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Carlo Rotella

Advice for the college freshman

Success is a simple matter of hard work and avoiding a few pitfalls

When I left home at 18 to attend college, my older brother gave me four aphorisms to live by that he received when he went off to college. He got them from Rocco Caponigri, a family friend, who got them from his father when he went to college. They were:

1. It is better to be alone than in bad company. (George Washington)

2. If you would have leisure, you must use time well. (Ben Franklin)

3. Everything yields to diligence. (Thomas Jefferson)

4. Disgrace your family and I’ll break your head. (Sebastiano Caponigri)

When I remembered to heed them, they served me well — and, as I prepare to enter what I calculate to be the 40th grade come September, they still serve me well.


A lot of incoming freshmen are getting ready to leave home for the first time. College is more necessary and more expensive than ever, and the postcollegiate job market isn’t very encouraging, so they’re feeling pressure not to waste the opportunity. Or they should be, anyway.

I pass along Rocco’s father’s aphorisms in the hope that they may prove useful. In my case, number one periodically reminded me to remove myself from the company of thirsty wiseacres and go to the library or to bed. Numbers two and three helped me discover a secret of undergraduate life: If you do four hours of schoolwork every Monday morning and Friday afternoon, the week opens up like a flower. And number four infused the other three with authority: The prospective shame of screwing up badly enough to bring dishonor to my family kept me mostly in line on the way to graduation.

And here are a few additional pieces of advice to new collegians, things I’ve picked up along the way as I navigate through university life and watch a lot of other people do it alongside me.


■   Hard work is much more important than talent. A graduating senior, an eternally game fellow who wasn’t the most gifted of students but did all right on the strength of excellent study habits and a willing mind, came to see me and said, “I think I get it: It helps if you’re smart, but it’s more important to never let anybody outwork you.” How consistently and diligently you work is the single most important factor under your control in determining your success in school and beyond. It’s an obvious point, but you can lose sight of it when you’re feeling intimidated by the credentials and self-presentation of your fellow scholars.

■   Hit the marks, but find opportunities to flounder purposefully. A number of tendencies in child rearing these days, chief among them the predominance of coaching and lessons and other formal instruction, make for kids coming out of high school who are terrifically good at hitting the marks. A teacher tells them what to do and how to do it, they do it and get praise for it (because positive reinforcement really works), the teacher gives them something a little more advanced to do, and so on. This is great, on balance, but the price of all that coachability is that students are often not as comfortable when learning in an open-ended, less-guided style. College is a good place to do both. Yes, look for teachers who’ll set challenging marks and show you exactly how to reach them, but you can also seek out teachers who identify the objective and leave you to figure out how to get there on your own. And you don’t have to rely on teachers at all: Collaborate with motivated peers on do-it-yourself projects, anything from a reading group to a publication to a radio station.


■   Beware of people who think they’re smarter than everybody else. In both professors or fellow students, it’s at best an unfailing sign of mediocrity and at worst a symptom of delusional grandiosity or even low-grade psychopathy. Shun them.

■   When in doubt, and even (perhaps especially) when you’re certain, double-check everything. It turns out, for instance, that Antiphanes, not Jefferson, usually gets credit for “Everything yields to diligence.”

Carlo Rotella is director of American Studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.