April 23, 2023

GUEST ROOM | Three Things I Wish My Counselor Had Told Me

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“The Uniform Code of Military Justice specifies court martial for any officer who sends a soldier into battle without a weapon. There ought to be a similar protection for students, because students shouldn’t go into life without information about the real world.”

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that this is a paraphrased quote from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Patrick Winston, who is clearly better at coming up with introductions than I am.

I have been on leave from Cornell working for exactly one year now, and — call me overconfident — there are a few important things that all future former Cornellians should know about the world we’re about to jump into. Maybe you’ve already discovered these on your own, in which case I want to encourage you to share them with as many people as possible. This is the personal letter that my younger self desperately needed after just landing on this campus with no clue how he was going to live his life.

Moreover, this is a personal letter for a specific type of Cornell student. The student that I considered myself to be for the longest time. The student I saw all around me throughout high school and even more frequently at Cornell. The student whose sole mission in life so far has been “to succeed” — or was it simply “to not disappoint”?

1) This whole “life” thing has been done before.

Before I officially left campus, I had the chance to personally befriend a few of my professors, who shall remain unnamed for privacy reasons.

These were people whom I’d always considered to be a different species than I was. Homo Cornellius was a creature unto itself — one that started winning national awards at age 12 and never looked back since. They were the ones on the proverbial throne, swiping left on endless “could we talk about research?” emails from students while traveling all over the world for conferences and talks.

But I wasn’t talking to those cartoon caricatures. I was talking to real people, who, by their own accounts, had made mistake after mistake in their career but still came out triumphant in the end. None of them spoke fondly about their 19-year-old selves, nor did they have any reason to. They didn’t know what they were doing either.

There’s a recent TikTok trend which talks about “dad lore,” and how our parents’ experiences turn out to be so radically interesting to us years later. And it’s true — try this with your parents at home, and you might re-realize just how human they actually are. 

It’s all going to be fine. Literally billions of people before you have made it through life, found loving partners, had full careers and came out the other end in one piece. You will too.

2) Either you drag life, or it drags you.

In the real world, your contributions are measured by your impact, not your work hours. So give yourself a break every now and then.

Save yourself some time with this one, because you’re either going to accept this now or rediscover it many years later. Read it again if you must.

I’ve probably scoffed at this “work-life balance” advice more than anyone else I know. Maybe you’ve said it to yourself before too. All these other people can have their balance, but I need to be different. After all, I’m the one who’s known by everyone for [insert specialty here] and if I don’t keep it up, who am I?

For high-achieving students like yourselves, there’s a strong tendency to try to find your academic niche and then single-mindedly grind 120% toward one goal. For many of us, that’s how we got into Cornell in the first place. 

I’m here to tell you now that as cliché as it is, taking regular breaks and vacations is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your long-term success. As Yo-Yo Ma said, “Remember that you are a human being first.

3) Is it better than getting stabbed?

Now, I don’t want to minimize the effect of emotional strain and stress. As high-achieving students, you already know that the pressure of a final exam can be a thousand times more intimidating than any physical threat some big dude could possibly make at you on the street. And don’t even get me started on heartbreak.

All of that is certainly true — until it’s not.

One habit I’ve picked up over the past year is to reconnect with our primitive ancestors more often. Try explaining to a Neanderthal that you’re afraid of rejection by a professor, or to a medieval peasant that you can’t sleep because of an upcoming job interview. They would think you were mad, and rightly so!

But try telling them that you’re scared of getting stabbed to death, and none of them would even blink an eye. That’s because a knife swinging in your face is a “real” threat that can be recognized by anyone, instead of one of our many arbitrary cultural expectations. 

As silly as this all sounds, it has truly been one of the most liberating realizations of my professional career. Whenever I feel stressed the night before a big event or worried about my future, I just stop and think — is it better than getting stabbed? 

And you know what? It always is.

So this message is to all of you studying in your dorms, wondering whether you will ever make it out the other end of Cornell’s four-year regimen in one piece. Take a moment to breathe, tell yourself that you’ve got this and just remember that there’s a fascinating world out there once you leave Ithaca. These are just a few things that I wish I had known before leaving, and I would encourage each of you to add to this list as you head off into your own journeys as well.

Or, to summarize the words of another wise man, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this [advice].”

Heewon Ahn is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.