This experience we call college has the potential to be the most integral quest for self-discovery in our lives. Exalted in popular imagination as a wild, inspiring and fulfilling era, adults often reminisce on their college years with a wistful smile. This is because people in college are afforded the freedom of adulthood without its consequential responsibility. Yes, many students work and pay their way through college, and some have to sacrifice a lot to make college happen, but few wrestle with the true pressures and entanglements of adulthood like raising a child, nurturing a marriage, and paying taxes and mortgages for an entire family. By its very design, college can be an inherently selfish time. You set off on your own adventure and find out what’s important to you and who you are. You’re constantly concerning yourself with what classes you’re going to take, who you’re going to develop relationships with or what organizations you’re going to participate in across campus. There’s the danger that you might develop a routine blindness to the people who brought you to college in the first place: your parents.
By parents I don’t just mean biological parents. Perhaps you were influenced more by your grandparents or a teacher or community organizer (further references to “parents” herein indicate the people or person who raised, mentored or otherwise supplied you with the building blocks from which you constructed yourself). A parent can take many forms, but whoever they are, there’s a chance you’ve become numb to their struggles in your constant juggling of the new and exciting. “They didn’t get me into college! I did through hard work and determination,” you might assert. As a matter of fact some people at college even have an unfortunately adversarial relationship with the people who raised them because of past complication or hardship.
The important truth to recognize here is regardless of the tone of your relationship with your parents, they still represent the order around which you oriented yourself in the world. Whether someone has a close and loving or contentious and distant relationship with their parents — the philosophy of life that you’ve inherited from them is your familiar anchor in the world, the truth from which you go out and explore.
Whether you consciously realize it, those elements are the very things that stabilize your life. Discovery, the new and uncharted, is chaos. That’s where learning comes from, exposing yourself to something beyond order so that you might incorporate it into yourself and expand. Too much chaos, and your life might fall out of balance. Too little, and you’ll never learn, grow or change. But how do you embrace the chaos without throwing the order your parents gave you out the window? How do you create your own values without desecrating the ones your parents instilled in you? How do you discover yourself without leaving them behind?
Start by trying to understand and appreciate the kind of order your parents have given you. Partly as a function of our mutual respect, effective communication and openness, I’ve been fortunate in my relationship with my parents. Their order has helped instill in me values that allow me to make sound judgments and balance the temptations and opportunities presented to me as a young person living away from home. One ingredient of this order is my parents’ conscientiousness. My dad organizes his briefcase and closet every night before work. He arms each pocket and drawer with a toolbox of materials for nearly every situation: a backup pair of headphones and medicine for a theoretical future cold. It’s the doomsday prepper of briefcases, a trait accumulated from a lifetime of being prepared to face chaos for him and his family. My mom, too, has a specialization in making our home feel perpetually organized, comfortable and safe. It isn’t just tidiness. My mom is establishing order in our house so that those who enter know that this is a place safe from the chaos of the world, that this is a home in the truest sense of the word.
Growing up in that home with my sister was an experience we had taken for granted for the majority of our lives until we saw the alternatives when moving away to college. Coming to The University of Michigan, I heard the stereotype of the student who barely prepares for lunch. Dorm rooms in disarray and showers a rare occasion, this scenario was sure to come for me as the more pressing matters of academia prioritized themselves over the organization of my room. But when I arrived at college I realized I didn’t even let a couple hours go by without straightening up my bed, clearing off surfaces, and folding and putting clothes back into their drawers. I kept a backup pair of headphones in my backpack, and I always tried to make my dorm feel like a proper home. I realized my parents’ discipline and conscientiousness had given me the skill of asserting order in my living space. Beyond just being organized and disciplined, this trait gave me a framework to help me navigate a world where there are numerous paths forward but only one leading to success. Once my room was organized, I felt enlivened and reassured that I could go out and assert my order in the rest of the world. There are hundreds of these traits I’ve inherited from my parents, the invisible gifts of order that I didn’t know I had until I lived on my own.
Once you’ve identified the order, it’s time to go out and meet the chaos. What’s a new idea that is challenging and exciting, something the person or people who raised you didn’t account for? Find this and integrate it into your life. Perhaps your parents emphasized reading and introspection but never stressed the importance of socializing with others. Perhaps they focused on your talent in music or dance but never cultivated an interest in your academic career. You’re responsible for these concerns, not your parents, but it is nonetheless true that the order you inherited from them might lack an encapsulation of your full potential that you too could lack without the proper amount of chaos. I addressed this when I came to college by measuring my levels of behavioral comfortability in any situation. I was certain I was comfortable talking and laughing with friends in my dorm while listening to music. There’s certainly a time for this sort of order. You need it to stabilize your life and ensure your happiness. But there were other situations across campus that I was less comfortable with. I leaned into them, knowing two things: This is where my parents’ order ran out and this is where my learning can begin.
There’s only one way to grow as a person, and that’s by integrating controlled chaos into your life of order. College is the perfect time for this as you’re afforded the resilient zeal and freedom of youth without the burden of adulthood. So take that bus to North Campus to meet the friend you haven’t seen since high school, and enroll in that cognitive science class — even though you’ll be in over your head, it might make you develop new habits for success. The worst thing that could happen is that you have to change as a person, and that’s one of the most rewarding elements of college if not the sole purpose of this experience. Understand your personal order and your personal chaos, and appreciate the traits you’ve inherited from your parents that have allowed you to get this far. In the end, once you’ve integrated that chaos into your order, you’ll have grown up. You’ll be a fully realized, integrated person capable of dynamic strength and depth, and you’ll be tempered from enough adversity to achieve that which you once saw as impossibly terrifying chaos. Just be sure to thank your parents at the end for all they’ve done, invisible and visible alike.
Miles Stephenson can be reached at email@example.com.