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April 4, 2014

Stressing success

While we’re stuck in the college limbo, we invent short-term substitutions for success.

With 12 classes, no required courses, and a long list of cross-listed classes to choose from, the political science major is one of the most flexible in the College. Thus the oft-repeated conversation:

“Oh, but you’re a poli sci major, so it’s not that bad.”

“What? No, it’s not; it’s actually really hard.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I had like 35 pages’ worth of papers to write last finals week.”

The perception that some majors are easier or harder than others is often a sensitive subject for those who fall into the “easy” category. Why is it that I often feel the need to defend my major by saying that I, too, am stressed and have late nights?

We place great value on hard work and achievement. We respect people who have overcome adversity and who have wrestled with difficulty. We get emotional when we see montages of our favorite protagonists fighting against all odds, pouring time and effort into achieving their dreams.But this conflation of stress with success—or in the very least this idea that great stress leads to great success—creates a culture that begins to admire stress itself rather than the accomplishments that follow from it. Students in particular seem to draw this connection conflating stress and success because we are not yet in the “real world,” and yet are constantly reminded that it’s coming and that we need to prepare.

Hard as we may try, no amount of researching careers or postgraduate plans will make time move any faster. Our dreams of success dangle tauntingly before our eyes like a mobile above us, infants helplessly tossing and turning, confined in this giant crib bound by 61st Street and Lake Shore Drive.

Stuck in this limbo of sorts, we opt for stress as a means to compensate for the fact that we cannot yet attain success.

We ensure that we live life overwhelmed and stressed, because when we feel stressed, we feel somewhat closer to tasting success. In the midst of extra lectures and RSOs, feeling successful and feeling stressed become one and the same. Stress becomes the indicator of success, and worrying about not being successful enough becomes the same thing as worrying that we’re not stressed enough. But what if true success isn’t something to be achieved in the distant future, but instead something that can be found on a day-to-day basis? Then each moment wouldn’t just be a piece of a greater puzzle that we hope to complete years down the line, but rather a whole picture to be explored and realized for what it is on its own. Even reflecting on just yesterday, for example, I see so much that I could have possibly improved. I could have thought about how to adjust my fingers to make a sweeter sound while practicing violin. I could have reconsidered the lecture for my History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict class and pondered the complexities of the situation in the Middle East. I could have wondered about my own hypocrisy in being ashamed of the reactions people have when I wear my “I like Jesus” T-shirt.

Each day holds so many opportunities to consider, goals to work toward. Foresight and planning are legitimate disciplines, but our disproportionately heavy interest in the future relative to that of the present can often result in unnecessarily overworked lifestyles plagued by constant anxiety.

When we ignore the infinite possibilities of the present, we are operating under the impression that success is exclusively a future-based entity. Under this constraint, success can only ever be a distant idea contingent upon yet uncertain circumstances. But when we entertain the idea that success may be something that can be found in the present, we allow for a completely new, much more multifaceted definition of success—one that is tailored to individuals and allows them to get a full night’s rest without feeling guilt.

Despite the fact that I am a political science major, this past quarter’s classes have required many late nights. I’ll admit that I have, at times, derived a masochistic pleasure from how stressed I feel because I finally feel like I’m moving forward like the rest of my busy peers. And I have found myself still anxiously attempting to measure up to these standards of success.

But there are also moments, like tonight, when I find myself genuinely interested in my textbook. I notice that it’s almost 3 a.m., but I’m not thinking about feeling validated because I’m staying up late or how this must mean I finally belong at this University. For a second, it could have been 3 p.m., and it wouldn’t have changed a thing, because I am so completely lost in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For a second, even though I am still a broke college student without any hopes of a summer internship, I feel successful.

Grace Koh is a second-year in the college majoring in political science.

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