A Letter to Anxious College Students
Yang Fei in Changsha长沙杨飞
Time flies. In the blink of an eye, it has been 26 years since I graduated from college, and yet, in terms of the majors I studied in college and graduate school, and by the current prevailing standards of success, I can hardly claim any achievements. I am now sitting alone in the library, toiling hard everyday to earn a living. Many of my college classmates back then are now senior executives of big banks and large corporations, and their salaries are several times or even dozens of times that of mine.
However, I don't envy it much. On the contrary, I am content with my current life of austerity. Over the years, I have been engaging in writing and imaging-related art creation in my spare time. My major in university was finance and management, and what I am doing now, whether it's working in the library or pursuing creative endeavors in my free time, is essentially unrelated to my college major.
Summer in Shanghai, photographed by me, Lao Yang. This photo has been published several times, as book covers as well as cross-page image of Chinese National Geographic
Recently, I have received many inquiries from student friends, and the two words that strike me the most are confusion and anxiety. This is not just a phenomenon among undergraduate students, but also among high school students and graduate students. Many students want me to give them advice on choosing a major and planning the future. I am not a counsellor or a fortune teller, so it is not appropriate for me to give random advice. Below, I will briefly share my personal views for students' reference.
1. Why Do We Live 为什么活着
What do people live for? The answer is only one word: happiness. No one can deny that, can they? Live for happiness, even masochists are no exception, but their way of obtaining happiness is more peculiar.
2. How to be Happy 怎样才能快乐
The ultimate happiness does not come from getting, but from giving.
As a photographer, I have used Canon's top of the line 1D series digital SLRs, and these gems of human engineering certainly brought me great joy, and it is a pleasure just to listen to the charming shutter sound. However, what makes me happiest in photography is not how much equipment I own, but how much work I contribute. As a photographer, my ultimate happiness is to have many readers like my works and to have more and more photos printed and published.
To gain pleasure, some people choose to shop endlessly. Materialistic gains and possessions can certainly bring happiness, but this happiness is short-lived. Buying a new phone makes one happy for two weeks, a new car brings joy for two months, a new house keeps one happy for one or two years, but these joys quickly dissipate.
Shopping brings happiness, but it is a relatively low-level happiness. Anything that one gets used to for pleasure will eventually lose its appeal.
What should we do next? Continue pursuing bigger houses, fancier cars, and more luxurious dinners? I can only say that this is a misconception, or rather a black hole. There will always be someone richer than you, with villas, super luxury cars, and private jets. Desires are an endless abyss, and those unfulfilled will forever be shouting.
The joy of taking is limited, while the joy of sharing is boundless.
Tailor shop. Lao Yang mobile phone photography works.
3. Sharing is the Source of Happiness 分享是快乐之本
When you come back from a trip with a cell phone full of wonderful photos, it is not true happiness if you just hide under the quilt and enjoy the photos alone. Everyone agrees on this point, which is why many people are addicted to sharing their travel photos on social media. The more you share, the more comments you get, the greater the happiness.
I used to communicate with students on the podium of the university, which is of course a joy. However, in the classroom, there are usually only a few dozen students. If I write and publish, I will be able to communicate with thousands or even tens of thousands of readers in no time. This is not at the same level compared to small-scale sharing in the classroom. Therefore, leaving the teaching profession is not a loss for me. As a writer, I find more happiness in my work.
I not only advocate for spiritual sharing but also for material sharing, because it can also bring happiness. After years of being a photographer, I have a large collection of cameras and lenses in my closet, and most of which are just backups. These cameras are all old models, and they are not worth much if they are sold. I just keep them and lend them to my friends for travel use. Many friends travel only once or twice a year, so there is no need to spend big money to buy mirrorless cameras and digital SLRs.
4. The Original Sin of Wealth 财富的原罪
If something is purchased but barely used and does not fulfill its intended purpose, it is a tremendous waste. This type of waste is not good for either individuals or society as a whole.
Our current society is heavily reliant on fossil fuels such as oil and coal. From a macro perspective, wealth and energy are directly correlated. However, the use of fossil fuels has caused significant problems for our environment, producing toxic substances and greenhouse gases. In this regard, having wealth (spending too much money) is an original sin. People who live in mansions and drive luxury cars cause much more damage to the environment than the average person.
