By Terence Zhao
It is a strange feeling as a senior trying to give advice to incoming frosh. The expectation is simple: that I am to share certain aspects of my experience and my story in the hopes that someone else, looking forward as I am looking behind, could learn from that experience. And I suppose that this is a valuable resource because I am supposedly able to offer a perspective that is personal and authentic. But could I really?
An issue that I’ve increasingly encountered as I progressed through my upperclassman years here is how distinctly unauthentic my advice has become — at least to me. I can’t help but be a little frightened by how perfectly linear the narrative of my life always ends up sounding every time I speak, how the past four years just seem to be a perfect story arc where every class, professor, internship, friendship, relationship has been a step forward as part of this great perfect plan that has all led up to the present moment. What was supposed to be genuine advice ends up sounding like a college application essay.
And it is frightening, because I know for a fact that my journey for the past few years was not a perfect story arc by any means, and neither were those of my friends and peers. During my time here, I’ve had to contend with failures and setbacks, forks in the road and moments where I’ve had to reexamine my choices and goals. During those moments, there was no arc, no roadmap, no plan — just me, living through life, not knowing how the puzzle pieces of my life and the work I am doing each day will eventually fit together. During these times, I’ve often been reminded of a verse from the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Dongpo:
I cannot recognize the true face of the mountain,
Precisely because I am in its midst.
In a way, the past four years were exactly like a trek through the mountains. I certainly did also enjoy the view along the way, but it was also a matter of pressing on along the trail, not having any conception of what the mountains would turn out to look like once I reach the summit. Only now, as I am nearing the end of my time here, am I able to gain the clarity at this metaphorical mountaintop looking back down. On the one hand, that clarity is obviously rewarding; on the other hand, that same clarity just seems so accessible and so easy from my new vantage point — so much so that it made my lack of that clarity for the past four years seem all the stranger and more artificial. For all that time when I would wonder — with no earthly clue — how these four years will shape up or what I’ll be like at the end of it, now I am here with a story arc of such shocking and, again, frightening lucidity that it makes me wonder why I ever thought things could have turned out any other way.
About four years ago, I was in a small, secluded Buddhist temple set on the side of a mountain — so small, in fact, that I was a bit surprised when a monk came in from the back of the temple to greet me, and asked me if he could help me with anything. So I told him that I was feeling nervous and uncertain about starting college in a few months. And I was nervous — about all those classic doubts incoming frosh have: Who am I? What should I be doing? Where do I fit in at this school? But even though I desperately wanted answers to these questions, I was also dubious as to how this person, who doesn’t know me at all, could answer questions about me that I myself couldn’t answer. What was this guy going to say? Will he just offer me some kind of generic platitude? Or maybe he will he find out where I was going to college and tell me to cash in and do CS? After all, these were the responses I was used to.
What happened next I will never be able to forget, because he just nodded and walked me over to the prayer mat in front of the statue of the Buddha, and sat me down with him, and said:
“So, if you’re starting college, you must be pretty nervous and stressed, no?”
He smiled and proceeded to teach me breathing exercises that he has found to calm his nerves.
I was stunned — stunned because he hadn’t tried to ask me (like everyone else) what I wanted to do in college, or what I hoped to gain out of it or where I would like to see myself after. He showed me how to actually take the steps ahead on my journey, and how to condition myself as I endeavored to learn and grow, rather than worry about some destination that, in the midst of the mountains, I could not see.
It sounds risky to simply go forth without knowing where it might take us, but the risks are an inherent part of this particular journey. In fact, I have no doubt that it was the mistakes I made, the failures I experienced and the detours I took in the past four years made me who I am today. And, as archetypal as the coming-of-age experience may be, everyone will still have their own particular set of mistakes, failures and detours to learn from. They’re obstacles that we can’t run away from or ask other people to overcome for us. They are there for us to learn and grow along the path that we make for ourselves as we steadily ascend towards the beautiful view that awaits each of us at the mountaintop — a view that is so unimaginable beforehand, and yet feels so beautifully natural and clear when we finally get there.
Until then, the best advice I have may be from that monk in the little temple on the mountainside: Take a deep breath.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.