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What I Wish I’d Known When I Graduated From Harvard

What Every College Student Should Learn Before Launching

Harvard_U_Shield

Harvard University was supposed to be the prize that made my life happy forever – it didn’t.

In a few hours I will be speaking to students at Tufts University, including a group of young men and women who literally won the course lottery when they were accepted into a small class taught by Deb Levy, who was one of Tal Ben-Shahar’s teaching assistants when he taught his now-famous course on Positive Psychology, which broke all of Harvard University’s class enrollment records.

I was once a Harvard student, and despite my sterling academic record and knowledge of history, psychology, literature and primates, I graduated magna cum laude in being pretty stupid about what was going to make me happy.  I’d already discovered that getting into Harvard in 1979 had resulted in bubbly elation that eventually faded, so I left college without the learning I really needed to navigate life and fulfill my promise: how to design and pursue the “right” goals that would not only enrich me as I pursued them, but would bring me lasting satisfaction that didn’t wear off.

Tonight at Tufts, I’m going to share what I wish I’d known when I graduated from Harvard that would have made life so much easier in this domain, and I’ve narrowed it down to three big points:

  • Set your own goals, and make them hard:  Most of us go through life following the script that others have set for us – where we should go to school,
    Although in the fantastical world of "Alice in Wonderland," the Dodo bird's decree that "All have won and all must have prizes!" simply isn't true if you want to be authentically happy.

    Although in the fantastical world of “Alice in Wonderland,” the Dodo bird’s decree that “All have won and all must have prizes!” was a winning strategy, it simply isn’t true in the real world if you want to become authentically happy.

    what we should study, what career we should pursue, what age we should marry, what religion we ought to adopt, and more.  It’s the rare young adult who is self-possessed enough to challenge going down a path that doesn’t feel right, but that is still expected of them, anyway.  Ask yourself what it is that really lights you up, makes life feel meaningful, engrosses you, and brings out the “best” in you.  If failure wasn’t an option, what would you choose to do, starting tomorrow?  As you contemplate these answers, some goals might emerge that make you feel anxious because you long to be “that” person, but that’s okay – anxiety comes from passion to perform well, especially when the goals can’t automatically be achieved and they are important to you.  Go out of your comfort zone – that’s where all of the rewards are, and if you set mediocre goals, you won’t just feel mediocre as you pursue and achieve them, you’ll never develop an appreciation for what you are capable of.

  • Get happy first, and success will follow: Although there is a famous book entitled, “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow,” I’d rather put it as, “Get happy and you will find the success that is sweetest.”  Anyone who has followed my work or read “Creating Your Best Life,” my best-selling book on the intersection of the science of happiness and the science of goal accomplishment, knows that it is a slam-dunk findings across hundreds of pieces of research that success in all domains of life is preceded by being happy first, not vice versa.  So find ways to boot up the “computer of you” every morning by doing and thinking positive things that help you flourish.  A few of the most popular and empirically-validated ways to do it include spending time with people who are “good” for you, exercising, volunteering, journaling, using your character strengths and listening to music.  Feelings of contentment/joy/awe/inspiration/satisfaction/happiness won’t just descend upon you like a surprise fog, they will be the result of what you choose to do.
  • Don’t be a quitter.  When you pursue hard goals (see point one above), you will want to quit from time to time.  You will be discouraged, you won’t get what
    Roy Baumeister's research has found that alcohol is the one proven deterrent to all goal accomplishment, so if you are tempted to quit at something hard and important, skip the booze.

    Roy Baumeister’s research has found that alcohol is the one proven deterrent to all goal accomplishment, so if you are tempted to quit at something hard and important, skip the booze.

    you want, you might fail, and you will experience a few “dark nights of the soul.”  You will turn down fun opportunities from time to time because you have to remain focused when instant gratification is beckoning.  Your friends and family might make fun of your dedication.  But none of that matters.  You will never truly appreciate great achievements – including your own- if you don’t understand what it takes to make them happen.  You will be proud of yourself, and you’ll gain the admiration of others who want to know how they can dedicate themselves to something, too.  Your work ethic will pay off in every area of life because people will trust you, and your word will be good.  Your view of what you can do in life will expand because you know that your future is in your own hands.

There are many other bromides and pieces of advice I could impart if I had time tonight, but these are the lessons that I wish I’d learned earlier in life – to have my own North Star and not just follow a predictable path laid out before me in my “super zip” life; to learn that happiness wasn’t about SAT scores and what my body looked like, but that finding ways to express my passions would give me a zest and a sense of meaning that trumped what any report card said; and that not worrying about the outcome, only the resilience that would come from knowing I gave something my very best, was what I’d smile about at night with a sense of quiet pride.

*****

My next cohort-driven course, “Your Happiest Life,” begins on Monday, May 5th on the online learning platform Ruzuku.  If you’d like to learn more about the course or what else you might gain from the class that will make goal-setting more satisfying, I am hosting a free one-hour webinar on October 3rd at noon ET.

1 Response

  1. Cindy

    Thanks so much for your article, Caroline. You are always so inspirational – I only hope that I can follow these tips!

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