What I Wish I’d Known (or Known Earlier)

May 6, 2013, 4:37 p.m.

Former Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education John Bravman’s speech to my incoming freshman class, delivered to a Memorial Auditorium filled with kids who had no idea what they were getting into but couldn’t wait to start, seems like I heard it just yesterday. His message was simple: time moves fast, and before you know it, your four years at Stanford will be over. Make the most of it, he advised us. A few minutes later, his speech was over and we were back out in the warm Palo Alto dusk, waving our dorm flags and thinking we had all the time in the world ahead of us.

Turns out we didn’t. Time runs quick. And even though I managed to stretch four years into five, I’m leaving soon, wishing I had done a lot of things I never quite managed to do.

What follows is the advice I wish I could have given myself four-and-a-half years ago, sourced from the reflections of a guy who’s only now realizing what he’s losing. I don’t want to pretend that this advice applies to, or will have value for, everyone; I don’t want to pretend that it is any more valuable than the guidance you’ve already received, and will continue to receive, from friends, parents and teachers.  Take of it what you will and ignore the rest.

1. Go to more campus events. I’m not talking about the Al Gores and the Rachel Maddows, although you shouldn’t miss the big fish either. I’m talking about the countless chatlist event emails that somehow get ignored in favor of procrastination on Facebook, the posters on those concrete pillars in White Plaza you bike by without a second glance.

The number of lectures and free talks I now wish I’d attended is staggering. Outside Stanford’s sandstone arches lies a world in which top foreign dignitaries, Supreme Court litigators and prize-winning biomedical researchers don’t give free lectures on a daily basis within five minutes of your home. Do a better job than I did. Go listen to somebody brilliant, and do it as much as possible.

2. Don’t waste the free food! The meal plan here is among the best in the country. Use it. Don’t skip meals, and when you see a campus event offering free food, go for it. You won’t get the chance again after you graduate.

3. Scroll through ExploreCourses, find a class that looks interesting, and sit in on a lecture or two. The few times I’ve done this have been among my best experiences at Stanford. A 1L once invited me to listen to a ConLaw lecture; it was amazing. Rock, Sex, and Rebellion is the most fun you will ever have in a lecture hall, and Applebaum is like a much smarter version of Jack Black in School of Rock. Don’t miss out.

4. Stay in touch with old friends. It’s easy to let them go, and you’ll regret it. I sure do.

5. Sleep a little more. You’ll feel happier, perform better in school, and get through the year with a slightly lower chance of burning out. If you’re a varsity athlete, this one should read “sleep a LOT more.” (For more info, see #3 on this list and search for “Sleep and Dreams.” Drowsiness is Red Alert!)

6. Go to as many athletic events as you can. We have the best overall collegiate athletics program in the world, and all those tickets are free. You won’t get chances like this again after you leave; this is it. Go see women’s basketball at Maples. Watch some record-setting track and field performances at the world-class Payton Jordan Invitational (missed your chance this year; come back next April). And whatever you do, see at least one football game.

7. Take one or more of the following classes: Econ 1A and 1B (preferably with Marcelo or Tendall), History 106A/B/C with Martin Lewis (well, actually, anything in the History department!), and a foreign language you haven’t taken before. (Email me for a full list – just a few suggestions to get you started!)

8. Challenge a belief or opinion everyone around you appears to share. For your benefit and for the intellectual benefit of people around you, speak up and disrupt the paralyzing comfort of conformity. Don’t do it to be a jerk or grab attention; do it respectfully and after a lot of thought about what to say and how exactly to say it. If you run with the Occupy crowd, read some Milton Friedman and really engage with his arguments. If you’ve already memorized Friedman and have a poster of him hanging on your wall, go protest on behalf of Stanford Hospital workers. Having a debate in class about whether the full Islamic veil is oppressive or liberating for women in the West? Thoughtfully take the side no one else is taking.

It’ll expand your mind, and hopefully everyone else’s. And chances are, there are a lot of people out there who think the same way you do and are just afraid to say it.

9. Go abroad. I never had this chance (three-season varsity athlete), but NO ONE I know who’s gone abroad has EVER regretted it. See a bit of the world while you can do it with your fellow students, with some help from financial aid, and in an academic setting. Bon voyage and arrivederci.

10. Really get to know a professor. Professors here have spent a lifetime accumulating knowledge you can’t get anywhere else. They love to talk and to teach; it’s a big part of why they’re here. And they get lonely when no one comes up to talk to them after lecture or in office hours – they think no one enjoyed hearing them speak, when the reality is that most students are just plain scared, intimidated, or in a rush.

Don’t be afraid that you’re too dumb to have a conversation with a professor. Embrace your lack of knowledge, because every professor is going to know a whole lot more than you do. It’s supposed to be that way. That’s why they’re teaching and you’re learning. And don’t go into the conversation with a future letter of rec in mind, or even necessarily your own interests or goals. Start off by just asking them about themselves and their work; chances are, you’ll learn a lot and have fun doing it.

That’s not all I wish I’d heard my freshman year. But it’s a big part of it. Let me know what you think, and I hope it helps!

Give Miles some of your own advice at [email protected].

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