As You Tackle the New Semester: Some Words of Advice for Students

It’s that time of year again!

That time when students leave the comfy confines of their family homes and head back to college to tackle yet another year of friends, fun, and (maybe) even a little bit of learning. I can always tell when the fall semester is about to begin because the traffic gets a little heavier, the email in my Inbox starts to overflow, and the lines at Chipotle get ridiculously long (I do NOT like waiting to get my guacamole, people!).

back_to_school

Yep, the semester is definitely upon us.

For most students, college is an amazing time, a time to meet new people, a time to learn about themselves, a time to create new experiences that last a lifetime.

But quite often, college is also a time of confusion, anxiety, and stress. Students find themselves saying things like:

“What should I major in?”

“What if I fail my class?”

“What if I don’t get into graduate school?”

“I hate my major, but my parents are pressuring me to be a doctor (or lawyer or professor or nurse or teacher or . . . ).”

“I think I’m the only one who doesn’t know what I want to do with my life.”

And so on . . .

As a college professor, I talk to a lot of students who feel enormous stress as they think about these questions and tackle the vagaries of college life. Now, certainly, they bring a lot of this stress on themselves. For instance, procrastinating—which, for many, is an everyday occurrence—rarely produces long-term positive outcomes. Yet students do it anyway.

Quite often, though, the stress that students experience is brought on by others: for instance, parents who pressure their kids to make certain decisions, professors whose expectations for their students might be just a bit over the top, friends (and other students) who think that college is a zero-sum game where the goal is to “beat” every one else, and a society that defines “success” in very narrow terms.

Unfortunately, these stressors have the ability to diminish students’ college experiences and make their time in college considerably less enjoyable than it really should be. (By the way, I’m not suggesting that college should be stress-free. In fact, I think that learning to deal with stress is great life training.)

I remember feeling this way at times. For example, as I’ve written previously, I remember thinking that I needed to major in electrical engineering because it would look good to others, not because I really had any interest in it.

Unfortunately, my lack of interest was quickly followed by a lack of motivation and an even bigger lack of good grades.

On the bright side, I had supportive parents who urged me to make a change, who gave me the freedom go searching for a major that would give me the interest and the motivation to perform in a way that I (and they) knew I was capable of performing.

I was also lucky enough to have some incredible professors—Gail Peterson and Bruce Overmier at the undergraduate level; Tony Marcattilio, Bob Murphy, and Bill Buskist in graduate school—who, in one form or another, helped me figure out both college and life (although I’m still figuring out that “life” part). For that, I am forever in their debt.

As a college professor, I’m now in a position to help my students the way my parents and professors helped me. (Whether I’m doing that effectively is certainly up for debate.) In fact, much of the reason I chose to become a college professor was because I wanted to have the same impact on my students that my professors had on me.

When students come to my office and ask for my advice about classes, majors, graduate school, jobs, or even life, I find myself thinking back to my time in college, that time 20 years ago (yes, I’m that old) when I wondered whether I had chosen the right major, whether I’d get into graduate school, and whether I really knew what I wanted to do with my life.

And then it hits me: These students are me!

They have many of the same concerns and problems that I grappled with when I was a college student (and some of which I still grapple with today).

In that sense, then, when I’m talking to my students, I’m really talking to my 20-year-old self. And maybe not surprisingly, I find myself giving them some of the same advice my professors gave me.

Even more than that, though, I find myself telling them things I’ve learned over the past 20 years—things I know now that I wish I’d known back then.

(In fact, many of the topics I write about in this blog are those things.)

So, as we embark on this new semester, I’d like to share with you some of words of advice. These are some of the things I’ve learned over the past 20 years—things that (I think) might be useful to my students (and others) ask they tackle a new year of friends, fun, and (maybe) even a little bit of learning.

Find and Pursue Your Passions

We hear this all the time, but not a lot of people do it. And yet, the psychological benefits are undeniably clear: increased happiness, less stress, better relationships, and more optimism about life, to name a few. Moreover, people who approach their careers with passion are persistent in the face of setbacks and, thus, tend to perform better than those who are non-passionate (for a review, see here). There’s even quite a bit of research suggesting that passion and positive emotions might actually cause success (and not the other way around).

