Qwertyman No. 42: Life Lessons for the College Student

Qwertyman for May 22, 2023

TWO YEARS ago, well before I began writing this column, I was asked to share some thoughts with fellow teachers of General Education—that special recipe of college courses in various disciplines meant to give incoming students a basic but challenging introduction to the issues of life and society. Instead of giving a lecture, I decided to come up with a list of 12 “life lessons” that I thought every undergrad should learn, one way or another, over their four years in college. I’d like to share them here as well, with further notes from me in parentheses, to reach a larger audience—and yes, even well beyond college. Here goes:

1. You don’t have to understand everything right away. In any case, you can’t. Some things in life will forever remain mysteries—some of them wonderful, some of them perplexing. Staying curious is what matters to the lifelong learner. (Aside from being usually obnoxious and insufferably arrogant, know-it-alls never learn that they can’t possibly know everything.)

2. Engagement helps—and by engagement, I mean investing yourself, putting in your time, effort, and maybe even money behind some belief or idea or activity that means something to you. Sometimes engagement is the best way of knowing, learning, and finally understanding. (Talk is cheap; get off your butt and actually do something. Remember the “community pantry”? That was because somebody took charge of an idea and put it into action.)

3. Not everything has to have practical value—at least not yet, or maybe ever. Value can mean more than utility or money. Delight and discovery are their own rewards. (All art involves finding beauty in the abstract; even sport is the quest of abstract perfection. Of course both art and sport have ironically become big business, and their best practitioners deserve every reward, but just as ironically, their greatest feats are driven by love and passion, not money.)

4. You are not the center of the universe. Not everything has to do with you. However, every connection you can make to the world around you leaves a mark that you were here—and that, in your own way, you mattered. (Know the difference between history and Instagram.)

5. Learn to see time in years and centuries, not seconds or hours. If you want to foretell the future, look back to the past. We may seem to be headed for the future, but in fact we will all inevitably be part of the past. How will you want to be remembered? (Repeat: Know the difference between history and Instagram.)

6. Intelligence, cleverness, knowledge, and wisdom are very different things. Knowledge without values is worthless and even dangerous. The middling student who has a sense of good and bad and right and wrong is worthier than the summa cum laude who doesn’t. (The people who have methodically impoverished and destroyed this country are no idiots; they are experts at what they do, or can hire whatever expertise they need.)

7. The first thought that comes to your mind may not be the best one. Pause and think before you speak or write, especially in these days of Facebook and Twitter. Speech but also silence can require courage and good judgment. (Live and write as if there were no “delete” or “unsend” buttons at your fingertips.)

8. Learn to love something larger than yourself, your family, and your prized possessions. “Nation,” “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality” are very attractive ideas, but you have to learn to bring these big words down to earth, in concrete forms, actions, and decisions. Can you accept that you are your housekeeper’s equal as a human being? (Good citizenship is always personal. Bad leadership is no excuse; be the example to your family, friends, and community.)

9. Be prepared to take risks and to make mistakes—and even to fail. You can learn more from failure than from over-performance. Everybody—even the very best of us—will fail sometime, and it will be good to believe that we are all entitled to at least one big mistake in our lives. (Being humbled by failure is always a good starting point; as we like to say in Diliman, you have nowhere to go but up!)

10. Be prepared to change your mind. As you grow and learn, some things will become more simple, and others more complex. You are not a fixed entity; you are changing all the time, and you can change faster than the world around you. (In my twenties, I thought I had the world all figured out in black and white, and would have been prepared to die for my causes. I’m glad I didn’t—I needed more time to learn that the world is mostly shades of gray, and that “compromise” is not necessarily a bad word.)

11. Technology can be deceptive. It can lead us to believe that the world is changing very fast and for the better. That may be true for some of us and for the way we live. But for many others left behind, the world is no better than it was a hundred years ago. (Technology, even artificial intelligence, is amoral. It’s only as good as the person who uses it, and his or her intentions.)

12. Competition is good, but cooperation is often better—and necessary. Poems are written by solitary genius, but bridges, cathedrals, and nations are built by many minds and hands. The best way to deal with loneliness is to find meaning in the many—to learn from and to contribute to the experience of others. (And I’m not talking here just about networking online; indeed nothing has made us lonelier in this century than the Internet. Share a cup of coffee, and learn to listen—their causes could be more urgent than yours, and you might even have the answer.)