What I learned from all the bad advice I’ve received during university

Liberating myself from the wisdom of others

Over the course of her university career, Rebecca learned to take every piece of advice with a grain of salt.
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I arrived at Queen’s with many things: clothes, my great-aunt’s old mini fridge, a box of books, and a lot of bad preconceptions about university. By the time I carried that same box of books back down the residence stairs to my mom’s car, I’d accumulated a few more misguided ideas.

I can trace some of these misconceptions to things people (usually people much older than me) told me.

The rest of them probably bubbled out of my own insecurities, an untreated mental illness, things I read on the Internet, and the attitudes I absorbed from around me. Regardless of where they came from, they contributed to a pretty brutal introduction to first year.

When you begin a new chapter in your life, people tend to want to give you advice. They were in your shoes once. They made their mistakes, learned their lessons, and now, they want to help you through the same thing.

I got a lot of advice when I started Queen’s. All of it was well-intentioned, but it often did more harm than good.

I got a lot of advice when I started Queen’s. All of it was well-intentioned, but it often did more harm than good.

I distinctly remember sitting in a classroom with my faculty orientation group for a “Prof Talk”—a short discussion with a Queen’s professor about what first-year students can expect academically.

Before the talk, our orientation leaders told us the professor was going to give us some helpful advice. Instead, he proceeded to paint a pretty fatalistic picture of the next four years.

He told us—in a pretty jaded tone—that our grades were almost certainly going to drop and we should get used to that. He also emphasized two “types” of students that existed at university. One type would do amazingly well. The other type would struggle to get by.

I sat there slouching in my bright yellow orientation shirt, a knot tightening in my stomach.

I had done well in high school and was lucky to have teachers, friends, and family members who sent me off to university with kind words about how I would flourish. But I’d also encountered a few adults who seemed to delight in telling me how much worse I was going to do in university.

By the time I was sitting in that classroom, I was already terrified. I wanted so badly to make those who encouraged me proud. I also wasn’t sure I’d be able to do that. After all, people who were older than me (and probably wiser than me) were saying I was about to learn that my high school success was because I’d been a big fish in a small pond.

Now, a professor was telling me “what university was really like.” According to him, things could go one of two ways, and I was determined to make sure things went well.

I spent the next eight months in an anxious spiral, barely sleeping, furiously trying to follow all the different pieces of advice I’d received.

This got worse when I received career advice. This normally involved people telling me what worked for them, or telling me what they regretted not doing.

A family friend who’s a retired lawyer would go into a lot of detail about how I would be miserable if I went to law school. Another family friend was adamant that I continue in mathematics because then I could be an actuary (someone who calculates risk for insurance companies). This way I’d make a lot of money while only working 40 hours a week.

When I confided in a counsellor at Queen’s Student Wellness Services that though I was doing reasonably well in math, it was making me dread the remainder of my degree, she told me I should continue with it. If I didn’t, I’d contribute to the statistic that people use to argue women are worse at math than men.

Unsurprisingly, all this advice was even more anxiety-inducing. It pointed me down a life path that seemed like it’d make me unhappy.

Relief came over the winter break. I returned to my high school with two of my friends. My friend Fern was going to give a “What I learned in my first semester of university” talk to one of our former teachers’ classes. My other friend and I were going to sit in the back and “offer colour commentary when appropriate.”

As we discussed Fern’s lessons with the high school students, our former teacher offered what was probably the first helpful piece of advice I’d heard in months. She said that when people give advice, they’re often imagining themselves in your shoes. They’re not imagining you in your shoes.

[My former teacher] said that when people give advice, they’re often imagining themselves in your shoes. They’re not imagining you in your shoes.

It took me until third year to properly internalize that lesson. As I began to do so, the weight of the advice I’d previously received began to lift.

In third year, my dad was driving me back to Kingston after Thanksgiving break. During the trip, I described the trajectory my degree was taking, which, at the time, was away from economics.

This lead to him telling me about the retirement party he went to for the head of the government agency he worked for. He said his retiring boss had earned a degree in economics and gone to work as an economist, then somehow ended up running the federal government’s IT services.

This man credited a lot of the things he liked about his career to his academic background. The upshot of this conversation was that I should reconsider my choice to change my degree, because this guy had a great career—all because he studied economics.

My reaction to my dad’s advice was different this time around. In that moment, I realized it didn’t matter what worked for my dad’s boss. We’re different people.

This may be an obvious point, but when you’re young and experiencing a formative period in your life, it can be easy to forget. It’s tempting to lean on the advice others give you when you don’t know what to do. But all advice has limits.

I’m in my fourth year now, getting new advice now that I’m close to starting a new chapter of my life.

But as I talk to people about their own experiences and seek guidance, my former teacher’s words have stayed in the back of my mind. I know now that I need to approach every interaction with the assumption that the person giving advice is probably thinking more about themselves—their experiences, regrets, and insecurities—than me.

In some ways, accepting advice has become less comforting—but it’s also less constraining. I’ve learned to trust myself and to not let other people’s perspectives knock me off balance.

Now that it’s the beginning of October, the school year is starting to get stressful for many of our first-year peers. As we encounter those whose shoes we think we’ve been in, I hope we all remember to be a little kinder, and a little more self-aware when helping them through this transition.

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