“This is a great moment in time that you have created. This memory can last a lifetime. An extra $200 will not mean anything to you in 5 years.”
I looked up from my phone. I was sitting down for a birthday dinner at a classy Italian restaurant in Manhattan. It was a Friday night, but instead of spending the day wandering listlessly from Chinese lecture to French discussion and then trying to chip away at some busy work before the weekend, I had spent it wandering the streets of New York City. It had rained earlier in the day, but Van Gogh’s Starry Night (which was on display in the Museum of Modern Art just around the corner) had remained dry. Aside from a few quick dashes through the drizzly avenues the afternoon had been spent trying on absurdly expensive designer clothing at the Century 21 department store (though the only items I bought were a few pairs of novelty dress socks). I slipped my phone back into my bag. The text had greatly reassured me. My bank account would be fine. I would be fine. It was time to enjoy the evening.
Late-night text messages from my father didn’t used to be where I would go looking for wisdom. Lately though, it’s become something of a habit. It may be the fact that we now live 3,000 miles apart, but he seems to have gotten more sagacious in the past year and a half since I’ve moved away. I’ve been thinking a lot about that text message these two weeks since I came back from my New York City jaunt and I realized that his words applied to more lives than just mine.
Here at Duke University we all invest years of our lives in the hope that sometime later we will enjoy the fruits of our labor. Far off in the future, we hope, is a golden age when we can have a big house, a fast car and a fat paycheck. But a lot of us forget that time, not money, is our most valuable resource. (I know I forgot it for too long.) Refocusing on the essentials means spending energy where it really packs a punch. The value of your life, in the end, is not a sum of your possessions or even of your accomplishments, but a sum of your memories and experiences.
This brings me to an important tool for returning equilibrium to your life, especially if you feel like your days are a slog instead of a stroll. It’s a cliché, but also a reminder: if you won’t remember something in five years, don’t spend more than five minutes worrying about it.
The goal here is not to say, “Years from now you won’t remember whether you got a 95 percent or a 65 percent on that midterm, so feel free to bomb it.” The goal is to make you think about the things that stress you and perhaps nudge you to consider whether they’re worth the time, energy and negativity. Is studying for a test really worth making yourself sick through sleep deprivation, all-nighters and worry? Is perfecting that 15-point homework assignment more important than Skyping your family?
Don’t get me wrong, we’re here to learn. That task sometimes—often, in fact—involves breaking the boundaries of your comfort zone and pushing past what is easy and relaxing. But if university is to live up to its true goal of molding each of us into a successful, competent individual then it needs to teach us to live successfully. That means leading a life that is worth living, worth sharing with others and worth remembering.
What if, for every decision you made, you asked yourself, “Would my future self praise me for this action? Would I be proud to tell my friends and family about what I’m doing?” Those questions alone can help you eliminate a majority of the time-wasting, stress-inducing activities we use to jam pack our days.
Getting in the habit of asking yourself these questions can’t eliminate your stresses. However, you can make your life easier, better and far more enjoyable if you focus on making memories instead of making grades. Every decision you make involves sacrifices. They may not be obvious at the time, but each instance you choose to spend your time and focus on one object, you sacrifice the opportunity to spend it on something else. In his book, “On the Shortness of Life,” the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
So ask yourself, “Have I squandered my time?” Wonder, “Have I spent my energy making memories of tasks that will only survive until they are replaced by the next wave of assignments?” Then consider, “Do I do something each day that my future self would be proud of and grateful for?” For the sake of your happiness, I hope that you do.
Jack Dolinar is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “more percent efficient,” runs on alternate Fridays.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.