"I don't have enough experience to trust myself."
"Hey, I'm only a kid."
"I just graduated from high school."
"I'm allowed to make a certain number of errors."
"In college, I'm supposed to experiment."
"Everybody is doing it."
"They'll think I am a jerk if I don't do it."
"If it doesn't hurt anyone else, what's wrong with it?"
"If I ask, I'll look stupid."
Listen to your instincts. Your instincts and judgment got you this far-to college. They can take you through college as well. There's a tremendous freedom that comes with leaving for college. The release from nagging (and loving) parents, getting to leave your dirty laundry on the floor for weeks at a time, eating what and when you want, and a raft of other new-found freedoms are exhilarating. That's the good news.
But the bad news is that you're now responsible for what you do. Remember, at age 18 you're now not just personally but legally responsible for your actions. This has great implications. You can vote, but you can also be arrested and tried as an adult. You can sign for credit cards, but you can be sued for non-payment. The lists of rights and responsibilities is enormous, and the choices are all yours to make.
In fact, the idea of independence is all about choices-both good and bad. I grew up in a poor neighborhood. Most of us had about the same amount of money (very little) and the same types of choices. Several kids in my old neighborhood went to jail. Others went on to be professionals and became quite successful. What made much of the difference were the choices people made.
Choice is a wide-open proposition, and it is a dilemma for most of us. I once heard a forensic psychiatrist talk about the criminally insane. As a psychiatrist at a major psychiatric hospital who had seen over 5,000 criminally insane patients in his career, he reached the conclusion that doing wrong is a conscious act. Based on thousands of patient interviews, he had unequivocally concluded that doing right or wrong was a choice. I'll never forget the force with which he delivered that point to a group of police officers, and his follow-up message was clear: Don't spend any time feeling sorry for those who make such choices when they get arrested.
College is full of choices-some good, some bad. The choices abound: To study or not; to drink and drive or not; to cheat or not. My message to you is a takeoff on what the psychiatrist said: Don't do something unless you're prepared for the consequences of your actions. Or as police officers say, "Don't do the crime, if you can't do the time."
Figure out how you make your best decisions. Most people decide either with their heads or their hearts. "Head" types decide based on the logic and the arguments for and against doing something much like a lawyer might. They weigh both sides of an issue and even internally argue both sides of the issues. Whichever seems the stronger of the two arguments wins. Often the outcome is much like a court case: one side wins and the other loses. "Heart" types tend to use their gut as a basis to react to issues. They rely much more on their basic gut reactions to situations as a barometer. If things feel right, then this type of person can be assured that chances are good they're making the right decision. Both head and heart decision makers are very good at the process if they rely on their distinctive strengths.
Test your decision with those who think differently than you. When you're about to decide on an issue that's important to you, get some counterpoint views from people who don't think like you. It's always better to test your ideas among friends and relatives before you expose your decision to the scrutiny of the world. Much less painful; much more constructive.
Use the Red-Face test. When faced with the many types and sizes of decisions you'll likely have to make in college, I highly recommend the red-face technique. Ask yourself this one basic question: If I did this thing I'm about to do, and it was reported on the front page of my local newspaper or put on the evening news, would I be embarrassed? If the answer is yes…then don't just walk from the situation, run from it. You'll be glad you did.
Find a sounding board. Everyone needs someone to listen to them. I once heard that psychiatrists and psychologists get about a 50% cure rate but that people who have a good friend they can talk to are cured at a rate over 70%. My memory of those numbers might be off a couple of points, but the message that the report sent was clear: A good sounding board is vital to your mental health. Find one.
When you make a bad decision, learn from it. Notice that I said, "when," not "if" you make a bad decision. Bad decisions are as much a part of life as breathing. Most people would "revise" some decisions in their lives, given the opportunity. The key is not that you make a bad decision here or there, but that you learn from it. You should mature from the experience.
By now your eyes may be glazed over from all this advice. Make no mistake, I did not always follow my own advice, nor did most of your parents. So, if you toss this book in the trash can and need one piece of advice to live by, try this. Ask yourself what advice you'd give to younger sisters or brothers if they were in your place. Then listen to that voice…it's the voice of objective experience. Hopefully I was able to give some of that to you. Certainly, your parents have tried to do that as well.
Great article and encouragement. I particularly like the "Use the Red-Face test". I can honestly say I've never heard this before but in reality should be the way everyone should live. Thank you for your writings.
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