Evans Dianga

Machine Learning and Software Development


How to Have Successful Life in College

March 28, 2019

How do you go through college and remain sane? How do you come out as a great person? How can you have fun and still succeed?

This piece is primarily aimed at college students, but even if you aren’t in college you will benefit from the principles discussed while navigating the maze of life.

One of the most important aspects of humanity is the quest for success, however one defines it. A great majority of individuals and the general society still view entry to college and eventually graduating as important milestones in their lives. Between these two heights lies college life: with lectures to attend, assignments, home work, projects, papers to write, friendships to make or drop, bills to pay, discovery of self etc. How does one navigate these murky waters? How does one make a success out of college? I constantly find myself thinking about this question regularly as I interact with people setting out to college, those in college and my friends who are several years out of college.

I had the chance of taking time last month, to have a wonderful conversation with a friend who was just about to begin the exciting and challenging journey in Medical School. These notes are the results of some of the ideas I thought were worth sharing with him, from the conversation we had and the things we learnt from one another. I sought to answer the question, If I was to go back to college with the experience I have now, how would I structure my life for the greatest impact and success? I have tried to make the notes as generic as possible for a wider audience, though some content was applicable directly based on my knowledge of my friend. As such, your mileage may vary. Enjoy!

1. Create a Vision of your Future Self

To be successful, you need to have a definite metric for success, otherwise how would you know if you are not? The very first step is to craft a personal vision of the kind of person you want to be in the next couple of years (probably by the time you leave college). Take some quiet time alone away from distractions and write in depth (de detailed) what kind of person you would want to be in the next, say, five years. If you were to be the best version of yourself in five years, how would you describe that? Also think of the person you wouldn’t want to be and write that down in details. In both categories of (i) who you would want to be and (ii) who you wouldn’t want to be, have items to consider under each. Some examples of broad categories that you can have include are academic grades, relationships, physical fitness, health and finances. Under each category, list the points for what you would consider as the best version of yourself in the time period you have given yourself. Next, write the necessary steps of how to achieve each of the various goals you have set for yourself. What are the resources you need to achieve those goals? What are the sacrifices and commitments necessary to ensure you attain these goals? Write each of them down without necessarily thinking of how you will access the resources.

Next set a timeline for achieving each of the little parts. Be sure to have the goals and timelines written in a safe place where that you can access easily, you want to be able to reference your goals later. In the past, I have used an online note-taking app like Google Docs or Evernote and later transitioned into using a physical book. Whatever works for you!

Another thing that I found as a hacky way to get around to doing things I would not want to do or those that I would procrastinate with the excuse of doing when I had the best opportunity is to have a schedule. Yes, a schedule. Our bodies work in rhythms. Have a regular time to wake up, sleep and eat. I found that with classes during the day, I at times had to eat out of schedule. Having a regular schedule provides your body with the best conditions for optimal functioning. A schedule also helps you do the things that you need to do and avoid time wastage. One of the greatest productivity hacks I have ever come across is the Pomodoro Technique. Look it up and see how you can make it work for you. It especially helps guard against distractions.

Finally, have regular reviews of how you are progressing. I would suggest having a daily TO-DO list and checking off the done items. Try to understand where you did well and possible ways of improving further. Additionally, understand what you are struggling with and find ways to offset against such.

2. Diligence

After you have had a plan and vision for your life, work hard towards it. Kevin Durant said, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard”. One of the revelatory lessons I have learnt is what I have had called the curse of the gifted. Some people fail to work hard because they have innate ability in some domain or they seem to get concepts quicker than the rest and thus end up slacking. But the challenge is that as this becomes a habit, over time these abilities weaken and they do not become as good as they have been or should be.

Attend lectures, make notes, discuss with others the things you learn, help those who are weaker than you. Find those who are strong, reach out to them, ask them for help, make good use of your time. Read hard and think a lot. Aim to not merely be a reflector of others views but a thinker. Seek to explain concepts in your own words. If possible, write blogs or notes even if you are the only one who will ever read them. Make friends with professors and make good use of them. This will help you in mastering concepts and when you need references for internships or work or grad school. Also ensure you hand in your assignments and homework or projects on time. Seek to avoid the penalties that come with late submissions.

