Questioning Your Circumstances and Wanting To Belong

When I first went to uni, it was wonderful and horrible.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I was ready to meet new people as I’ve long been open to change and embracing new experiences.

That bit was easy. The same day that I arrived, I just went out and got to know who was around so far. Although arrival was staggered over several days and I was in one of the first cohorts, I was happy to go looking for others before waiting for housemates to move in.

That may sound great. But I soon found that the first people I met were interested in things that weren’t really for me. In some cases it was just discussion about subjects I didn’t follow. In other cases there were less savoury issues involved.

I remember sitting in my room at night and wondering if I’d made a huge mistake. Was I destined to not fit in? How could I make friends if nobody shared my interests? Had I chosen the wrong university? Was university of any kind a bad decision?

dog alone (photo by 27147)

Uncertainty & homesickness: a fresher frustration. (photo by 27147)

Yet all this is standard stuff. Heightened awareness of novel experiences makes us question everything.

It wasn’t like I was having a bad time or that these were horrible people. Far from it. But I was projecting my first moments in a new place onto the next three years of my life, as if it couldn’t get any better than this.

You may recognise this yourself. And when you start questioning things like this, it brings on homesickness.

The doubt may last no longer than a few hours or it can stretch on for ages. Most issues tend to fade away within the first month, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of if it takes longer to settle in. It’s also fine to get the occasional pang throughout your time at uni. Wobbles happen from time to time.

The great thing about university is how you’re not restricted to people in your accommodation, you’re not limited to those in your class, you’re not stopped from socialising outside any particular group. Arrangements are open and flexible.

That’s why so much advice to freshers targets your ability to get a taste of as much as you can as a student.

Sample what’s going on around you and you’ll find a wealth of different people, including those you wish you’d met sooner and those you didn’t even know would be such awesome mates.

It didn’t take me long to realise that there were plenty fantastic people around. When all my housemates had moved in, they were lovely people too. I felt at home with them and I found other houses where I was made to feel welcomed.

Every now and then I’d recall how lost I felt, sat in my room at night, wondering how I was going to cope. I’d soon smile in thankfulness and ask myself why I was ever worried about it.

Over the years, I’ve heard countless students explain how out of their depth and homesick they felt. Luckily, most go on to find so much love in their new surroundings that they start to call it home.

From homesick to new home. It just takes time.

Unless you’re ludicrously lucky, you won’t find your best uni friends in the very first week. Maybe not even in the first year.

No matter. There’s so much more to your new student life. And that doesn’t mean you won’t make loads of awesome friends along the way.

Perhaps this all boils down to change. And perhaps we’re more comfortable with change than we think.

Instead of feeling unhappy when change knocks on our door, I wonder if the bigger issue is our worry that the change we find is a change that we’re lumbered with forever more. The change itself isn’t a problem, but sticking with a rubbish change is a disaster.

Fortunately, life isn’t like that. Change happens all the time.

What you start out with at uni isn’t what you end up with. If you start university aged 18 and you do a three year degree, those three years make up one sixth of the life you’ve already lived. A sixth! Just think how different you were at 15 years old, at 12, at 9…You’re always changing.

The worst thing you can do is resign yourself to a bad experience. Don’t let a negative mindset put you off from looking for brilliant things.

That negative mindset is what can turn a wobble into a collapse if you’re not careful. It gnaws away at you, convincing you that everyone else is having a great time while you’re left in the corner on your own.

Don’t fall into the negativity trap. All but the most confident individuals have times when they question what they’re doing.

When you find yourself questioning your circumstances, be assured that you can make changes again. You’re not stuck with the same problems for the rest of time.

Your heightened awareness doesn’t want to explain that, but your calm patience can.

Embrace the change.

Learning Leads to Changed Perspective

We change more dramatically over time than we expect.

Look back five or ten years. How different were you back then? Probably a lot.

glasses (photo by hotblack)

Perspective changes

It’s no wonder that we look back on our past work and flinch at some of the stuff we did and said. Especially in public forum, like online, changes in opinion look more like contradictions if you’re not careful. Old blog posts or tweets where you make one argument will look strange–weak, even–when you write something new and argue the opposite thing.

But this is natural. Perspective changes.

“A major challenge for me is that, in spending a lot of time learning, my opinions grow with time. Hopefully my minor reversals and shifts in emphasis don’t irk or confuse longtime readers too much.” – Scott Young

I would be more worried if I didn’t feel challenged and if I didn’t sense any kind of development as time passed.

Plus, I like to consider other people’s perspective. Don’t live in a bubble. Explore views that aren’t your own.

For instance, I have offered advice in the past that I wouldn’t use myself, but that I knew would be useful to others. The type of information that I’ve seen others thrive off, despite it leaving me cold.

Why? Because I don’t assume that only my choices bear fruit. Especially when giving subjective advice. One size does not fit all.

