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Changing your life at college

October 28, 2010

Ed Darrell at Millard Filmore’s Bathtub tells a story about 40 colleges that have banded together to make their mission to change students’ lives.  It’s great and I especially encourage high school kids to read the article.  Here’s an excerpt:

Choosing a college can bring on all sorts of angst.

You worry about choosing the right college — the one that will advance you toward your dreams, the one where you’ll fit in (yeah, we all worry about that), the one that you and your family can afford, the one where you can cut it, and the one where you can shine.

I urge you to consider a group of colleges known collectively as Colleges that Change Lives (CTCL).

But I also think aspiring college students need to think about college as the time when you have social permission to change your own life.  I mean sure, you can change anytime, but you’re swimming against the expectations of your entire social context.  Changing your life is what college is for.  It’s when you stretch and explore not only the topic of your major, but also your own possibilities in personal development.  This is true no matter what college you attend, and you can get a lot more out of your college experience than many of your fellow students will by looking at it a little differently.

One of the biggest obstacles to personal growth is the desire to be cool.  Enthusiasm is socially constrained to just a few things: group identity and sports for example.  Getting personally excited about music or marketing or math or law or computer science or history makes you a geek and, well, you know where that could lead.

It could lead to moments in your life when you have an original thought, when you create something, when you are taken outside yourself in pursuit of the living experience.  Moments when you flow.

When you’re in the state of Flow, you are completely focused on the task at hand.  You forget about yourself, about others, about the world around you; you lose track of time, you feel happy, in control, creative, productive.

In our culture we’ve come to accept the idea that happiness is an average level, like water in a graduated cylinder.  I’m sure that’s true for some people.  But to me it seems like settling for an existence where all the peaks must be manufactured by an artificial entertainment of some kind, where something else is the engine and you are having an exhilarating ride.

Our culture seems to avoid the moments when you are the engine.  Or to rarefy them as inaccessible to you and me.  Look at Michael Jordan!  Steve Jobs!  Yo Yo Ma!  Only people like them experience flow at work, only supermodels experience great sex, (awfully illogical when you think about it) and there’s no point in singing because, well, listen to how great Taylor Swift is at it.

Those moments are peaks, and there may be long troughs in between them.  But maybe the social convention of expecting consistent happiness gets in the way of getting above the level plain for even a brief view.

College – any college – can be more than just a line on you resume.  We’re a couple months into the semester now, and each academic year begins with a frantic recruitment effort by campus in-groups; fraternities, sororities, religious affiliations.  And that’s fine but my little suggestion is this: look for groups that focus on some well-defined exploration like (playing, not watching) sports, doing drama, experimenting with computer science, etc.  Let the group identity flow from the art,  because art usually does not flow from group identity.  And take advantage of this time in your life to geek out: it’s the only way you’ll develop the personal confidence to overcome coolness.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 29, 2010 at 16:23 | #1

    That’s an interesting insight, George. I hadn’t thought of it before, but now that you mention it, I can see how the desire to be cool would lead to constraints on being yourself. It seems quite obvious, once you think about it. I feel silly for not having seen it before.

  2. October 31, 2010 at 22:51 | #2

    Ugh, I wasted so much time in high school caring about coolness, trying to fit in, and trying to not be a social pariah. Worrying about all three of those just leads to wasted talent and time.

    Just need to figure out how to get kids to realize that part of their life won’t matter much at all once college comes around. Just get through and work on being the best you possible.

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