The pollution caused by toxic substances can be controlled, but the accumulation of greenhouse gases is basically uncontrollable. In order to protect the environment, we need to reduce industrial production, decrease society's demand for materials, and promote sharing. This is why I am busy lending everything I can to my friends; one of my main purposes is to keep them from buying things.
Buying fewer things and saving money is beneficial both for individuals and for society as a whole. I constantly lend out my belongings. I lend my camera to friends who are going on a trip, lend my mountain bike to college students who want to ride to Tibet, lend outdoor and mountaineering equipment to friends climbing Mt Muztag Ata, and just last month, I lent my unused electric piano to a former student who has wanted to learn music for a long time. My car often goes untouched for many days at a time. I even considered car-sharing, but the thought of the recklessness of certain inexperienced drivers made me put that idea on hold for now.
Since I am not a saint, it's inevitable to have distractions. Sometimes I impulsively buy things that I don't end up using, or my plans change and the items I purchased become unused or end up in storage after just one use. I am glad to share these things with others and make the most of them. Sharing good things with friends, reducing waste, and helping each other is a joyful endeavor.
My next big plan is to transform an unused house into a book bar and tea room, where I can share the collection of books, audio equipment, and visual materials I have gathered over the years. This book bar will be free of charge; if you enjoy it, you can contribute a small donation as you wish, and there will be a QR code at the entrance. While the goal is not to make money, I also hope that it won't operate at a loss and can sustain itself. (Update on May 24th, 2019: This book bar has already opened, please click: Universal Shared Library)
Lao Yang's work, street people
5. Helping Others is the Source of Happiness 助人是快乐之源
Sharing is the foundation of joy, and another expression of it is: helping others is the source of happiness. This is what we mean when we talk about "helping others is a pleasure" since childhood. Why do so many middle-class people, even wealthy and affluent individuals, compete to do charity work? The answer is simple: for happiness.
American psychologist Maslow once pointed out that human needs can be divided into five levels from low to high: physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.
Having enough food and clothing is no longer a big issue now. The ultimate happiness lies in realizing one's self-worth and gaining respect from others and society. The magnitude of this happiness is not determined by how much wealth one possesses, but rather by how many people they have helped and the contribution they have made to society.
6. Material Assistance and Spiritual Assistance 物质助人与精神助人
We can help others in material ways, such as handing a bun to the hungry; or we can help others spiritually, such as handing a scripture or other spiritual chicken soup to someone who is lost. Without a doubt, spiritual help is more important. Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer people who do not have enough to eat.
In terms of helping people spiritually, the more people you help, the better. Seeing the number of views on an article exceed 100,000 and reading comments from readers saying how much the article has helped them and hoping to see more works - all of this makes me happier than no matter how much money I earn.
Therefore, I have been spending my days thinking about how to create better works and reach more people. As for how much income it can bring, I haven't really thought about it too much.
A poem may long, long remain, who knows the poet’s loss and gain? As an artistic creator, I care more about future reputation than immediate benefits. If, a hundred years from now, there are still many people searching for Yang Fei's works in libraries, I would laugh out loud even from inside the coffin.
7. Moderate Austerity 适度的清贫
Maintaining a moderate state of austerity is beneficial for personal growth and inner peace.
Being too poor, worrying about the next meal after barely managing the last one, is certainly not a happy situation. However, those wealthy tycoons have more worries than the average person. Sometimes, they even have to guard against their own family members as if they were thieves. This is my conclusion after working in banks and companies for many years and having extensive interactions with various wealthy individuals.
Even if your main pursuit is material happiness, having too much money can actually decrease the feeling of joy. This phenomenon has a term in economics called "diminishing marginal utility." For office workers, buying a designer handbag or an iPhone can bring great happiness. However, for super wealthy individuals, who can buy ten iPhones with the cost of a single meal, that iPhone no longer brings much happiness.
The conclusion is: the middle class is the happiest. Office workers are the happiest people; they just don't realize it themselves.
What constitutes moderate austerity varies from person to person. For me, earning around 100,000 Yuan (USD15,000) a year by working in a library in Changsha makes me happy. It solves the problem of food on the table. I drive an old Peugeot 307, but I have no desire for a better car. I rarely drive as I mostly walk, ride a bicycle, or use an electric scooter. The clothes I wear are cheap items from online shops, as long as they are clean and warm, that's all I seek. When traveling, I find youth hostels and budget hotels to be sufficient. In short, moderation is key. Being in the middle is the best.
