the best “high” I have ever experienced by far is from exercise, outdoors, with friends).
- Start each semester strong! If it seems easy at first, then max out your grade (develop a buffer!). It will get harder very quickly, and midterms are super challenging if you haven’t been working hard (and effectively) throughout the semester.
- Get to know professors. Say hi to them. Smile. Get to know one or two well each year. They can be great mentors and can also help you with internships and jobs.
- Be organized; clean up your email inbox. Save things that are important (like emails from friends), but don’t let them clutter your inbox. Keep files on your computer organized for each of your courses and other aspects of your life.
- Find two or three good study spots on campus – don’t rely on studying in your room (especially not on your bed). There are too many good distractions there, and you want to preserve it as a place to relax and unwind.
- Keep on top of reading and assignments for school. You get twice as much out of the assigned pre-class work if you do it on time (professors prepare for class assuming that students have done the reading, and you will miss a lot if you try to catch up later).
- Take good notes – but don’t get so absorbed in note-taking that you aren’t really paying attention; it’s a balance. Organize class notes. Write legibly, both for your benefit and especially for the professor who can only grade what s(he) can read.
- Turn your phone off in class. Don’t look at it; it can wait. This is important for your focus, and your professors will appreciate it, too. We notice a lot more than students realize. And cognitive multi-tasking is a myth. Focus.
- Read to understand. Pause, reflect. Think about what you are reading.
- Use active study techniques. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you really know something when you are only familiar with the same notes or text that you keep re-reading.
- Don’t just work for grades. Grades are important; more important is learning (and learning how to learn).
- Take breaks when you need them. Exercise (as one option) clears the mind and you’ll be surprised how much great thinking you can do while on a walk or run. And, post-exercise physiology promotes learning (so it’s a great way to break up studying; nobody can study well for more than a few hours at a time anyway).
- When something is really interesting to you, it is good to learn more even when you don’t “get credit” for it. Don’t always limit your learning to the syllabus.
- Keep in mind two overarching goals of your education: 1) to become a well-informed, responsible citizen, 2) to learn how to pursue a great life, including getting a strong start on a career. Both are very important.
Relationships and fun
- Find your people! They are all over. But also be open to and seek out new, different types of people.
- Cultivate a small network of close friends who inspire you, challenge you in helpful ways, and support you when you need it.
- Try new things. Don’t gravitate only to things you already excel at or are comfortable with. Explore! While this is true for all of life, it is especially important freshman year. This is the first time you will not only have the freedom to truly try new things, but lots of new things will be available that can all help with other points – health, relationships, etc. It is all interconnected.
- Do things you enjoy. You are going to be super busy, yes. But save some time for just enjoying yourself (even if that just means “doing nothing” sometimes).
- Don’t over commit to extracurriculars. Try a bunch out early on, then pick a couple to stay actively engaged with (and for those, really get involved).
- Be a good friend to others. They will return the favor.
- Your brothers love you. A lot. Your relationship with them can last a lifetime, and be more meaningful than you can imagine. Set up “brother dates” with Andrew. Send Ethan a periodic text; better yet, call him to say hi every now and then.
- Your dogs miss you. Visit them periodically.
- Even check in with your parents periodically. This is a time of big change for us, too. You have been the focus of our lives for years; that doesn’t change, but we know that the daily dynamic will. A simple silly text or periodic photo goes a long way (you dad appreciates this as much as mom!).
- Relationships don’t happen on social media. Minimize time staring at a phone.
- Keep your room and desk organized and neat. Clean desk, clean mind.
- Plan ahead. And once you have a plan, be disciplined about managing your time and schedule. Time management is a critical life skill. That includes times that you plan to study and times that you plan to spend with other people, exercising, sleeping, etc. Make a plan and stick to it. Yes, that means “blocking out” time for exercise, time for studying – not just class times. If you can’t stick to it, either adjust it or revisit your priorities. Don’t make it up as you go.
- At the same time, be selectively flexible with your time. If you are in the middle of a great conversation with a new friend (or even a professor!), keep it going if you can. Don’t be a slave to your schedule. The challenge is deciding when to be flexible (as an exception), and when to get back to it…
- Manners matter; from holding the door to using utensils in a way that projects some thoughtfulness and skill. Don’t think you’ll remember during the interview lunch how to properly use your knife; you won’t.
- Don’t let your gas tank get below ¼ full. I’m not just talking about automobiles. This “buffer rule” applies to just about everything – food, money, relationships, laptop battery charge, rest, etc. Running any of these near empty can lead to a cascade of bad events – and causes totally avoidable stress.
- Be careful with money. Many students have more (and some will just act like they do). Don’t envy them and don’t compete. Spend and save wisely.
- Get help when you need it. The College has tons of resources to help with study skills, tutoring, support for health and personal issues. Just get online and search. Everyone needs help at some point. Everyone. Wise people are aware of when they need it and seek it out.
- Although there are lots of great resources on campus, come to us whenever you need help. With anything. Anytime.
- Get help early. Don’t want until a bad situation becomes worse. Things are much easier to address when identified early.
- But, if you don’t get help early, still get help. Better late than never. You will be experimenting with when you need help from others, and when you can handle things on your own. That is normal. But don’t be influenced by guilt or shame when you recognize that you need help.
- It is ok to feel sad, scared, and even lonely at times. Yes, even when surrounded by others. Experiment with healthy ways to deal with “moments” (a walk? watching a show you liked as a kid? calling a parent to chat about nothing in particular?). And recognize when it is more than a moment (and act on that).
- Find flow in all dimensions of your life. This takes time, patience, and reflection. Flow is that awesome state of being engaged in something in a way that feels rewarding and sufficiently challenging, but not overwhelming (somewhere in that broad range between boredom and chaos). Flow happens in sports, learning, relationships, etc. Learn to notice flow and to seek it out. Notice when you are over (or under) challenged and adjust as needed.
- Growth comes from flow. You will grow your whole life. Yes, a lot of growth comes after college, too. A goal of college is to learn how to grow (and then continue that beyond).
- Spirituality is not something that most people your age spend much time thinking about. Do spend some time contemplating the incredible mystery of life. There is so much that we don’t know or understand. Life can be so beautiful and amazing; have gratitude for that and find your own ways to connect with something bigger than all of us. Yes, the Force is real.
- Be grateful – not in a guilty way, but in a celebratory way – periodically reflect on all that you have and all that is going well.