You’ve arrived at Yale, and the ecstasy of opportunities at every turn — lifelong friendships, caffeinated upperclassmen offering you candy and begging you to join their club, a million combinations of possible majors and futures — probably hasn’t begun to wear off yet. It’s easy to get here and to buy the claim conveyed by the barrage of messages seeping from every nook and cranny between the cobblestones: “We’ve never had it so good” — as a former president once framed it in the speech that lifted him from relative obscurity in 1964.
It’s easy to feel this way now. But circumstances can change rapidly in a few months, when you discover that not all paths lead to growth or fulfillment. Many activities at Yale are wastes of time — how else to describe hours spent in organizations compiling data, running errands or sitting through dull meetings? Certainly no activity is all pleasure, and immense amounts of hard work go into organizations about which students feel passionately. But if you detect tasks becoming chores akin to busywork — or that the best rationale for continuing is the hope that what you’re doing is a means to a higher position where you’ll be doing almost the same thing — it’s a sure sign to stop. If your involvement is not bringing you closer to excellence — whether moral, physical, otherwise intellectual — it’s a waste of time. Activities pursued as means to ends usually fall flat by sophomore year.
Back in the ’60s, the Gipper’s address went on to challenge the Johnson administration’s narrative of progress. It’s a political tool that national contenders have frequently used to get the nation to reevaluate its standing. In between all the bright lights and dizzying signposts saying, “Do this!” or “Follow us!” it’s often difficult to find the time to ask: Where am I, and where are we, going?
Neither entire countries nor single individuals fully know the answer. Hearts, minds and circumstances change. But this is why planning is important — so that an unexpected change does not knock you off your feet.
It’s also because, contrary to the spirit of levity floating you might associate with early college life, almost every decision is significant. And many more choices than we care to realize are really moral choices — full of dramatic consequences for what life at Yale and beyond will look like.
The American university is supposed to be, in the words of Yale Professor Seyla Benhabib GRD ’77, a “collegium.” Originating from classical civilization, the collegium is a community of learning – driven by intellectual inquiry, not by profit. It’s an important model for governing boards to remember, but also for students. We are here to develop a moral system and an understanding of place. We are not simply here to reap profits and move on. It’s time to make decisions — or at least determine how we’ll make them — about what we believe and how we’ll live. Life will throw enough ambiguities at us later.
These four years are a time for creativity, for developing our moral and civic characters. Some activities and commitments — and indeed, some people — lend themselves more to these goals than others. Music, sport, debate, community volunteering and religious devotion are all ways to bring us closer to a form of excellence. Sitting on councils and committees that serve an ill-defined purpose does not.
You just got here. The time for intellectual experimentation is now. And it’s absurd to know what you want to do or to expect loyalty of friends with whom trust hasn’t yet been established. It’s a process, and it should be. But it’s a plan you should start developing now, because your closest friends should help develop mutual excellence together. Will the friends you make here answer your 3 a.m. phone call in five or 10 years’ time? True friendship requires trust, trust requires authenticity, and authenticity requires effort – because man is too self-interested for this to really be an effortless process.
No one leaves Yale a fully developed woman or man. We’re too comfortable here to have fully figured out how we are going to live. And growth is a lifelong process. But you need a plan. Living as a skeptic in a world that requires constant moral choices means you’ll be pushed into choices you didn’t want to make. To perpetuate putting off those choices, and to ignore the realities of the moral decisions surrounding us, will eventually turn you into an aimless bureaucrat at best — and, at worst, will leave you saddled with regrets for what life at Yale could have been.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.