Now, if you don’t feel like you’re passionate about anything, then you need to get out and try new things. Passion develops when you try new things and surround yourself with people who support your choices.

If you think you might be passionate about something but you’re not sure, then you need to take some time to “listen to your heart” (I hate that phrase, but it makes my point). Only when I finally slowed down (by engaging in meditation and frequent self-reflection) and started to listen to what my heart and mind were telling me did I come to realize what I’m most passionate about.

Finally, if you know what you’re passionate about but are afraid to give it a go because you think it’s too risky, then you need to remember this: There’s risk involved with everything you choose to do. Quite possibly the biggest risk, though, entails not being true to yourself.

So go and find what you’re passionate about (if you don’t know already). College is a great time to explore and see what really turns you on.

The rest of your life is a long time not to be doing something you enjoy.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

So many students I know are afraid to fail. Now, I certainly understand why: They’ve been told that if they “fail,” they won’t be successful: They’ll never get into college; they’ll never get into graduate school; they won’t get a good job; they’ll never make a lot of money; they’ll never find anyone to love; and, ultimately, they’ll die penniless and alone. (Well, that escalated quickly, didn’t it?) As a result, students think they need to be perfect at everything. But as you might guess, trying to be perfect all the time is a recipe for disaster.

And here’s one more thing for you to chew on: Even if you try, you’re not going to be perfect (or even good) at everything!

I’m not. My wife isn’t. My kids aren’t. My parents aren’t. My brother isn’t. My friends aren’t. My colleagues aren’t. NO ONE IS!

And you know what? Most of us are doing just fine.

So, stop trying to be perfect! Instead, embrace the notion that you will probably fail at some point. Remember the old saying: “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” Also, understand that if you fail, it’s going to be alright. The world isn’t going to end. You’ll find a way to bounce back.

In fact, let’s stop calling it “failure.” Instead, think of it as “finding what doesn’t work for me.” When you embrace this idea, you won’t be afraid to try new things. You know that some will work out and others won’t. You learn more quickly what your strengths and weaknesses are. And you’re more likely to discover what you’re passionate about. So take a shot and see what happens. As Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”

Finally, if you do “fail,” simply get up and try again. As this video shows, even the most successful people had to encounter failure (often over and over again) before they found what worked for them. You should do the same.

Define “Success” for Yourself

While we’re on the topic of successful people, let’s talk a little bit about that ever-so-momentous word: SUCCESS. What does it mean to you? For most people, it means making a lot of money. Or maybe it entails a “successful” career as a doctor or lawyer or engineer or whatever. Students might define it as having a high GPA (which creates its own problems).

But have you ever taken the time to think about where your definition came from? Often, we define “success” based on what others tell us it is (our parents, our professors, our friends). But here’s the deal: You’re not them! What they want out of life probably isn’t the same as what you want out of life. Nor should it be! You’re different people, with different experiences and different motivations.

This is your life and no one else’s. Take the time to come up with your own definition of success and to set your own goals. Don’t let others tell you they’re good or bad. They’re yours, and that’s all that matters. Then ask yourself whether you’re doing the important things that will put you on the path to your success. If you’re on the path, keep going. If you’re not, change course. Now.

Slow Down Every Once in Awhile

We live in a world where we’re constantly on the go. I know I feel that way much of the time: wake up early, get the kids ready for school, rush out the door, go to work, rush to the next meeting, pick up the boys from school, try to fit in some exercise, make dinner, get the boys ready for bed, try to fit in a little “me” time, go to bed, and get ready to do it all over again.

You know what I’m talking about, right?

The problem is that when we’re constantly on the go, we have little time to slow down and pay attention to what’s actually happening around is. And when we don’t pay attention, before we know it, our kids are playing Little League, going to middle-school dances, getting their driver’s licenses, and leaving for college. And we’re left wondering where the time went.

For students, this is especially true. You’re constantly on the go, and your time in college flies by (as some of you already know). If you don’t slow down every once in awhile, it’ll be over before you know it. And you’ll wonder where it all went.

