You’re sitting in John Jay with a friend, and she asks you what you’re doing later. “I have a thousand-page essay due for Advanced French,” you tell her exasperatedly. “Seven million problem sets and 9 billion pages to read by 8 a.m. tomorrow.”
“Only 9 billion?” she says. “Dude, I literally have to read 2.7 x 1018 pages. Plus I have three 4.1 x 1013-page essays that I haven’t even looked at the prompts for, and if I don’t get them in by 4:59:59 p.m., my professors are going to hang me from the roof of Mudd by my toes. Indefinitely.”
You’re stunned. Her quintillion has raised you 2.61 x 108 pages, and none of your professors have threatened corporal punishment. You think fast. “Yeah, that’s pretty bad,” you concede before riposting, “but I literally haven’t slept since the fifth grade.”
For many of you, this sounds absurd. For many more of you, it sounds familiar—this sort of competitive commiseration is endemic to the Columbia community. While it may just be the nature of Columbia students to be obsessed with achieving our utmost, how often do we stop to consider the sacrifices we make for being so high-achieving?
Last weekend, I went on a retreat with a group I’m part of called the Emerging Leaders Program. During one particular conversation, the subject turned to that infamous ranking, where Columbia was awarded top “honor” as the country’s “Most Stressful College.”
As a few in my group mentioned, there are those who relish self-pity and equate misery with achievement. Therefore, if everyone else is talking about how stressed and overworked they are, one’s inclination to do the same is understandable, especially if failure to do so suggest a lack of motivation or even intelligence. This marks the first of many conclusions reached during the ELP conversation: that sort of groupthink should no longer be tolerated—achievement (aka fulfillment) is signified by results, not psychosomatic breakdowns. Granted, college can be stressful for anyone. Couple that with the daily preoccupation of facing the universe’s toughest challenges (which one is bound to do in any decent school)—it’s no wonder students are miserable. And misery—forgive the hackneyed expression—loves company.
Nevertheless, is stress and exhaustion’s ubiquity reason enough for why they’ve become such bonding mechanisms among the student body? Why are they so prevalent if, at the same time, they’re so unwanted?
Fulfillment is subjective and should be defined individually. In order to do this, serious evaluation of one’s working pace and limits needs to be undertaken. There’s nothing wrong with ambition or broadening your horizons, but if you’re taking, say, Biophysical Chemistry and hating it because it’s more than you can mentally handle, what’s the point of forcing it?
However, if you’re taking Biophysical Chem and hating it, but one day you plan to cure cancer, try re-framing your hatred into positive thoughts. Positive thinking has become kind of a buzz term, but it is big in the business world. Shawn Achor, former Harvard teaching fellow and founder and CEO of Good Think Inc., calls this process of positive re-framing the “Tetris Effect,” whereby one re-trains his or her brain to “spot patterns of possibility.” So instead of complaining to your friend about how unimaginably complex hydrodynamics is or how you spent eight hours in Butler trying to figure it out, think of that Nobel Prize you’re going to win or that first patient who goes into remission because of your groundbreaking research.
As things stand at Columbia, if you’re not about to collapse, you’re not doing enough. But in the “grand scheme of things,” societal standards of performance mean little if you’ve had to sacrifice your well-being trying to reach them. So, darling Columbia, next time you’re kvetching about how stressed you are, ask yourself if what you’re doing complements your idea of fulfillment. Whether it does or doesn’t, don’t complain. Instead, re-evaluate and think positively. You’ll be a much happier (and better) person for it.
The author is a Columbia College first-year. She is a mentor for Moneythink and a CCSC correspondent for Bwog.