A Message to First-Year College Students: It’s Not About You

If you’re about to head off to college, I suspect you’ve received ample advice on how to thrive this first year. Suggestions on navigating professors, finding friends, managing roommates, selecting a major and even doing laundry are the subject of myriad articles this time of year. While I suppose some wisdom is embedded therein, I think a more important message needs to be heard as you head into the hallowed halls of academia. Here it is.

This fall, you will be taking the first steps of a great adventure.  And it would be a shame if you began that adventure thinking that the most critical component to living a life of fulfillment is yourself.  It would be a shame to begin that journey thinking that the key to it all is your own strategic decision making, beginning with choosing the right college, and at that college choosing the right major, and within that major getting the right grades, and using those grades to get the best job, and getting the best job so that you can make the most money, and making those fat stacks so that you can ride off into the sunset on a unicorn named Gerald, if you so prefer. What am I saying? You are not the key to your own fulfillment.  It is not the establishment of ourselves through accomplishments or accolades that justifies or validates us in this world, and success or fulfillment in this life is not contingent on your ability to always make the right decisions. Otherwise we all would be in big, big trouble.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth writes in her New York Times bestseller, “grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life.”  That is to say, research suggests that the most successful people are those that see their work as “deeply connected to the world beyond themselves.”  This stands in contrast to the centuries-old paradigm that success is derived from talent. But there is evidence that character and other-centeredness may actually be inversely related to talent (which we measure with such things as IQ, SAT, ACT, and GPA). So when I say that you are not the key to your own fulfillment, when I say that it is not the establishment of ourselves through accomplishments or accolades that justifies or validates us in this world, and when I say that success or fulfillment in this life is not about always making the right decisions, I mean it.  It’s not about you, it’s actually about everyone else.

I began to realize this after college, though I wish that it had happened sooner.  I was reading one day and came across a wonderful and profound statement from a writer named Frederick Buechner.  In this reading, Buechner was talking about vocation, which is the idea that what we do for work or a job can be so much more than work or a job.  That is to say, vocation is not occupation.  Occupation is something that occupies your time, whereas vocation is more like a calling, a mission, or your life’s work. And how Buechner described vocation was, and continues to be, very important to me. He wrote that vocation “is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” And so Buechner is asking us all a simple question: Is there a need in this world that could be met with your gifts? Where can you give of yourself in such a way that it makes you deeply happy while also satisfying the needs of others?  This is an amazing notion because it encourages us to amplify and maximize our fervor, our zeal, our joy and our gifts by pouring it all into others instead of holding onto it for ourselves. 

This realization has radically changed my worldview. I have come to sincerely believe that the world doesn’t need more extraordinarily wealthy people, but it does need more extraordinarily generous people.  The world doesn’t need more busy people, it needs more patient people.  The world doesn’t need more people that talk, but it does need more people that listen. The world might not even need more intelligent people, but it certainly needs more thoughtful people.  The world doesn’t need more politics, it needs more advocates. The world doesn’t need people who build walls, it needs people who deconstruct them. We don’t need more beautiful people, we need people who create beauty.  We need people who meet the deep hunger of this world with their gifts.

And so I conclude with this: It is my most sincere hope that you walk into your dorm this fall knowing where your greatest value and opportunities lie, which are in finding that place where your deep gladness and the world’s deepest needs meet. In that sense, your college experience isn’t really about you. It’s about the people who might be served by you. It’s not you first, it’s not money first, it’s not America first, it’s not us first. It’s others first.This is the message. Head to college with that sense of hope for yourself and with that sense of vision for your future, and you will most certainly have an impact on this world.