Tuesday, February 23, 2016

You're doing it right

"Everyone thinks we're perfect, please don't let them look through the curtain." 
Lately I've been having people tell me that I'm a good 'example' for what college students should be working for. Professors tell me how proud they are of me for how far I've come in achieving my career goals. Both professors and students have told me they're impressed how I somehow manage to juggle two jobs, an 18 credit school schedule, while still manage to stick to a fairly regular workout plan, and maintain some level of a social life.

How do I do it?

It's simple: I don't.

I'm just as scared as everybody else.

I feel a hint of guilt every time someone tells me that they're impressed how I manage to handle my schedule.

'Take a break!' they joke, 'You'll burn yourself out!' 

I laugh, because they don't know how true it is, and at this point, I don't think I know what a break is. I don't think many college students do. That's the problem.

There's a timeline of varying levels of pressure put on college students every year.

Freshman year: Your freshman year class schedule will be the easiest you will have during your college career. This in turn, leaves you with a lot of free time, which can be either a good or a bad thing, depending how you look at it. You are told to join clubs on campus- find 'your group.' try out different organizations, maybe a sorority or fraternity, maybe a club sport. However, while you're trying to develop new friendships, get used to classes, find your organization, and maybe work part-time, you must also be wary of the infamous 'freshman 15.' [The curse that follows the 'freshman 15' is enough to create a lot of stress in a student's life. If you gain a little weight your first semester (which is normal), it is looked at a failure, like in some sense you were caught in the trap of being a first-year student on campus.] So while trying to do all of these things, and get used to a new living environment, often a new city or state, you stress over the amount of time you're spending (or not spending) in the gym each week.

Sophomore year: If you haven't decided on a major yet, this is typically the ideal time to start narrowing the focus of your studies. Then, if you want to get a jump start, start looking for internships. A lot of what you'll hear during this time is 'it will look SO good on your resume,' 'you'll want all the experience you can get,' to which all students can respond with a collective eye roll.

Junior year: Things are getting real, things are getting scary. At this point, it is not unusual for a handful of your friends to have transferred. This adds new stress of making new friends, while maintaining a busier workload. If you haven't yet gotten an internship, the pressure is on now. All of the 'it will look SO good on your resume' exclamations will intensify from here. This is when many students start to juggle part-time work, internships, and a full school schedule. Oh, and don't forget squeezing in time for homework, readings, and papers.

Senior year: 'You're graduating? In May or December? Are you excited or nervous? What are your plans? Do you have any potential job offers?' This is the time when all students like to plug their ears, and tune out all the noise. When many of us don't have plans for our own lives, why do so often assume other people have plans for theirs? Life is not a straight line with a series of events that fall neatly into place- there are twists and turns, waves and hurricanes. You figure it out as you go, re-adjust whenever and however many times necessary, and keep chugging along. The pressure about finding a job after graduation comes from every direction imaginable: friends, family, co-workers, professors, like it comes as a surprise to us that we might need a job after graduation. Rather than enjoying our final semesters in college, we find ourselves stressed out: wishing for the end, but fearing its arrival. What if we're not prepared for what's next? There is fear in ambiguity, and at this time, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. Juggling too many things at one time inevitably leads to burn out at one point or another, and you don't want that to happen before you take your first steps into 'the real world.' 

These so-called 'overachievers' do not have it figured out any more than the next person. We're all in the same boat- swimming blindly, hoping there is in fact a shore somewhere out in the distance.

When someone tells me how impressed they are at my schedule, or suggests I take a break, all I know how to do is laugh. I probably should. But, I won't. One, I genuinely love what I do in every sense of the word, and even though at times I may feel like I need a break, I usually don't want one. I love to write, so whenever I can, I will pickup more opportunities to write, not less. For me, it's part of who I am, and I need to write, otherwise I feel bored or without purpose. Two, this pressure has made me fearful that if I do take a day off, I will lose what I've worked so hard for. If I take a 'mental health day,' I will lose that sought-after job opportunity, and be post-graduation swimming in the ocean that is the real world, without a life vest.

I can say from experience, that burn out is a very real thing. Working and managing an 18 credit schedule on top of extracurricular's, I've experienced it every year. It's best to avoid the burnout, because it can be hard to bounce back.

I hate disappointing people, so I have a tendency to say 'yes' to everything that is asked of me, regardless of whether or not I actually have time to do it. I will find a way, if it means losing sleep, I will get it done. Work ethic, I told myself. Balance, is what I remind myself.

I realize a stark contrast from the beginning of the semester to the end. In the beginning, I will have work, school, clubs, boxing, and anything else I have committed to. Meanwhile at the end of the semester, I will have to reluctantly drop a few commitments to clean up my schedule.

"It happens to the best of students," one professor reminded me. "The students that are so excited about the program, that they take on too much, and can't carry it all."

Who is this benefiting? I asked myself.

The answer is: no one.

What may start out as an innocent quest to do the best you can, please everyone, and push forward in your career path, leads to disappointment. The truth, whether we like it or not is that we cannot please everyone, and doing so will only make us unhappy.

My biggest learning lesson has been that it's ok to say no. If you don't have the time, but you agree anyway, no one is going to be empathetic to the fact that you have a busy schedule and are also juggling three other commitments. They will see that you agreed to do it, and were therefore capable, but you didn't meet the expectations. Give yourself a break, and be realistic. 

For now, my biggest issue is finding balance, something I think many people work their entire lives to find and achieve. That's the one thing I want a jump start on. Slowing down, living in the moment, and enjoying the journey, so I can truly enjoy my accomplishments when I achieve them.

In the great words of Rodney Atkins, "If you're keeping it simple or you make a big scene// if you're doing your best and you make a mess of things, // if you're trying, if you're crying, all that really means// is you're doing it right."

It is important to remember that all the pressure that you perceive is merely vapor. You're the one who will be living the life you choose to lead, so don't let other people choose that direction for you. There is no one-way path you should expect to take after college. There will be multiple detours along the way, and that's all a part of the journey. Pursue that journey whatever way you see fit for your life and lifestyle, and most importantly, find the balance, and enjoy the journey while you're on it.

Take a deep breath, because you're doing it right.