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How to be more confident in college

I just taught a couple of classes in the Harvard Wellness Conference during Wintersession, and got this letter from one of the students:

“Thank you so much for speaking at our conference; it was really nice meeting you. Although I only had the chance to attend one of your lectures I felt like I learned a lot and was reminded of some things in my life that I should work harder to improve. I do have a question for you regarding confidence. I feel as though since coming to college I’ve become a lot more insecure and self-conscious, which I thought was the opposite of what was supposed to happen. Do you have any tips or suggestions for building confidence? Thank you so much and I look forward to hearing from you! — Virginia W.”

Well, Virginia, not to worry!  First of all, it’s perfectly natural for us to feel more insecure and self-conscious when we got to college.  Think about it: you left high school the Queen of the Hill! You were the senior, which means that you knew all the tricks and shortcuts.  And not just a senior, but a Harvard-bound senior.  That’s just about as good as it gets for an 18-year old.

Then, of course, you matriculated at Harvard or other college of choice — and got knocked down to the status of freshman, all the way down the food chain, just a notch above an amoeba.  Yeah, it can suck.

Luckily, it’s not a permanent condition, and there are things you can do to build your confidence.  Here are three simple, easy-to-implement suggestions:

1) Bypass confidence entirely by being curious and complimentary.

Mentally, confidence feels a bit like a wall, or armor.  The more confident I am, the taller and stronger that wall.

The problem with a wall is that it can be knocked down, no matter how strong.  It’s also a barrier to true connection.  Even better than confidence, then, is humility.  Here’s what Chapter 66 of the Tao Te Ching has to say about that:

All streams flow to the sea
Because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

Confidence is all about you, and you can get flustered, self-conscious and jittery.  But when you focus your attention on the person you’re talking to and do your best to be curious and complimentary about what she has to say, then there’s no mental space for worrying about you.  And you know what?  You will be perceived as confident.

More important than confidence is charm, which is the ability to make the person in front of you feel like a trillion bucks.  And when you’re genuinely curious and complimentary, you will be naturally charming.

2) Create confidence through conviction.

Do you remember those protesters in the Occupy movement and how they faced down armed cops?  What possessed them to do so?  Did they have a genetic makeup that made them more confident than you?

Not necessarily.  One thing they did have: they believed in their cause.  They had tons of conviction in a cause bigger than themselves, and that gave them courage.  And courage is another thing that looks like confidence from the outside.

So whether it’s a job interview or first date, ask yourself: why am I doing this?  What’s the cause bigger than myself that I believe in?  How am I making the world a better place through this action?  Once you have your powerful positive intent (PPI), then you’re tapped into a bottomless reservoir of courage.  And you will appear very confident indeed.

3) Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Novel activities are inherently stressful.  Any time you get on a rollercoaster or speak in front of a group, your neurology is going to secrete some stress chemicals.  And that’s totally normal.

The difference between the rollercoaster and the speech is that most of us consider one fun and the other less so.  But I’m here to tell you that your body’s response to both events is nearly identical.  It’s just that you say you’re excited about the rollercoaster and anxious about public speaking.

I think that being excited is a whole lot more fun than being anxious.  So why not call it excitement all the time?  When you label it as excitement, at a cognitive level somehow you’re a lot more willing to take on a task.  Excitement is empowering while anxiety is disabling.

And now that you’ve re-labeled the feeling, you’re much more able to push through and do the thing you need to do.  As Krishna said to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Plunge into the heat of battle, and keep your heart at the lotus-feet of the lord.”  It would be unnatural for you not to feel jitters in novel situations, so take it as a sign that you’re doing it right.

So draw upon the courage you got from your convictions, be curious and complimentary about people and their work, and be excited about novel endeavors.  Then, more than just being confident, you’ll be a conqueror of anything that comes in your path.


