Lessons learned in college

Last May, I finished my final year as an undergraduate and, with it, reflected on the many lessons learned in my time in college. What I found is the most valuable lessons didn't come from a lecture. They didn't come from a textbook. In fact, they didn't come from class at all.

Here are my three most valuable lessons learned as an undergrad.

1. Be Present

As a child, I always had to have something to look forward to. Whether it was taking a school field trip to the zoo next month or simply talking to my crush that day at school, it seemed like I just couldn't function without having something to anticipate. I continued placing a significant amount of my happiness in the anticipation of future events throughout middle school, high school, and even in college.

But that frame of mind came to an abrupt stop my junior year of college. Just a few days after my 21st birthday, my girlfriend of two and a half years left by completely cutting me out of her life. No real warning signs, no “Goodbye, I’ll talk to you later,” no explanation. She was just gone. And suddenly everything I had looked forward to – from the milestones I had envisioned us achieving together to the stay-in movie nights we would plan every week – had gone with her. In the last year of our relationship I watched close friends become distant acquaintances and family become enemies due, in-part, to an over-reliance on her as a support base. With no support system in place I fell into a depression far deeper than I could have imagined. I was crippled by the pain of having what seemed like nothing to look forward to. For reasons I cannot explain or rationalize, I struggled to find reasons to move on and battled thoughts of suicide. I was, without a shred of a doubt, at the lowest point in my life.

Desperately, I reached out for help. After a long talk with a professor I realized I didn't just want to be happier, I needed to be happier. But where would I derive happiness when I couldn't envision my future? So I did the exact opposite of what I had done for years. I began to constantly think about the past and how happy I was prior to meeting my ex-girlfriend. I tried to rekindle old relationships – only to find out they had no interest. I revisited old places – only to find out they had changed. And, worst of all, I constantly thought of how good things were years ago – only to find out things would never be the same. It was a miserable way to live; but I was happier than I was at my lowest point so I was okay with it.

Eventually I began to tap-in to new social circles at the university and move on from the past. I began to see a future but this time it was alone and full of more opportunities. I was content with how things were going… Until I was challenged to live in the moment.

Now this isn't the part of the story where I vividly explain how a single incident changed my perspective on life. In fact, it wasn't like that at all. It happened over time… Through exercises, readings, and a lot of thought. And these realizations could not have came any sooner. While my time in college certainly felt short-lived, I know I made the most of it when I started being present and living in the moment.

2. Be comfortable

In my time as an undergrad I met more people I admire than any place I've ever been. I would find myself staring at people wondering what it’s like to be them or to look like them (You know… Those people your eyes and attention are naturally drawn to. Those people you can’t help but think… I just want to be like them.). They had a presence about them that not only projected confidence and power but also gave off an ambiance as though their life was somehow better than mine. When I watched them, saw how they interact with others and saw how they carry themselves in general, I noticed they all have one thing in common: they were extremely comfortable with themselves.

So I challenged myself to be more comfortable with who I am. I made it a point to not be self-conscious about my flaws. I spoke with confidence. I walked with purpose. I sat with better posture. I made my presence known when it needed to be. I assumed people liked me when I entered the room.

And no, it didn't happen over night, but my comfort level with myself began to improve. It was (and continues to be) a process.

3. Be trusting

A quote from a book I read senior year:

“When Zeri was taken down to the museum’s restoration studio to see the kouros in December of 1983, he found himself staring at the sculpture’s fingernails. In a way he couldn't immediately articulate, they seemed wrong to him… In that very first moment, when Houghton swished off the cloth, all Harrison had was a hunch, an instinctive sense that something was amiss.”

-(Blink, Gladwell, p. 5).

In this quote, Frederico Zeri, an Italian Art Historian, examines a sculpture (kouros) that was purchased for millions of dollars. The sculpture was unanimously regarded as being real (not imitation or fraudulent). However, Zeri knew, within seconds of seeing the world-famous kouros, something wasn't right. Something was a little… off.

As it turns out, the kouros was a fraud. Of the dozens tests that pointed towards the kouros being real — causing an organization to pay millions of dollars for the statue — only a couple people trusted their gut instinct enough to stand up and say “No. Something is off.”

Now, I’ve never been a scientist or a Greek sculpture expert; but when I read this I felt as though I knew exactly what Zeri felt when he couldn’t articulate why the kouros was off. It just did. And sometimes that’s enough to know.

I've struggled to understand the balance between hard data-based, analytically-rigorous, defendable decision making and going with a gut feeling or a hunch – trusting yourself. It seems business schools, engineering programs, and universities in general stress numbers and hard data to an extent that doesn't allow room for intuition or instinct.

Early-on in my senior year I was in Dallas, Texas for an interview at a large accounting and advisory firm. I quickly realized upon entering the building that the company’s work environment was just like any corporation I had interned for (a sea of cubicles and a low degree of collaboration). I also realized within the first minute of interviewing with a Partner and Vice President that I would likely not enjoy working on consulting engagements with them. To top it off, it would be in an industry I am not interested in doing tasks I would likely hate! Sounds like an easy decision, right?

A few days later I was fortunate enough to receive the offer. It included a nice starting salary coupled with a generous signing bonus, the opportunity to travel Monday-Thursday every week while having all expenses paid, and start my career with a prestigious firm.

On paper, the decision may have seemed, more-or-less, like an easy one. But despite my attempts to convince myself it is the right choice for me, I somehow knew it wasn't what I wanted to do when I was there. Within seconds of understanding the situation – before friends and family told me I was crazy for thinking of turning down the offer and before the fear of not finding another job kicked in – I knew the job wasn't right for me. It was my trust yourself moment. I couldn't explain exactly why it felt wrong but it did. And sometimes that’s enough to know.

In closing

The most important lessons learned in college weren't taught in the classroom. No, you won’t find your textbook telling you to be present. You won’t hear your professor instructing you to be comfortable. But these lessons will prove to be much more valuable than memorizing a poem or solving a math problem.

Personally, learning how to be present allowed me to enjoy my last year as an undergrad and have fewer expectations. Being more comfortable with myself is allowing me to be the type of person I have been admiring. And, lastly, trusting my instinct is the biggest reason I’m not afraid to make the decision that feels right when the numbers (and other people) say otherwise.

For what it’s worth, these lessons are more valuable to me than any textbook or lecture – and I am so thankful for it.