When I was 7 years old, I got the word "minute" wrong on a spelling quiz. It wasn’t fair: the teacher hadn’t taught me how to spell the word and made me take the test anyway. But instead of getting over it, I begged my mom to transfer me to another school.
See, by that point my single mom and I had already moved more than half a dozen times that year. We changed cities every few weeks as my mom sought treatment for her brain injury. Sometimes we slept on cots in crowded churches or battered women's shelters. One weekend we stayed in a luxury hotel through some wealthy donor’s generosity. After we landed on our feet and had several years of stability, high school saw me move cross-country and change schools again every fall.
All this moving around had a big impact on me. School was the one area of my life where I had control. Great teachers like Thomas Brown at South Fallsburg Jr./Sr. High (thank you Mr. B!) inspired me to devote my weekends to the SATs and apply to top colleges. With his help in particular, I got a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy League university. Today, thanks in no small part to socioeconomic affirmative action, I’m a student at Harvard Law School.
But there were serious downsides to always being the new kid. I found it easier to teach myself material for AP exams than to form new friendships over and over again. I acted goofy for attention but struggled with loneliness and awkwardness. Weird nicknames grew on me like barnacles: “Elmer,” “Shakespeare,” “Bush.” Early in college I still struggled to make friends and took refuge in a string of intense but impermanent romantic relationships. With few deep friendships or family ties, I had little experience dealing with conflict and prioritizing relationships over “winning.”
I like to think that I’m well adjusted these days, but I still have my cringe-worthy moments. (Like this email, in all likelihood.) For anyone else who has ever felt like they could have better social skills, here’s some advice that has helped me overcome my baggage:
- Attend a Vipassana meditation course. I went on a 10-day retreat and walked out feeling like a different person. College / graduate students out there: go during a summer break before you have to use up vacation days! Don’t worry about costs, it’s donation-based and carpooling is available. Just do it!
- Practice meditating daily, even if only for 1 minute (ideally 10+). Meditation builds focus, compassion, and peace. The Headspace app is great for beginners.
- Take improv classes. Businesses hire improv instructors for a reason: improv teaches key skills like presence, communication, and empathy. (If you don’t live near a class, consider Toastmasters.)
- To get better at healthy, proactive assertiveness, read “Difficult Conversations” and “Beyond Winning” (the chapter on the empathy-assertiveness tension).
- When facing an impulse (Reddit, gossip, mosquito bites, etc.), don’t give in reactively or ignore it; instead really pay attention to that sensation and “surf the urge.”
- Forgive yourself when you fail. It’s trite, but we’re most human when we fail. Self-empathy is necessary for honest acceptance and growth.
- Also, for productivity, Google search “5-Calendar Setup” for Google Calendar and “Don’t Drown in Email” for Gmail.
It's been fun sharing my soul with you guys. Feel free to get in touch if you feel inspired or have questions, or (especially) if you’re in Washington, DC and want to get a beer or go camping or cycling.
*shouts to zaca and bweiner*