Real Tip #1: Learn how to be alone.

It’s weird for me to start this by saying “no one ever told me that…blah blah blah” because it boggles my mind that there are still so many surprises when going through a program/profession/career that so many people have gone through prior. There’s no way I’m the first and only person to experience these things, but I guess people just don’t talk about the details.

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Anyways, optometry school real tip for life number one: get good at being on your own. It’s more grueling than independence and less depressing than loneliness, but only if you know how to balance what you want to do and what you need to do. There are 72 other students in my class, and we all have the same schedule (except for lab sections). This means there are days when I sit with these same people for 8 hours straight. I’m always with classmates, whether it’s lecture or 1-hour lunch break or clinic practice. But when the day is over, everyone is now on their own. Sure, some people live together and thus walk home together, probably eat dinner together, and most likely hang out or study until bedtime. Maybe others will plan to eat out together or go to the library together in the evening. Learning to be alone has nothing to do with the amount of time you are actually alone — it’s all about what you do with the time you are all by yourself.

I used to hate doing things alone. I wouldn’t go out to eat unless someone else wanted to go too. I never went to the gym because finding a gym buddy to coordinate schedules with was too difficult. I skipped out on a lot of events because none of my friends could make it. And I spent a lot of time at home in my room…studying, chilling, eating because that was the only place I really felt comfortable being by myself.

This past year, I spent four months in Taiwan. Granted, I wasn’t completely alone because I lived with my grandma, and I had a few friends drop in and out of the country, but my day-to-day activities were all performed with me, myself, and I. My gap year in general, but that Taiwan trip in particular, really helped me get good at being on my own and doing things that I wanted to do, making decisions unaffected by the opinions of others.

You know when you hear of some event that sounds pretty cool and you’re thinking about going? Then someone asks if you’re going to it, and you guys talk about how you’re both on the fence about it, then someone says “If you go, I’ll go.” That. I used to do that all the time. Conditional decisions. THE WORST. It’s like I could never stick with my own ideas. I always needed affirmation or support from someone else to make me go through with anything. But over the course of my gap year, I got so freaking good at being me. I went places because I wanted to, regardless if I had a companion. I tried out restaurants I had been eyeing, regardless if I had an eating buddy. And on the flip side of that, I stayed in some nights, regardless if everyone was out and about.

Now, in opto school, “independence” has taken on a whole new meaning. It’s no longer just making decisions for yourself, but it’s also buying groceries, cooking meals, cleaning the house, going to the gym, getting to class on time, managing study time, grabbing a beer, utilizing weekends…EVERYTHING. Each person in my class has his/her own schedule beyond that of school. Everyone has something different going on, and rather than thinking of this as an unfortunate fact of growing up, I think of this as an opportunity for myself to excel in everything I am interested in. And the best part? I don’t have to worry about what anyone else is doing.

Find time to workout. Make time to read novels. Spend (a small part of) your day browsing the Internet and staying up-to-date with pop culture. Learn how to cook easy and tasty meals. Do laundry. Take pictures. Watch Netflix (in moderation). And among all those things, study. Study for school, but always be studying yourself. Grad school can feel lonely at times, but instead of sulking and suffering, take advantage of this alone time. Do what you gotta do, whether that’s exploring interests or simply putting on those running shoes. Now is the last of the independent time you’re ever going to have. You’re a student, you’re on your own, you don’t have kids or a job or any obligations, really. This “me time” is the most you’re ever going to get — make it worth being lonely for.

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