To remedy this, take some time every so often to slow down and smell the roses. I’m not talking about lying around on your couch all day doing nothing of use. Or blowing off your classes and going drinking instead (although I’m sure that’s what some of you probably had in mind).

No, I’m talking about things that make you think and reflect: things like reading a book (one that’s not assigned for a class) or making dinner for yourself or having a nice conversation with friends or simply sipping some coffee and looking at the beautiful blue sky.

Most importantly, I’m talking about taking some time to be alone—in your room (or some other quiet location) with nothing but your thoughts. Without your phone (god forbid!). So you can “listen” to yourself and see what your heart and mind are really saying. Because only when you slow down a bit and listen to yourself will you ultimately get unadulterated insight on what you want your life to be.

Realize That You Don’t Need to Have Your Life Figured Out Yet

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have your life plan laid out by the time you’re 22. (And if you think you do, then you really need to read this.) Your life is going to unfold in ways you can’t even fathom right now. As such, if you’re not sure what you want to “do” or “be” at this point in your life, that’s totally okay (even if others are telling you it’s not).

Look, here’s the truth: You’re not alone. In my experience, many college students like to say they have their lives figured out, but they really don’t. Rather, they say it because it makes others (like their parents) feel better.

So, don’t worry. You’ll figure it out. Give yourself some space, and things will come together, even if it takes awhile for that to happen. I’d rather you take 5 or 10 years now to figure it out so that you’re happy when you’re 55.

Be Grateful for Your Opportunity

When I look around, there’s a lot of complaining going on (I’m guilty of it, too). But here’s the real deal: We all have a lot to be thankful for.

Family. Friends. Food on our plates (preferably from Chipotle, if that frickin’ line ever gets any shorter). Roofs over our heads. Nice weather every so often.

And the chance to go to college.

Please, please remember this: Not everyone has that chance. In fact, for the large majority of people in this world, higher education isn’t even an option. You are one of the incredibly lucky ones.

When you’re sitting in your class, listening to your boring-ass professor go on and on about some crazy psychological theory (as I’m prone to do), or when you’re sitting in the library studying for your big exam, or when you have 100 pages of reading to do by tomorrow (because you’ve procrastinated too much), just remember how good you have it. Seriously. Just remember all those people who wish they were in your shoes (and trust me, there are a lot of them).

This is an amazing time for you. Stop complaining, and be grateful for your opportunity and for everything you have.

Go Forth and Have a Great Year

So, there you have it: some words of advice for students. From me to you. I hope you find something I said to be at least a bit useful. If not, that’s okay.

Regardless, have a great semester. Enjoy your friends (but make new ones), have fun (but without into too much trouble), and maybe even try to learn a little bit.

I’ll see you around.

 

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The IMPORTANT or the important: Which are you choosing?

One of the things that drives me nuts as a college professor is watching students text in my classes. They think they’re being sneaky, but they’re not—it’s pretty obvious what they’re doing when they’re staring at their crotches and laughing.

texting
Picture from www.unscatter.com

Now my disdain for texting in class has little to do with being disrespected or anything like that. Rather, it has to do with the fact that texting impedes class performance, as my colleague Mandy Gingerich has clearly shown. Contrary to popular belief, we are not good multi-taskers. So, for every moment my students are texting, they’re probably missing something important. And when I see my frequently texting students doing poorly in class, as they often do, it always makes me wonder, “Was it worth it? Was texting really that important?”

What’s Important?

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “importance” recently: what’s truly important in our lives and whether we’re spending our time doing things that really matter to us.

Important
Picture from www.photopin.com

And as I look around, I think the answer to that question is quite often, “No.” In fact, in my last post, I spent some time talking about a common excuse we often give for not doing important things in our lives (“I just don’t have time”) and how it’s really just another way of saying, “It’s not that important to me.”

I also suggested that “important” is defined by how we behave. For instance, if you’re spending your time texting with friends when you should be studying (because you have a big exam coming up), texting is more important than studying. Or if you’re watching TV when you should be exercising (because you want to lose 10 lbs. for a rapidly approaching high school reunion), watching TV is more important than exercising.

