How to Improve Your Life with One Word

The first piece of advice people often provide rising first-year students is to say “yes” to every new opportunity.

That piece of advice is wonderful for encouraging one to face their fears and start getting comfortable being uncomfortable, but it can also be dangerous if one forgets to draw the line somewhere.

Coming out of high school as the over-achieving student I was, I took that advice and ran with it. The fear of missing out on some opportunities caused me to say “yes” to all of them, and that mindset turned my life into a swirling pit of obligations that swallowed me whole. I had to discover for myself that it takes a lot of strength to say “yes,” but sometimes it requires more strength to say “no.”

All throughout high school, the idea that I needed to make myself a poster child of college readiness was drilled into my head. Every activity participated in, every AP class taken, every place volunteered at was a gold star on your college application. As a result, I became that student. You know the type: the student on three sports teams, president of two clubs and vice president of four others, taking all the AP classes possible, working a job after school, babysitting on the side, collecting hundreds of volunteer hours, etc. The juggling act of those tasks was relatively easy for me at the time. Thus, a precedent was set that I should be doing every available activity at all times.

When I arrived to NC State, I was inundated with hundreds of different clubs, leadership programs, and intramural sports teams. I constantly heard the phrase “always say yes to a new opportunity,” and that is exactly what I did. I involved myself in four different clubs on top of the Goodnight Scholars Program and University Scholars Program, two intramural sports teams, and a sorority. Due to my high school experience, I expected myself to be more than able to handle all of those activities plus my classes with little effort. However, as can be deduced from all the foreshadowing, it required a lot of effort. I quickly discovered that the course load for AP classes and college classes was not even close equivalent. On top of that, being involved with nine extracurriculars that each required 2-10 hours per week was literally impossible. I was under constant stress with little to no sleep, and it began to wear me down.

I scheduled a “life talk” with Jason Perry, the associate director of the Goodnight Scholars Program, so that I could explain what was going on and get some advice from someone experienced with the struggle of college responsibilities. I told Jay about all of the different activities I was part of, the difficulty of my classes, and the stress I was under. He asked me, rather simply, “why are you doing all of that?” I was brutally unprepared for that question, and it felt like a relief to hear. I was expecting him to tell me to just try harder like I had told myself, but instead he asked why I was subjecting myself to all of that unnecessary stress. I felt alleviated after he told me that I did not need to be doing all of those activities to look like a good student, and that I should only involve myself in the things that mattered to me. I decided I was going to improve my life with the word “no.”

In the following months, I removed myself from six of the nine extracurriculars in which I was involved to refocus my attention on what I really wanted and needed. I began to take more time for myself and include myself only in things that I was passionate about. As a result, my life became more peaceful and I felt as if I had found myself again. Discovering that college is not like high school, that I do not have to subject myself to “checking boxes” or doing things to “boost my resumé,” and that I can instead devote my time solely to what matters to me was one of the most transformative discoveries of my life.

Throughout my experience as a student, I found that the phrase “college is what you make it” applies to life too. If you want to run around all day every day with something to do, then you can. However, I would suggest doing some soul searching and finding what really matters to you. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and with standing up for yourself and your beliefs. It takes a brave person to say “yes,” but sometimes it takes a braver person to know when to say “no.”

Photography credit: Jason Perry/Goodnight Scholars Program