Recently, my email account has doubled as my journal. I can’t stop writing emails. Not the usual, 10-liner, meeting set-up emails, but lengthy, rambling, floods of words in which I entirely reveal my personal vulnerabilities to recipients I have never met before. My subject line: “Advice for a Graduate.” My goal: to gather the instructions for life.


I am a current senior and have only a few weeks left of Princeton. My work stream has slowed, my post-graduation plans have settled, and the horizon of this period of my life is now directly in sight. I think what I should feel—and what I want to feel—is satisfaction. Gratitude, pride, accomplishment, and excitement. Instead, confusion precedes my emotions.


My brain has been all scrambled eggs, and I attribute this to two reasons. The first frequently recurs at Princeton, as it is the place in which my knowledge has multiplied the fastest. Intense, furious learning often disables my brain for some time while everything recalibrates. As I learn, some neurological real estate is spent shedding naivety, reconstructing views, and cleaning out my mental closet to make space for the incoming newness. This process is stunning and valuable but extremely discombobulating! And a bit exhausting at times. Although I am so appreciative of this campus for having the power to realign my brain along so many axes, this influx of knowledge, particularly when it pertains to environmental disaster, human suffering, multifaceted inequity, and the like, completely derails me for some time.


This leads into the second pillar for my immense confusion. Once projected to the world stage, once held up to the light next to these catastrophic giants, the relevance of my personal life and career goals fades to near nothingness. I know that this may be a bleak view of life, and I never anticipated losing my optimism in the face of challenge, but during this year of intense learning and at the crux of my “real life,” I have let the burden of knowledge and the pain in the world seep into my beliefs and anchor my steps. It seems that the set of world troubles which deserves our time, attention, and resources is uncountable and incompletable. So, where do we begin?


In summary, I am learning so much that I no longer know what to do with my knowledge or myself.


I wonder how such a simple sentence may have governed my past few months. And although there is no controlling the machinery of our brains, what follows is my attempt to do so, through the development of a new, personalized form of self-help. When overwhelmed by my own thoughts, I send an email. To whomever I wish. I apply no constraints on the ceiling of my outreach and place no expectations in its outcome. Given the frequency of my thought experiments, I have now gathered quite an interesting and substantive collection of insights from those wiser than I.


Noam Chomsky reminds me that, as students, we are “uniquely free” at this point in our lives. We are so lucky to have the agency, the independence, and the selfish allowance to simply think. Melissa Lane complements this thought: “Do when the going is good.” We should love and relish this young, untethered time, luckily untainted with grief and struggle. We should lean—no, nosedive—into our own questioning and run as far as we can with these thoughts of these times.


Relief. It is the perfect time to experience an identity crisis—a diagnosis!—in my twenties. I am and always have been a student. Education has been my purpose, and it is one that has never been tested. It is both inherited and large enough to fill the space of a good life. Now, with incoming change, we naturally experience a need to redefine ourselves in terms of our mission, interests, passions, hobbies, friends, etc. And dissonance between any of these social roles suddenly begs the question of who am I? This is the confusion I am experiencing—this invisible choice, unreachable destination, mentally fabricated decision of unraveling who I am and who I want to be. And it is to be made with the staggering suitcases of knowledge about the world’s needs in my possession.


“Don’t try to change the world, who do you think you are?” (fair point). Just as the magnitude of what stands in front of me threatens to overwhelm, Isabel Allende provides a reality check and says to be humble in our activism and philanthropy, and to do as much as we can for the world while “knowing that it will never be enough.” We must only hope to redirect our purposes toward changes both tangible and consumable.


Where Allende says start small, Christopher Eisgruber says start local. He “[tries] to make a personal difference in [his] immediate world, and to be a constructive part of larger collective efforts to address more global issues.” As Allende, Eisgruber, and evolution have learned: baby steps.


Still, when I think about taking my first small step out of Fitzrandolph, into a world where objection has dissolved, my hesitation returns. Princeton provides us the incredible privilege of knowing that, by being a student here, we are doing the right thing and the best thing at this time and stage of our lives. Out there, not only is there no one to tell us what the best thing to do is, there is no best thing. I find this impossible to grasp. As I am sure so many of my peers are similarly goal-oriented, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that the choices in life have parallelized and will remain so from here on out.


I am understanding that intentionally carving out our own form of objectivity is a keystone of a strong and cohesive identity. In support of this idea, Peter Singer says that simply “knowing [he] is doing something useful [to] reduce suffering or improve the lives of people or animals” gives his life purpose and fulfillment. Perhaps this newly awarded agency of being able to rank the choices in life for ourselves is the blessing of maturity.


Additionally, the constant pursuit of knowledge remains meaningful. Lane assures me that there is inherent, embedded value in enlightened spaces. Eisgruber agrees, noting that “Understanding the world, and illuminating it, are part of many valuable projects that we undertake.” It is a comfort knowing that even out of school, we can borrow from students and hold importance in pure learning and knowledge. These things, which we once held as our sole identity at Princeton, need not disappear into a past phase of ourselves.


Allende says that, should she be able to give her 21-year-old self advice, she would tell herself to calm down. I wish that, after receiving so much reassurance and empathy, the knots in my brain would have smoothed and streamlined. However, I still feel that my mind is somersaulting. But the nature of my thoughts have evolved.


I feel immense gratitude for the validation and kindness I have received from those who have walked this path themselves. I cannot fully express my appreciation for the fact that my life has offered me the education and freedom for reflection. Next, I feel calm and humbled by the fact that I am small and the world is big and I should not have to shoulder it alone. So many brains and hearts are tackling the same issues, and that brings me relief. And even with all of humanity at its rescue, we will never solve every problem in the world; the new will take the places of the old. But I think that only strengthens the rationalization that doing our best is the best that we can do.


My friend Grace compared these periods of internal storminess to the upwelling of cold water in a lake. When they happen, she says that all we can do is paddle forward into the sun-warmed waters. We can trust that, throughout our lives, we will swim out of these cold spots as many times as we will run into them.


I don’t know if I will ever “understand” life. I don’t know what it would mean to do so. But I do believe that every individual will spend their entire lifetime learning the lessons of living, and this questioning, redefining, expository thinking is productive in some way. In the meantime, I believe all I can do is try, think, reflect on my choices, accept that I will make mistakes, learn from them, love, let music, art, and literature guide the way, spend time outside, laugh as much and as often as I can, and just… let go of the reins a little. I do think that everything will be okay; I am sure that one day, I will look back on being 22 and being completely perplexed at the great big world in front of me and smile. What was I so worried about?


Originally written spring 2023.