I'm not doing well at college

I can't concentrate long enough to study and I'm afraid I won't live up to my potential

By Cary Tennis
Published March 18, 2011 12:50AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am an undergraduate in my third year at a "top 25"-ranked university and lack the ability to focus on my studies, or much of anything else. I did terribly freshman year, prompting me to leave school midway through my third semester and go abroad on a gap-year program. Upon my return, my grades improved, rising from the C range to nearly 3.0. However, I know that the reason was because I tailored my schedule to consist of classes I could excel at without doing much work. Now that I'm beyond introductory-level courses, my grades have begun to slip back to where I started and I can't seem to get on track.

The main problem as I see it is that I lack the ability to focus and constantly procrastinate -- I discovered your column at 2 a.m. while avoiding a history paper due later that day. I believe these bad habits started in high school when I realized I could earn good grades with minimal out-of-class effort. While I never had trouble earning good grades in high school with minimal effort, and an excellent SAT score assured my acceptance into a good university, I have not had the same success in college. I just cannot seem to motivate myself to do schoolwork unless an exam or due date is at hand. This goes for other things as well. I ended up working at the same boring summer job two years in a row because I never got around to applying for internships or different jobs.

I did go to the university counseling center for awhile the semester after I returned and talked to a psychologist, but he mainly came to the conclusion that I wasn't depressed -- which I am not -- but otherwise didn't provide much help. I feel like I need some sort of professional help. I'm open to, and my parents are willing and able to support, just about anything -- counseling, medication, something I haven't heard of -- but I don't really know where to start. I know that an undergraduate GPA isn't all that important in the long run, but my problem with procrastination and lack of focus really extends into every part of my life and I don't want to carry over my habits into "the real world."

At one point I hoped to go to law or possibly business school, but my inability to concentrate threatens to wipe these possibilities off the table. Due to a late change in majors I will almost certainly need to stay an additional year to graduate, leaving me four and a half semesters of college to go. I feel like my current course of action is a waste of my time and my parents' money. How can I stop limiting myself and live up to the potential I believe, and others have told me, I have?

Thanks for your help,

Out of Focus

Dear Out of Focus,

Maybe you're not interested in what you are studying. So what are you interested in? What do you love?

Here's a suggestion. Think about this: When you took time off and went abroad, were there situations that you handled better than others? Were there times that you really shined, or took charge? What was your favorite part of the trip? What have been your major successes in life? At what times have you felt most alive?

I ask this because motivation is emotional.

When you think of being happy in the future, what do you see? Do you see a large office in which you sit alone reading legal briefs? Do you see yourself poring over financial details late into the night? Do you see yourself trekking on a mountain path, or laughing it up with a crowd in an inn somewhere? Do you see yourself painting in a large, light-filled barn somewhere in the mountains outside a great city?

Take some time alone and think about being happy and write down the scene you see; describe it in detail; tell where you are and what you are doing and what it looks like. If you like to draw, draw the scene. Listen to it. What sounds do you hear? Who else is there? How does your body feel? What are you wearing? Where is the sun?

Visualize this scene of happiness. This should give you some information about what will motivate you.

If you cannot do this visualization alone, then find a psychologist or creativity coach who can guide you through such a visualization. Because here is the thing: Motivation is emotional.

My guess is that if you're not doing something you love, you're not going to do well at it.

So that's what I would do if I were you. I would try to find out what I enjoy and what I am good at and I would build a life around those things.

What that is may surprise you. You may believe it is beneath you, or that people like you don't do things like that. It may seem aberrant to your parents, or other members of your social class.

You may believe that a good person is a lawyer or businessman, and if you aren't a lawyer or businessman there is something lacking. A happy deliveryman, for instance, you may believe is not as good as a sad businessman. A cook at a football stadium may not be as good as a manager of sports teams, or a journalist might not be as good as a novelist, or someone who practices family law may not be as good as someone who practices mergers and acquisitions.

College is a great place for learning. It's an especially great place for learning that you don't like college.

Failure is a way of learning. Failure is nature's way of telling us that we don't like what we're doing and shouldn't be doing it. We are supposed to be doing the things that we are good at and that make us happy. Sometimes because of cultural bias and the pride and ego of others who project onto us their own hopes and fears, we are conditioned to believe that we are good at things we're not actually good at.

Being good at school is like being good at prison. It requires you to survive under harsh, punitive and narrow rules, performing tasks you don't care about but which must be accomplished if you are to survive. Prison life rewards the ability to intimidate and be secretive, and it punishes the weak and vulnerable; to be successful in prison it helps to discern what people with power want and give it to them; it helps to compete without appearing to compete. That is, prison life is a lot like life in business, government, politics and the university.

It's possible that you're really sick of the whole deal and have no interest in it. If so, that's fine. The sooner you find out, the better.

So find your own path. Do what you love. Sure, finding your true path will upset some people, especially those who see you primarily as a reflection of themselves. But the rewards are great. You get to be yourself.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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