Stanford is a platform

Sep 10, 2023

I love talking to incoming students at Stanford. When I do, I always emphasize that Stanford is a platform, not a destination. Sure, they have a magical time ahead. They’ll make amazing friends, and they’ll enjoy unbelievably good weather.

But Stanford isn’t an end unto itself. It’s a launchpad toward self discovery, meaningful work, exciting opportunities, and exceptional relationships. It’s a place for action with intention.

Why is action with intention so critical at Stanford? For two reasons:

  1. It’s easy mindlessly to fall into high-gravity, status-driven pursuits here.
  2. When you act with intention, Stanford will propel you forward in ways you can’t imagine.

Aside: I hope this advice will be applicable to incoming students at other colleges, too. Perhaps it’s applicable to environments beyond college. But Stanford is what I know.

Not an end unto itself

Many of the incoming students I speak with are overachievers who spent a lot of time in high school thinking about how to get into a great college. They strategized their extracurriculars and optimized their grades. (To an extent, that was me.)

Ideally much of this work is intrinsically motivated and fulfilling. But let’s be real: Some of it is oriented towards college admissions. They crafted narratives about themselves for admissions officers, which they packaged into a box with a bow on top.

Fast forward to college. They’re here. They “made it.” But Stanford isn’t a terminal state. It’s a place you pass through on your way to something else. You can (and should) enjoy Stanford for its own sake. But you should also let it take you somewhere.

A lot of incoming students now lack the clear sense of purpose and drive they might have had in high school. They don’t know what’s next. This uncertainty is perfectly normal; after all, part of college is preparing you for whatever might come after.

But if you continue to think about Stanford as a destination, you might flounder. So I try to push people to reframe Stanford (and college generally) as a platform, not a destination.

Stanford rewards directionality and momentum

People often tell me that college is an opportunity to explore and pursue curiosity for its own sake. I think that’s true. But I also think that it’s important to have some sense of directionality, especially at Stanford.

Be ready to exert effort even if you don’t know exactly what you want. Keep trying things and work towards something. For example, have a field you want to explore, or a project you want to complete.

Stanford isn’t a great place to sit still. Unlike some liberal arts colleges, there’s no real core curriculum here, so you’ll really only be exposed to areas that you actively seek out. And unlike many European universities that require you to apply into a particular program, Stanford lets you pursue just about any field you want. I think that’s great, but the sheer freedom can cause paralysis.

But Stanford is amazing if you have a sense of direction. Pick a field or topic — anything that interests you, really — and pursue it. Take some classes. Go to office hours. Maybe do some research. And see what you think. If you like it — whether for the topic, the people, or something else — awesome! You’ll be shocked by the opportunities that fall out of the woodwork. If not, switch it up. You still learned something.

You definitely don’t need to pursue only one thing. Explore! Branch out into new disciplines and take unfamiliar seminars. But when you find something you like, don’t be afraid to go deep.

For example, I came into Stanford caring deeply about digital privacy, security, and tech policy. The Stanford Internet Observatory does a lot of security- and policy-adjacent work, so I decided to take a class they offered called Online Open Source Investigations. I loved it, and about three weeks later I started working at the Internet Observatory. The Internet Observatory led me to the world of digital safety and open source intelligence, which inspired Atlos. I found meaningful work.

It doesn’t always work out this way. For example, I approached Stanford thinking I would double major in computer science and political science. But when I sat in on some political science classes, it just didn’t click. I didn’t see myself enjoying four years of political science coursework. No big deal.

If you don’t know what to do, pick something that piques your interest and try it out. (College might be one place where “move fast and break things” — intellectually, at least — is good advice.) You’ll learn no matter what.

Without direction, you’ll get sucked in by gravity

If you’re at a place like Stanford, you probably have some degree of intrinsic motivation. You’re probably interested in something. (Realistically, you’re probably interested in many things.) You should pursue that intrinsic curiosity, whether it’s nascent or well-developed.

