I started college 20 years ago this month. That’s a long time, and a little bit distressing because it means I’m getting old.
By the time I enrolled at Biola in 1993, I felt prepared. I was raised to be independent and didn’t shed a tear as my parents drove away. I was ready, man. Ready to get my life started and do the college thing. At least that’s how it was in my mind. College was a social construct based on what I’d heard from older friends and a few too many viewings of Dead Poets Society.
As my college career unfolded, I discovered I was learning how to do college along the way. My grades weren’t great (more on that later) because of some of the early lessons I learned, but by the time I graduated I had this thing nailed. When I started graduate school eight years later, I knew how to be successful at being a student.
But there is a lot of wisdom out there today for those who will hear it. The #SaturdaySchool chat on Twitter was full of awesome advice for those who want to get the most out of their time in college. I’m going to add six bits of advice. These are things I find myself telling students all the time.
Grades don’t matter
The phrase comes from Brad King (whose Tigger Talk is nearly required reading for students going to college). Grades don’t matter. I’ve never been asked for my GPA or my transcript when I’ve applied for a job. They want to know what I can do, and they want to know how committed I am. If you think an A demonstrates those things, you need to rewire your brain a bit. An A is a nice achievement, sure, but it doesn’t demonstrate mastery or aptitude beyond what you were taught. It doesn’t show me whether you can turn your knowledge into something new, or apply your skills to new products, ideas, or information.
So what are grades good for? Financial aid and graduate school admission. Maybe.
I had a 3.27 GPA in college. Read that again. I’m a college professor and I had a GPA on the A- / B+ range. I worked at a major metro newspaper within three years of graduation. I was a terrible student in that I didn’t do well on my assignments, but I was applying that material in all kinds of situations on my own. I loved the knowledge and was using that knowledge all the time, but I wasn’t great at classwork.
I’m not promoting an ethic of slacking off. I worked hard in college, just not on assignments. And I cried no tears when I didn’t graduate with honors. I was ready to tackle the world because I’d already been applying what I’d learned while others were settling for the Dean’s List. I taught myself HTML on the side in the 1990s because we had no classes on it, yet I sensed this was going to be a big part journalism. My grades suffered somewhat, but five years later I was the only guy in the newsroom who could grind stories into web pages for our newspaper’s web site. Take that, B- in Advanced Reporting.
Office hours are where college actually happens
You know that hazy vision you have of college, where it’s just about IDEAS, man? Well that doesn’t happen in classes. You will take some awesome classes that you’ll remember forever, but college happens in that oft-ignored time that’s on your syllabus: office hours.
Professors usually set times for students to come in and chat about the material, their struggles, or just shoot the breeze about their interests. We love this stuff. It’s why we wanted to be teachers. What I’ve found is those are the times when you find a mentor. You can’t find a mentor if you’re one person among 20 or 40 or (ugh) 100 students in a class. It’s like a relationship. It takes work and effort, and it sometimes means sacrificing some “me” time.
This is the difference between completing the classwork and getting intellectual nurturing. The latter is what college is about.
I’ve found students vastly underuse this path to mentorship and I haven’t figured out why. If a professor is interesting or you find the subject matter awesome, stop by during office hours. I was in my mentors’ offices throughout college and grad school and I built relationships for life. Those folks have had a bigger impact on me than anyone I’ve known in the industry or even friends I made in college.
Cultivate your passions, not your GPA
I have done this before with seniors on the first day of classes. “What’s your passion?” is my first-day question. I get a lot of blank stares or struggling answers. I’m convinced this is a crisis in our college system today. We are graduating legions of kids who struggle to define the things that really get them going. This is raison d’etre level stuff.
The easy answer is to say you’re passionate about your field. This may be true, but I find that’s rarely the case. I’m not passionate about social media, for instance, even though it’s my specialty and what I’m known for. I’m passionate about how society constructs and maintains itself through information sharing, because I care about democracy. See what I did there? I didn’t settle for being passionate about my major, I went for the why.
