Posted by: holdenlee | September 3, 2013

Some college advice (39 things)

Hi everyone! My blog is back from summer vacation, just as the MIT semester is beginning. (Welcome class of 2017!) It’s odd to be not part of it after 4 years… do treasure your time at MIT if you’re still there because you’ll miss it. I’ll take the next few weeks to write some reflections from my time there.

Do I have any regrets from my time at MIT? Yes; how can one avoid making mistakes? But the important thing is to learn from those regrets. In this post, I’ll give some advice that I would like to have received, back when I was a freshmen.

First, I’d like to point out Ben Jones’s 50 things: if you could only read one article about college advice, that would be the one. Read it if you haven’t, and think about it deeply. I’ll add my own bits of advice below, skewed towards the mistakes that I’ve tended to make! Some are similar to Ben Jones’s advice (the numbers will be in parentheses).

  1. Make a true friend. Not one where you just show a slice of your life to, like a pset friend or a videogame friend, but one you feel comfortable sharing your worries and vulnerabilities with, and who will listen without judging, and who you lean on. Of course, you have to return the favor. (See getlifeboat.)
  2. Pretend you have it less figured out than you do. As Francis Bacon said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” If you start out too certain about what you want to do, you’ll miss out on a lot, and it’s harder to change your mind later.
  3. People are the greatest resource in college. Not your classes. You can find technical content on OCW, EdX and more places besides. But you can’t learn from lecture or independent study what you can learn from personally interacting with the great minds around you. (cf. 14)
  4. Don’t take too many classes (or take on too many responsibilities).  Not because you can’t–but because you don’t learn that way. Work on projects outside of class. You have more potential to learn from them, even if they fail. It’s terrible to find a project you really want to do, or a opportunity you want to take–and then realize you can’t, because you have too many responsibilities. (cf. 15, 31)
  5. Look through the entire class catalog. You’ll find a lot of topics, especially cross-disciplinary ones, that you don’t know existed. The classes I have learned the most from have not been the ones from my major! (For instance, 11.127, Making Educational Videogames. It’s not a joke: we’re talking about the future of education here.) (cf. 22: but to know what interesting classes there are you have to look first!)
  6. Look beyond the surface. A person’s accomplishments on the surface aren’t necessarily a good indicator of success. If you care only about looking good on the outside, you’re not making the internal changes you need to succeed.
  7. Grades don’t matter that much. As Drew Houston said, “No one has a 5.0 in real life. In fact, when you finish school, the whole notion of a GPA just goes away… your biggest risk isn’t failing, it’s getting too comfortable.” If you get a bad grade, think about you need to improve. (cf. 35)
  8. Be intellectually curious. Ask yourself, why are things interesting? Everything is interesting to someone, and if you learn why, then you open your eyes to the world a little more.
  9. Frame your classes. Don’t take a class unless you can say why you’re taking it. “I like it,” or “learning this skill will help me do x,” or “the professor makes me really interested in the topic” are all great. Worry about whether you’ll be interested in the class rather than how you’ll do. Don’t not take a class because it doesn’t fit in your “program.” You’re here to learn, not to impress people.
  10. Talk to people. Learn from them. I don’t mean small talk like “What’s your name? What’s your major? Where do you live?” because then you’ll find conversations boring very fast.
    Figure out a way to delve into more interesting topics; you’ll have to put yourself out there a little more.  If you’re introverted and think you’re not having interesting interactions, you’re probably not initiating them enough.
    Talk about what interests you, talk about big ideas. Talk to people outside your major.
    Having a conversation is like rolling a die: if it comes up 6, then you get something great out of it–a commonality, an insight, a friend. But you can’t just roll one or two times, and expect 6’s.
    From Quora: When I meet somebody for the first time, I really try and find where they are strong & I am weak so that I can learn something from them. People who “don’t have the patience for stupid people” are really masking a deep seated insecurity.
    (If you need some further encouragement, see Jenny’s 3 things.) (cf. 10)
  11. Get over your fear of talking to famous people, or talking to people you think are “better” than you. You have loads to learn from them, and they’re more willing to talk to you than you think. You were chosen to be here, and you/your parents paid a lot of tuition–you’re worth talking to.
    While I was touring Stanford for grad school, the tour guide told us how he had emailed some professor (who was a Nobel laureate) he wanted to talk to, and then been nervous the whole time–but their conversation went very smoothly and the professor even invited him back. This happens not just at Stanford. (cf. 8)
  12. College is a time to expand your horizons, and to experiment. It’s rare to have all these learning opportunities at your fingertips. It’s much less important to get far ahead in one subject (there’s time for that in grad school or whatever you do after college) and more important to branch out, especially if you’re not sure what you want to do in the future, and even if you’re sure. Investigate opportunities for going abroad, interesting activities (like live action role playing), jobs, research opportunities, volunteer opportunities, etc. Often the only prerequisite is interest; that takes you farther than you think. (cf. 37, 50)
  13. Write a list of thing you are unlikely to do, but want to do. Then try to do them.