Always be learning. In our day, the internet has democratized learning. Are there things that you didn’t understand well in class? See if there’s material on that on YouTube. Make use of MOOCs and Open Courseware. Quite a number of universities offer their content- videos, lecturer’s notes, homework, assignments, exams for free. Use them. If you aren’t satisfied by what you are getting from the formal class just register and learn from the MOOCs. You may even just watch or read a specific topic without feeling obligated to take the whole MOOC. Whatever works for you. Do the assignments, homework from these online resources, if possible. You will broaden your problem solving skills and also get to know what others in the world are learning. And the good thing is that most of these resources are free! Here are but a few:

3. Quality Friendships

I was once told that a person is the average of the individual’s five closest associates. Looking back at each of my stages in life, I have been able to attest to the truthfulness of this observation. College is a great place to make awesome friendships that may define the trajectory of your life. As such, choose your friends wisely. What are their value systems? are they ambitious? Are they lazy? Over time we come to share the mannerisms and language of our associates. Evaluate the people you spend time with. Minimize contact with the ones having a debasing influence on you to only have essential contact.

An extension of this is to always seek friends who are better than you for you to learn from. Seek to understand how they function and seek to replicate their successes and methods, perhaps their strategies as well, but only if these are in line with your values. Also try to find others seeking to better themselves who may not be as good as you yet and seek to lift them higher. As you mentor others, you will learn more and more and become a better person. Also, it’s a good way of giving back to the society.

4. Learn to Read and Write Well

Success needs to be packaged and sold well. You need to know how to sell yourself. One key thing to learn is the mastery of the art of writing well. Professors typically hand assignments and homework. These are avenues to improve your writing. These assignments help us in honing our thinking skills and making our writing clear and concise. Technical reports, documentation etc. have to be well articulated and written. Don’t look at these assignments as just ways of getting grades or getting by college. Seek to write well. Improve with every paper you write. Write in the language of the domain. If it’s a Math Class, seek to write in the language of mathematicians, if it’s a history class, write like a historian. You will improve your language and gain the approbation of the ones reading your work.

Always take notes in lectures, discussions etc even if official notes are provided. Make notes when studying. Writing helps ideas stick in your mind. Even if you think you will not need the notes, just make notes. Take note of any concepts you need to learn in depth later. Any ideas cross your mind? Note them down. Read them later as necessary.

5. Make use of University Resources and Opportunities

Make friends with professors. Seek to know what they are working on and how, if at all, you can be involved. Ask them questions. Utilize them to the fullest and make a name for yourself by your commitment. Be willing to start from the bottom of the ladder and learn from them step by step. As much as it aligns with your goals, take up opportunities to collaborate and work with them.

Universities have some of the best-stocked libraries. Use them. Read widely, both in your field and across disciplines. Try understanding what some of the interesting ideas from other fields are, what the open problems that exist in those fields are. As an “outsider” you may have clearer insight into how to solve these problems than those who regard themselves as “insiders”. Be a good reader and spend time thinking about what you read. Always carry some literature to read. Is someone late for a meeting, go ahead and read. Are there delays in transportation? Well, read. Make use of such opportunities to the fullest. I have read quite a number of books on public transit.

If your university has an active Alumni association, network with them. Learn from them and seek to know of opportunities they have. Get advice from them. Listen. Ask questions. Engage them.

Make use of any facilities provided and attend any events that you think are helpful . It may be your only chance, who knows if you will have that same privilege later in life?

6. Enjoy Responsibly

Campus can be a dragging and soul draining experience. As much as possible, make it out alive! Enjoy your life. Work hard, play hard. Have fun. College life can be hard. Don’t make it any harder for yourself. If you don’t have medical/physical challenges, participate in games, exercise and strive to enjoy them . Make friends. Laugh. Have fun. Don’t forget to sleep well. You will be grateful you did. Seriously, sleep well. Be rested. Ensure you are living your healthiest life. You don’t want to pay for these later in life.

Finally, if I were to do something differently, I would have learnt a skill. Probably I would learn an instrument. Find a skill to master. Whatever you wish for, make it happen.

Hopefully you will have a great time time in campus!

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