In the first few days of college, I faced an insurmountable number of decisions. Which friend groups do I join? What student organizations pique my interest? What classes do I want to take? How often do I want to go out with my friends?
Freedom and independence from parents’ constant nagging can feel liberating and exciting. But the invisible burden of having to make my own decisions suffocated me slowly and powerfully, as I was well aware that every decision I made would define my college experience.
The fascinating allure of independence also intimidated me as a college first year. I grew up in environments where the possible connections I could make were limited and more manageable. From kindergarten to junior high, I studied within the confines of the Chinese educational system, where each student is assigned to a class of 30 to 40 students. Each class has their own classrooms, and these 30 or so students will learn, coexist, and eventually band together in the next few years, every week from Monday to Friday.
In high school, I was fortunate enough to learn in a tight-knit community of 100 or so students. Everyone knew each other. Again, we had no choice but to befriend and involve each other for a significant part of our lives.
In college, everything changed drastically. For the first time in my life, I got to choose my own community. The numerous choices and the dynamic nature of friend groups in college overwhelmed me. The friends who I could sit and have lunch with during orientation turned to a casual greeting on Locust, then turned to a nod in classroom buildings, and then eventually to a passerby. In the beginning of the semester, you could see hundreds of student organizations promoting their clubs on Locust Walk, ranging from chess clubs to professional clubs for various majors. For a newcomer, the choices disoriented me. I signed up for and joined a Bible study group, until I realized that what I really craved was a close-knit community like my old Catholic high school, not the religion itself. The pressure to fit in and to forge my own path rushed me to connect with everyone I met.
I went out with friends to party, knowing full well that I enjoy staying home with just a couple of friends just as much, if not more. I went out for movies, even though I had a ton of studies left undone because of the crippling fear that once I refuse participating in these activities, they will not invite me the next time.
There is a difference between pushing yourself and shoving yourself. Pushing yourself yields rewarding experiences at a later time, even when you feel slight discomfort at first. But shoving yourself, as I did, led to chronic tension and an inability to make a choice anymore.
The constant anxiety to build, maintain, and deepen friendship was the price I paid for my so-called independence.
My teenage years created an illusion that choices are already made for me. All I had to do was to embrace them and follow them wholeheartedly. But this was not true in college. No one will force you to learn and coexist in a community for months or even years. No one will assign you a deskmate for this semester. No one will pressure you to come to classes if you don’t feel like it.
It was not the reality of making independent decisions that made the college experience nearly intolerable for me. It was the fact that I was trying to engorge all the choices presented to me. I wanted it all. I learned an incredibly painful but immensely valuable lesson in college: You don’t have to have it all. Learn to say no so that you can passionately affirm your yes.
Take a breath. Reflect on what truly makes you happy and what you want to prioritize. If you want to prioritize sleep, kindly decline the invitations to go out late at night. If you want to prioritize making as many friends as you can, know that it might be difficult to catch up on your studies.
As high-achieving students at Penn, many of us didn’t have to make a choice. We could simply have it all in high school between the social scenes and academic excellence. College is different. Know your limits and prioritize.
For me, that meant that I let go of the many student organizations I once joined and focused more on building individual relationships. I declined offers for many events that I would have said yes to without reservation. This allowed me to make more time for the few friends I truly cherish. Letting go also allowed me to build a stronger relationship with professors in my class, as I went to office hours more after being able to finish all the readings and assignments before class.
I also had more me time since then. I started journaling and meditating every day. The more time I spent on myself, the happier I felt. Meditation taught me to focus on the things that truly matter and let go of the rest. Journaling allowed me to reflect on how my time is spent and whether that is meaningful or not. I now have a streak of over 700 days.
There are so many choices we make every day. We feel that we have to say yes to all the choices to succeed. But letting go is just as important as saying yes.
SAM ZOU is a College junior studying political science from Shenzhen, China. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.