Why I think med school is a bad idea

So you guys are pretty early in your college career, which means it’s an excellent time for me to influence you about whether or not to go to medical school.  This article has been the #1 hit for the Google search “why you should not go to medical school” for some time now on my old blog, so check it out:

Why you should not go to medical school: a gleefully biased rant

In the few years since I’ve graduated from medical school, there has been enough time to go back to medical practice in some form, but I haven’t and don’t intend to, so quit yer askin’, dammit.  But of course, people keep on asking.  Their comments range from the curious — “Why don’t you practice?” — to the idealistic — “But medicine is such a wonderful profession!” — to the almost hostile — “Don’t you like helping people, you heartless ogre you?”

Since it’s fairly certain that I will continue to be posed this question for the rest of my natural existence, I figured that instead of launching into my 15-minute polemic on the State of Medicine each time, interrupting the flow of Hefeweizen on a fine Friday, I could just write it up and give them the URL.  So that’s what I did.

Now, unfettered by my prior obligations as an unbiased pre-med advisor, here are the myriad reasons why you should not enter the medical profession and the one (count ‘em — one) reason you should.  I have assiduously gone through these arguments and expunged any hint of evenhandedness, saving time for all of you who are hunting for balance.  And here are the reasons: continue reading here


Oh, the languages you will learn: which one to take at Harvard?

One of the biggest pieces of advice that I dispense to the rising Harvard freshmen is to take language classes.  Harvard does a fantastic job of teaching them, they’re a super-useful lifelong skill, and they’re generally an easy ‘A’.  You just can’t go wrong.

The big question is, which languages should you take?  Here’s my take on which to take, with a rough rating for each.  I’ve taken French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese and Chinese lessons, so those are based on firsthand experience:

Chinese. Everyone’s talking about how China is going to take over the world.  Whether or not that is true is irrelevant to the fact that if you become any kind of entrepreneur or businessperson, you’re certain to deal with China.  Printing, manufacturing, outsourcing, construction, finance — it’s all there.

Chinese business runs on the principle of guanxi — loosely translated as ‘relationships.’  Basically, it means that in a 2hr business meeting, you will spend the first 1:50 talking about your families, and the last 10min negotiating the deal.  Knowing Chinese in this situation will hold you in good stead.

Also, there’s a hierarchy of how good a deal you can get from a Chinese merchant: the gringo rate for those who don’t speak Chinese; the rate for the foreigners who can hack a few sentences; and the rate for natives.  The better your Chinese, the better the deal you’ll get.

Knowing Chinese will also give you access to a millennia-old body of literature, poetry and philosophy, if you’re into that Eastern wisdom thing.  On the downside, the effort required to speak, read and write Chinese will be about 3x that of picking up an Indo-European language with a Roman alphabet, so you need to be pretty determined.  And because of the sheer volume of work required for a Chinese course, you want to make sure your courseload is pretty light for that semester.  Like a jumbo box of Corn Flakes, it’s easy to digest, but a lot to get through.

The big argument for learning it in college is that you’ll never have the luxury of time and the facilities to do it again, so you might as well do it now.  Also, if you speak Chinese fluently, it is very likely that you will never be unemployed.  There’s some company somewhere who will find your Chinese expertise indispensable and be happy to make you their envoy to the Middle Kingdom.

Ease of learning: 1 Employability enhancement: 10 Cool factor: 10 Overall: 21/30

Japanese. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Japanese was the go-to language for the budding careerist, because then the Land of the Rising Sun was the one poised for world conquest.  Some decades and a few financial meltdowns later, the bloom may be off the cherry blossom, but Japanese is still hella cool.  With three writing systems, it’s a bit of a bear to get good at reading and writing, but the richness of the literature is well worth it. It can enhance your employability but not by much, so it’s more of a recherché scholarly thing to do for the coolness factor.

