Last Updated: Mar 28, 2014
When it comes to enjoying your college years, Paula Franzese wrote the book! She graciously allowed CollegeXpress to excerpt this article from her new book, A Short and Happy Guide to Being a College Student (West, 2014, available on Amazon and Kindle). Keep reading for her tips for starting college—and life—on a good, solid, and, yes, happy footing. (Also, she references ninjas in the first paragraph, so you know it’s gonna be good!)
You are one of the select few people on the planet privileged enough to actually be in school. Countless others would give anything to be where you are now. You have been given the opportunity to hone your analytical skills and powers of discernment so that you can and will become a ninja for the good.
Education is the great equalizer, and knowledge is power. No matter your beginning, you are on the road to making your dreams come true. That sets you apart from the countless souls who find themselves stuck by circumstance or life choices. Your world is limitless. Your course is still unwritten, and your path is ripe with promise. So many others will never get the chance that you have now. You are creating something for your sake and for theirs, and it is very good and very important.
Sometimes, you will find yourself doubting your abilities and your place in the world. Particularly at those moments, remember who you are and where you come from. We suffer because we forget. Call on the people who love you most, who believe in you, and who know the song in your heart. Let them sing it to you when your memory sometimes falters. Your parents, grandparents, their parents, and ancestors before them struggled, sacrificed, and triumphed so that you would have the opportunity to be where you are at this very moment. The hard work has already been done. The table has been set. All you need to do is take your seat, respectfully and with great humility but also with the presence of mind to know that you belong here, you will thrive here, and you will use your life to bear living witness to the legacy that preceded you.
The following five guideposts can help you to build strength of purpose and motivation for the challenges that college presents.
1. Know that you are smart enough to be here
If you are feeling intimidated, you are most likely presuming that your classmates are so much smarter than you, your teachers are all geniuses, and the given material is so difficult that only the brightest people are able to understand it and work with it. All of that is nonsense, and you need to get it out of your head right now.
Avoid any and all comparisons with others. What you bring to this pursuit is what only you can bring. The entire range of life experiences that led you to this moment are yours alone, and they have prepared you well. Comparison is disrespect for yourself and the object of your comparative appraisal. It cannot help but have you thinking that you are “more than” or “less than” someone else. That sort of conclusion is both presumptuous and false. Do not denigrate your unique aptitudes by comparing them to another’s.
Moreover, your snap judgments about another’s strengths or weaknesses are most likely wrong. Resist the urge to label people. Kierkegaard got it right when he said, “If you label me, you negate me.” Stop sizing up your classmates in some misguided attempt to determine where you stand. You are no better than and no worse than anyone else. Everyone has a story to tell and something to teach you. And you have your own story to tell, and something to teach the world.
When you start to feel overwhelmed or less than worthy, realize that you are most likely holding yourself to a crazy standard of perfection. Abandon the quest for some brand of nuanced excellence and simply commit to “good enough.” As long as your performance in class, on the exam, on papers, and other exercises is good enough, you will be fine.
To finish the race is to win the race. You do not have to come in first, second, or even in the top 99%. The last one to cross the finish line still crosses the finish line. Maintain a gentle discipline and cross the line.
2. Declare right now that you love school
You might be thinking, “But I haven’t started school yet,” or “But I’m not sure yet if I like the people here, my classes or my teachers.” None of that matters. Hear me now and believe me later: your life will meet you at your level of rhetoric about it. What that means is, even if you have to fake it until you make it, you should begin, right now, to enthusiastically declare your passion and admiration for everything about the education that you are (or are about to) receive. Every day, state emphatically that you love school, your job, and the people in your life. Sure enough and soon enough, reasons to be right about your declarations will start showing up. There is a force that meets good with good.
3. Arrive at your set of first principles
It is important that you take some time to think about the virtues and values that matter most to you. Those are your first principles, meaning the code that you live by. They are the moral compass by which you chart your course and comport your behavior. They will help you to answer the most important question of all: Who do you think you are?
You will grow in power and stature as your daily habits comport with your first principles. Strive each day to keep your words and actions within your circle of core values. When you find yourself acting outside the circle, be self-corrective. Apologize, make amends, and forgive yourself. Make the adjustments that you need to make to get back to center and then move forward.
To set your moral compass, finish these sentences “These are the central values on which I base my life:__________.” “These are the attributes I admire most: _________________.” “This is how I hope others would describe me: ____________.” Write down the answers on an index card. Use those responses as a bookmark when you begin school. Refer to it often. It will help you to keep your head on straight, especially when others seem to be losing theirs. We suffer when we stray from our first principles. We find relief when we return to them.
I did that exercise before I began law school. I jotted down the answers on an index card, and I kept that card on my bulletin board, where I would see it every day. On that card here is what I wrote:
I value intelligence and I respect kindness even more. I stand for the realization of equal access to justice for all. I believe in the promise of redemption and the power of love. I admire the relentless commitment to excellence when it is practiced with compassion. I seek to emulate those who stay above the fray, whose high-mindedness has no room for the petty or mean spirited. I want to be remembered for seeing the good in everyone, because it is there.