I don’t care how much you claim that studying is more important than texting, if you’re texting, it’s more important to you.

End of story.

“But wait,” some of you might be saying. “Exercising and being in shape are definitely more important to me than watching reruns of Grey’s Anatomy—I mean, I already know that [spoiler alert!] McDreamy dies. Your argument doesn’t make any sense.”

(By the way, if any of you are really wondering, no, I’ve never seen Grey’s Anatomy before.)

“IMPORTANT” or Just “important”: What’s the Difference?

Well, this is because there are actually two different types of “important” that we can talk about: IMPORTANT (“BIG important”) or important (“small important”).

As you might be able to guess, IMPORTANT is the type of “important” we should be focusing on as much as possible in our day-to-day activities. This type of IMPORTANT is what we’re referring to when we think about really big goals we might have—in other words, the big hairy audacious goals (or BHAGs) that push the upper limits of our abilities and get us really excited about the future.

For example, maybe you want to get in really good shape. Or write a best-selling novel. Or get into graduate school. Or become a successful school counselor. Or open your own business. Or find the cure for cancer. Or be the hero in your own movie.

Only by consistently engaging in IMPORTANT activities can we work toward our long-term goals and build the kinds of lives we want for ourselves.

Unfortunately, much too often, important activities are the ones that have the greatest impact on our moment-to-moment behavior.

Rather than moving us toward our most-desired lives, important activities are those that either provide us with some short-term pleasure or that seem “urgent” in nature (even though they’re often not). Unfortunately, important things keep us from doing IMPORTANT things.

Let me give you two personal examples.

1. A couple nights ago, I was practicing guitar (something very IMPORTANT to me). After practicing for a half hour or so, I decided to take a short break and watch a little TV (big mistake!). Unfortunately, I came across the season finale of Naked and Afraid (which, if you haven’t seen it, is interesting for reasons other than the people on the show are both naked and afraid). Rather than turn off the TV after my break was over, I simply muted the volume.

And, of course, for the next hour or so, every time something interesting came on the TV screen, I stopped practicing and watched for a few minutes.

Needless to say, my practice session was not the most efficient it’s ever been. Yes, watching TV was pleasant in the short term, but it certainly didn’t get me any closer to improving my guitar playing.

2. Earlier today, I was sitting at my computer writing (which is an IMPORTANT part of my job) when I heard the familiar “ding” of an email arriving in my Inbox. (By the way, having your Inbox open all the time is a real productivity killer.) It was from a student who had a question about a class I’m teaching this semester. In fact, the question was relatively unimportant and probably didn’t require an immediate response.

But what did I do?

I did what many of you have probably done in similar situations: I put my IMPORTANT work to the side so I could immediately address this seemingly important (“urgent”) email. By the time I got back to writing, 5 or so minutes later, I had, for all intents and purposes, lost my momentum, effectively ending my IMPORTANT writing session.

Why We Choose the “important” over the “IMPORTANT”

So why is it that we’re so likely to fall prey to important activities, even though we know that we should be working on more IMPORTANT things?

To understand this tendency, we need to take a brief foray into the world of psychological decision-making. Although I won’t go until a lot of detail on the topic, suffice it to say that several decades of research has provided some answers to why we are so quick to choose the important over the IMPORTANT (like texting when we should be studying).

For a long time, psychologists have known that our behavior is strongly affected by the consequences we experience after we behave.

Some of these consequences are called “reinforcers” (or the less-precise term “rewards”), and when we experience them, we are more likely to behave in similar ways in the future. For instance, if we go to a restaurant and get a good meal, we’re more likely to go there again. Or if we study for an exam and get a good grade, we’re more likely to study again.

(There are also consequences called “punishers,” but I’m not going to spend time discussing them right now.)

The interesting thing about consequences is that many factors affect their “psychological value” (which is what ultimately determines the choices we make).

For instance, the value of a reinforcer is affected by its delay, or how long we have to wait for it. And in general, we prefer sooner over later: $100 now is more valuable than $100 in 6 months.