Ease of learning: 2 Employability enhancement: 7 Cool factor: 10 Overall: 19/30

French. Hate to say it, but French is pretty useless except for speaking, well, French.  If you speak French to Parisians, they will love you and treat you like a king, which is the diametric opposite of the treatment most Americans receive.  The literature is astonishingly rich, and it’s a treat to read Montaigne, Molière, Balzac, Rimbaud, Éluard and other greats in the original.  French pop is pretty awesome, too, and knowing French makes listening to Aznavour, Jacques Brel and MC Solaar that much more fun.  Although the employability boost is minimal at best, of all the languages you could learn, this one probably makes you look the most sophisticated.

Ease of learning: 6 Employability enhancement: 1 Cool factor: 10 Overall: 18/30

Italian. I freakin’ love Italian.  The pronunciation and grammar are super-straightforward, so you’ll learn it faster than almost any other language.  It’s super-useful for music (allegretto ma non troppo), food (how delightful it is to know that spaghetti alla puttanesca means spaghetti in the style of a whore?) and figuring out the gazillion Latinate words in English. Also, Italians are super-friendly, and if you speak Italian to them, they will freakin’ love you.

Also, Italian was almost solely responsible for making me appreciate opera.  Once you understand what ma in Ispagna son già mille tre is talking about, Don Giovanni becomes a lot more fun to watch.  By far the biggest bang-for-buck factor of any language I can think of.

Ease of learning: 10 Employability enhancement: 1 Cool factor: 9 Overall: 20/30

German. Tougher than Romance languages and not nearly as mellifluous to the ear, learning German is a labor of love for most people.  I happen to love German culture, delight in the way the language sounds, and find the prospect of understanding Schiller and Rilke in the original very appealing.  I also like that it informs me of the Germanic roots of English.  Can’t say it does anything for your employability, since all Germans speak English better than we do.

Ease of learning: 5 Employability enhancement: 2 Cool factor: 9 Overall: 16/30

Spanish. Easily the most useful language you can learn on the planet.  There are 400 million native speakers and 500 million total speakers of Spanish in the world, second only to Chinese.  By speaking Spanish, you can own Central and South America as well as Spain (aka the world’s biggest non-stop party).

If you have any intention of pursuing medicine, learning Spanish is de rigueur in the US.  You will have patients who simply don’t speak English, and asking them “Where does it hurt?” slower and louder ain’t gonna get you nowhere.  It’s also super-easy, especially if you already know another Romance language.  So learn freakin’ Spanish. I picked it up in med school, and it has been indispensable — especially since people in hispanohablante countries tend not to speak any English.  Order dinner in Costa Rica?  Check.  Direct the cab in Barcelona?  Check.  Bonus: you can listen to the Spanish-language soccer commentators on TV, which are approximately 5.8 quadrillion times better than their English-language counterparts.

Ease of learning: 10 Employability enhancement: 8 Cool factor: 6 Overall: 24/30

Russian. No personal experience with this one, but I’m guessing its employability enhancement factor is on the rise.  Billionaire oligarchs have business to do and money to burn, so there’s an opening there for the enterprising linguist.  There’s also a serious boy shortage in countries like Russia and Ukraine, so if you’re a dude, speaking a little Russki may give your love life a boost if that’s your dish.  Russian’s a great entrée into the world of Slavic languages (Czech, Polish and Ukrainian are not far off), it’s a new alphabet with a whole different grammar, and — Pushkin!  That’s all you need to know, really.

Ease of learning: 4 Employability enhancement: 8 Cool factor: 9 Overall: 21/30

Portuguese. A few years ago, Portuguese would not have even been on the list.  But now, with the rise of Brazil as an economic power and the fact that four (four!) of my close buddies have married Brazilian women, Portuguese is a contender indeed.

First of all, the language is cake, especially if you already know another Romance language.  Second, it’s super-useful — entrepreneurial opportunities abound in Brazil now in the same way they did in the US in the 1860s.  And Brazilians just don’t speak a whole lot of English.  Third, if the fit hits the shan here in the US, where ya gonna go?  Canada is too darn cold and Australia is running out of water, so you may want to consider Brazil.

