August 23, 2016

RUSSELL | A Message to Freshmen: Choosing Your Own Adventure

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I know you aren’t looking for advice. You probably think you’re some hot-shot who understands life because you’re old enough to buy cigarettes from grocery stores and order Moon Sand over the phone without having to ask your parents. Honestly, I don’t blame you. I thought the same thing. And hey, maybe you are that hot-shot, but I wouldn’t count on it. It’s more likely that you’ll hobble through the next four years with a few mistakes. The great Sophocles once said, “Let men be wise by instinct if they can, but when this fails be wise by good advice,” so here I am, giving you all the advice I can muster in case you fall into the latter category and one day find yourself in need of a little guidance.

If you’re anything like me, you spent the last few years thinking about college and believed with all your heart that once you knew where you were going to school, you would have a clear roadmap to future success. Colleges often talk about their alumni as if they made these people into all that they are today, so I imagined myself enrolling at a university, letting it work its usual mojo and then, four years later, sliding into the perfect career as a well prepared young professional. The truth is, though, that college will give you the classes and the opportunities, but it’s up to you to decide which ones to take. And you can quite possibly take the wrong ones. Don’t worry, though, if you approach it the right way, you can forgo a few of the screw ups.

The first thing to understand is that you aren’t alone: almost everyone in college is confused about the future of their lives. Some people work toward specific goals to curb their uncertainty, others sit on the couch and binge How I Met Your Mother to do the same. Regardless of which camp you fall into, you can expect to have a few nights where you lay awake and wonder if it’s too late to transfer to clown school or drop out to create a start-up selling bow-ties on the Internet.

What I learned eventually is that even though I should be searching for a career, that sort of thing only leads to meaningful results when one has a full understanding of who they are and what they want from life. And no one gets this understanding by chasing the wind; it comes from doing things that are meaningful or talking to wise people or learning for the sake of learning. When you postpone trying to figure out your life and start trying to experience the world for what it is, you understand the human experience and what you can do to make it better. You can’t help improve people’s lives until you learn what it means to just live.

During my freshman year, I didn’t get my best career insight from googling “highest paying jobs” or taking career aptitude tests. I got it from late night jam sessions and existential conversations with old people. Before I could get anywhere in my career search, I had to understand what satisfied me and why it satisfied me, and I usually discovered that sort of thing in the times when I didn’t expect it.

Once you’ve gotten a good grasp of your own identity and the career to pursue, however, don’t abandon the virtue of seeking meaningful non-career-related experiences. This sounds simple, but to be able to pull if off, you have to develop a very specific mindset that I don’t think many Cornellians have. Most students think of college solely as the time when they will work hard to prepare themselves for their future lives. To them, it’s the time for practice tests and career-related extracurriculars and research. To some extent, all of this is true. There are sets of accomplishments you will need under your belt to be whoever you aim to be in 10 years. At the same time, though, preparation is only half the experience. College doesn’t just prepare you for your life; it is your life. This doesn’t mean that you should fulfill your every hedonistic desire. What it means, rather, is that if you think your goal in life is to help people in need, don’t make yourself so busy preparing to help people in the future that you don’t find time to actually do it now.

Congrats on getting into Cornell. Regardless of if you take my advice or not, you have an exciting four years ahead of you and for that, I wish you the best. Even if you don’t know what’s next for you, hold your head high. You’re in the right place now, and that’s what counts.

Paul Russell is a sophomore in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at prussell@cornellsun.com. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. 

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