Money and wealth are external things; we can't take them with us when we die. Personally, I have low materialistic demands. Since my basic needs are already met, my motivation to earn more money is not strong.
Allow me to add one more point here. The lower your material desires, the freer you will be spiritually. The higher your material demands, the more attachments you will have, and it also means that you will be more bound by others.
Children of Cambodia, works by Lao Yang
8. Unnecessary Anxiety 没有必要的焦虑
I understand the anxiety that college students have about the future. However, most of this anxiety is unnecessary. As long as you're physically capable and not lazy, you can find a job anywhere. This used to be my mantra in the classroom. The vast majority of college students can earn a decent income after working for a few years, so there is no need to worry about it. It's easy to make a living.
Sometimes I think that their anxiety is not so much about putting food on the table, but rather putting great food on the table? Maybe they want a job with more money and fewer responsibilities? Well, in that case, I don't have much else to say.
9. Choosing a Major 专业的选择
When I graduated from high school in 1988, like most people, I had no clear idea of what kind of job I should pursue in the future. I randomly filled in "finance" as my major choice, simply because I heard that it could lead to a high income in banks. After all, nobody has a grudge against money. Most people choose their majors based on hearsay or random selection. Alright, let me correct myself. I also applied to Shenyang Police College, aspiring to maintain law and order, but my application was rejected due to poor vision in my right eye.
It's not surprising that people choose their majors randomly. At 18 years old, having never worked before or been exposed to any industries, how would one know what they truly enjoy? As a result, most college students are dissatisfied with their majors and just coast through their university years. Students are pursuing diplomas, while teachers are pursuing salaries; that's the current situation in most universities. It's understandable that liberal arts students may not learn much, but it's shocking to see even engineering students in the same boat. It's a pity that parents' money and one's youth are wasted in universities.
The root cause of this situation lies in the education system and employment system. If impulsive buying is considered a waste, then aimlessly pursuing a university education is the greatest waste of one's life. Overall, I believe that after completing middle school or high school, a person should not continue studying in school. They should directly enter the workforce. If they later realize the need for further education, then they can choose to pursue a university degree with a clear goal and based on their interests. This would be the ideal scenario.
10. Switching Professions 行业的更换
The choice of profession is not that important. About a quarter of people eventually give up their major and switch to something else. I myself am quite peculiar, you could say I hate every job I do and have switched professions many times. After graduating from university in 1992, I worked with China Construction Bank for five years. Later, I didn't want to continue that job anymore, so in 1997, I quit and came to Singapore to pursue a master's degree in Business Administration at the National University of Singapore. This situation is similar to many students who pursue master's or doctoral degrees nowadays. I wasn't passionate about business administration either. I pursued further education mainly to escape from jobs I didn't like.
In 1999, after obtaining my MBA degree, I worked in the finance department of StarHub Telecommunications in Singapore for three years, and then I didn't want to continue that job. In 2002, I came to Hunan University and started teaching at the School of Business Administration. I stayed there until 2013, during which time I semi-professionally engaged in travel photography for over two years. In 2013, I couldn't continue working there, so I joined the university library. So far, I am quite satisfied with this job, except for having to clock in every day. I might eventually settle into the role of a librarian and writer, as I believe it can help more people.
If you are willing to change your major or switch careers, it's never too late. "Having heard the Tao in the morning, one may die content in the evening."
Of course, the transition sometimes comes with a cost, as you are giving up your previous experience and starting from scratch. Financial loss is inevitable. In 2002, my monthly salary in Singapore was about RMB 15,000, but when I came to Hunan University, my monthly salary was less than RMB 3,000. However, I felt that working in a company was a waste of life, and I imagined that teaching at the university would be better, so I didn't particularly care about money. Of course, at that time, I was a single happy guy, with no family to worry about. If I had a family to support, the decision might have been more difficult.
11. Choices for Ordinary People 普通人的选择
Some students may ask, "I don't have the talent of writing or photography like you do. How do I help others and find happiness?"
In fact, the most important thing for happiness is to adjust your own mindset and set achievable goals. This goal doesn't have to be earning a hundred million dollars or helping ten thousand people. My definition of a successful life is to first ensure that you have your basic needs met, and then be able to help others. Let's not talk about others for now. Taking care of yourself, your children, and your family is already great. Family is the basic unit of society, and when families are taken care of, society becomes harmonious.
