Another entry the Class of 2019 should review, from EphBlog’s “Advice to Undergraduates.”

(Original here).


I went back

All that I remember about the day I arrived on campus eighteen years ago this August was that it was hot and that I was not looking forward to two-a-days. Like pretty much every incoming freshmen at pretty much every school, I’m sure I was a volatile mix of anticipation, fear, excitement and a few dozen other emotions endemic to teenagers. But mostly what I remember was that it was hot.

One thing I’m sure of, however, is that there was no note waiting for me from my future self. It’s not clear to me even now that I would have been any more willing to listen to an older version of me than I was, say, my parents. Not listening to anyone is a seventeen year old’s prerogative, I suppose, for better and for worse. Mostly for worse. Whether such a missive would have helped or not, however, it certainly couldn’t have made things worse. My initial year in the Purple Valley was…not strong.

Nothing in my brief history up to that point had prepared me for my performance, which bore an unfortunate resemblance to a slow-moving car crash. I failed. Repeatedly. Even in my strong subjects. I turned things around academically midway through my sophomore year, but my GPA never really recovered from the beating it absorbed prior. Not that that has mattered much, professionally: apart from your first job or graduate school, your grades won’t come up much. Like most Williams students, however, I’m competitive, and I wish that my performance more accurately reflected my abilities, rather than the life lessons I had yet to learn. Lessons that my future self could have passed on to me, were such things possible.

Sadly, they are not. But for you new people, I offer the following with no warranty whatsoever. Mystical wisdom, it is not. These are just a few of the things I wish someone had told me, and which I in turn thought I would offer to you now. As my good friend Sean Bowler ’98, who was taken from us all far too early, did for his students when he said farewell at Salisbury, I will try and keep it short.

And will, predictably, fail.

There is Always Someone Better Than You

This one was easy for me, because I was never King of the Hill in the classroom or on the field of play. It was quite obviously an adjustment for a few of my classmates, however. Accustomed to being the big fish in the small ponds they hailed from, it was jarring for some of them to be second best, or just as often, third or fourth. But that’s what going to a place like Williams is all about. In that one aspect, at least, the campus is exactly like the real world. With the exception of a very small number of us, there’s always going to be someone who’s smarter than you. Or a better athlete. Maybe both.

Where you can’t change this through hard work, you need to acknowledge the situation and then find ways to compete. Because that’s life. The playing field isn’t always going to be even. Or fair. But neither do the best and brightest always win. Show some adaptability and you’ll be fine.

Cole Field Really is the Coldest Place on Earth

If you play sports or go there to watch them, you will think this at some point. Whatever they may teach you at Williams about climate change and meteorology, Cole Field is likely to be, at any given point in time, the single coldest place on earth. It can be pushing a hundred on campus, but down at Cole there will be woolly mammoths walking around, as one of my coaches memorably put it. Prepare all you want; there’s nothing you can do. We tried everything, from long underwear to those awful, burning chemical heating packets, and we still froze. As you will.

There’s nothing I can say to help you here; I just wanted to be able to say I told you so.

It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish

Looking back, it’s borderline shocking that I recovered as much as I did academically, given how horrifying my grades were that first year. And, it must be said, my first semester as a sophomore. But while I accept full responsibility for getting myself into that mess, the credit for my recovery belongs entirely to someone else. Part of it was reducing my athletic workload – and the related social calendar – from one sport to two, part of it was a few significant changes in my social life, but the man who more or less singlehandedly salvaged my tenure at Williams was Professor Thomas Kohut.

Just trust me on this: it is not easy to pick a major when you’re barely holding your head above water in all subjects. How can you ask a professor to be your advisor, when you both know you’re failing? When your professors look on you with a mixture of disdain and disappointment? Not that I blame those who did: I deserved that scorn. Fortunately for me, however, there was one exception. Professor Kohut, for motives of his own, spoke to me honestly but not unkindly. Better, he threw me the rope I desperately needed, agreeing to serve as my advisor. With that came a direct and frank appraisal of where I was failing, and what I needed to correct. Instead of writing me off as a lost cause, he took the time to sit and speak with me about his own experiences, and how he thought that I might improve. It may well have been the first time in my academic career that someone treated me as an adult, one reason it was easy to listen.

