Stanford and the Missed Opportunities

In Stanford, my two most important possessions that I cannot live without are my bike, and my Google Calendar. The bike is a lifesaver when I try to get to my 10 am psych midterm having woken up at 9.55 am after staying up till 3.30 doing an unproductive combination of reading the psychology textbook, emailing the sponsors for the next speaker event my student group is putting up, watching the latest episode of Fresh Off the Boat (if you haven’t had the chance to, please watch it), and chatting with one of my best friends about the situation in Baltimore. The Google Calendar? There are more overlapping boxes than there are blank spaces (yes Taylor Swift) in any given day of the week, and should the almighty Google ever crash, so will my life, because never will I be able to keep track of the gazillion activities from talks by Nobel Laureates to dance workshops to coffee chats with my friends to board game nights to the house parties, each promising to surprise me and help me grow.

 

A typical week at Stanford University
A typical week at Stanford University

 

In fact, I actually suffered from serious calendar withdrawal symptoms every break, because the emptiness of the calendar legitly scares me – what next cool thing am I missing out on?

 

My calendar in spring break this year
My calendar in spring break this year

 

Needless to say, FOMO is so real. For the unacquainted, FOMO is short for Fear of Missing Out. A brief Google search yields the following definition:

 

FO·MO

ˈfōmō/

noun

informal

anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.

“I realized I was a lifelong sufferer of FOMO”

 

Yep, the example right there, that’s me. A lifelong sufferer of FOMO.

Coming to college, I received a ton of valuable advice, most given with the intent of helping me gain the most out of my college experience. One nugget of wisdom that emerged repeatedly, including from Mr. Kevin Sim himself, was that College is really what you make of it. I carried those words to college, but was totally unprepared for the flipside of the same coin: FOMO.

When I first entered the country club that is Stanford University, I was frankly overwhelmed by the array of opportunities waiting for me to take advantage of. Scrolling through the course catalog, I could not decide between courses like Conservation Photography to The Science behind Haute Cuisine to Designing Technological Tools for Learning. I had also just met 90 other new freshmen whom the brochures promised will eventually become my best friends. With Silicon Valley literally surrounding the campus, I also wanted to do the whole entrepreneurship thing, because why not. And then what about the whole deal of “finding yourself”, discovering and shaping your identity? How would I have time to fulfill my growing Stanford bucket list of fountain-hopping, roof-climbing and steam-tunneling? I also wanted to go to all the cool nature-y places around that I would otherwise never get to go to. With only 24 hours a day and 9 months a year, the prospect of doing everything that I wanted to seemed daunting, if not impossible.

 

A bunch of us rooftop-climbing at 1am
A bunch of us rooftop-climbing at 1am

 

Of course doing everything is impossible. But when you’re a freshman who had just gotten into one of the most selective universities in the world, you tend to forget that. So the process begins, of filling up my calendar with the multitude of Facebook events and email invites and office hour locations, the clearest way I could prove to myself I was making my time here worthwhile. Yet it only got more and more frustrating, because for every interesting class I was taking, there were 10 others which I could not go to. For every party I went to, there was the possibility of spending quality time with my close friends instead. For every extracurricular I dedicated my energies to was a bunch of others that I could not try then. For every conversation with friends I had over lunch or dinner was a missed opportunity to learn more about X, Y or Z in the the world influencer’s talk going on then.

The beauty of my American college experience has been understanding my agency over my choices, and learning that my college experience is shaped by the trade-offs I made more so than the things I actually choose. I was really fortunate that in high school, I could basically have it all – seizing any and all opportunities that came along was doable, if not encouraged. But in college, that’s different. There’s just an infinite buffet of possibilities that you simply cannot do everything. So choices have to be made, questions asked. Will you want to spend the night working on your problem set in order to get that A+, or will you want to make that spontaneous late-night In-and-Out run with your dorm mates? Will you participate in the protest in response to the Ferguson situation, or will you try to find the cure to AIDS in your research lab? Will you immerse yourself in campus life and student leadership, or will you start your own startup and make a difference “in the real world”? Will you go to eat roti prata with the other Singaporeans on campus, or will you instead hang out with the cool frat bros by the beach? The hard part about these questions is that there is no clear right and wrong answer. (It isn’t like, will you abandon a baby on the streets or will you volunteer for the Red Cross.) These choices faced me daily, whether I liked them a lot, and while each of these decisions may seem minor in themselves, decision fatigue can and did kick in. It is easy to choose one or another by convenience or peer pressure, rather than by some conscious commitment, and it is in those moments that FOMO is most acute.

 

While other Singaporeans are busy learning machine learning algorithms or other hardcore stuff, exhibiting my photography in the campus museum sometimes makes me doubt my life choices
While other Singaporeans are busy learning machine learning algorithms or other hardcore stuff, exhibiting my photography in the campus museum sometimes makes me doubt my life choices

 

When I say agency over your own choices, I do not just mean recognizing that one can and should proactively make a choice. You see, each choice you make illuminates for yourself the otherwise invisible values, priorities and beliefs that you hold dear. It becomes more nuanced than “does money or meaning matter to me more?” or “does intellectual stimulation or friendships matter more?”, and if I could capture the diversity of personal questions in these few sentences, it would be incredibly unfair to the richness of the college experience. If college is a sea of opportunity, then you are the navigator with a compass you do not quite understand. As you navigate the waters tentatively, you slowly learn where the compass consistently points toward.

So how to combat FOMO with what I just said? When I started adopting the above mindset, I felt much more comfortable with the fact that I am not doing everything not because I can’t, but because I choose not to. Also, recognizing your own limited set of chosen options means recognizing that everyone else also cannot “do it all”, much as it looks otherwise. So it’s not just you that’s missing out, but everybody else is. So in that sense, no one’s really missing out at all – everyone’s just choosing what matters more to him or her. There is no single way of leading a fulfilling college experience, and thus missing out isn’t really a thing anymore.

FOMO is real, but life is more real. My friend put it best, living is not about maximizing, it is about being. The moment you are living in is more beautiful than the many other moments that you could be in. It is unfortunate that our postmodern condition has overly glorified the “could haves”, the possibilities, where in fact, you feel most alive in the choices you make and take.

 

 

To be Asian or not to be, still digging the boba and not the milkshakes
To be Asian or not to be, still digging the boba and not the milkshakes

 

 

Gloria Chua

Gloria is a sophomore at Stanford majoring in product design and possibly computer science. She spends her day thinking about how to use technology for social impact, and how to encourage more people to do so. She dreams of becoming a Japanese ramen master but can barely cook an egg.

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