Portuguese is also fun to speak.  All the hard consonants are softened, and the vowels undulate like the strains of a Carlos Jobim song — speaking it is like giving your mouth a mellow massage.  Also, Brazil is insanely fun.  Scientists have shown that a Brazilian’s DNA, instead of the usual A-T-G-C, is made of the nucleotides P-A-R-T-Y.  Add to that the friendliness (and pulchritude) of Brasileiras, especially towards American men (sorry ladies — but hey, I hear China has a serious boy surplus), and you’ve got yourself an excellent case for falar português.

Ease of learning: 9 Employability enhancement: 8 Cool factor: 9 Overall: 26/30

Arabic. There’s an old joke that says war is how Americans learn about geography.  If that’s the case, then events of the past 20 years have put the Arab world on the American mental map.  Kuwait and Iraq come to the fore through the 1991 Gulf War.  September 2001 was another reminder of things Arab.  And more recently, the Arab Spring uprisings highlighted Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya.

Of course, for most people, the reason to learn Arabic isn’t the places in turmoil, although you’re sure to land a State Department job if you’re an American fluent in the language.  It’s the Gulf states, awash in oil wealth, that make learning Arabic a viable economic proposition.  From the reports of my ex-patriate friends in places like Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there is serious demand for Westerners who are willing to work over yonder.  And if you can speak their language, you’re in business.

There’s one big issue with Arabic: schools teach modern standard Arabic.  This is the Arabic spoken in newscasts, and everyone understands it — but nobody speaks it.  The problem is that there are 22 Arab countries, and they all have their own dialects which are not necessarily mutually intelligible.  So they’ll understand you when you speak your perfect textbook Arabic, but you may not understand them when they respond.  There are whole chunks of vocabulary that you won’t find in any dictionary — e.g. shwei shwei is colloquial Lebanese for ghalilan in modern standard Arabic, which is what you tell people when they ask how much you understand: a little bit. You basically have to make your peace with learning one dialect (e.g. Egyptian) which won’t be fully usable 80% of the time.

Ease of learning: 5 Employability enhancement: 10 Cool factor: 6 Overall: 21/30

‘Roots’ languages. As Americans, the rest of the world has often accused us of having no roots.  And it’s sadly true that many immigrants come here from countries of rich cultural heritage — Korea, Iran, India, Vietnam, China — only to lose the native tongue within a generation.

Letting a colorful and rich native culture get homogenized into the bland consumerism that passes for American culture is a crime to you — and your children.  McDonald’s and Spider-Man ain’t culture, yo.  Knowing stories from the Mahabharata, Shahnameh, King Dongmyeong — now that’s something solid you can hold on to.  And essential: trees reach for the sky only if they have strong roots.  If you’re not fluent in the language of your ethnic roots, chances of your kids picking it up are nil, so now’s an excellent time to get on that case.

So don’t be ashamed of taking Persian if your name’s Amir, Hindi if your name’s Sunil, or Korean if your name’s Grace.  I guarantee it’s a decision you’ll never regret.

What other languages have you found useful to learn?  Chime in below in the comments.


Stress levels in college freshman at all-time high

An article in the New York Times discusses the results from a long-term study of stress in college freshmen. Conclusion: they’re all little stress-baskets. It’s been particularly bad for the women. Here’s how the article begins:

Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen


The emotional health of college freshmen — who feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high school — has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.

A student activities room at Stony Brook University’s Health Services Building, where therapists meet with students.

In the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as “below average” in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.

Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened. Continue reading


The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

My good friend brought this article to my attention, and all of you who are getting started on your college careers at fancypants universities need to read this.  I was always struck by how my classmates could ace exams but weren’t able to fight their way out of a wet paper bag once they were put in the real world.  Don’t be that person. Do not turn into one of the ‘really excellent sheep’.  Do not be another exponent of entitled mediocrity.  Read it here.  Here’s an excerpt to get you started:

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers

“It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house. It’s not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy. As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly…” Continue reading here


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