Success: Little Fish in the Ocean — How to Deal, How to Survive

The problem and beauty with Harvard College is that it takes the creme of the crop of mostly high school seniors — the math geniuses, the Olympic hockey players, the beauty queens, the famously politically inclined — tosses them together in a tin pot and tells them to play nicely.

There are crazy premeds who stay up to late hours of the night completing (competing) their problem sets. There are quiet geniuses that inhale mathematical theorems the way my roommate D. inhales microwavable popcorn. There are sons of millionaires who sell millions of dollars of ads for their organization. There are professional musicians, ballet company level dancers, Jeopardy winners, and so on.

In the midst of all this splendor/glamor/wonder, it was very easy to feel like: what the fuck am I doing here?

This is how I’ve learned how to deal, how to survive…

1) Redefine “success.”

You can no longer use the definition you used in your little pond. Success is no longer about being the best in X number of areas. That, m’dear, is impossible. Instead, I looked at what I wanted out of college, what I was good at, what my interests are — and from there, found my own personalized definition of “success.”

This is how I define success as of now:

  • I want a solid job straight out of college.
  • I want a healthy, happy and fulfilling personal life.
  • I want to meet people who interest me and have friends that I love and trust.
  • I want to be financially independent.
  • I want to be able to pursue my side fancies (knitting perhaps?)

Notice how my definition involves some very concrete points. You don’t need to be specific, but you don’t want to wallow in vague terms like “Fulfilling my dreams” — because who doesn’t want to fulfill their dreams? The question that should be asked is: What are you dreaming of?

2) Don’t spread yourself too thin.

This seems like a no-brainer. But, the temptation to join every other publication, sports team, career exploration society is there. If you have any sort of overachieving tendencies, you envision extracurriculars (or other forms of activities) in a divide and conquer sort of fashion. You conquer a few, then a few others, and soon, you have an army of activities sitting pretty underneath your belt.

When you’re at Harvard, the beauty of it is that you can pretty much take any interest — knitting as a form of volunteerism, playing video games — into a frighteningly pre-professional level. The rub is, that they require a pre-professional amount of time.

And then, and then! What are you going to do when your schedule is packed with 10 activities, and Stephen Colbert visits the IOP, or Alec Baldwin visits Eliot? What are you going to do? Are you going to trundle off to your “Save the Rain Forests” coalition that you half-heartedly care about when something much more appealing to you comes about?

It’s easy to see the First Danger of Spreading Yourself Too Thin is doing too many activities and not being able to commit yourself properly to any of them.

What’s easy to forget is the Second Danger of Spreading Yourself Too Thin, which is the opportunity cost of spending so much time on doing too many things that you may not care enough about.

What is this opportunity cost?

  • Not spending time with the people who care about you
  • Not meeting new people
  • Not getting to know your roommates (I’m guilty of this)
  • Missing out on one-time events: President Faust’s inauguration, Stephen Colbert’s visit, etc. etc.
  • Not doing what you want to be doing
  • Not having the time to reflect on what you really want

The insane number of things happening on campus makes this Second Danger particularly pertinent. Do I sleep or do I attend that special guest lecture? Do I go to a party or do I work for a check plus on my lab report?

Every decision as to where to spend your time has a trade off.

3) Retain your identity

This is the tip I like to call, stop looking at and envying all the damn other fishes.

I thought I was a smart ass at Math, and then I realized, I was sadly sadly mistaken. When trying to understand why I was so “sad,” I learned that I was sad for the loss of a mental image I had of myself.

I wasn’t actually sad that I can’t envision four dimensional worlds or prove theorems on napkins.

In short, you need to remember who you actually are, what you are actually good at, rather than what you fancy yourself as being good at.

Obviously, easier said than done. But once you realize that this is a possible problem, the easier it is for you to identify and fix it.

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3 Responses to “Success: Little Fish in the Ocean — How to Deal, How to Survive”

  1. 1 Van Le

    Baldwin visited Kirkland–get it right, yos

  2. 2 Perla

    I try to figure out how to manage my time everyday and it doesn’t get any easier. Sadly I’m not too sure who my roommate is.

  3. 3 Infinity's boundary

    Thank you so much for this article. I love how this website addresses some of my deepest concerns. It’s nice knowing that I am not alone in feeling like a little fish in the ocean.

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