Just as a ray of sunlight begins to treacherously carve its way through the gaps in your blinds, your iPhone’s alarm starts blaring that all-too-familiar generic ringtone on a perennial loop. A couple of bleary blinks, groans and snooze buttons later, you’re clambering to your feet, stretching as you hobble about while bracing yourself for the 18, 19, 20 hours ahead.
Your planner, bleeding with ink, practically stains your fingertips as you rush between classes, chugging a venti coffee and incessantly scrolling through your phone for notifications. You tap your foot throughout the meetings you’ve sandwiched in during free blocks, and you eat your lunch while poised as though readying yourself for the starting gun of an Olympic sprint. By the time 4 p.m. rolls around, the bulk of campus classes may have ended – but you’ve only just finished phase one. There are only more meetings, practices, rehearsals, interviews, notifications. Discarded cardboard coffee cups.
Oh, and that’s not to mention the work that continues to multiply like dandelions with each passing second. By the time you crawl back beneath your covers, you’re sapped. Empty. And you’ve barely even made a dent.
The extreme lifestyle of the archetypal overachiever is not a foreign concept to much of the Lehigh community. Indeed, many students on campus are prone to creating schedules rank with credit overloads and extracurricular involvement. But if this many of us are embracing fully-fledged caffeine addictions, resorting to taking study drugs that haven’t been explicitly prescribed to us or harboring stress-related health concerns, we may want to reevaluate the pressures that fuel us.
Our culturally idealized notion of success is embodied by a species The New York Times refers to as “super-people”: in short, those who have “mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time — how do they have any? — to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking.” From a young age, many of us are instilled with the fire of competition. And the flames only continue to blaze ever higher and hotter.
Our school, employment and even social systems often force us to compare ourselves to one another. When we applied to college, our guidance counselors expected us to boast multifaceted résumés and profiles — and exhibit strength in every regard. Just being athletic superstars, classical music aficionados or science fair champions wasn’t enough. We were always questioned why we couldn’t have been (D) all of the above. And if we did, indeed, achieve mastery of every extracurricular activity and flaunt straight A’s to boot, we were asked why our social lives were subpar.
We now carry a new edition of that same burden — only this time, it’s magnified through the eyes of our present or future employers, advisers and peers. With awards, honors, promotions and raises on the line, that weight is unlikely to dissolve.
But the reality is that we are all constrained by the ultimate non-renewable resource: time.
Naturally, the stereotypical overachiever’s reflex is to milk as much as he or she can out of that time. We more than occasionally sacrifice sleep, time with friends, even time alone with our thoughts to notch socially tangible evidence of success.
In 2013, though, a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that anxiety is the top presenting concern among college students, just ahead of depression; that about a quarter of clients was taking psychotropic medications; and that roughly a fifth of counseling center students exhibited signs of severe mental health concerns (while another two-fifths exhibited signs of mild mental health concerns). Of course, the pressure to “succeed” cannot be cited as the only catalyst for mental health concerns. But it remains a major contributor.
Sometimes our families drive our emphasis on perceived “achievement.” Sometimes it derives from our peers. But for many of us, it’s self-inflicted.
It’s no easy feat, but taking the time to step back and assess whether we’re partaking in certain activities because we want to or because we feel as though we must is integral for our internal wellbeing. In the end, isn’t happiness a laudable measure of success?