This year I decided to start 2019 strong by prioritizing my personal growth. Before I naïvely jump in and try to radically change myself with “new year new me” talk and unrealistic New Year resolutions, I’ll be reflecting on everything I learned in 2018.
To be frank, I don’t reflect on my past often. The most reflecting I’ve done was reliving flashbacks of awkward interactions with people that make me want to sink into the earth and disappear.
However, almost a year from today I made a conscious effort to journal. Journalling was a meditative routine for me to sort out my thoughts and slow myself down. Unfortunately my daily journalling become biweekly, and barely monthly by the time I started my fall semester.
Although my routine quickly fell apart as my schedule became more hectic, journalling taught me that I needed to take a step back if I wanted to make positive changes in my life. I needed to understand the reasons behind how and why I interact with the world the way that I do before changing my habits.
2018 was both a storm and a breeze. I went through lots of emotions, epiphanies, and conveniently timed existential crises. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been confused and frustrated with myself, but there were also countless times when I was happy and grateful for everything and everyone in my life. I’m thankful for all of the experiences that I had, and with that, here are twelve things that I took away from 2018:
#1: You miss 100% of the chances that you don’t take.
This is super cheesy and cliché but it’s true. If you don’t try, how do you know if you’ll succeed? Sure you could fail or not get said opportunity, but life is full of chances for you to try again.
I spent January applying to a lot of different programs to do summer research. There were a few advantages for staying on campus, but I decided that pursuing new experiences will be beneficial for my own growth. Even though I had pretty low expectations in terms of actually securing any of these positions, I applied anyway because the possibility was still there.
I stopped applying after I got an offer to work at a Pharma company. However, a more exciting opportunity rolled around that I couldn’t say no to. I wouldn’t even have had that option had I not tried to pursue it in the first place. This opened a ton of (important)doors for me down the road, so again, take those chances because you’ll never know where they lead you!
#2: Your hardwork and passion will lead to great things. Be grateful and proud of how far you’ve come!
It’s hard to realize how amazing you are when you’re in a constant state of struggle. February was the month that I began to journal and revitalize a huge cultural event on campus.
Throughout my years at Brown I led a lot of ground work for the Vietnamese Students Association with the help of amazing executive board members. Looking back, the stress was all worth it in the end. I’m extremely proud of our work and how we transformed our community. I learned what it takes to be a firm and decisive leader, but also one that listens and fosters a healthy team environment. I definitely faced a number of setbacks, but those mistakes became valuable learning experiences that helped me emerge as an even better leader.
#3: Your happiness stems from a healthy balance of everything and everyone that you care about.
At this point I finally had a taste of a work-life balance after what felt like a constant cycle of exhaustion. For a while I convinced myself that it was normal to feel defeated on a daily basis. That it was acceptable, maybe even admirable to take all the hardest classes you possibly can, live in the library, all the while hustling for the next internship or leadership position.
My long awaited “chill” semester was a complete eye opener for me. For the first time in so long I felt happy because I prioritized other important parts of my life. I spent time with people that I cared about. I went grocery shopping and made time to cook for myself. I found my happy balance and was truly thankful for everything in my life. There’s no point in being successful with one pillar if the other two are crumbling underneath as a consequence. Happiness stems from multiple revenues.
#4: Your mentors and advisors will fight and advocate for you.
The most transformative experiences I had during my years in college were hands down during the summer. I was born and raised in the northeast for the entirety of my life, so living in different parts of the U.S. during my summers gave me new perspectives and experiences.
These defining moments wouldn’t have been possible without all the mentors and supervisors who supported me. My research advisor was there every step of the way and even sent me opportunities that might have sparked my interest.
In April, I was offered a sponsorship to present my research at a national conference thanks to him. I really can’t appreciate him enough and everyone who continued to look out for me to this day.
#5: Your stress should not validate your productivity.
My spring semester was the most stress free semester I’ve had at Brown. During finals week, I was working on a few projects simultaneously but I didn’t overexert myself to the point of burning out. Productivity without stress? For some reason I had no idea the two could co-exist.
A part of this is because students try to casually one-up each other’s struggle. Why should we be proud of all the all-nighters that we pulled off at the library? Why you haven’t showered in over a week? Romanticizing the ways in which we destroy ourselves can create a toxic, workaholic environments that no one should partake in.
#6: Stepping out of your comfort zone and keeping an open mind can lead to unexpected rewards.
Back in February, I found out that I was offered a position to do research in California. Between making big bucks at a Pharma company and spending the summer in SoCal doing innovative science, I opted for the latter.
I’ve never been to the west coast before so this was the perfect opportunity for me to explore uncharted territory. As cool as it was to work in a newly renovated lab with an enthusiastic team, my most exciting and memorable experience from the summer was learning west coast swing.
I started doing ballroom during my freshman year of college and have been to a lot of social dances since then. I’d remember that whenever a west coast swing song would play, about three couples out twenty would go out to dance. In the meantime most of us would wait for the next song.
I initially thought west coast swing was weird and maybe even inferior to jive, but I was so, so wrong. After looking past the mysteriously similar counts and different footwork, I fell in love with the vibe and dance that is west coast swing. As cheesy as it sounds, I was swept off my feet.
#7: You learn something new from every conversation you have. You’ll also click with some people better than others and that’s okay.
I don’t see myself as the best conversationalist. I’m also quite reserved so I can only withstand and initiate so much small talk with people I just met. For the first time I found myself in situations where I’d sit in complete silence or figure out ways to desperately save a failing conversation before I could escape.
