Students Under Pressure

Excellence.

It’s an abstract concept, right? But what happens when you give kids the tools to start defining the world around them through metrics… and they build their own “concrete” definitions of “excellence.” Answer: they sometimes start to define their lives around their “concrete definitions” of what it means to be excellent.

Why is this a problem?

When you have a concrete goal, something you have decided is fact and determines whether or not you succeed… it’s hard to accept failure without blaming yourself. A number of my brightest classmates at Yale struggled with this.  The reasoning went as follows:

1) I have failed. Why have I failed?

2) I was not working hard enough. It is my fault.

Why do we accept the fault? Because then, it might be something we can fix. If it is something within ourselves, we can fix it and do better next time.

Sometimes, this can be sort of reasonable. Maybe you really didn’t study enough for that exam, because you are overcommitted and need to adjust your time/commitments accordingly. Or, maybe you need to SLEEP to retain information and maintain basic cognitive functions, as Professor Matthew Walker (UC Berkeley) reminded the audience at the Smithsonian Future is Here conference this past weekend.

But it gets scary when we see interviews with high school students in Silicon Valley, where suicide rates are increasing at an alarming rate, come out with quotes like this:

“I feel like I’m never doing enough, not using my time wisely, not working hard enough. It goes deep, this disappointment in ourselves.” At Gunn, she says, “we don’t have any time for fun now, so we’ll get into a good college and make money, so we can be happy in the future.”

What happens when we build a generation so fixated on the future that we lose our sense of presence now?

Confession: I was definitely one of these students in college. Everything was broken into 15 minute chunks and scheduled so far in advance, that if someone asked me to meet for coffee I would usually offer them three time slots a week from that day. Yes, I got everything done. I checked a lot of boxes. I am proud of what I accomplished… but at what cost? Constant anxiety. “Am I doing enough?” Being constantly over-caffeinated. I remembering judging my peers who slept more than 4 hours a night (…which is completely absurd, since they probably performed better and made more rational decisions that I could given how little I slept).

A friend of mine drives me nuts by being hard to reach sometimes, but this is because he is exceptionally good at being present. When he is talking to you, his phone is far away and he is not thinking about emails he forgot to respond to/people he needs to connect with. He is there with you and only you, in that environment, seeing and taking it in with you.

It’s sad to me that this is unique. He is one of a small handful of people I know who do this. But it reminds me the value of living in the present and taking in what is right in front of me.

What if we start defining excellence in the present? What if we define it in abstract terms that aren’t tied to timelines and hard lines and “it’s my fault..”

Most importantly, how do we return a fluid sense of “excellence” to our next generations of students… before it’s too late?