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Just how busy is busy enough? This is a question I never asked, but that I probably should have started asking sometime in middle school or maybe even earlier. Foolishly, I thought it would never become an issue, that I could stretch the limits of time past the boundaries of physics and, more importantly, my own attention span and the edges of my motivation.
I wasn’t even one of those people who showed up to college thinking I would get all the same A+s I had gotten in high school. I expected a sub-4.0 GPA my first semester, factoring in the learning curve of my new life, and so I wasn’t blindsided when I got it.
I didn’t have to swallow any pride at all, because I hadn’t built myself up on any to begin with. For once in my life, I set myself up to expect exactly what I got. This was a great step toward humility in the short term. But in the long term, it led me to believe that I was an infallible judge of my own capacities.
For a few semesters this seemed to prove true. I got my first perfect transcript, got elected to the EBoard of one of my organizations, and all around had a great time doing what I thought was an acceptable level of work (even though I’d careen into the end of every semester like a train going off the tracks, I still made it there).
Then one semester I decided that I would work four jobs and take six classes. I would also serve as president of a national honor fraternity and play in the marching band, as well as work on a semester-long film project.
One of my jobs was working as a manager at the dining hall, which required 190 hours per semester minimum as well as tons of off-the-clock HR and paperwork hours. I was also trying to complete two minors in order to graduate early and get started on a one-year program that would get me out of college with a master’s in four years.
Of course, there were some people who had it even worse than I did, and I’m not pretending that what I attempted was impossible. But within my own capacities, I should have recognized how ambitious this was—and more importantly, that I wasn’t even in it for myself.
On some level, I was doing what I’d always done—answering some imaginary call I believed I’d heard, a call to do more than what was expected in any way possible. I’ve heard some people call it a culture of exhaustion, and I think that’s a very accurate name.
Very rarely do I see anyone broadcasting how easy something was for them, how well-rested they’re feeling, or how pleasant their course load feels. There is only merit to your accomplishments, it seems, if you put yourself through torture to get to them.
Who are we trying to please? Are we trying to one-up or impress each other? If so, who decided on the universal standard of exhaustion as the criteria for making an impression? Why did I feel like I had to pursue at least half of my involvements not out of my own passion or interest, but out of some obligation to a standard of near-impossibility?
The semester in question was the first time I had ever asked myself, “Just how busy is busy enough?” It was the first time I ever wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. And it was the first time I ever questioned where my motivations lay. That, I believe, is one good thing that came out of the experience.
In my questions and my attempts to answer them, I realized that no one had set a limit on how busy was busy enough or, dare I say it, too busy. There was only a lower limit that marked off the threshold of laziness, no upper limit that told us when to quit.
In that imbalance lay the true, sinister nature of the system. The upper limit was left up to us to decide, and it was always based on the person next to us or the person ahead of us. We always set the limit a little higher, above what someone else was achieving around us or what we ourselves had yet achieved.
So we incremented the limit over and over, adding and adding to it, expecting to hit a ceiling called “enough” that didn’t exist. “Enough” was left up to us to decide, and determining “enough” was nothing less than a surrender.
Because what if our “enough” was less than someone else’s “enough”? We’d automatically set ourselves up for failure by comparison. (Of course, we could have chosen not to compare ourselves to others…) Everyone is waiting for someone else to say, “Enough,” so no one says it and we just keep climbing.
Pluralistic ignorance is the phenomenon by which most or all members of a group feel that a certain condition is wrong, but they’re afraid that no one else feels the same way because no one else is saying anything about it, so they themselves don’t say anything about it.
In reality, every member of the group might feel the same way about the subject in question, but because they are all afraid to speak for fear of being in the minority, none of them says anything and the situation persists, with everyone believing everyone else thinks it’s okay.
The culture of exhaustion enjoys a success partially based, in my opinion, on this phenomenon. And yet at the same time, it is something we talk about openly. All you have to do is browse a school’s meme group to see that everyone feels overworked and dissatisfied with the way they’re leading their lives.
But I think what happens is that we get so much release from talking openly about our struggles, so much relief from commiserating with fellow students, that we confuse our relief for having solved the problem. We feel a lot better after ironically wow-reacting to a meme.
But nothing about our lives has really changed. We’ve found a new and humorous way to express our displeasure and we’ve discovered that 1.7K of the student body feels similarly, but other than that, we are in the same boat as we were before.
Nature and nurture
It’s a pressure some of us were born into. Maybe Type A genes run in the family, or maybe pressure in general is a family tradition. Maybe the type of school we went to or a coach we had in middle school perpetuated the perfectionistic tendencies we already had.
But as every college applicant knows, it runs much deeper than nature or nurture. It’s ingrained in our society; perfectionism is not something you can opt out of. From the beginning you’re defined by test scores and grades, then how many extracurriculars and accolades you can list on your college application, then which college acceptances you can brag about to your friends.
If you want to remain competitive, you’ll never define an upper limit to how busy or exhausted you can get. And, paradoxically, you will likely burn out and be unable to compete anyway. Or you could wind up bitter in a job you took to impress the anonymous masses rather than to make your life worthwhile.
Or maybe you’ll wind up fine. There is always that possibility; life is, after all, what you make of it. But if you’re feeling exhausted, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, or if you’ve ever asked yourself just how busy is busy enough, dig a little deeper.
Turn your perfectionism and achievement-orientedness inward. Demand to know what you want and why you want it. If it doesn’t line up with what you’re doing, don’t tell yourself it’s not enough. It’s hard to change what you’ve been conditioned to believe, but it’s one of the most valuable skills you can learn at college or anywhere.
And if you find you’re too busy to give self-improvement the time of day, chances are, you’re busy enough.
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