Once I stopped trying so hard to enjoy myself, I enjoyed myself a whole lot more. That ended up being one of the most useful lessons I learned in college.
In high school, I was likely that kid you hated. The one who aced the chemistry quiz and the Shakespeare essay, who set a school record in track, and who played the piano for jazz band and concert choir.
Even though being well-rounded was annoyingly useful in high school, it made getting settled at college — especially a big one, like Penn State University — really daunting and confusing.
Even if you weren’t as extracurricular-ly manic as me in high school, the seemingly endless list of ways to expand your horizons in college can be strangely paralyzing. Never before have you had so many open invitations. How is anyone supposed to know what new opportunities to pursue?
Should I study art history, or take a class in photography? Is it worth it to try out for athletic programs? Would I even get any playing time? What if I want to play in a concert band again? What about the possibility of being in a musical, an African dance troupe, or on an Ultimate Frisbee team? What if I don’t want to do anything at all?
For the first few weeks of my freshmen year, I ran around like a chicken with its head cut off, considering everything from swing dancing to Bible study groups (I didn’t even own a Bible!) and researching every minor from Greek classics to political science.
But thanks to some simple strategies, I stopped being so overwhelmed, found where I belonged, and made the best friends I could ever ask for. Here’s how:
Lower Your Expectations
Before my dorm room was fully unpacked, my perfectionism had already kicked in.
I assumed I’d get straight A’s and, just like in high school, be the top student in my German, public speaking, and literature classes. I also expected to be the top writer on the staff of the college newspaper, all while not gaining the dreaded freshmen 15.
And boy, did I set myself up for disappointment.
“I used to set expectations in my head all day long,” Basecamp CEO Jason Friedman once wrote, “but constantly measuring reality against an imagined reality is taxing and tiring, [and] often wrings the joy out of experiencing something for what it is.”
Lowering your expectations doesn’t mean that you skip class and eat Cheetos in your dorm room while watching America’s Next Top Model re-runs all afternoon. (At least not most days.) It means that you give your best effort, find joy in the process of doing the work, and see what happens.
During my sophomore year, I stopped expecting to be the top student in every subject and just embraced every writing assignment, quiz, and exam. My grades actually improved, and I felt happier, since I wasn’t disappointed by how my performance related to others.
Know When to Say “Yes”
In my first weeks at Penn State, I naturally made friends with other girls who were interested in salsa dancing, joining jazz band, and becoming enthusiastic acapella groupies.
There were countless invitations to join everything from Bible study groups to Dance Dance Revolution meet-ups. Trying to be open-minded, I said “yes” to too many things and felt obliged to keep participating in a few groups even though I wasn’t that interested in the activity.
It can be tough to disappoint people, but lifestyle strategist Kara Martin Snyder suggests in finance publication DailyWorth to ask yourself two questions to reveal whether you’re doing an activity for your own happiness, or just to please others:
- Does just thinking about this energize me or drain me?
- How is this activity serving me or helping me grow?
Before starting my sophomore year, I pondered similar questions and decided to focus on my classes, reporting for the college newspaper, and being a part of Model U.N.
Thanks to being less scheduled, I had more time for studying, going to the gym, and impromptu activities with friends like late-night mozzarella stick runs and watching Indiana Jones movies.
Make Time for a “Just for Me” Activity
During my sophomore year, I made it a bigger priority to take runs around campus and do exercises with dumbbells at the gym.
This stuff was just for my own happiness, fulfillment, and stress relief — without being tied to any larger goal. It helped to take time away from my cell phone, instant messenger, classes, and friends, and just clear my mind.
Of course, there were weeks where I had to study for a midterm or put extra time into a project, requiring me to skip my run or gym time. But once the hectic period passed, I returned to making time for exercising.
What College Really Taught Me
Once I found my niche and prioritized my sanity, I strengthened friendships with those in my dorm and at the college newspaper, and Model U.N. I also did better in my classes, and more fully enjoyed my time at college.
In other words, once I stopped trying so hard to enjoy myself, I enjoyed myself a whole lot more. That ended up being one of the most useful lessons I learned in college.
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