A reader, Vivian, emailed me to ask for advice to incoming Harvard freshman, particularly in regards to writing. This is my response, with the caveat that it’s aimed towards a particular personality type. (i.e. if you’re hyper driven and prone to biting off more than you can chew.) A lot is applicable to college students in general.
Advice to incoming college freshman
Lesson 1: Life sucks sometimes. Get over it.
My first year of college was divided into first semester (good) and second semester (bad). The first few months I spent living in The Crimson’s newsroom, banging out news stories at blistering speed. I would obsessively refresh my email to be first to respond to story pitches. I rose fast. I drank the (gently spiked) Kool Aid.
Along the way, I made a friend who seemed motivated by the wrong things, or at least, things that I didn’t want to motivate me. We had a falling out, and second semester, my social life took a serious nosedive. I panicked. I had no friends to block with, it was like being picked last for gym teams all over again. I won’t even get into details of what happened. It worked out, but not without a lot of rejection.
At the same time, I cooled down my Crimson involvement, struggled in my classes, and removed myself from campus as much as possible.
So what happened?
I made new friends, some of whom I ended up close with. I went from hardcore Crimson reporter to occasional reporter to finally, fall of junior year deciding not to shoot for an exec position.
Today, I write two columns and am really happy about it. This is not to say the Crimson won’t be right for you – it’s a wonderful organization in many ways, and it’s been a brilliant training ground for a lot of students. If Jennifer 8. Lee had never showed up my freshman fall and told me that I HAD to write for News if I wanted to be a reporter (that’s what I wanted to be, back in 2007), things might be different today.
Ultimately, I learned a lot, met some great people, and figured out that large organizational politics just weren’t my thing. However, I probably would have freaked out if you told me this when I first started writing for them and cried about never becoming an NBC president or Pulitzer Prize winner.
Lesson 2: Keep in mind that you’ll change, and what you want to do will change.
And that’s a good thing. Embrace it, run with new ideas. How do you think this blog got started? It was utterly unplanned – I was redesigning my portfolio site and thought, hey, I’ll just throw up a blog. Why not? You can be strategic about it (“I’m going to start a blog about food and become a food writer!”) but sometimes, these things just happen. I always just thought I was weird and obsessive about eating out. Not entirely incorrect.
A lot of opportunities sprang up as I got deeper into the food writing wilderness, and this blog has been one of the best investments of time I’ve ever made. Never underestimate publicly doing something you enjoy to the best of your ability. Even if its payoff isn’t immediately obvious, you’ll eventually be glad you did. For example, one interviewer was sufficiently impressed by my blog to offer me a competitive internship. The job had nothing to do with food or blogging. I got contacted by a foreign TV producer once about hosting a travel segment. (That fell through, but it was cool to even be contacted.) I got an offer to join a food-related startup that will capitalize on a lot of the connections I’ve made blogging. And a bizarre number of people have invited me to eat dinner with them – and eating dinner with interesting people is one of my great pleasures in life.
This may sound obvious, but it’s worth keeping in mind: make sure you do what you want to be doing, because if you end up succeeding, you’ll be doing an awful lot of it.
Lesson 3: If you’re not happy, cut your losses and get out.
I’m still not great at this. I grew up in a clean-your-plate family, where you finished all the food whether or not it was any good. I comped a lot of organizations and halfway through the comp, wondered why I was even bothering. I should have just viewed my invested time as a sunk cost and left. I did an internship once that was a total sinkhole of my time and energy, offered no interesting work, and had a totally dead office environment. Connecting the dots in retrospect, I should have left and done my reading for class.
Lesson 4: Haters gonna hate.
In high school, I was absurdly miserable on the marching band’s color guard, but deathly afraid to quit. Most sane, rational people agreed I should quit, but some people judged me and told me as much. Which brings me to a valuable lesson: haters gonna hate. Then they go to MIT and you hopefully never hear from them again.
I’ve also realized in the course of writing a food blog that I don’t know everything about food. After this frightening realization, you then realize that NO ONE knows everything about food. People will only attack you if you have a reputation for something established or if they feel threatened, in which case, good for you. For every success, there are a million unsuccessful naysayers.
Accept advice only from those who have your best interests at heart AND who have similar values and goals as you. If you find people like this, keep them close – they’re rare. Even your best friend might have your best interests at heart but completely different values and goals for you, in which case, take it with a grain of salt.
Most people speak about what scares them and what they wouldn’t do. This doesn’t mean that it has to be what you’re scared of.
So, you want to write stuff at Harvard?
If you plan on being a professional writer, it’s a good idea to comp the Crimson, join writing-related organizations, and stay friends with the people in those organizations. A lot of them will end up working at publications you want to work at, and this world runs on connections.
Organizations might include: The Crimson, The Independent, The Voice (who The Crimson hates, and vice versa), Let’s Go (summer editing, Boston research term time, staff writer, etc.), The Advocate, Tuesday Magazine, The Lampoon, plus other random stuff. Things like Harvard Political Review or Economic Review are more likely staffed by people who are interested in the topic rather than pursuing careers specifically in writing.
If the idea of being friends for connections feels dirty, just keep this in mind: do a good job. Treat other people well. The rest will follow.
Keep an eye out on email lists for writing opportunities. Trawl the student employment office for job postings and check out Office of Career Services postings for places you’d like to work for.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that not sleeping and feeling miserable = sign you’re working hard enough. Seriously. Tasks fit themselves into the time you allot for them. Prioritize relationships and sleep.
I can’t emphasize this enough. People LOVE to brag about how miserable and unhealthy they are. Don’t be like them. Writing a paper, going out for dinner, sleeping for 7 hours, and still hitting the gym is only impossible if you convince yourself it is. Every once in a while, impress yourself because you can.
To make fast, easy money, bartend for Harvard Student Agencies. You don’t need ANY bartending experience; all you have to do with open bottles and pour things. It beats cleaning toilets x 3030297.
And similarly, don’t be afraid to start your own thing rather than trying to rise the ranks of an existing organization, especially if you’re looking to do something similar in your professional life. The similarities (recruiting, funding, managing, envisioning) are endless. Plus you skip all the boring politics. Spin entrepreneurial experiences like these in job interviews to your best advantage. Don’t be like every other person who did all the safe, “right” things with their college career – unless that’s who you actually want to be.
As an addendum, creative writing classes are really hard to get into here. I’ve been rejected twice so far. It’s easier to get in if you’re an English major, but if you’re not planning on writing a creative thesis or anything, keep your expectations in check.