Critical Theory Cannot Solve Your Problems and Other Things I Wish I'd Learned in College

I'm writing them out now in hopes that it'll save a couple of you from the trial and hideous adult error that we've all gone through.
Publish date:
November 16, 2012
growing up, college, learning, regrets

Last week, while dancing to the seminal 2004 Shania Twain classic "Party for Two," I started thinking about all the things I regretted from college.

Why "Party for Two" loaded me onto this train of thought is a long story involving good friends, ample red wine, a porcupine costume, and the fact that I spent my entire college career in dead-end monogamous relationships. Never mind. The important thing is that it launched me on a 5-day thinkathon about my undergrad years -- what I wish I had gotten out of them, vs. what I actually did -- and led me to talk to a couple of my friends about the same topic.

We all agree: some of the important life lessons we've learned in the past 5 years would have been much, much easier to absorb in cosseted campus environs. I'm writing them out now in hopes that it'll save a couple of you from the trial and hideous adult error that we've all gone through.

In no particular order:

There are no gold stars for "class participation" on the job.

I've worked at the same literary agency for 4 years -- 7 if you count my long-ago summer internships here -- and although my bosses are generally complimentary, they have one perennial criticism: I’m too talkative.

They’re right. This is not a case of them undervaluing the voice of a young female employee. This is a case of me feeling like I need to say something substantive in every meeting, or else I will get a zero on that part of my report card. Usually, I have something helpful to say, but even when I don’t, I’ll talk for 30 seconds anyway, wasting time with tangential information or an unnecessary opinion.

Even though I’m aware of the problem, shutting up is still a huge struggle for me. It wasn't always. Up until middle school, I routinely got in trouble for daydreaming. However, as soon as I hit 9th grade and "class participation" became as much a part of my grade as substantive competency, I let my blurt flag fly. It got stuck out there, unfurled and frozen, like the Star Spangled Banner on the moon.

These days, silence in any kind of intellectual discussion doesn’t just feel unnatural to me, it feels stupid. But when you're not getting graded on participation per se, talking just to talk is the really stupid thing to do.

It’s okay not to talk in meetings if you have nothing important to say. There are a million better ways to show you’re smart. This is true for Facebook as well as careers.

Critical theory cannot solve your problems.

One of my college boyfriends was handsome, brilliant, kind, committed, and all wrong for me. I was bored and miserable and spent the last year of our relationship desperately wanting to put other penises inside my vagina.

Instead of admitting that to him -- or to myself -- I rationalized my dissatisfaction using big words I had learned in a seminar called “Reading Lacan.” It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, it was that I longed for JOUISSANCE! The ineffable and primal pleasure from which I was disconnected when I entered the realm of the symbolic! Signifiers! Problematize! Liminal! Fragmentary! Etc. etc.

I stayed in that relationship much, much longer than I should have, writing essays about the erotics of self-destruction while hoovering Oreos and getting angrier by the day. Baaaaaaaarf. It was a waste of my boyfriend’s time and mine.

Fitting in is overrated, even when you fit in.

This one comes from my undergrad BFF Caitlin, now a 28-year-old MFA student. “I hadn’t [fit in] in high school and assumed college would be where I found my tribe,” she said. “I did but was still a bit of an odd duck and tried to erase the things that marked me as different…Not everyone will like you. That’s nothing to get worked up about.”

Like Caitlin, I thought college would be like a magical Bat Mitzvah where I and all the other arty bohemian 20th-century-literature lovin’ geeks would join hands and dance an endless Hava Nagila of maturity and understanding.

There were certainly a lot of great people at our college. There were also a number of douches -- douches far douchier than anyone I’d ever met in high school, who managed to be douches *and* progressives *and* lovers of indie rock. Honestly?

My memories of the people who were my “lifelong besties” freshman year are for the most part hostile. My sadness about that tore me up at first, but then I got over it and was much happier.

Just because people are like you doesn’t mean they will like you, and vice versa. Fuck trying to surround yourself with clones. Look for people who lift you up.

The people talking about work are not necessarily the people doing it well.

In college, as in life, there are people who like to talk about how hard they're working, and then there are people who excel. Occasionally, the two populations overlap. Most often, they don't.

If you're spending all your time working and freaking out about work, chances are you haven't learned two of the most important lessons of higher education -- how to prioritize and work efficiently.

Don't let the freakers get to you. As an epic procrastinator with shaky self-confidence, I can't tell you how many times I started to panic when a person looked at me, bug-eyed, and said, "You have HOW many words left to write on the 5,000-word essay due tomorrow?" I'd go home and be sick with anxiety the entire time I was finishing my essay, and then I'd do better than the person who made me sick.

The same principle applies in the working people. Different people have different work styles. If your work style is unusual -- say you're a procrastinator like me -- embrace it. Don't waste all that fun procrastination time beating yourself up (or off) as you noodle around Facebook. Get some sleep, or go do something fun.

Self-deprecation is not the pathway to success.

You will not be proud of every single essay you submit in college. Whether you’re overworked and panicked, you procrastinated way too much, or you just don’t care about the topic, some of your essays are just not going to be that inspiring.

Don’t admit it to your professor. Don’t wince and say, “Sorry about this,” as you turn it in. No matter how well your professor knows you, he or she will not give you extra credit for self-awareness.

Once during my junior year abroad in England, I turned in a subpar paper with typical mincing mincyisms about how it just wasn’t my best and don’t judge me for this disaster.

My tutor, a Korean ex-television presenter whose stunning beauty often summoned equally stunning sexist remarks from some of the older male dons, tsked in reply: “A man would never even think to say something like that.”

I blinked, started, and asked, “What do men say?”

“They bluff,” she replied. “And if the tutor hates it, they say ‘Screw them, I’m still great.’”

This was one of the most useful lessons I learned in college. Self-deprecation doesn’t cost you much when you’re a student, but in the working world, it robs you of promotions, raises, and opportunities you deserve. Who’s going to want to champion your work if you’re leading the charge against it?

Finally, and most important:

Your mother isn't lying about the importance of food, sleep and being gentle with yourself.

Caitlin wishes she could go back in time and march herself to Columbia's mental health services on day 1: "Do not wait until you are crazy. Take preventative measures along the way."

I'm the same way. I didn't seek help for obvious anxiety problems until a memorably horrible week in my sophomore year, when I spent every moment I wasn't in class in bed, weeping and eating a roll of Easter cookies my parents had sent me.

Therapy wasn't actually what saved me that time, although I did see a therapist shortly thereafter, and therapy has been wonderfully useful in the years since. What helped me start to heal was hauling myself to the cafeteria, forcing myself to down fresh fruit and protein, and getting some gentle exercise. The simple stuff is SO important.

Another friend of mine, a 27-year-old nanny and recovering alcoholic, told me about how much she regrets her collegiate relationship with alcohol. "Not getting sober" is her biggest regret, she says, because if she had had interests outside of alcohol at the time, "Maybe I'd have real friends and not party friends."

When South Park's Chef said, "Children, there is a time and place for everything, and it's called college," he was referring to drinking and fucking and smoking weed, all of which can be lots of fun.

Remember, though: "everything" can also include art, and adventure, and writing and comic books and making things grow. I wish I had done more of that stuff.