But some pursuits have a strong gravitational pull. And if you treat Stanford like a destination — like an end unto itself — you might get sucked in.

The canonical example is computer science. A plurality of Stanford undergraduates major in computer science, and tech culture is quite dominant on campus. (That deserves its own blog post.)

If you aren’t sure what you’re interested in, it’s easy to start taking computer science classes; they’re well-taught, engaging, and can lead to strong job prospects. But you might hate them. CS might not be a good fit for you. If that’s the case, it’s important to course correct. Don’t succumb to gravity.

Preprofessional clubs like BASES, one of Stanford’s larger “business” clubs, are also high-gravity. New students arrive on campus and hear that all their classmates are applying to join BASES’ “frosh battalion” (this is real), and so they figure they might as well join too.

There’s nothing wrong with joining BASES. But if you join, do so with some kind of intrinsic intention. That reason might be “it seems like a great way to meet people” or “I’m interested in business.” That reason is not “everyone else seems to be doing it” or “I think it’ll give me social status.”

Do things that make you happy and push you forward, whatever your definition of forward might be. That could mean hard math problems, rowing, spending quality time with friends, leading a club like BASES, or anything else.

In retrospect, I could have approached my first year at Stanford with more intention. I joined some preprofessional clubs not out of a sense of interest, but out of a sense of obligation or insecurity. Gravity, so to speak. And it took me a few too many months to course correct.

Be honest about your intentions

If you’re at Stanford, you’re likely somewhat of an overachiever, even if you may not always feel that way. You probably excelled in high school, where much of the exercise was chasing “gold stars” — be they leadership positions in extracurriculars, perfect grades, athletic victory, olympiad wins, and so on.

That puts you at risk of insecure overachievement and status-seeking. Of doing things simply for the sake of impressing others. So when you’re assessing whether your intentions are intrinsic or extrinsic, you have to be honest with yourself.

Take joining a club like BASES. You might tell yourself that you’re joining BASES to meet new people and learn about starting a business. But that’s a great way to mask an underlying desire for status.

One helpful way to get a more honest sense of your motivation is to think about opportunity costs. Ask yourself why you want to join BASES rather than, say, joining an intramural soccer team, spending more time with friends, or helping organize an event like TreeHacks or Puzzle Hunt.

Maybe the answer is that you think BASES might help you get your dream summer job, and organizing Puzzle Hunt won’t — that’s fine! Professional considerations are perfectly reasonable. But if the answer is “BASES will impress my classmates, and Puzzle Hunt won’t,” you should reconsider.

Treat it like a platform

I don’t want to over-intellectualize this. Just try things, be honest with yourself about your values, narrow in on what brings you fulfillment and joy, and then go deep. It’s kind of like stochastic gradient descent. And this framework applies to classes, projects, fields, and perhaps even relationships.

The important thing is that your reward function is intrinsic, not extrinsic. Avoid chasing status or playing other people’s games. Instead, reflect on what brings you joy or a sense of fulfillment, and do that.

I’ve found that Stanford finds a way to amplify and accelerate whatever I’m doing. If I’m interested in open source journalism, amazing; there’s a class for that. Funding for a new project? It’s available. No matter what you want to do, there’s probably a way that Stanford will help you do it.

You just need to pick something and execute with intention. Think critically about what interests you, what you value, and what you enjoy. Then pursue that — and don’t be afraid to switch things up if it doesn’t click. Just don’t succumb to gravity.

If you approach Stanford with this mindset, I think you’ll be shocked at how quickly you’ll move — and how far you’ll be able to go. Most importantly, you’ll enjoy the process.

Want more unsolicited advice? Give me your email.

Thank you to Isabelle, Rhythm, and Kevin for reviewing drafts of this post.

Hi! If you made it this far, maybe you want to stay in touch. You can follow me on Twitter, subscribe via Atom/RSS, or sign up for my infrequent email letter.

© R. Miles McCain 2023. Content is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0, a Free Culture License. The source code is available under GPLv3. This site collects (minimal) visitor analytics.