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John Harvard's Journal

Dear Younger Self

September-October 2013


Illustration by Dan Page

Since I was very young, I’ve routinely wished that my future self could give me advice. Despite having some doubts about how stable selves are over time, it’s something that I still wish for, from time to time—mostly when I’m anxious, upset, bored, or overly philosophical. And as of this column’s writing I’m simmering in pre-senior-year, pre-“real-life” thoughts and plans that have put me in a particularly time-travely and advicey mood. So, though my time-travel advice can only be given fictively to myself in the past, these are the thoughts I wish I had been able to share with my 18-year-old off-to-college self:

1. Learning: Realize what kind of learning you like. For me, at least, the kind determined the topic. I’m bad at doing problem sets, I don’t like exams, and I feel no personal obligation to, or connection with, my professor or teaching fellow when I’m in large classes—and therefore don’t do my work (see upcoming: Statistics 104, sophomore spring). So I take small, writing-heavy classes (see: two-person freshman seminar). The sooner you realize that this is how you and I work, the better.

Everything finally clicked for me when I realized that professors are really more important than the subject matter. I read some great books, and looked up the authors. A lot of the time, those authors are Harvard professors. Take their classes (see: historian of science Steven Shapin, with whom I took a class junior spring). If the authors of the thoughts or books you love aren’t currently living, or aren’t currently living Harvard professors, take classes in which they are read. Or make up an independent study and create your own syllabus that includes them. Better yet, just read them when you should be doing other, less interesting things.

Talk to your professors, teaching fellows, and fellow students not just as a student, but as the person you are. They really are quite personable. Go to office hours with life-questions, not just course-related questions. The relationships you have with people will be more important to you, and to me, than any relationship we have with a grade or a prize. That means learning isn’t academic. It’s summers. It’s jobs. It’s awkward situations. But mostly, it’s people. For thoughts and people are the stuff time and life are made of, at least for me. Intertwine them.

2. Living situations: Don’t, however, get too emotionally intertwined in these. They can be fun, and they can be flops. If you temper your expectations, though, they can be perfectly comfortable. Whatever it is that you want in a roommate at any particular time will change. I’ve found that it’s almost better to room with people you’re not completely emotionally invested in as friends. Try to be the type of roommate you would like to have (see: mirror). If your definition of that matches your roommates’ definitions, stay with them and be happy. If not, it’s better to change your behavior, your thoughts, or your rooming situation if something really isn’t working out.

Time away, both from solitude and from company, is good. Talking, instead of internal-mulling, is also good. Not taking yourself too seriously is even better. So is giving people the benefit of the doubt, as well as benefiting from your own (see: “A Perforating Doubt,” January-February, page 56).

3. Money: Try to have some. Also, try to make some. It’s generally useful—but shouldn’t be the main criterion for anything. You really don’t need much. Library desk-jobs are great (see: unwittingly shrewd job decision, freshman spring). My job makes me go to the library at certain times during the week, and makes me stay there. This has done wonders for my personal, academic, and fiscal productivity. Try always to have enough money in our account for a last-minute return ticket home, or a medical emergency—just in case (see: the bad-tooth crisis, freshman fall). Fellowships are also great. Apply for them. Also, please, I beg of you—buy a good coat, good shoes, and at least one great dress—you will need them. You should also try not to drink up or eat up too much of our money. Instead, save it for me!

4. Friends: People are, simultaneously, the best and worst parts of life. Much like roommateships, the best friendships develop between people who have symmetrical feelings and connections in one, or many, moments. These symmetries can overlap for minutes, for months, or for what-seem-like-forevers. Each type of overlap is valuable. And sometimes, these symmetries take round or pointy shapes. You’ll decide which shapes are the most enduring and beautiful, though—and they can and will change, as you (and times) do. Also, the pop-culture definition of friends being plentiful, steadfast, and of-the-same-age-group as you isn’t necessarily true. My host parents have been some of the best friends I’ve ever found (see: “My Families,” May-June, page 52). I’ve also been surprised by which people I’ve stayed close to from high school, and through college—sometimes, they’ve been the people I’ve least expected.

Your best friends are ones you can be silent with and still feel comfortable (see: siblings). Make sure you can be silent with yourself, too. But not always: Asking things of yourself, and others, is the best skill you can cultivate. People can’t read minds (and you certainly can’t read mine). So, when something goes wrong, or when you’d like something to go right—ask your friends for help. Much of the time they can, will, and love to give it.

5. Love: (See: above comments about roommates and friends, amplified.) Love is not just a quality that naturally springs from romantic or semi-romantic situations. It’s what you and I feel for our family and the people, activities, and thoughts in our lives that make us feel honest. When I realized this, I began to think differently about what I did with my time and the people I was surrounding myself with. Deciding to be around people who love something—anything—passionately, makes caring for them and their cares a contagion. In terms of the physical and the purely whimsical, have fun, but make sure to cover your drinks at parties (see: sophomore summer). And, not being in any romantic relationship is better than being in a bad or draining one (see: well—she’ll know it when she sees it). Remember that crushes flatten, and that most of the time, there’s no predicting what will happen. So don’t take things too seriously. You’re young—and anyway, you know very little about how I will feel about things. Try to take an educated guess. But don’t be certain—because you aren’t. Then again, if you think you really love something, or like someone, just go for it. See what happens.

6. The Future: For a period, I was pretty worried about what the future held for us, and how badly I was directing myself toward it. But then I figured: the future is not something that will happen to me, helplessly. It’s something I’ll live—not as another, better person who does all the things I’d like to be able to do, like getting up early, or being an extrovert—but as myself. Realizing which parts of you, and me, I can and cannot change has been important in terms of guessing what will make our future whole and better (at least, the part of your future I’ve lived so far). I’m still learning those things.

In the meantime, just do things you like, and do them well, according to your own standards. Then, you’ll get to where I am and realize that the present doesn’t have to come from the past or the future—but from an intertwining of both. Make yourself that intertwine. Don’t get caught up in the mistakes or pressures of the past or the present, or the invisible, looming future ones I’ll surely make. Even the darkest of them fade. Let them. Then, you can just be happy with yourself, and you and I will reunite again. Then, we’ll conquer time. 

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