As we head into another semester and a new year, there's no doubt there are areas of our lives that we think need improvement.

Regardless of whether our New Year's resolutions involve going to the gym every so often, trying to organize our hectic lives in the spirit of time management, or even finding new friends and lovers, many of us are striving to make this year better than the last.

In retrospect, we should be doing this all the time, continually making progress to become a better "you." Along the way, however, we've all had our share of setbacks and problems, both large and small.

When we state that we have problems it allows us to set a standard for ourselves. It gives us a basic template from which to grow. If we know we have a problem we put additional work into trying to improve that aspect of our lives.

Take, for example, our lives being a boat. Different parts of our lives – the emotional, physical, academic and mental components – constitute different parts of this boat. At any point in our lives, we will have problems. Each problem in our life equates to a problem on the boat. The severity of your problems is proportional to the problems on this boat.

If we're struggling in school or having relationship problems, one could imagine the boat having problems with its navigation system or sustaining significant holes in its hull. Since problems are always present, there must be a balance between the ship's overall condition and the combined damage on the ship. When we're heavily burdened with multiple problems, our ship can find itself easily astray, lead aimlessly by the currents of other people or sinking in the grasp of the waters of life.

To improve ourselves and spare us more pain and stress, we look back on the problems that we've endured in the hope that such problems don't occur again, or at the very least are more tolerable. If we notice that we continually have problems with one area, we'll scrutinize it often. In turn, if our hull seems to always have leaks we'll be more vigilant in examining it.

Yet, when we look back on such problems it's tempting for our minds to wander, wishing things had changed for the better. We doubt the past decisions that we made, hoping that our imaginations and the cosmos will align in some way to magically and instantly fix our problems.

Keep in mind, though, that the adversities you've gone through have made you the person you are today. They were part of a template that molded you, steering you through countless possibilities of what you could be into what you should be and what you are today.

You may say that any other life could be better than the one you have now. In a way, you may be right – even I don't know how my life could have turned out if my problems turned out better or worse.

I could have been a weaker person if my life was more comfortable; I could have been stronger if I faced more struggles. The opposite could be true, too. I admit that it's tempting to think of the former, when I could have had more confidence and ambition to pursue things that I want.

In the end, though, we've only got this one life. We are free to change ourselves as we see fit, albeit not without difficulty. As we begin this new semester and year, take this to heart: instead of hoping what could have been, live the life that you think you deserve, even if it's littered with pain and hardship.

At the very least, you tried your best to steer your ship in the way you wanted, not because others did it for you.

Jan Urbano is a senior in biological sciences. He can be reached at jurbano@utk.edu.