  14. Embrace serendipity. See Chris Peterson’s article, “Life is Improv.” Not all the good things that happen are a direct result of factors determined by you: planning, hard work, etc. Allow randomness into your life. Sometimes they happen, and sometimes you have to seek out randomness: peruse blogs, talk to new people, attend new events.
  15. Don’t forget to read. Some of the biggest changes in my life during college came from reading a book.
  16. Figure out what love means to you. Don’t let someone else define it for you. Especially don’t let society or pop culture define it for you.
  17. Embrace change. Don’t view your goals as static. (cf. 46)
  18. Be open. When I’m open, I’m not bound to accomplishing my goals one after another like dominoes–I explore and enjoy the scenery. When I’m open, I don’t look for answers as much as perspectives. When I’m open, I don’t see interactions with other people as exchanges, where we have to give each other something of value–I see them as experiments, and listen, even though things may start out uninteresting. When I’m open, answers are less absolute: different things work in different circumstances, there’s no metric for intelligence or success. When I’m open and I get stuck, I don’t keep going forward, I zoom out. When I’m open I don’t worry about being brilliant or being remembered, I’m in awe of beautiful things, and am content to experience. When I’m closed I see there are certain things I just can’t do, and when I’m open I think, why not?  (cf. 29)
  19. Recognize that you have a lot to learn. People who think they know less learn more, simply because they’re more open to learning (Dunning-Kruger effect). What’s more important is not how much you know, but how much you’re learning, the d/dt.
    Often it is better to pretend to know less than you do, than more. If someone thinks you know <x> already, they aren’t going to teach it to you. But you want them to, since you don’t know <x>. Even if you know it, you might realize that you don’t really know it. You learn more when you’re vulnerable. So say “I don’t know,” and ask. (cf. 34)
    Finally, don’t forget to learn soft skills, like communication, and even softer skills, like how to be a good friend.
  20. Understand what you will not learn from college, especially MIT. Read Bill D.’s “Disadvantages of an elite education.” Understand that MIT publicly celebrates an important but narrow form of intelligence (for instance, academic excellence, ability to innovate, etc.), and be on the lookout for other lessons you may have to learn from other places.
  21. Think about those who made you who you are, and thank them. I didn’t realize how big an effect my parent’s upbringing had on me until I came to college, the first time I was away for an extended time. I remembered the values and lessons they taught, even when they weren’t around. (cf. 13)
  22. Understand complexity.  Let your view of the world get more complex. Neal Stephenson wrote, “The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations–in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
  23. Create a personal space. Not necessarily a physical location–but find a way into that inner calm when everything around you is hectic. (cf. 9)
  24. Don’t abandon your interests or hobbies. If you like art, or writing, keep doing it. Find a community to join if you can; make a community if you have to. You can do two radically different things.
  25. Remember to play. If you forget to play, you forget part of the reason for why you live. In the future you want to find a profession you enjoy–that seems like meaningful play to you. With a sufficiently broad definition of meaning. (Also see my post Learning should be fun.)
  26. Transfer knowledge. Think about what you learn in one class can be applied to everything else. Especially try to learn the mindsets that go with different subjects.
  27. Figure out a tentative life story. Figure out what to say if someone were to ask you, “What’s your story?” What are you good at, and what do you stand for? This is useful for interviews, introducing yourself to people, and just getting a sense of who you are. Of course, realize your life story is always changing.
  28. Write down things you don’t want to forget. There are many things I remember only because I keep a diary. You don’t have to keep one–but capture your memories and inspirations somehow, or they’ll be gone.
  29. Figure out a way to learn efficiently. Often the reason why some people seem smarter than others is not because they’re inherently so, but because they have more efficient ways to learn. See Scott Young’s blog for some tips.
  30. Figure out how to learn effectively with other people. You learn faster if you and your friends help each other understand the material. (I don’t mean meet the night before and copy answers from each other. That’s not learning.)
  31. Reflect once in a while. If things aren’t going well, then try to zoom out and see the big picture: what could you change?
  32. Do a hack. A hack is where you see a problem (or opportunity), think of a solution, and then carry it out in a short, fierce burst of time. MIT is one of the best places to hack, because the community values innovation.
  33. Imagine further. Think about things that could change the world. Watch TED talks.
  34. Say what you need to say at the outset. Don’t sugar-coat it.
  35. Chew on things that you can’t digest. Someone says something that disturbs you—don’t forget. What could have made him or her say that? You’ll understand that person better. You see a proof whose motivation you don’t understand. How could you have come up with that? You’ll understand that subject better.
  36. Learning continues after college. Figure out a lifelong learning plan.
  37. Be patient. As my professor Patrick Winston said, “It’s easy to overestimate what you can do in a year, and underestimate what you can do in ten.”
  38. Share your knowledge. Especially if you expect other people to share theirs with you. There’s a reason for teaching besides just altruism–when you teach someone, you create someone who can explore the boundaries of knowledge along with you.
  39. Don’t aim for achievement or greatness. Aim for happiness.

I know, 39 is not a special number, but it’ll have to do. Please share your comments–and share any of your own advice!


  1. […] (From 39 things) […]

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