His opinion – subsequently confirmed – was that I needed smaller, more interactive classes to hold my interest. The difficulty of the material was not, for the most part, my problem; it was rather my engagement with same. Professor Kohut’s recommendation was simple: I was to take smaller classes on subjects that held some interest for me with professors that would care whether or not I was in class. So what I would tell you, Future Williams Graduate, class of 2014, is this: do not write yourself off. You may think, at times, that you’re an idiot, but the folks that run admissions are most certainly not. If you got in, you can do the work. We all make mistakes, it’s how you recover from them that matters. Seek out the professors that understand this and genuinely care – Kohut and Shanti Singham were two of the best I encountered – and stick to them like glue.

It worked for me.

You Need Math, Especially If You Think You Don’t Need Math

One of the worst things to happen to me at Williams was actually a test I passed. According to the Quantitative Skills Assessment, I had satisfactory math skills and thus was obligated to take exactly zero math courses. Which I promptly did. In retrospect, this was a mistake.

This isn’t about the rise of or Freakonomics. Or at least not entirely. You may never face that time your elementary school teachers warned you about, where the ability to solve a quadratic equation is a life or death affair. But it’s a safe bet that whatever your chosen occupation – brewer, entrepreneur, author, real estate agent, chef, artist, teacher, or, yes, I-banker – the ability to do math is going to be of benefit.

Businesses – most of them, these days – are increasingly about numbers. Whether you think this is a positive or negative development doesn’t, I’m sorry to say, matter much. They’ll go on without you. The fact is that industries that ran themselves for years on intuition and tradition are increasingly functions of algorithms. Baseball is Exhibit A in that department. This means that math, and its first cousins statistics and economics – should be staples of your Williams education. I took neither, largely because I had no idea they would be so important later, and I’m still paying the price.

There’s a reason I had to go and take a statistics course this past spring, and that reason is that I was dumb. Don’t be like me. Take some math.

There Are Lots of Things You Can Do Besides Consulting and Investment Banking

Unless things have changed radically at Williams, you may not realize this, as it’s basically those two industries interviewing on campus. This is not to say, please note, that there’s anything wrong with either profession. I myself was a consultant, and my brother – a Bowdoin grad – was an investment banker, and we’ve done all right. Both professions are, if nothing else, excellent training for jobs that you’ll have later in life, as they can teach you quite a bit about how businesses are run and how they are run into the ground.

It’s important to remember that if you don’t talk with one of the I-banking/consulting firms coming to interview, there are a host of things you can do with yourself. The entirety of which, obviously, I can’t cover here. But look around, and think not just about what you think you should do, but what you want to do.

Beirut is No Substitute for Beer Pong

I understand that they’ve outlawed Beer Pong on campus, and that Beirut – a distinctly inferior game – is ascendant. This is sad, because a better drinking game than Beer Pong has yet to be invented. There was a time when the Slippery B – if it’s even still called that – was the Beer Pong capital of this country. It’s depressing that those days are behind us, and that that elegant game from a more civilized age has faded from the average student’s memory.

The People You Meet Matter

Later, when you consider going to business school, and I’d wager that a lot of you will entertain the notion at some point, one of the Pro’s you write down to weigh the decision will be “networking.” Which is legitimate. Of the friends and former classmates that I know who’ve gone for their MBAs, networking has been at least 50% of the reasoning for shelling out the money and losing the years.

The same principle, though you may not have realized it yet, applies to your Williams education. Maybe you don’t meet the next Mark Zuckerberg, or, in our case, the next Bo Peabody, but given that you’re going to be on campus for four years with some aggressively bright and talented people, you might want to meet a few. Or at least remember who they are, so when you read about them later, you can comment knowledgeably.

Question Everything

I’ll be the first to admit that as a history major, I should have adopted Euripides‘ mantra – “question everything” – far sooner than I did. Nevertheless, you now have the opportunity to grasp this important lesson at a much more profitable age than I.

One of the things you learn as you go along, you see, is that everyone is wrong all the time. We jump to the wrong conclusions, we misread the available data, and sometimes we just want to believe something that’s not true. But when you’re younger, it’s natural to assume that at least the folks older than you – your parents, your professors, even the seniors – have the answers. They don’t.

Sometimes, of course, yours is not to reason why. Socrates questioned everything, after all, and ended up dining on a hemlock milkshake. But where it’s practicable – and particularly where conventional wisdom is concerned – do not forget to employ your critical thinking. Too many do these days; just watch the news.

