Just received this email from a fellow Stanford student named Robin Thomas and felt compelled to repost… Here’s the text, verbatim:
What’s your college degree going to give you?
I mean the degree itself, the piece of paper. What will that get you?
It’ll help you make more money later on, for one thing. It’ll get you a couple more interviews, open up a few more business networking doors, give you a higher starting salary in some white-collar job.
Your college degree will give your life more material security. You’ll be better able to afford the nicer car, the two-car garage, the white picket fence.
So, that’s two things you’ll get from your college degree. What else? What other things will you get from having that piece of paper?
Here’s my beef: I can’t think of anything.
It makes me sad to talk with a young person who tells me they’re working so hard in college just to get the degree, and then they’re going to get out; they’re working to get the immaculate transcript and the adequate amount of extracurricular experience to be able to secure a happy future. These are the people who say, yes, their lives are hard and they have to put fun on hold, but the stress will pay off once they have their degree and have anchored their dream job and can finally be happy.
Funny thing. These are probably the same people who, most likely just like you and me, worked and worked during high school to achieve the dream of going to Stanford. During high school they said, yes, their lives are hard and they have to put fun on hold, but the stress will pay off once they have their Stanford acceptance letter and have anchored a spot at their dream school and can finally be happy.
Once they’re out of Stanford and have gotten that dream job, I bet you they’ll be having the same fantasies about that next promotion, and when they’ve run out of promotions, of their retirement. Guess what? They’re never going to be happy.
It’s important for these ambitious, stressed-out people to know they’re not alone. No, in fact, there are thousands of other young people out there trying equally as hard to stand out and to be impressive who all look exactly identical to each other on paper: accomplished, book-smart, marketable for a well-paying cubicle job, with no sense of how to enjoy life, be themselves, and confront their deep-rooted fears that they’re not perfect.
If they’re “successful,” yes, they’ll make money. And they’ll still have good days and bad days. If they’re not “successful,” they’ll make less money. And they’ll still have good days and bad days. If their plan for success is completely derailed by an unpredictable car accident that leaves them paralyzed or quadriplegic, they’ll still have good days and bad days, just like the richest and poorest people on the planet.
That’s the thing about being born a human: it guarantees you’ll be very good at creating misery for yourself regardless of how “successful” you are.
Happiness doesn’t come from being able to control your life, because no matter how hard you try, you can’t control your life. So in a way, the security you’re trying to get from this college degree is doing yourself a disservice, denying you of the need to know how to adapt to the unexpected in life.
What am I asking you to do? Have all your mid-life crises now. The future you want for your fifty year-old self is not the reality your fifty year-old self will want. You are setting yourself up for a mid-life crisis then.
So now, while you’re still young, attractive, and energetic, with a greater likelihood of having knees that work and a mind that can still learn things, make all your mistakes. Making mistakes is sort of a process of elimination for figuring out what makes up your personality: if you try something and it doesn’t add anything good to your life, then you’ll have learned something very important. Remember that people regret what they didn’t do much more often than what they did do.
The secret to happiness is, I think, knowing who you are. The security of knowing yourself is the only security that doesn’t make you weak. Any other sort of security atrophies the muscle that lets you adapt to new situations.
Stop working so hard. Stop trying to secure a joyful life later at the expense of a joyful life now. Quit creating so much stress for yourself so that at best all you want to do at the end of the week is get drunk, hammered, and wasted, so you can forget for a little while all the inhibitions you’ve imposed on yourself.
Universities will always be here, offering degrees. But your youth is going really quickly. Do what you want to do now. You’re at Stanford because someone in Admissions thought you dared to be different. The nice thing about this place is that there’s support for you whether you want to be here, or want to do something else for a while with the option of coming back to Stanford later.
And maybe spend a few minutes looking at your reflection in a mirror, saying, “I love myself, and I accept myself, even though I don’t understand myself.”
I’m sending this out because I frequently get frustrated and lonely here at the Stan — although less so than during my sophomore slump — and can’t imagine I’m the only one. Hearing from you would make me really happy. What do you think?