On College, In Reflection
At some point, you stop chasing. You stop hitting your brains against the white of your skull, waiting for the next outcome to deliver happiness. You stop gripping the whip in your hands, ready in a moment’s notice to force every detail into place as you pray for success. You stop chasing the numbers and letters, the titles and positions, and realize that your worth is not contained in the gleaming smile of a phone screen, or in the handshake of a man in a gray suit. You stop obsessively checking emails and notifications, stop giving electronic messages the power to dictate your time and attention. You become quiet inside: quiet with the peace of the rivers that ran beside your childhood home, quiet like your beloved dog as she drew her last breath, quiet like your first-grade teacher’s smile after recess.
You become content eating alone, in silence, watching the slow shuffle of a passing janitor, or admiring the stillness of the trees nearby. You crave simplicity where you once strove for complexity, and the smile of a stranger becomes more significant than a hundred empty conversations of small talk. You yearn for dorm dining halls and late-night laughter, bad ideas and impossible dreams, because you’ve grown too wary of the probabilities and likelihoods of life, and sometimes need to forget. At some point, you drop your weapons and shields, drop the humble-brags and weird flexes, and accept yourself for your broken places and future mistakes (and believe me, there will be a lot). You loosen the cage around your hands and feet, free your teeth from inside the lines of your lips, and laugh at yourself more easily, and more often.
At some point, you replace the time wasted on observing other people's lives with the things that feed your mind and soul. You replace social media with podcasts and books, replace mindless TV shows with slightly less mindless ones, and replace the noise of the outside world with the vast silence inside yourself. People often ask me, how are you so chill? How do you stay calm when so many things are happening at once? My answer is simple. My life is never perfect, and is always slightly falling apart. I am the way I am because of past grievances and heartbreak that others don’t see, and am definitely more neurotic and prone-to-worry than the average twenty-two-year-old. But I’m able to remain inspired and generally happy because I’ve gone through struggles that forced me to truly reflect and get to know myself. Most importantly, my experiences have compelled me to explore my mind and passions with the energy and excitement others spend on doing things that hinder self-growth.
If anything, college has taught me that you are not the sum of your achievements, or the praise that befalls you, or the people you interact with, or the activities you do, or how people see you, or even how you think others see you. You are the sum of whatever worth you assign to yourself. It’s really as simple as that.
Steve Jobs once said, “You can only connect the dots looking back.” I’ve never known this to be as true as it is now, as I get ready to graduate and leave the college world behind. Only when we’ve achieved our goals at the end of the journey do we allow ourselves to synthesize our memories into coherent narratives. But too often, we forget our memories are valuable when free-standing, without relation to the grander narrative of our lives.
Why do we race the way we do? Why do we overload ourselves with responsibilities we feel we must fulfill to be happy? The sooner you embrace the fact that you know much less about your own happiness than you think, the happier you will be. Not only that, the things you think possess the key to happiness are very often the things that will break you apart, forcing you to rebuild your values with greater clarity.
No one at our age wants to hear the truth, but the truth is this: we are happier with fewer desires and fewer ambitions, and when we put all of ourselves into select avenues of work that we find truly enjoyable, without assigning our self-worth to external validation or apparent success. After all, the social systems we so desperately long to be a part of are all just man-made constructions running relative to one another, in one big, well-oiled machine. We just have to not become robots along the way.