Finding Time to Succeed

Mar 04, 2011 |Laurel Robinson

As busy as college life seems, it’s a lot slower than the work-a-day world that lies ahead. So make the most of these “lazy” days. Cornell shows you how.

"You get out of it what you put into it."

I still recall the very first day on my college campus: My Mom and I hauled plastic crates, armloads of clothes, too many pairs of shoes and one of those neat little shower caddy things from the fatigued Subaru to a very small room intended for two inhabitants. My RA, a sophomore, helped lug some boxes up two flights of stairs, then plopped herself on one of the unclaimed, undressed mattresses in my room and politely summed up the next four years of my life: "They say you get out of it what you put into it." My mother nodded sagely in the corner.

Five years later, I still remember that statement. Its truths are still becoming evident. Although I and most of my classmates can now say we are "college graduates," the question remains: What did we take with us?

All the coursework got done, one way or another. The papers always got finished — most were on time, some were turned in at an extended deadline earned by begging. The tests were all taken — sometimes I wildly crammed and miraculously scraped by; other times I was so up-to-date on my coursework that I only needed a five-minute review before a test. I got approximately the same grades in all my classes, and my teachers may not have known the difference — but I only truly learned from those classes into which I invested my time and energy.

The same is true for you. After four or five years, you and most of your peers will get some decimal number like 3.5 (a.k.a. your GPA) and a diploma from your college. You'll all be crammed into one photograph for the records of history. Then, the Rest of Your Life begins ... and that is the real test. That's when you find out how much you really learned in college. That's where you show to God and everyone just how much you really thought about the material in your textbooks and lectures. That's where you have to apply the concepts that filled those blue books at exam time. And you can only really apply it if you once really absorbed it. You get out of it what you put into it. Out of the four-year season of your life known as college, you will get a measure of character and a preparedness for all the turns of life that is proportional to the amount of energy, time and thought that you are currently investing into it.

In an article called "The End of Learning," historian Russell Kirk writes: "The sage knows that life begins and ends in mystery. And he apprehends the end of genuine learning, which begins in the fear of God. That end is to know God and enjoy Him forever." Kirk is carefully distinguishing the sage — a truly wise person — from the intellectual. An intellectual is a person who is "puffed up with pride," one who pursues knowledge only for the reputation it gives him or her.

Both the sage and the intellectual pursue knowledge, but for different reasons. You and your parents have committed four years' worth of time and money into college; it's a good idea to think now about what you'll be getting out of it.

Wouldn't you like to look back on your college years and know that you pursued knowledge in order to know God better? True learning — the making of a sage — begins with reverence for God and awe at His creation. The end, or point, of life, according to Kirk and the catechisms, is to know God and enjoy Him forever. As we go through life, we can discover the attributes of God through His Word and His Creation; become aware of the intricacy and beauty in the earth, ourselves and others; discern right from wrong and apply this knowledge to everyday situations. Learning occurs at every stage of life, but college is a time specifically designed for intensive discovering and assimilating. Once you're working a full-time job, it's a lot harder to find the time to pursue knowledge so intensely.

Speaking from the "other side" of the college experience, the most important factor in career success, professional reputation and just plain psychological survival is the amount of true learning you have pursued. The kind of learning that begins with a reverence for God and His works will end with the enjoyment of God — and it will earn you the "favor of men" in the meantime.

I'm like a soul who has entered purgatory and would give anything to re-enter the temporal world for just one moment in order to enlighten my loved ones: make the most of your college days! The four years will go by fast! Invest yourself in things that will last!

The path to true learning is a narrow one. Between the hours of work which fund your education, the extra-curricular activities that crowd your yearbook entry and pad your future resume, and the endless array of college-sponsored events every weekend, it's hard to squeeze in that quality time with books and sages-in-the-making.