Another factor that affects the value of a consequence is its magnitude, or size. And in general, we prefer larger over smaller: $1000 is more valuable than $100.

(And you thought size didn’t matter.)

When reinforcers entail only different delays or different magnitudes (as in the above examples), choosing is straightforward: sooner over later and larger over smaller. But choosing gets much more difficult when factors are combined, for example, when a “sooner-smaller” consequence is put up against a “later-larger” consequence.

Take, for instance, the following:

Would you rather have $100 now or $500 in 1 week?

In this case, delay and magnitude combine to affect the psychological value of each of these options.

For many, the psychological value of $500 in a week is greater than $100 now. And so we have no problem waiting.

But what about this?

Would you rather have $100 now or $500 in 5 years?

In this case, the lengthy delay to $500 decreases its psychological value to the point where the smaller-sooner option is now more psychologically valuable. And so we choose the smaller amount of money over the larger amount.

In fact, many of the choices we make on a daily basis involve choosing between “smaller-sooner” reinforcers and “larger-later” reinforcers.

Eating a piece of cake now vs. exercising and being healthy in 6 months

Buying an expensive pair of shoes now vs. being debt-free in a year

Texting in class vs. listening and getting a good exam grade in 2 weeks

And in many of these cases, because waiting tends to devalue a reinforcer, we choose the sooner-smaller option.

We eat the cake. We buy the shoes. We text in class.

(By the way, these choices frequently entail an element of “effort,” too, because they often require us to choose over and over again in order to reach the later-larger outcome.)

Importantly (pun intended), a similar “sooner-smaller vs. later-larger” (and often effortful) choice occurs when we choose between the important and the IMPORTANT.

And unfortunately, as you might guess, the things we deem IMPORTANT often require us to wait. In fact, as Jim Collins has noted, BHAGs are often 10 or more years in the making (and often hard to achieve). Therefore, because we have to wait for these reinforcers, they lose their psychological value, even if they are hugely IMPORTANT to us. Moreover, because important activities are usually staring us right in the face, we frequently choose this lesser option.

Choosing the “IMPORTANT”: What to Do?

So, there you have it: a primary reason why we so frequently choose the important over the IMPORTANT.

Importantly (pun once again intended), there are ways to increase the chances that we will choose the IMPORTANT over the important.

First, we need to become more aware of our primary goals—those BHAGs that motivate us to act and get us excited about the future. In the moment-to-moment minutiae of our everyday lives, it’s easy to forget what really matters to us. To counter this, we need to dream big and keep those dreams clearly in sight.

We also need to come up with detailed plans that will allow us to make consistent progress toward our most valued goals. Although our BHAGs may be far off in terms of time, we can identify smaller, more easily manageable tasks that, when tackled consistently, will continue to move us in the right direction.

We also need to prioritize our most IMPORTANT tasks on a daily basis, even when the pleasurable and (seemingly) urgent are calling us to choose them instead.

And, finally, when confronted with difficult choices each and every day (as most of us are), we need to think about the lure of the “sooner-smaller” reinforcer and ask ourselves:

“Is this IMPORTANT or just important?”

It may not always be easy choosing the IMPORTANT when the important is staring us right in the face. But in the end, it’s definitely worth it.

 

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“I Didn’t Have Enough Time” (a.k.a., “It’s Just Not That Important to Me”)

Priorities

If you’re anything like me, you probably have too much on your to-do list. And unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, the list never seems to get any shorter.

More often than I care to admit, I get to the end of my day and realize that I wasn’t able to finish some of my most important tasks, or, as I like to call them, my MITs (See what I did there? M = Most, I = Important, and T = Tasks. Pretty smart, eh?).

Does this sound familiar?

And more often than not, when I fail to complete my MITs, I blame it on one thing: lack of time.

“I didn’t have enough time,” I like to tell everyone who will listen to me.

Does this also sound familiar? I’m betting it does, because I hear a lot of people blaming time (or lack thereof) for their productivity problems.

“I didn’t have enough time to practice guitar today.”