That’s why, if I give two opposing pieces of advice, it could look misleading at first glance. On further reflection, the contradiction may highlight two perfectly valid options that require a choice (or exploration) on your part.

As with my previous post on planning your day, I suggested options to play with. And I regularly ask questions like, “What works best for you?” so the discussion can continue. The more we join in with offering and exploring new solutions, the greater the chance that we uncover even more treasures.

Don’t sweat the change. We all do it, though we don’t always notice it.

What has been your biggest change so far?

Focus On New Experiences If You Want Change To Stick

Change is easier if you don’t call it change. I found that out when I changed my diet started eating differently.

photo by QuintanaRoo

Vegan cupcakes (photo by QuintanaRoo)

We all have to eat. Without food, we wouldn’t get far. But when you’re able to choose whatever you want to eat, could you make handle trying something new?

Two Imperial College students did just that and went vegan for a month to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Trust.

In that month, Clare Cheng and Hannah Cox found plenty to enjoy, even if it was a challenge.

And that was just a month. If their goal was to become vegan on a permanent basis, they would have found plenty plenty more to explore and discover.

But this was no ethical choice or health-related change. From meat-eating, dairy-loving and egg-devouring human beings, the change to a vegan diet seemed pretty hardcore to them:

“Our preconception of the vegan lifestyle was that of tasteless and unfulfilling meals that satisfied your body, but not your mind. So it was a surprise when we found that actually some parts of being vegan were pretty good.”

I live with a vegan, so I get to eat a lot of vegan meals. Days go by (maybe weeks) and only then I realise that I haven’t eaten any meat in ages. Even dairy products and eggs don’t get a look in for a while. And I’m fine with that, so long as the diet is healthy and doesn’t miss out on any nutrients that are hard to find in a vegan diet. Fortunately, that’s covered too.

But while I’m going so long without the food I was so used to in the past, I don’t feel like much has changed. I’m living differently, but I acknowledge the final choice is still my own. I don’t actively class myself as vegetarian or vegan, even though I’m close to being that anyway.

When I’ve spoken to people who made a choice to go veggie or vegan with an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach, cravings can be an issue. Many vegetarians admit that they miss bacon more than anything else. For vegans, the craving for an occasional egg can be pretty strong at times. Yet I haven’t particularly felt that.

Some thoughts why:

  • I don’t have the stress of feeling it’s a hardcore change – At no stage have I labelled myself with the description ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’. I simply explored what was available and allowed myself to eat anything I wanted. Meat and dairy products have never been off the menu. All that’s changed is that I picked a different meal from the menu. It’s all about my attitude toward change.
  • The more time I put in to new recipes and combinations opens the doors for more, not less – I was asked to bake a cake recently. I have never baked a cake before. And this had to be a vegan cake too!
    One quick flick through a vegan recipe book gave me the confidence to make a chocolate cake. And it was yummy. Like a chocolate brownie. Then I made another, in an attempt to improve the consistency a bit. Two tablespoons of apple sauce later and the second cake was even more presentable. In no time I’d gone from never having baked a cake to finding ways of improving a recipe. [I enjoyed another slice in the middle of writing this. Win!]
  • I’m going in search of new food I haven’t tried, and food I’ve never heard of – Limitations in one area move you to explore other areas for alternatives and workarounds. Cheng and Cox had a lot of soya milk, although my favourite is oat milk. I’ve tried hemp milk, rice milk, and various other concoctions. Some weren’t even on my radar until recently!
  • I’m still learning more about myself – Big changes get you thinking about your current circumstances as well as your future ones. Questions come flying. Why am I doing this? How can I do things better? What are the implications? What are the differences between Point A and Point B?

One of the uncomfortable things about change is that it forces us out of the comfort zone and into new territory. But once you’re there, it’s usually just as comfy, if not better than before.

What can you do when change is afoot?

Firstly, try not to label the change and don’t take an all-or-nothing approach if you want this to be long-term. New Year resolutions and giving stuff up for Lent give an artificial totality to what you’re doing. Altering your lifestyle in such a complete and sudden way is hard to do successfully and happily.

Second, not doing something in the past doesn’t automatically mean you cannot do it at all. It’s easy to say “I can’t” when you really mean “I’ve never tried”. Give yourself a chance, make a few mistakes, and build up the confidence to build bigger and better things.

Third, there is so much choice out there that you have made thousands of unconscious limitations and automatic choices for the sake of ease. That’s fine in itself much of the time. But when you want to change, those limitations and choices seem practically hard-wired! Next time you’re faced with a challenge, sit down and think about what’s limiting you. Then seek out alternatives to help move you along. It’s not always easy, but sometimes all you need to do is to search around.

Finally, all these big questions help your critical thinking, as well as open up your attitudes to change. If the challenge is big enough, you may come out the other side thinking you could do almost anything. The world is out there, waiting for you to make your next move!