If you want to truly learn — if you desire to be a sage — if you want to leave college and enter the Rest of Your Life with as much preparation and wisdom as possible, you've got to weed out all but the Important. My college advisor always said that the term "overcommitted" is a misnomer. People who have too many "commitments" (e.g., jobs, positions, obligations or even classes) are not overcommitted; they are undercommitted. They do not have enough commitment to any of the tasks and activities to which they have pledged themselves, to actually do any of them properly. Instead of devoting ourselves to a small number of deliberately chosen causes, many of us make the mistake of saying "Sure! Sign me up!" to a few too many things. Then we cannot possibly do any of them with all our might — and we get burnt out trying.

Thank You Silence

How can we avoid making too many commitments? The only way to make wise decisions about what to do with our time is to contemplate. In silence. Alone. In prayer to God, the source of all wisdom and the One to whom we will have to give account for our decisions. In this full and busy world, we need to "discipline" our bodies and minds with silence and solitude.

Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, writes of solitude:

Solitude frees us, actually. The normal course of day-to-day human interactions locks us into patterns of feeling, thought and action that are geared to a world set against God. Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God's order.

Henri Nouwen writes that silence "is the way to make solitude a reality."

Jesus is the perfect example. He "went up to a mountainside to pray," or even hopped into a boat on the sea to escape the crowds. He wasn't doing these things out of selfishness. I'm convinced that Jesus went off alone far more often than we read about. Christ practiced solitude and silence for the sake of those He ministered to. In His humanity, He needed to pause and think; to listen to God; to discern what to do and what not to do. How much more, then, ought we to do the same!

From the works of those with far more experience and wisdom than me, I have gleaned the following strategy, which I would recommend for every college student:

  1. Get alone! Find a quiet place and time during each day, where you can give your undivided attention to your thoughts and intentions. Take a journal or day-planner.
  2. Remind yourself why you are here. This may include consulting Scripture to review who you are as a creation of God or reading your journal to review the desires of your heart. Acknowledge your gifts, and remember that they were given to you so that you can use them to build up others. With your lifetime goals in mind, think about what you desire to accomplish this week.
  3. Think about the things you have to do today. Surrender them all to Christ, the Lord of all. Many activities are already set in stone for you, like your classes and work, but arrange the others into levels of first, second and third importance. Schedule times in your day for all the Level One items first (e.g., studying for tomorrow's test or having a serious talk with your friend). Choose times that you know you will be most productive, energetic, calm or whatever is required to do those things well. Fit in whichever Level Two items you can. Keep all the leftovers on a list for later. In time, your Level Three items will either become Level One items (like that test next week!) and you can schedule them in, or they will fade into the realm of the Unimportant and Unnecessary (like rearranging your sock drawer) and you'll be glad you didn't waste your time on them.
  4. Start this process over again the next day. Adjust your schedule and your priorites according to things you learn along the way. You will become very good at gauging how long it takes you to read 20 textbook pages, and the difference in effectiveness between studying in the library and studying in your room. You will discover whether you study best in the early part of the day or the later part. You will discover how long to set aside each day for this very process of prioritizing and scheduling.

Of course, things will always "come up." You'll receive invitations for fun, you'll find opportunities to work more hours (i.e., earn more money), and friends will stop by to chat while you are in the middle of a Level One task. Here's a good rule to carry with you: Say "yes" to the best ... and "no" the rest. I guarantee that you will have to say "no" to some good things. The good news is: you'll only be turning them down in order to say "yes" to the very best things!

A lot of Psalms refer to seeking God "early in the morning." Great idea; a little difficult to employ in the hectic schedule of college. If you find this impossible, don't give up altogether. But DO make some time each day to be alone, to calm your soul, to reflect on the mass quantities of information you have taken in. This time of soul-solitude is so important to some people that they rise in the middle of the night to benefit from the silence. There is no single prescription as to how to make room for this quiet time, but human history tells us how necessary it is to our spiritual health that we have it sometime, regularly. Even books by secular time-management experts tell us to take some quiet time each day to review our personal goals and to prioritize that day's activities before doing any of them.

Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers, once wrote: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." One day when you look back at how you spent your life, don't you want to have zero-regrets? Wouldn't you like to be able to say that you said "yes" to the very best, and "no" to all the other good things? Although eager advice-givers always abound, won't it be nice to look back on the times when you consulted God each day for instructions?

Copyright © 1998 Laurel Robinson. All rights reserved.

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