For the haters out there, I’m actually 25 and a half. So back off.

Here are some simple things I’ve learned thus far.

  1. There are no blanket statements.
    Actually, that’s a lie. There is one blanket statement, and that is “there are no blanket statements”.
  2. Make eye contact.
    Whether it’s a conversation or you’re walking by someone in the hallway, make eye contact. It’s the best way to connect with people. Feeling bold? Flash a smile. Within limits (i.e. don’t stare, don’t be creepy), there is a correlation between how much eye contact you make and how positively people evaluate you, including on characteristics such as competence, attractiveness, intelligence, and credibility [1,2]. Sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it?
    Catch me staring at everyone like this from now on:
  3. Slow down and dare to feel.
    A lot of amazing and terrible things happen around you every day. Take a second to share someone’s joy or sadness. Whether someone got a job promotion or lost a loved one, take a second to really engage and share their feelings. It’s tough and it takes effort, but connecting with others grounds us in our communities. We feel fulfilled when we feel connected.
  4. Karma. You can’t prove it’s real, but a little faith never hurt nobody.
    Many Indians (like me) love the idea of karma. And all scientists love the idea of evidence. As an Indian scientist, I don’t know where that leaves me on the subject. What I do know is that good deeds nourish your soul like nothing else. Put good into the universe, and have faith that it will come back to you. And if it doesn’t, at least you improved the lives of those around you. That’s worth something.
  5. The pie is not finite.
    We’re implicitly taught that if someone else succeeds, you lost because they took what you could have had. It’s funny how beating others sometimes feels more rewarding than the achievement itself. When others succeed, congratulate them wholeheartedly. There is something else in store for you. I would argue that you should take this one step further – help others succeed. Offer favors, look out for one another, and never ever sabotage someone else.
  6. Random acts of kindness are the best.
    A few months ago, I Venmo’d a friend five bucks on a Monday morning so she could buy herself a latte on the way to work. What was the occasion? Nothing at all. There didn’t need to be an occasion. That’s what made it a random act of kindness. A few days ago, I received five bucks from a different person! He had started sending out a few dollars every week to friends and acquaintances. Why? Because random acts of kindness are the best. Unexpected joy and/or gratitude are such important feelings. And who knows? If karma turns out to be a universal truth, you’re one step ahead.
  7. Document your life’s big events.
    This one is really close to my heart. You won’t remember everything from your day-to-day life 10 or 20 years from now. Think about when you were in college. Or when you first starting falling in love with your life partner. You never know how things might turn out, so write things down. Trust me, you will cherish the opportunity to relive the good times. I started a journal when I started graduate school. I write every few weeks about my girlfriend, family, my cats, school, relatives, etc. Now that I’ve been here ~3 years, that’s about 40 entries. I often read my thoughts from “back in the day” with a smile on my face, amazed at how I had completely forgotten. Documenting your life is also a great way to enact point 3 above. Life goes by so fast. Take a second to slow down and think about how you feel, instead of just going through the motions.
  8. Keep your family close, and don’t let them drift away.
    I wish I had known this when I moved to the United States from India. I forsook (verb, a simple past tense of forsake) important extended family by not keeping in touch, and I really, really regret it. Now I feel that the feelings are already hurt, and I can’t fully compensate now that I’ve let someone drift away. It’s a terrible, sinking feeling.
  9. Do things because YOU want to. It’s not worth it otherwise.
    Expectations weigh heavily on all of us. From parents, bosses, mentors, friends, the TV…the list goes on. But here’s the problem with leaning into these expectations – there is no benefit to enacting someone else’s aspirations for you if your heart isn’t in it. Others are not as invested in this vision as you might assume. Here’s an example – your academic adviser wants you to apply for an assistant professorship after graduate school because she thinks you’re exceptionally capable. How much time do you think they spent on that vision? A few minutes? Maybe an hour? Now let’s say you became a tenure-track professor, making your adviser supremely proud. How much time will they now spend thinking about your accomplishments? Maybe a few minutes a week initially. As the months and years go by, this diminishes to nothing at all. How much time did you spend in any given week being a professor? All of it! Yes, your adviser is extremely proud of you, but following someone else’s vision is simply not worth the few minutes they might spend thinking “Wow, this kid is doing so well. I’m proud of her/him.” If you’re going to spend your time on something, do it because you want to.
  10. Have idols, but don’t compare.
    An idol or role model is someone who has walked along a portion of the path in front of you. Idols inspire and motivate us. If we can see who we want to be in the future, we can start walking that path. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. That said, the crucial part about having idols is recognizing that they walked only a portion of the path you want for yourself. The truth is, innumerable differences like privilege, circumstance, and dumb luck are (unfortunately) also determinants of success. Take appearances with a grain of salt, and don’t compare. It’s a slippery road where you short-sell your own achievements by constantly looking at someone who is seemingly doing better.
  11. Think about how you use your time. Covey’s Four Quadrant system might help.
    In this system, all your activities and tasks can be categorized into one of the four quadrants. Look at the image below, and try it for yourself: where would you place ‘Learning a new language’? How about renewing your driver’s license before it expires next week? Binge watching Game of Thrones?

    Now that we understand this system, let’s dig a little deeper. After contemplating this system for multiple years, here’s how I recommend using it: Every few weeks or months, list all the substantive tasks you performed, and categorize them into these quadrants. Looking at it, does one quadrant seem too empty? Or too full? Finding imbalances is great fodder for thought. Maybe you should manage time better to avoid things piling up into Quadrant 1. Maybe I need to devote a portion of the time I spend playing video games (Quadrant 4) on (finally) learning Python programming (Quadrant 2). Some “lifestyle gurus” will tell you avoid or delegate Quadrant 3 tasks, and eliminate wasteful Quadrant 4 tasks.
  12. Mental health days are so, so important.
    Whether you’re a brain surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital or a bartender or, like me, a graduate student, stress creeps into all our lives. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming. If you’re “spinning your wheels” or feeling burnt out, acknowledge it. Take a day off, and do nothing at all. You are in charge of your mental health, and you have to protect it. You’re doing nobody favors if you are physically present, but mentally and emotionally switched off.
  13. Forgive yourself.
    Now let’s be clear – I’m not talking about excusing yourself for a felony. I’m talking about taking a rain check on happy hour because you’ve had a long week. Or going in to work late because you couldn’t help hitting the snooze button (a few too many times) this morning. We work a lot. We do a lot of things for others. It’s OK to just say no. It can be a refreshing change, and you deserve it.

These are a few of my lessons from my time here. I’m sure this list will evolve over time. Maybe I’ll edit this list again next year at the ripe old age of 26.

References:

  1. Heleen Vandromme, Dirk Hermans & Adriaan Spruyt (2011) Indirectly Measured Self-esteem Predicts Gaze Avoidance, Self and Identity, 10:1, 32-43, DOI: 10.1080/15298860903512149
  2. Judith Hall, Erik Coats, Lavonia Smith LeBeau (2005) Nonverbal Behavior and the Vertical Dimension of Social Relations: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 898-924. DOI:10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.898

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