I’ve talked with scientists who are passionate about finding things that make them in awe of life and the universe, others about using knowledge to help mitigate problems such as climate change. Sure, there are equations to balance and hypotheses to be tested, but those are just gateways to what they really care about.
So why do passions matter? Because it’s going to sustain you when the work gets difficult and you’re tempted to quit. If you don’t care deeply about something, you’ll find you’re going to bounce from thing to thing, and that’s a tough way to do meaningful work. I dare say that if you don’t find you’re passionate about any aspect of your major, you should consider switching. The people who are doing amazing work in this world are doing it for more than just the paycheck. Which reminds me ….
Get paid, but pursue impact
Obviously you need to pay bills. But if getting rich is your primary motivation in life, there’s a decent chance it’ll divert you from doing things that matter.
I’ve been broke a lot of my life. I didn’t grow up in poverty, but we lived paycheck to paycheck for a lot of my time growing up and we certainly didn’t have a lot of material things. I paid my own way through school for the most part. I worked as a journalist, and while the pay is good I wasn’t exactly living in Beverly Hills. My first job as a journalist out of college? I made $8 an hour and lived with my parents, and that was only in 1998.
But damned if I didn’t have fun. There’s nothing like working in the newsroom. I love the news business and got to work on things that matter, and my work had an impact on others. I’d trade being wealthy for that experience all over again, no question.
Certainly you could be wealthy and make a positive contribution. But I’ve found that wealth as an end usually precludes it. I know enough miserable rich people to feel OK about my path.
I’m not saying making money isn’t important. You should try to maximize your earning power and pursue a salary worthy of your skills. Even I moved out of my parents’ house! What I want to underline here is my point that pursuing wealth for its own sake to the exclusion of all else can be an unhappy road. I’ve watched people take jobs that were an awful fit because of the salary bump, promising themselves they’d find their happy place in the next gig. It doesn’t often work that way. The sweet spot is earning what you need (and what you’re worth) while doing what you love. But the truth is that doing-it-for-money and doing-it-for-love can be a continuum, and it’s important you find the right balance for yourself.
This should be a clarion call to Millennials. I get students all the time who are afraid of coming up short. Some of this is tied to grades, but some of this is about needing to be perfect. I blame our K-12 setup on this, in part. We’ve wired into you that if you don’t succeed on every little thing you’re going to be a failure forever, and that simply isn’t true.
Perfection is overrated. Doing everything correctly is actually pretty terrible.
Failure is awesome.
I’ve learned more from making mistakes than I’ve learned from doing everything right. I’m a smart guy, and if you give me step-by-step instructions I could reasonably expect myself to do a task well the first time. But in failing you learn about your own work and learning processes. You learn how to troubleshoot problems that arise (either of your own making or just stuff that happens).
Most important: when you fail, you learn how things work. You have to diagnose problems and critique yourself when you come up short, and in doing so you learn about the process of how things work and come together.
A month ago I stupidly didn’t update my WordPress software on this site. A week later I was hacked by a backdoor exploit and thought I had lost everything I’d written over the past few years. It was awful, and it was my fault.
In that month I learned how to save my posts by learning new things about WordPress’ CMS, about SQL … stuff I had no idea about before. I feel like I have a better handle on how WordPress works now than a month ago, and the reason is because I screwed up. That knowledge will help me going forward.
Imagine what I wouldn’t know had I not failed. Failure can be a roadmap on how to get better, and if you aren’t failing you aren’t getting better.
I can’t stress this enough. Make your work as tangible as possible. Build products, stories, sites, knowledge …. whatever it is, build it.
Your job is to be a sponge in college and soak in what you can. But the output is not a diploma. The output is that you can take that knowledge and do something with it. Being a maker is awesome. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to build. Go build it yourself.
If you can do this while you’re in school, all the better.
What you’ll hopefully learn by the time you graduate is that your time in college is merely about acquiring what you need to succeed in your first job and adjust in life. A degree is a license to innovate and build on what we know.
Build things. Lots of things.
- My JOUR 325 seminar for Spring 2014
- Clay Shirky on innovation