Halfway through my public policy lecture, I glanced over the shoulder of the student sitting two rows in front of me. Her Google Calendar tab was open, and I felt my eyebrows raise subconsciously as I marveled at the sheer chaos of it. A dozen colors coded different types of activities – class time, clubs, community service, work and random events littered the week-long calendar view. Most event blocks partially overlapped with others, and the unfilled white space denoting free time was confined to tiny slivers and the early hours of the morning.
As my eyes dashed left and right, trying to find order in the brightly-colored calendar, I felt a pang of envy. I remain well aware that I have neither the grace nor energy to navigate such a full schedule. I wanted, in the least creepy way possible, to find an opportunity to ask this girl, “How do you do it?” I wanted her to teach me how to conquer such an intimidating agenda, the method to taking control of the madness.
Anyone with a Stanford email address (or at least, anyone still subscribed to the “svc4all” mailing list) can relate to the flood of emailed opportunities that inundate our inboxes every day. We’re beyond fortunate to have access to so many resources that allow us to pursue our interests, but it’s hard not to feel a little guilty when we pass up these opportunities. This is only one component of a larger culture that sometimes dangerously promotes the practice of and pressure to “do it all.” Freshman dorm doors are plastered with signs announcing the extracurricular involvements of that room’s inhabitants, inviting passersby to marvel at the student whose door is adorned with six signs, or to wonder, upon seeing an undecorated door, “what is this person doing with all their time?”
I’m not trying to suggest that rollouts are a bad thing – they’re a relatively harmless way to invite students into a new community and to celebrate that they’ve decided to join a group of people passionate about similar things. But there are a number of reasons that students might feel uncomfortable with the celebration of those who can balance school, clubs, work, volunteering and more. Some students devote their time to working to support themselves or their family financially. Others, for any number of reasons, focus solely on their education in a rigorous and competitive academic environment. Still others simply don’t feel inclined to participate in many activities outside of class, preferring to spend time with friends or to relax or to meditate. All of these scenarios, as well as many more, are completely valid college experiences – just as much so as one jam-packed with seven leadership roles.
I have reflected a lot on how I choose to divide my time in college, and I’ve made peace with the fact that I don’t have the ability or volition to take on as much as some of my peers. So why did I feel the slightest pang of failure when I saw a visual depiction of just how much one of my peers could juggle? I think it has something to do with the socialization we undergo as students at one of the most demanding and prestigious schools in the country. We laugh, “I worked on this p-set from noon yesterday until 5 this morning, and I nearly passed out at my 8:30 pilates class,” with the subtlest hint of superiority. But when our thoughts are more like, “How is it that I’ve gotten four extensions this quarter and I still find myself canceling dinner plans to catch up on sleep?” we’re more inclined to keep them to ourselves.
There’s a mantra that I would venture to guess almost all Stanford students have heard from peers, parents, mentors and even strangers when they find out where we will or do attend college, whether it’s said outright or implied: “Don’t waste it.” Spending four (or more) years here is the greatest blessing many of us could ever imagine, and there’s enormous pressure to make the most of it, to squeeze the life out of every minute we spend here.
Oftentimes that pressure manifests itself in the quest to do everything. When we know someone who plays a sport, takes 18 units, volunteers, does research with a professor, gets eight hours of sleep every night and still has time to stay caught up on “This is Us,” we envy them. And those people deserve to be admired, absolutely. But so does everyone at this school who is trying – failing sometimes or often, maybe, but trying nonetheless.
So I won’t ever be the one to “do it all.” No one is going to go googly-eyed over my calendar, and the number of rollout papers on the door to my dorm room won’t make anyone pause. But I’m trying my hardest not to waste my time at Stanford, and that is the standard by which I choose to measure my success.
Contact Jackie O’Neil at jroneil ‘at’ stanford.edu.