This post is the second installment in the ‘What I Wish I Knew in College’ series, an attempt to disseminate information a disgruntled idealist believes in retrospect to be today’s reality, as distinct from the happily-ever-after doctrine often found on the brochure cover of study abroad programs and university student handbooks in the photograph of happily laughing students, reading their $300-thick advanced calculus textbook on a grassy campus ground.
One of the biggest revelations in my life struck me when I just graduated, and I was looking to get a job.
There was an opening for a private school teaching position that would basically allow me to just read literature and talk about it every single day. No stupid lectures about grammar and mechanics, no exams to give, no papers to grade. The school’s philosophy was built around making learning, and in this case, learning about literature, fun.
I worked on it until the last minute because I wanted it to be my one greatest piece of resume. It was my dream job, and I didn’t get it. And not because of my resume. Somebody simply sent his before the deadline and was already given the job.
I realized I procrastinated. I wanted the resume to be perfect that I kept putting off sending it out in the first place.
I remembered that when I was a junior, I promised myself I’d stop procrastinating when I became a senior. Then I remembered than when I was in high school, I promised myself I’d stop procrastinating when I went to college. So many years passed, and it seemed like I have made no progress at all. What gives?
Then it struck me. It is possible for us to grow older, year after year, and yet still retain some or even all of those inefficient, bad, and destructive habits that we currently possess. We can grow old without ever growing up.
The New Year’s Resolutions Syndrome
We live in a culture that celebrates self-improvement and optimism. Most of us have told ourselves, year after year, that next year (we) will be better, that somehow things will fall into place, that everything’s gonna be okay. Sounds familiar?
But this is how it actually plays out for most of us:
It’s the new year. Or the start of a new semester. Or you just moved to a different city. Transferred to a different school. Doesn’t matter. The ‘new year’ concept works as a placeholder for ‘a brand new start,’ a ‘blank slate.’ You’re totally psyched. You tell yourselves, “This year is going to be different. I will start working out / stop being overly competitive / stop procrastinating / learn to be less anxious / be more assertive / pick up a new language / be more confident / stop being indecisive / learn how to code / eat healthier / meet new people / learn how to handle stress better / be more considerate with my roommates / learn to be happy about other people’s successes / learn how to play the guitar / try to get an A in all my classes.”
By the middle of the year, you usually get so fed up with what you have done with your lives this year that it becomes very easy to just gravitate towards complacency. You want to just give up on this year and let it run its course, and somehow, things will be different next year.
But they won’t! ‘Next year I’ll do better’ is a lie we tell ourselves on a yearly basis, and even though we prove ourselves wrong every time, we still buy into it in the next telling. Most new year’s resolutions don’t stick. For the majority of us, that means next year will be the same, and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that.
Truth is, a lot of us think that we will be better next year, that time will somehow solve all of our flaws and problems, give us a brand new start, and everything’s gonna be okay, but the problem is, most of us don’t do a darn thing about it.
We’re deluding ourselves if we think that something’s going to change without us making the effort to make those changes happen.
I wish I knew this when I was in college: our bad habits and flaws and problems and emotional issues are, unfortunately, non-biodegradable.
Just because we can bury them in our backyard doesn’t mean that they’re ever going to go away. Truth is, one day we will run out of space, or a life phenomenon, or a series of unfortunate events will swoop in like a team of special forces and dig all those skeletons out and lay them all in the open, and they will bite us in the derriere.
We don’t want to just grow older next year. We want to grow up. So here are two practical tips.
1. Get Better!
One way to grow up, I think, is to get better. Better at what? Well, it’s different for everybody. The main idea is to gradually iron out what’s bad about you, and ink in more good (I’m talking tattoos here, not just some blue butterfly from bubblegum wrappers that’ll get washed out in a week).
This can range from breaking a junk food eating, chips munching habit to developing grace under pressure, or a Gandhi-like patience.
Try this: write down your character flaws and traits or abilities you want to acquire in two columns.
