What Makes You Happy

I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.

This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.

This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.

“Do what makes you happy”

People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.

I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.

My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.

A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.

A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.

“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.

Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.

I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.

Starting College: The Dos and Don’ts of Planning Your Future

There is a lot of pressure on high school graduates to choose their career path and set up their lives right away, and maybe you’re feeling that right now, and that’s why you’re here. I know I felt that pressure 4 years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

It wasn’t a straight path for me—I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and after a few months volunteering in the ER and vomiting at the sight of blood, I realized that I didn’t. Then I thought I wanted to be a professor, but then I looked at the years and years more of school I would have to complete, and that didn’t seem right either.

I still don’t know “what I want to do”, and I will be graduating in less than a year—which believe me is scary to write.

While I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I do know what my immediate options are, which is a much easier and arguably better way to look at it. More importantly, I know how to cope with stress and actually plan these things better than I used to, which is why I am laying this out here.

DO: Explore Majors

People will inevitably tell you what major is the best, and what you should do to be successful. Keep in mind all people give advice based their own experience, and no one knows just how many majors and different paths might be available to you. Attend your college events, meet with different advisors, and talk to upper classmen—the more people you talk to, the better sense you’ll have of all the opportunities available.

Estee and I: Tahquamenon Falls
My roommate and best friend of 15 years  and I on our Spring Break mini- Road Trip

DON’T: Be Stubborn

It took me a long time to fully admit that I didn’t want to be a doctor, because I had already told people that I did. In the long run, this hurt me more than helped, and I spent a lot of time, money, and effort on classes I wasn’t interested in and I probably won’t need.

My advice? Don’t even declare a major until you’ve got a good sense of all of the majors available—and don’t hang onto a major just because your friends and family think that you should.

DO: Get Involved

Everyone will tell you this, but go to club meetings, join the IM soccer team, attend events. Not only is this a great way to meet people, but this also lets explore your campus.

Another perk of getting involved— you end up meeting a lot of upperclassmen who can give you advice specific to your school and maybe even your major.

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Claire, my sister, about to skip into her freshman year

DON’T: Assume There is Only One Right Way

One of the biggest issues, for both me and many of my friends was assuming that there is only one right way to do things— there’s not. Take a gap year, go to a community college for a few years, it’s not the end of the world. And if college isn’t right for you, that’s okay too.

Two of the most successful people I know either took a gap year or transferred from a community college. Just because people “usually” go straight to a four year university, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or that it’s the right way for you.

DO: Get a Job

The cool thing about college campuses is that you can get a career-relevant paid position, but you have to put yourself out there.

My freshman year, I went out on a limb and emailed the campus Writing Center to see if they needed tutors. I’ve worked there for two years now, and it funneled into my second job, where I act as a peer mentor and teach writing to freshman science majors—to whom I impart all of my life advice that doesn’t make it on to this blog.

My sister’s freshman year, she emailed 6 professors to see if they needed an undergraduate researcher. Only 1 of the 6 even replied, but this professor gave her a paid position this summer in his lab working on solar panels—I’m pretty sure she just gets coffee and cleans beakers, but still. I have another friend whose freshman lab experience got her an internship at a National Park. In contrast, most of the people I know who have put off getting jobs and getting involved are having trouble finding jobs after graduation.

Your freshman or sophomore job, be it in a cafeteria or a research position, can lead to bigger opportunities down the road, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there.

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Hannah, one of the first friends I made at college, and I at Pyramid Point

DON’T: Try and Plan Your Life in One Day

You might feel like you need to figure it out today, or tomorrow, but I promise you don’t. I’m not necessarily saying put off everything forever, but you don’t need to choose a major, or a career path right away.

Instead, focus on trying out classes and going to club meetings. That way, when it comes time to make decisions, you have a good idea of what your options are.

DO: Make Your Own Path

Don’t choose a major or career just because your parents did it that way, or all your friends are doing it that way— you have to do it for you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be a lot happier and more successful if you do something you actually like than you will be if you live your life to make someone else happy.

DON’T: Stress

You’ve got time. Whether you’re going to be a senior in high school and don’t know what major in, or a senior in college and don’t know what to do with your whole life (me), or anywhere in-between, it’s going to work out.

 

 

You Have to Do It for You

I entered college like a lot of students do— with a singular goal to get a practical, employable degree. For me, that degree could be in one of three fields, or it wasn’t considered practical: engineering, business, or medical. I chose medical, because, you know. I like to “help people”.

Throughout my freshman and some of my sophomore year, I worked towards this. I shadowed, I studied constantly, working toward my medical school dreams.

Except, they weren’t my dreams. Medical school was a dream I thought I should have, and I thought people wanted me to have, and maybe they did. But it doesn’t matter what other people want you to do.

You have to do it for you. You have to live your life for yourself, the way that you want to, not the way your parents want you to, or your older sibling did, or the way you think will look best, and impress the most people.

People say that following a passion won’t get you hired, but how is pursuing something that makes you unhappy better?

Adults—parents—have this odd tendency. They go through life in one career, with friends in that career, and then, when they’re older, with kids, they decide that their path to success is the best one. And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. In their defense, it’s a path they know works.

There is more than one road to success. This seems like such a no-brainer, but I honestly didn’t think there was as a freshman. I really, truly thought that I had to be a doctor, and that my grades were more important than my happiness.

It took sitting down and talking with a professor and role model to realize that there is a lot more out there than just STEM. It took even longer to realize I didn’t need a STEM career to prove to myself I was smart.

There is more than one way to quantify success. Success doesn’t have to mean a paycheck, or an advanced degree, or a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer. It doesn’t have to mean a 4.0, or a dizzying amount of extracurriculars. You get to define your own success; by happiness, by the difference your making, by the way you treat others. Success is unique to the individual.

I don’t know when I realized I hated the idea of going to school for 8 more years, and being in a hospital, and having to deal with real, actual pain, but I did. Maybe it was in the Emergency Room, when the little girl I had played with all week died, or when I vomited after watching a routine surgery, or one of the many nights I stayed up in the library panicking because I had to 4.0 this one.

But I realized it wasn’t what I wanted, or what I was cut out for and I made a change. You have to have goals for yourself, not goals that someone picked out for you.

You will never work as hard at something you aren’t passionate about as you will at something you are, and even if it is in an obscure and unlikely career path, hard workers get jobs. You just might have to do a little research to find out just what sort of job is right for you.

At the end of the day, you’re never going to make everyone happy, but that doesn’t matter. This is your life, not anyone else’s. Be it a degree, a job, or any sort of life change, you have to do it for yourself, not for them.