Taking care of your family is easier said than done. As a single father, I am constantly exhausted by my two-year-old son and my seventy-year-old mother. Despite this, I still have confidence in the future. Young college students have even less reason to worry, as they have no elderly to care for and no young children to raise. This should be their happy time.
Ensuring one's basic needs are met is not difficult, especially for college students who are the future middle-class. There's no need to worry too much. As for helping others, even if you don't have exceptional talents to help a lot of people, helping a few is still meaningful. For example, providing one-on-one support for a disadvantaged child to complete elementary school education (please personally hand the money to the child and do not transfer it through others).
12. The Joy of Small Things 小事的快乐
In fact, there are many small things in life that can bring joy. Some of the things I have done include: helping a blind person cross the road, assisting a female driver with parking, sharing an umbrella with a stranger in the rain, offering free rides to people going in the same direction, shoveling snow on the road, cleaning public corridors, helping someone change a tire, helping an old man who fell down on the street, finding ways to return lost items to their owners, teaching children English, and giving free badminton lessons to others. In short, I have done many small acts.
If you want to help others, opportunities are everywhere right outside your door. There's no need to deliberately go to remote mountainous areas or Africa.
13. People without Quirks are Not Worth Knowing 人无癖不可交也
I have another suggestion: it is difficult to find happiness in life without a hobby. Most people find it challenging to derive happiness solely from work, so it's worth trying to find joy in recreational activities.
Since you have come to college, you are definitely not foolish and it shouldn't be a problem to find a hobby. If music and painting seem too difficult, exploring culinary skills is also a good option. If you truly don't have any hobbies, strive to excel in a particular aspect of your studies or work. If you are a student of English major, consider focusing on simultaneous interpretation. People without quirks are not worth knowing, and a life that is overly mundane is not desirable.
In August 2003, Lao Yang summited Mt. Muztag at an altitude of 7,546 meters
14. How to Properly Spend Your Time in College 怎样正确地耗掉大学时光
If you unfortunately find yourself already embarked on a hopeless adventure of college or graduate school life and feel dissatisfied, what should you do? In fact, attending college is a good thing. You have food and drink provided, and plenty of free time. If there were no exams, I would be willing to be a college student for life. Think about it briefly, here are some things I think you can do in college:
a. Learn English. Aim for at least a score of 7 in the IELTS exam.
b. Read books, especially banned books.
c. Engage in one or two hobbies.
d. Experience one or two romantic relationships.
e. Skip classes you don't like, audit classes you're interested in.
f. Take a part-time job, engage with society, and earn some pocket money.
g. Graduate with a diploma.
With these activities, your time in college should be quite fulfilling.
15. Career Planning? 生涯规划？
When I was in elementary school, I used to make plans every summer vacation. But I never managed to fulfill those plans. And that was just for a few dozen days; if it were to plan for several decades, it would be unimaginable. Except for fortune-tellers, most people dare not predict their lives. I heard that there is a career planning course in college. If I had planned my entire life when I was twenty years old, and the next few decades were just to test the correctness of those plans, then the significance of life wouldn't be that great.
But then again, some say that those who do not plan for the future will find trouble at their doorstep. Well, it makes sense to say it anyway. It is said that there is a characteristic of the peaceful era: most people at the age of twenty can foresee what they will be like at fifty or even at the end of their lives. It should be said that this statement is generally accurate. There is nothing wrong with it; it is real to be simple and natural, isn’t it?
I think many students are too anxious and always want to look forward to the far, far future. As for me, during my university days, I mostly skipped classes to read books, play video games, and fall in love. It wasn't until after I turned 30 that I started writing and doing photography. At 32, I backpacked to Tibet for two months and published my first set of photos upon my return. From then on, I made efforts to pursue my creative endeavors. All of these were quite accidental, and I couldn't have predicted any of them during my university years. I originally thought I would spend my whole life working in a bank.
Of course, I'm a rather peculiar case and not representative of the majority. Not many of my university classmates gave up their major, and most of them are still working in the finance industry. A few changed their careers to become teachers or housewives, but none of them pursued artistic creation. As a special case, it doesn't make much sense for me to keep talking. That's all for this article.
Fulfill yourself and help others. Maintain expectations and embrace surprises.
I hope everyone lives happily.
12 Apr 2018, Changsha
电影评论翻译：90年代最好的一部电影《红色警戒线》Thin Red Line
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