Stay away from the bottom-feeders and traffickers in human frailties. Stay above the fray. When using the Internet, do not let the anonymity of a comments section entice you to write something that is simply not worthy of you. Use social media responsibly. Let your digitized imprint be principled, generous, and positive. Proclaim what you are for instead of decrying what you are against. Take a stand for decency, fairness, and the cause of justice. Stand on the side of virtue. Stick up for the underdog. Be a voice for someone who has yet to find his or her own. In the presence of cruelty, do not be impartial. There is a well of courage inside of you that you have not even begun to tap. Go to that well and draw from it. Speak your peace truthfully and with dignity, but speak your peace. To remain neutral in the presence of injustice is to stand for nothing. Complacency is the enemy of the good.
4. Be mindful of the power of your words
Starting now, make sure that you do what you say you are going to do and that you do not do what you promise you won’t do. Let your words advance the cause of progress. Be generous in your estimations of others. Eventually, people will meet you at your level of expectation for them. Centuries ago, the German philosopher Goethe got it right when he observed, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
Whenever you think a good or positive thought about another, say it out loud. If you think that a classmate made an excellent point in class, tell her. If you admire the statesmanship of a student leader on campus, tell him. If you strive to emulate the example of a particularly generous friend, tell her. If you are on the bus and you notice that the driver greets every passenger with courtesy and respect, compliment the driver. If a salesperson is doing a great job under pressure, say so out loud. There is so much that is negative and toxic out there in the marketplace of ideas. Do not leave the high-minded and positive observations unsaid.
Clean up your social media accounts. Right now, go through your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr accounts and delete any photographs, posts, or other communications that would place you in a bad light. Revisit the iInternet addresses that you have ascribed to your online accounts. Make sure that they are professional. Prospective employers, graduate school admission officers, current employers, potential clients, actual clients, coworkers, colleagues, and countless others will be checking your virtual footprint before making decisions that could affect your life. In these new media times of ever-intersecting circles of influence and exchange, the personal cannot help but inform the professional. Take charge of the impression that your digitized patterns create.
Keep every communication to your professors, classmates, employers, coworkers, and colleagues professional and high-minded. Never hit send in anger. Expect that every electronic submission that you send can and will be forwarded to others, including unintended recipients. When you communicate with a professor, employer, or colleague by e-mail, keep the tone respectful and professional. If you have to miss a class, write in advance to explain and apologize. In class, if you are confused about some part of the subject matter, say so clearly but also with humility and deference. For example, you could say, “I am sorry to bother you with this, but I am having a hard time understanding Bentham’s central thesis. Here is what I think he is suggesting _________________. Am I correct in that understanding? “
Avoid colloquialisms and an informal tone. Do not place the burden of your confusion on your professor when you write asking for help or clarification. For example, do not write, “For the life of me I just don’t get what we did in class today. Maybe you could explain it again in class tomorrow?” Instead, try, “As I review my notes, there are a few points that I’m afraid I don’t have down yet. Would it be okay if I came by office hours later this week?”
5. Be of service in all settings
Make every context in which you find yourself less about you and more about how you can be of service. Seek out ways to help. At the start of each day, declare that your intention is to make another’s load lighter. Leave your ego at the door of every room that you are about to enter, and generously do something so that the room is better because you were there. That might mean anything from speaking kind words to actually sweeping the floor, adding clarity where there was confusion or making someone laugh. No matter the form that it takes, be of service.
Decide now that wherever your professional path takes you, you will use your expertise to ease the suffering of others. Keep that as your aim, and the opportunities to serve will find you. There is much to be done. Too many are without even a place to live. As I write these words, there are countless schoolchildren unable to concentrate because they are hungry. Countless others will never see the inside of a classroom.
In the midst of rising seas of need, you will do what you can with the time that you have. And that will make all the difference. Your virtue and commitment to social and economic justice will shake people out of their cynicism and despair and make them question whether they are right about their harsh judgments of the world. When they try to convict humanity, you will be their basis for reasonable doubt.
Most of all, your assiduous commitment to the good of others will make your life beautiful. You will be a witness to the birth of hope. As a lawyer, I have had the privilege to watch as hope has sprung from the most desolate places. My life has never been the same.
My wish is that you wield the instrument of your life to close the gap between what is and what ought to be. The time is now to remember who you are and what you stand for and to show up—really show up—as a force for the good. Use your emerging expertise to give people something to believe in. Because when all is said and done, if you can do that, well, that is something to be really happy about.
Additional excerpts from Prof. Franzese's A Short and Happy Guide to Being a College Student and A Short and Happy Guide to Being a Law Student can be found at ShortHappyGuide.com.