“I didn’t have enough time to play baseball with my kids today.”

“I didn’t have enough time to call my parents tonight.”

“I didn’t have enough time to exercise today.”

“I didn’t have enough time to study for my psychology exam.”

And so on…

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my (and others’) tendency to use lack of time as an excuse for not getting truly important things done.

And do you know what I’ve come to believe?

I think it’s completely bogus.

Why?

Because when things are truly important to us, we get them done.

No excuses. No saying, “I didn’t have enough time.” No saying, “Something came up.”

When things truly matter to us, we’re motivated to act, and we find a way to finish them, even if it means getting up early, staying up late, putting other things off to the side (some of which might also be important), or even missing the latest episode of Games of Thrones (WTF!!!!).

Most Important = What You Chose to Do

Here’s one reason why I think the “time” excuse is mostly bogus. A century’s-worth of psychological research has shown that we typically choose to do things that are most psychologically “valuable,” or important, to us. Thus, if you’re doing one thing over another—if you’re checking Facebook rather than studying for a big exam or watching TV rather than exercising—it simply means that the chosen activity is currently more important to you than the alternative (and this is often because the chosen activity is either easier or more immediately rewarding).

Consequently, what I’ve come to believe is that “I didn’t have enough time” is just another way of saying:

“It’s just not that important to me.”

Think about it.

When we have things in our lives that really, truly matter to us, we will walk through fire to do them.

Imagine, for instance, that you had a loved one who was on his deathbed, and you knew his time to leave was near. If you really, truly wanted to see him one more time, you’d probably do everything in your power to get there. If you had a lunch date with a dear friend, you’d reschedule it. If you had a class, you’d skip it. If you had a job, you’d call in sick or ask for a day off (or maybe even quit if you had some jackhole boss who wouldn’t let you take time off). Lack of time simply wouldn’t be an issue.

Similarly, if I really, truly want to lose weight (as I’ve discussed before), there wouldn’t be any excuses about how I “didn’t have time to exercise” or how I “didn’t have time to eat a healthy lunch” or how I “didn’t have time to sleep.”

No. If losing weight was truly important to me, I’d find a way to do these things. I’d exercise instead of watching TV at night. I’d get up 15 minutes earlier to make myself a healthy lunch. I’d go to bed early.

End of story.

On the other hand, when things really aren’t that valuable or important to us, we push them off, over and over, until it’s often too late.

And then, when this happens, we have an easy out, a socially acceptable excuse that we can pull out of our back pockets whenever we need it:

“I didn’t have enough time.”

Let me give you an example. A couple months ago, I was talking to a student who claimed that going to graduate school was really important to her. She also claimed that she didn’t have enough time to work on her graduate school applications. I found this interesting, given that the deadline for submissions was rapidly approaching.

Now, I certainly understand that most college students are very busy—going to class, studying for exams, working part- (or full-)time jobs to pay for college, trying to have social lives, and so on. But if a person fails to submit graduate school applications, he or she can be guaranteed of one thing: not getting into graduate school! If graduate school was really that important to my student, she would’ve prioritized her applications.

I therefore wasn’t surprised a bit when she eventually told me that she really didn’t want to go to graduate school. Rather, her parents were pressuring her to go. But because she didn’t want to go, she found other things to do instead. “Lack of time” simply became an excuse for putting off something that wasn’t that important to her.

As I think about my own life, and as I think about others who I’ve heard use this excuse, I’m more and more convinced that lack of time simply implies lack of importance.

We like to claim that things are important to us (often because others pressure us into believing they’re important).

But our lack of action belies our claims.

Look, I’m well aware that we all have a ton of things on our plates (many of which we could probably jettison without experiencing any negative effects). I’m also well aware that sometimes “life gets in the way,” and we’re unable to get things done because we’re running around and putting out fires.

But more often than I think we care to admit, our lack of action on things we deem important is simply a sign that they’re really not.

Because here’s the deal: When things are important to us—when they really, truly matter—we act. We work hard on them. We rearrange our schedules. We ignore the unimportant. We find time.

We get them done.

 

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