The beauty of leaving my college bubble is that I could meet people that I would otherwise never interact with, but that’s not to say that every encounter is smooth.
Despite this, I’m thankful for meeting and talking with new people because it helps me keep an open mind. It’s fine if you connect with some people more easily than others. You have control over how you interact with people but not the other way around, and that’s something you just need to accept. You can improve your connections but can’t force one to happen.
On the bright side, when you do find a genuine connection with someone, those encounters will undoubtedly outshine your awkward ones. At the end of the day, both experiences are valuable!
#8: It’s never too late to learn something new.
I get pretty self-conscious when I tell people that I don’t have my driver’s license yet. Up until this month, I had no idea how to ride a bike.
It’s interesting how we set universal timelines for when we should know how to do certain things or when we should have certain experiences, but I think it instead leaves us with expectations that have or haven’t been met. Expectations can motivate us, but when we fail to meet those expectations we start to tie our self worth to such “achievements” and resort to unhealthy comparisons between us and everyone else.
Another unfortunate consequence of these social constructs is the feeling of not wanting to learn for fear of judgement. Honestly who cares if you don’t know how to do x, y, and z? Even if you’re the nicest and smartest person in the world there will be someone out there who will judge or gossip about you. Are you really going to let that one person take you down?
This is obviously easier said than done, but if we put in the effort to look past socially constructed time tables and fears, we can achieve even greater personal heights. Such as learning how to ride a bike well into your young adulthood.
#9: Our emotions are situational and can cloud our current reality.
I left the summer feeling pretty optimistic so I naturally carried that mentality with me. Back in September I actually looked forward to starting my fall semester. I expected it to be stressful but also manageable. I was kind of right in some ways. But clearly wrong in others.
My schedule looked deceivingly bare until I realized that I signed up for a pretty rigorous set of classes. On top of that I was also studying for the GRE, applying to fellowships, and applying to graduate school. I made the unfortunate mistake of biting a bit more than I could chew.
The most frustrating part was that I thought I knew what I could handle after my traumatizing sophomore year, but I clearly didn’t learn my lesson. Looking back, I don’t regret the choices I made but I did wish that I was more mentally prepared for the ride.
#10: Stress will exacerbate your emotions and expectations.
October was pretty rough. I was finishing up my fellowship applications, taking my standardized tests, and studying for my midterms. My research which quickly dropped in priority after I living deadline by deadline. I was overwhelmed, tired, and questioned every decision I’ve made in college. Why did I choose to study something so niche? How much longer can I tolerate academia? Am I really cut out for this kind of lifestyle?
The stress dropped my confidence and intensified my inner emotional turmoil. My perfectionism took a huge toll on my well being. I would constantly beat myself over for not meeting my unrealistic expectations.
We have a finite amount of energy that also needs to be replenished every now and then. Constant overexertion can do more harm than good. I’m still learning how to be more forgiving with myself, but I’m also starting to accept that I simply can’t do everything well all the time. I’m a human, not a robot.
#11: It’s okay to not be okay. Our lives are precious and fragile, so keep your friends and family close.
My emotional distress peaked in November. I was desperately trying to solve a research problem that I was working on for weeks. I didn’t make any progress and one day I just came home defeated.
Those kinds of days usually don’t bother me because research is difficult and demoralizing by nature, but I just broke down in my room. I was so tired from everything and desperately wanted a break that I couldn’t have. I overworked and pushed myself way too hard. I was incredibly toxic to myself and let the stress get the best of me.
Luckily on that same day, I called a close friend from back home who helped me relieve a lot of the distress I kept bottled up.
During this same month, a high school friend also passed away.
I never had someone I knew and someone so young leave the world unexpectedly. Even to this day, I still don’t understand what it’s like to not see and talk to someone ever again. Humans are so strong and capable of amazing feats, but we’re also so vulnerable.
After experiencing this, I’ve been more appreciative of friends and family. I try to reach out more often. I realized that I’m not alone and that the people who care about me will support me at my lowest. But beyond holding people closer to me, I’ve also pushed myself to continue living with less doubts and fears…which led to the start of this blog!
#12: It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but things will get better when you least expect it.
I felt so free after I submitted all of my applications, but unfortunately I wasn’t free from the grasps of finals.
I was worried about my last few weeks mainly because I took a pause on my “active” learning to take care of my non-academic business.
While sifting through piles of notes and handouts, I realized that the amount of stress that I was dealing with is just unnecessary. Why am I so worried about my grades? Why do I need a percentage to validate my knowledge which somehow correlates to my worth? The more I question it the more ridiculous it sounds to me.
I was fed up with the copious amounts of unhealthy thoughts that stemmed from reading through slides and reaction mechanisms, so I stopped studying. A part of me didn’t care anymore, and another part of me was tired of complaining about my stress and wanted to do something about it. I have no regrets to do this day and left campus pretty happy.
Despite the rough semester, my year ended in the best way possible. Literally a few hours after I arrived home in Boston, I got accepted to my first graduate program. About three hours later, I got into my second. The next day, I got a phone call informing me that I got accepted into my top choice program (and an email confirmation later in January).
Final thoughts.I didn’t expect to end on such a good note considering the downhill trend that is my senior year, but I’m incredibly grateful for it. If I could go back in time, I honestly wouldn’t change anything because it’s through these moments of agony that we grow. The pockets of joy and happiness became even more precious to me and I’m so thankful for all of the new and old friends that have been with me every step of the way. I wouldn’t have made it without their love and support, so from the bottom of my heart I wish you the very best and thank you for everything!