Learn Everything You Can About Everything

Someone wants to teach you how to knit, gentlemen? Learn. Seriously, I’m not joking. You never know when the ability to knit will come in handy; a good friend of mine was wooed, at least in part, by a knit hat from her now boyfriend. Pick up anything and everything you can. Parkour. Frisbee. Guitar. Japanese. Learn to drive a stick. Whatever. You’re going to be around people who know a great many things you don’t, and even if you don’t master them, you never know when the exposure will be useful later in life.

More to the point, unless you retire early, you’re not likely to have another period in your life where your primary mission in life is to learn. Later, you’ll be distracted by reunions, work, a family, and thousands of weddings. Even if you don’t think you know that many people.

Save Your Papers

The good ones, anyway. Mine are now lost to history, unless they turn up when my parents move. This is not exactly a major loss for history, but there are those that I’d like to have back, if only to reflect on how, even then, I could never use one word when I could use five.

Winter Study is Just as Awesome as it Sounds

When else in your life, after all, are you going to be able to take a course on “Auto Mechanics?” And have it be the only course you’re responsible for? Exactly. Winter study is what college should be. With the exception of the one year a classmate and I spent freezing to death behind the Clark Art Museum hunting for turkeys that were clearly smarter than us, winter study was uniformly outstanding.

College is About More Than the Classroom

The administration probably isn’t going to put me in the Alumni Review for saying this, but this is for you, freshpeople, not them, so remember: there is more to life than class. No, you shouldn’t cut all your classes. Or even some of your classes. Take advantage of the education, because it’s the best you will ever get. And it’s certainly the last undergrad experience you’ll have. But that undergrad experience is also about learning how to live your life outside the classroom, and that portion of it shouldn’t be neglected. Enjoy your friends, your boyfriends and girlfriends, your teammates. Because the time when you all live together, too, shall pass.

I remember playing home run derby down on the women’s softball field with my best friend on a beautiful spring day my senior year as much as I remember any single class I ever took. And there were some memorable ones, believe me.

Reach Out to Alums

Here’s a secret that probably no one will think to tell you: alums love hearing from students. I remember sitting at a table in the OCC as a senior with no idea what I would be doing the following year, leafing through binders of probably out-of-date contact forms for alumni. What could be more intimidating than presuming on the mere shared experience of a Williams education, contacting someone you’ve never met for help?

Logical as that sentiment may be, however, I can assure you that it is misplaced. I have yet to meet an alum who isn’t happy to help a fellow Williams student, myself included. Perhaps it’s a failure on my part, but I speak to far, far too few students. Want to know what it’s like to work in technology? How to go about getting a job? What kinds of things employers are looking for in new hires? I can help, and so can the other alums. There’s an Eph in every industry.

Don’t be shy: I’m not hard to find.

Do What You Love

Life is short. You’ve likely heard that a few thousand times, and at this point in your life that phrase will have effectively no meaning. That’s fine. If you can tentatively accept it as true, however, it’ll make some of your more important decisions easier. Many of you will embark on careers that will make you miserable because of the hours, the content, or both. And there’s nothing wrong with that for a few years; paying your dues is a necessary part of the process in a great many industries. But if you are still unhappy years later, remember what you’ve been told: life is short. Do you want to spend it doing work you hate, or would you prefer to work on something that you enjoy?

That question is easier to answer, obviously, than execute. It’s hard to get paid to do what you love. Paul Graham believes – and I happen to agree – that there are two primary approaches to this:

The organic route: as you become more eminent, gradually to increase the parts of your job that you like at the expense of those you don’t.

The two-job route: to work at things you don’t like to get money to work on things you do.

Which one of those works for you will – assuming that the idea of doing something you love appeals to you – will depend on your passion and your priorities. Being a starving artist sounds romantic until you’re actually starving.

Eventually, however, you will get to a point in your life where you’ll look back on what you’ve accomplished and reflect. If you’ve been punching the clock for ten years, that’s not going to be a fun conversation to have with yourself, so my advice is work on things that matter. Whatever those might be for you.

You Will Miss Williams

I know. Every alum says this. But that, by itself, should tell you something.

Enjoy your next four years. Like life, you’ll only get one crack at it.

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