Going back to the start of this post, change does require huge effort. Even when everything is in place and you want to rise to the challenge, there’s the question of willpower. As Cheng and Cox explain of going vegan:

“It makes everyday life that little more difficult when you walk down the aisles of delicious Easter Eggs or pass a good ol’ burger bar with that smell of meaty goodness.”

And they are right. When you make such an extreme change, missing out on so much that you’re used to is a threat to your intention. I used to love Creme Eggs and I ate all sorts of meat. But the less I have these things and the more I enjoy the wealth of food that’s still available to me without these options, I realise that I don’t particularly miss the choc and the meat. Not to mention the eggs and dairy products.

My once favourite Creme Eggs are now viewed with hardly any emotion at all. When they went on sale again in January, I didn’t play my usual hand of buying several dozen straight away. I purchased 12 eggs and enjoyed two a day. They were gone in less than a week, but my craving was satisfied. And I haven’t bought any since. Even writing about them here isn’t upping any desire to munch on one.

Why? Because I stepped out of my comfort zone and kept going. It’s certainly easier with someone else by your side who is taking their lifestyle seriously. I’m lucky there. However, if I wasn’t actively embracing the change, nothing could have put me in the right mindset to take on the challenge.

For me, the mindset necessary was to focus less on the change (the hard part) and more on the new experiences (the fun part). The key was not to label myself as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’. By not formally recognising any barriers around my eating, I’ve found it easier to keep the barriers up.

The next time change is afoot, see how far you can take things without actively calling it ‘change’.

Are you ready to rise to the next challenge?

photo by floridecires

photo by floridecires

Change, Take Action, Forge Ideas, and Drive

I hope you enjoyed my recent six-part series on Time.  However, the path to success in your studies – and beyond – goes further than effective time management.

Life is unpredictable.  Whether or not you plan into the future, you still want to exercise control over that future.  However, an unexpected event can dramatically alter the course of your life, whether you like it or not.  A change in popular trends, a personal tragedy, an oversight with timely consequences…anything can reshape what’s going on and thrust you in a different place to where you’d expected.  And where you’d calculated.  And which you saw with total certainty until now.

So what’s the point in being so rigid?  Yes, planning is necessary for success…

But so is accepting change.

You may even change yourself.  Scott Young mentions on his site that he’s stopped setting long-term goals, because everyone changes so much so quickly.  If you read what he says, you’ll understand why one of the craziest job interview questions is, “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”

Manage time effectively by initially narrowing your scope, not widening it. Long-term goals are one thing, but they should be based on general ideas.  To achieve those goals, you need to see in smaller chunks of time.

University is definitely a time of massive change to you.  Even a long-term childhood passion can fade away, in place of an even bigger passion.  If you don’t have a passion, it may start developing while you’re an undergraduate.  It’s all to play for.

The best way to focus on the need for change is to review on a regular basis. Review your short-term plans, long-term goals (if you have any right now), and all your personal passions.  Without noticing, you may find that what you held dear last year now leaves you cold.

Once you accept change with open arms, the next thing to do is to *take action*.

You could have the best idea in the world since the dawn of time.  But if you don’t take action to process that idea until it becomes reality, you might as well have not come up with the idea in the first place.

Ideas are funny things.  When you accept change and take action, you still need to go further.  Harvard Business posted an interesting piece a few days back, about structuring experiments for success.  One striking piece of advice is:

“Executives and university administrators should stop trying to predict the success of very early ideas, instead they need to be sure they have enough of them and that their pool of ideas is diverse.”

The suggestion shouldn’t be limited to executives and administrators; I think it’s sound advice, whoever you are.

It’s like when I write.  If I only had a single idea, I wouldn’t last long before running out of steam.  I have a wide range of post ideas on the go at all times.  I write all sorts of notes and even full drafts of posts that, in the end, don’t go anywhere.  I’ll keep them for when it makes sense to bring them out again, but that’s why ideas are so great.  The more you feel for ideas, map out your thoughts and write about all your little lightbulb moments, the better.  Be aware of your ideas at all times to give yourself the best chance of developing.

So far, so positive.  Yet even with a huge list of amazing ideas, you still can’t control everything about your future.  Luckily, you are the very person who can drive it.

That’s the next step.  You’re willing to change, you want to take action, you have ideas.  Now drive!

The poet, Philip Larkin, wrote these words:

“And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.”

[From Continuing to Live (1954)]

There is so much calling out for your attention, but it’s up to you to filter until you’re left with what you need to succeed.  This is where the big picture really comes into play.  Your life doesn’t roll down a single track and you’re bound to have loads of responsibilities, interests, mates, and so on that you want to make a big part of your existence.

Armed with the want to change, a readiness for action, ideas and drive, your priorities should be crystal clear.  With such clarity, you’ll have more time to enjoy.

So if you ever find yourself at a loss, without a structure, lacking a goal, or lacking control, it’s time to let go of some of the junk cluttering your life.  It may have seemed important a while back, but when you focus on too many things to cope, you might as well not focus on anything at all.