If I were a college freshman today…

Last week I spoke at a meeting of university freshmen who are aspiring campus leaders. I promised several of them that I would follow up with a copy of my notes and a list of resources and quotations that I referred to in my talk. So, here you go. (All links are listed at the end of the post.)

If I had the chance to do my freshman year of college over again, knowing what I know now and living in this generation, here’s what I would do:

-Ask “what makes me come alive?” Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Instead of trying to guess what majors and careers will be in demand or that will earn you a big salary or trying to determine what role you can play to best serve the world, just try to figure out what you love, what makes you “come alive.” It sounds selfish, but the majority of people are sleepwalking through life, spending most of their time doing something they clearly don’t love. That certainly doesn’t serve the world. How many people do you know that are truly happy, who say “TGIM” (the M is for Monday) instead of “TGIF” each week? When you do encounter someone who is passionate about their calling and are living an awake kind of life, you can’t help but be a little infected or convicted by the joy they radiate. Your choosing a path that makes you come alive could very well help others wake up and live with more passion themselves.That alone is a high and noble service to the world.

So, how do you begin to figure out this coming alive thing in college?
(Brace yourself. This is a long list, so feel free to scan through till you find a thought that grabs you.)

-Your major is minor in the big scheme things. Don’t stress about it. What I majored in has had very little impact on my career path. Of all the colleagues I’ve had in my professional life, there are only a handful that I could tell you what they majored in, and most weren’t doing work related to their majors. I recommend that you choose a major that offers classes you will enjoy. Period. Don’t worry about how that major will look on a resume or how you will “use it.” You could major in Greek literature and still get a job at a big corporation if you really wanted to. (In fact, such a major could make you a lot more interesting to an employer who usually sees the same majors over and over.)

One student leader I worked with had a brilliantly simple approach to choosing a major. She read every course description in the college catalog. Every time she read a course description that made her think, “I would enjoy that class,” she circled it. After reading every course description offered, she went back and counted which major had the most courses circled. And that became her major. Brilliant! If you’re going to spend all this time and money taking classes, make them classes you will actually enjoy.

-Go beyond required classes. Don’t be content to just check off your required course list. Find courses outside your chosen field that fascinate you, too. I took a Greek language class and a religion class my senior year as electives. They weren’t part of my major and weren’t required, but I’m still affected by lessons I learned in those classes. Apple CEO Steve Jobs sat in on a calligraphy class when he was in college (after he had already dropped out, actually) and credits that class with inspiring him to include multiple text fonts in the first Apple computers.*

-Find compelling teachers. Seek out the advice of peers, advisors, and instructors to identify the very best teachers on campus, and then take their classes. Don’t worry about how many or how few “A’s” they give. (Your GPA doesn’t make much difference down the road either, unless you’re trying to get into graduate or professional school.)You will learn much from those teachers who love what they do, excel at their craft, and care about their students regardless of what subject they teach. I would rather take a dull subject with a dynamic teacher than an interesting topic taught by a dull teacher. A bad teacher could make sex-ed boring while a great teacher could make accounting compelling. (Apologies to those of you who love accounting.)

-Don’t choose activities just to build a resume. Your time is precious. There is no need waste it doing things you’re not completely committed to doing. As a former college admissions counselor, I was never impressed by an applicant’s long list of mostly superficial involvements. What I was impressed by was an applicant who had found one or two key activities that they had clearly poured themselves into in a remarkable way. It takes some wisdom and some courage to say “no” to things that you don’t want to invest yourself in, especially when you’re being encouraged or asked to get involved. Quit doing what you don’t absolutely love. Hone in on what you find to be a meaningful use of your time, and then put your whole heart into it.

-Be bold. Conquer the fears that keep you from doing what you want to do. Go introduce yourself to that teacher who inspires you. Email or “tweet” the author or business leader or performer or scientist whose work you find compelling. Dare to create a new organization or initiate a movement on campus. Raise your hand in class and offer your idea or your question. Go figure out how to pay for a study abroad experience that will change your life. Create a proposal to intern (for free if necessary) at your dream company or organization and knock on some doors or create a video to make your pitch. Start your own business or non-profit now. Submit an opinion column to the campus newspaper. Set up a blog and begin to share your ideas with the world. Get busy making great stuff. No need to wait on a diploma to start living the life of your dreams as much as you possibly can right now. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg didn’t wait on a degree to create Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook.

