Inspiring. Hard-working. Overachieving. Exhausting. Perfectionistic. Stressful. All of these describe the culture of students on campus.
On one hand, that culture is awesome, and it’s a big part of what drew me to the College of William and Mary. Each student here has their niche, something that they’re passionate about. Whether spearheading groundbreaking research in neuroscience, composing expressive and deeply touching music, or creating innovative ways to serve underprivileged kids, we all want to change the world through our respective areas of interest, and that’s incredible. It truly is an inspiring, stimulating and challenging environment that spurs me on to set huge goals and go out and accomplish them.
But there is a negative side to this culture, one that we all experience but don’t always take the time to critically examine. Tell me if this isn’t an interaction you have every day:
[Friend A sees Friend B in the Sadler Center]
Friend A: Hey, how are you?
Friend B: Ugh, I’m honestly so stressed out. I have three exams, two papers and a group project this week. I was studying until super late last night, and I am so exhausted …. etc. etc.
Does anyone notice what’s wrong with this scenario? It may seem like a subtle thing, but it really matters. The question was not, “How many exams and papers do you have this week?” The question was, “How are you?” Somehow on our college campus, the line between these different inquiries has blurred so much that they have become synonymous. That’s a dangerous shift in semantics, and here are the implications. If how you are is the same as how much work you have, then it only follows that you are the work you have, and that is simply not true.
The truth is that person has a purpose beyond schoolwork, and so do you. I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it’s not.
This isn’t news to anyone. We all know our identities are more than what we do, but do our actions support that belief? I’d argue that in many cases, no, they don’t. And that is subtly but incredibly harmful. Because you’re not just saying, “I am what I do.” You’re also saying, “You are what you do,” and thereby imposing this unhealthy mentality onto others.
The truth is that person has a purpose beyond schoolwork, and so do you. I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it’s not. Your purpose is not to put your head down and go through life as a slave to stress and fear of failure. There are real things happening in our world. There are people around you who are worth investing in.
What are those things and who are those people? Isn’t it worth some time and energy to answer those questions? I think so. Because it’s easy to find purpose in your achievements when everything is going well. But if I got in a terrible car accident tonight, or found out that someone in my family was terminally ill, or experienced some other terrible thing, school wouldn’t be enough anymore. Okay Carley, I get it. I shouldn’t find my worth in what I do. But how do I go about changing this mentality that’s so ingrained in me? I’m no expert, but I’ll give you my two cents.
I think the first step is being conscious of the fact that every day, you wake up and make a decision about what’s going to drive you that day. Realize that it truly is a decision. You are the only one who can decide what you’re going to put at the center of your life. Every time someone asks you how you are and you answer with how much work you have, or how stressed out you are, you are revealing what’s at the center of your life to those around you. If you’re reading this and you’re not satisfied with what you’ve decided is at the center of your life, that’s ok. You have the ability to reevaluate what matters to you and live by that instead.
Email Carley Schanck at firstname.lastname@example.org.