In college and in life, take it easy

Psst — hey, you! Stick around for a second. I’m glad I ran into you here, on the back pages of The Campus — a place relatively free from the prying eyes of parents and other professors. Here, we can talk frankly. And we need to talk frankly, because I’ve got a simple suggestion for how to approach college … and maybe even how to approach your whole life.
Are we alone? Okay, here goes:
A good way to get through college — a good way to decide what courses to pick, what clubs to join, what major to declare and what jobs and internships and leadership roles to pursue — is to find the easiest path and take it.
I know that’s not what a professor is expected to say. College is supposed to be difficult, right? No one achieves success by taking the easy route. Getting really good at something requires hard work. Your job as a college student is to set goals for yourself, meet the challenges that stand between you and those goals, then grit your teeth and fight your way through them like some Hollywood hero. Success, and happiness, and a meaningful life will be there waiting for you somewhere on the other side.
But what if there aren’t any rewards on the other side of all that work? Or what if they’re there, but they don’t feel so rewarding when you finally reach them? Worst of all, what if there is no “other side” to the challenges and they just extend … forever? If all the glamor of future success were stripped away from the work being asked of you now, would you still do it?
I’m not asking these questions to confuse or depress you. I’m asking these questions because they matter. You should ask them, and if you want to figure out what you love and what you value, you should begin trying to answer these questions now, while there’s still plenty of time left.
Well-meaning mentors who stress the importance of working hard and facing challenges aren’t wrong. It’s true that college is rife with challenges, and it’s true that successfully getting through college requires hard work. But those are only partial truths. For the fuller truth, replace “college” with “life.” Life is rife with challenges. Successfully getting through life requires hard work. And doing any work well, regardless of the sector or field you end up in, will be hard.
In fact all work is equally hard — and all courses of study, too. There is no so-called easy major, no easy job and no easy life if you are committed to doing it well. But if you’re in college, you’re also experienced enough to have realized that not all work feels equally hard … not to you. You may have even found some work that comes to you quite easily.
That work is not necessarily in the areas where you’ve been most successful. It’s wrong — even dangerous — to assume the dopamine rush of a good grade, a prestigious award or a pay bonus constitutes some magical sign from the universe that you’ve found what you’re “naturally good at” or “meant to do.” These snippets of external validation are indicators that others value what you’ve done, which is nice in its own little way. But it’s not the kind of thing that will keep you springing out of bed for the months, the years, the decades of work that will become your life.
None of us knows what rewards lie in wait for us down the road. We can’t even be sure what jobs or skill sets will be needed in the future. Many people mold their educations — even their entire lives — around imaginary visions of what attaining a particular career goal would feel like. Others base their choices on shaky assumptions about what future employers might want. You are free to play such guessing games if you wish. But there is another, easier route.
Instead of gambling your life on what others might want or what future successes might feel like, you can pursue work that feels rewarding to you — and you can pursue it right now.
Because there is, for you, some form of work that will feel like its own reward. Some part of you will still recognize the work is hard. But the hardness will feel worth it — and that will make it feel comparatively easy. You will try harder at it than anyone who is driven by some far-off hope or some grudging sense of duty. And so you will grow, and you will feel the reward now. Eventually you may even get better at this work than everyone around you, precisely because you actually care about it.
Maybe you have already found this work. But finding it can take time — so if you want that kind of work and that kind of life, start looking now. It may be that for you the easy work appears in certain classrooms, or in the lab, or on a field, or in a community center. Look around. Put yourself out there, and try classes and activities you never heard of or thought about before.
Finding the right work may be hard. But once you find it, be wary of anyone urging you down more dismal, more tortuous roads with the beguiling promise of future rewards. It’s only the finding that should be hard. If you can do that, the rest will come easy.
November is International Education Month. This op-ed is part of a month-long series on education.