“Caution is the devil.” William Blake

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” Henry David Thoreau
“The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it’s too low and we reach it.” Michelangelo
“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on the face of the earth. So, what the hell… leap.” Cynthia Heimel

-It’s all about relationships. Invest in great friendships while in college. College friendships endure like no others. The core group of friends from my residence hall experience more than 25 years ago remain my “go-to” friends to this day. Just as you should seek out great teachers, go befriend peers that you admire and respect. Learn how to listen, really listen. Don’t hesitate to deviate from your study schedule for the sake of great moments with friends. My college roommate was a pre-med student with very disciplined study habits. I know he regrets that he didn’t pull himself away from his books more often to have some fun with our group of friends. And don’t forget about your family. Now that you’re away at college, it’s easy to take your family for granted. Love your parents. Call, email, or text them often. (Some parents even Facebook and Tweet. Who knew?) Keep them in the loop about your life. Seek out their counsel. Even if you don’t always follow their recommendations, they will appreciate continuing to be included in your adventures. My mom passed five years ago, and I would love to just talk with her one more time. Love your parents while you can. And make time for your siblings, especially if they’re younger. They won’t tell you, but your being away at college has left a big hole in their lives. Sure, they’re probably measuring your old room plotting a way to take it over, but they do miss you. Seek out opportunities to connect with them. Call them regularly. When you go home for visits, plan some time with just them. You will be a hero.

-Find a mentor. Be a mentor. Harvard Professor Richard Light says that his research shows that the most successful and satisfied college students are those that reported building relationships with their instructors. His advice is to find at least one instructor every semester that you can connect with and get to know beyond the classroom. If you do that every semester, after four years you will have at least eight instructors that know you and can advise you about your academic and career plans and actually go to bat for you in a meaningful way as you pursue your postgraduate plans. But don’t limit your mentors to just your instructors. Administrators and other campus support staff are often eager to be helpful. There was a secretary in my residence hall community who was like a mom away from home for me. Older students can be particularly helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask a student you admire to meet for coffee or lunch and pick their brain on their tips for success. They most likely will be flattered and honored and willing to help as well. In return, do your part to mentor and guide other students who seek you out and value your insight.

-Master something. You’re in class like three hours a day in college. That means you’re not in class 20+ hours each day. Do something positive, healthy, constructive, productive, and legal with all that free time. Study and sleep, of course, but even with study time included you’ll have plenty of time to master some things. Learn to juggle. Learn web design. Learn to make iPhone apps. Learn to play a musical instrument. Learn video editing or graphic design. Learn how to make a great French omelet. Learn how to grow your own food. Learn how to fix things. Learn how to give a killer presentation. Learn yoga or martial arts. Or kickboxing. (YouTube “Lloyd Dobler kickboxing.”) Imagine what would be fun, and give it a go. But mastery isn’t easy. It may take many hours, even years for some challenges, filled with frustration and failure, and most people quit when it gets hard or they plateau. If you can learn to persist at something you care about till you’ve mastered it, you will be unstoppable.

-Use great tools. You will be Googled by prospective employers and even by someone you want to date, so create a great presence online. Set up your own blog.* It’s free and easy. Go to Posterous or Tumblr or WordPress. Share your opinions, your questions, your poetry, your photography, or whatever you’re interested in. Set up a Twitter account.* You don’t have to say much. You can just listen for a while. Follow people that you aspire to be like or work with or learn from. Use Google Reader* to follow blogs of interest to you. I’ve learned more from the feeds in my Google Reader account than I did in most of my college classes. Not sure which blogs or online sites to follow? Check out Alltop.com* to find a convenient list of all the great web sites in almost any topic you can imagine. Spend some spare time watching TED Talks,* a collection of some of the most enlightening and entertaining lectures ever compiled. Set up a Google Voice account.* You can pick one phone number for yourself that directs calls and texts to any phone you choose, regardless of your phone carrier. Also, I ditched my paper calendar years ago and rely exclusively on Google Calendar.* I can access it anywhere and easily share calendars with others. And it syncs seamlessly with my iPhone and iPad.

Students today are living in a world of resources and opportunities unimagined even one generation ago. Make the most of this wonderful time in your life and imagine how great you will feel when you graduate with no regrets about how you’ve spent these years.

“Make every day your masterpiece.” John Wooden
TED Talks – Start with these two talks, and you’ll be hooked: Benjamin Zander and Sir Ken Robinson

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