Sometimes it’s helpful to sit down with one of your best friends (preferably someone who has a track record of calling you out on your bovine excrement and can give you the tough love) when doing this. If you don’t have a friend like that, write that down as one of the top priorities in the ‘good’ column. You absolutely need to have at least one person who can smack you in the face and set you straight when you’ve gone astray but don’t know it. Apparently, those friends may know you better than yourselves.
Every year, pick one or a few from either list, and start making a habit out of them. Do not start on other habits until you’re confident enough to say that you have eliminated or acquired the trait(s) you’ve been working on.
The key is to not overtax yourselves. Willpower is a limited resource. The more habits you try to break and acquire at once, the more likely it is for you to renege on your commitment.
The good news is, on the other hand, willpower also works like a muscle. That means, the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes.
There are plenty of habit-developing methods, but I’m going to recommend one here: the Seinfeld chains of habit.
Here’s how it works.
[Seinfeld] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
It’s so simple it’s scary that it works.
The beauty of the chains of habit method is that it focuses on actually doing the habit. There is no pressure to do it flawlessly (you know what I’m talking about, perfectionists!). You just have to do it for today. Earn your X mark today.
If you start off by saying, “By the end of this year I will curb smoking, master Russian, Ancient Greek, and Latin, and play the guitar like Slash,” unless your willpower is, unlike most of us mere mortals, as anti-ballistic as the Man of Steel’s muscles, chances are you’re going to give up somewhere along the way. With the chains of habit, you only have to focus on earning your check mark today.
Don’t wait until next year so you can make more of those silly new year’s resolutions that you know you’re going to break anyway! Start now. Grab a pen and a calendar! Grab your phone! Get an app! Start growing up today!
2. Manage Your Expectations!
Because admit it, some of them are pretty unrealistic!
Here’s an example. If you are reading this post, or if you’re religiously following this blog, chances are, you’re a pretty smart guy or gal (because honestly, a lot of people don’t bother reading this blog, and a lot of people don’t even bother reading at all!). Chances are, at one point of your academic life, you’ve been in a group where you have to do most, if not all, of the work, because you’re 1) smarter, richer, faster, handsomer, and virtually superior to your teammates in all aspects, 2) your teammates are lazy, or 3) a combination in varying degrees of reasons 1 and 2 (usually the case). Remember those people?
For a few weeks you’re frustrated, but eventually you say to yourselves, “Eh, whatever. It’s gonna be over in, at max, 4 months anyway.”
But what if one day you graduate, get yourself a job despite the maelstrom of rejections, ignored resumes, and pink slips, and yet you get caught in the same situation? Think about it. When you enter the workforce, there will be people you must work with who will fall short of your expectation (and people who must work with you despite your shortcomings, too!). And it’s not like you can change your job or move to a different team every 6 months until you find that perfect set of colleagues.
There are a lot of things that we can change. That’s what Tips #1 is all about. But there are also a lot of things that we can’t change. That’s Tips #2: realizing that sometimes our expectations about ourselves and other people just aren’t realistic.
Change your expectations.
In other words, get used to not getting what you want. I know this isn’t consistent with the kind of go-get-’em attitude most of us have been taught to embrace. But most of the time, fighting reality is not worth the effort. Either you can’t change what’s around you, or the fight is more stressful than the reward.
Maybe sometimes life isn’t giving you lemon. Maybe life’s already given you an ’09 Sonoma Pinot Noir (~$50), but you just don’t realize it because you’re only expecting a vintage ’97 Romane Conti (~$1,500). Know this: the fifty bucks a pop can get you drunk as well as the one that costs fifteen hundred bucks a bottle. Sometimes the reason you can’t be the person you want to be is because who you want to be is an unrealistic expectation you force on yourselves.
You either jump higher, or you lower the bar, or you do a little bit of both (which is what works best for most of us). A big part of growing up involves striving and actively making changes to be the best person you can become while at the same time calibrating that definition of ‘the best’ to be closer to the realistic best you can become.
Want to tell us what traits or habits you’ll take on today? Sound off in the comment box!