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By Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
We know countless students who entered college thinking, “I’m going to figure out who I am, and then make my life plan, and hopefully have an impact on the world.” After all, it’s how you were raised, and it’s the message you heard — from your parents, from school counselors, from the culture at large — about how to have a good and flourishing life.
But now that you’re graduating, you might be wondering if you did all you were supposed to have done. You haven’t figured out your calling. You haven’t found your passions. You haven’t found yourself. Instead, you are taking a gap year. You’ve taken a job offer but aren’t sure it’s for you. You’re headed for law school even though you really didn’t plan on being a lawyer. Rather than feeling liberated by a four-year search for your true self, you ended up feeling anxious, oppressed, and constrained by it.
Our recommendation: Read Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and other great Chinese thinkers who lived thousands of years ago, because they have the real liberation you are looking for.
For instance, instead of embracing yourself, Confucius urged, overcome yourself. A break from who you think you are, because that is how you will change and grow.
Don’t feel pressured to make firm plans for the person you think you are now and will be years hence. They will box you in. You will wake up decades from now wondering how you are living a life decided on by who you believed you truly were when you were 21 years old. Instead, keep living life for the as-yet unknown person you will keep on morphing into; keep the possibilities open.
This is why, when students encounter Chinese philosophy, they are often relieved to learn that there was a group of thinkers who thought hard 2,000 years ago about the very same things on their own undergraduate minds.
These philosophers had keen insights into human psychology. What they discovered sounds bleak at first. They saw us for who we are: messy creatures, full of contradictions and anxieties, petty jealousies, complicated feelings, ambitions, hopes, longings, and fears. MORE