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Keeping busy to ourselves

“You look terrible! How much sleep did you get last night?”

This is a weird question to entertain for two reasons. Firstly, because it strikes a fine balance between concern and backhanded slight, and I don’t know the kind of impression it is supposed to give off. Secondly, and more importantly, because I know where the conversation is headed.

“Less than four hours, so I feel really tired right now. I was actually up Sky—”

“Oh, I can totally imagine. I’ve been having a rough week, too. I have 31 papers and then a presentation for my [insert name of language course here] due tonight, and then, you know, my popular and exclusive dance group has practice for 26 hours a day, and I also need to set up for the XYZ conference that I am running for the highly selective business organization you tried out for earlier this year but didn’t get into.”

“—ping with my parents. Just talking and catching up.”

“Oh, well how lucky. I never have the time to do that sort of stuff anymore. Not all of us are so fortunate.”

Okay, so maybe I’ve employed a bit of hyperbole in the imagined conversation above, but the point I’m trying to get across is very real: We Princeton students love to glamorize how busy we are. There is a sense of pride that we feel when we recount precisely how much work we have to do, and how important that work is. Be it problem sets, papers, presentations and readings for classes, extracurricular commitments or even social interactions, it is automatically assumed that the busier one is, the closer we are to doing Princeton the ‘right’ way.

Prianka Misra’s column from over a year ago also talks about this phenomenon. She considers it part and parcel of Princeton life, our mechanism to induce “healthy competition” among our peers, and to serve as a “stress reliever” against the workload we bear. I have a more cynical view on this.

Complaining about how busy one is uses workload and its associated stress to appear to be agitated, while actually bragging about it — linking workload with success and making sure everyone knows this.

Let me clarify something. I don’t mean to assert that Princeton students aren’t under a lot of pressure. Sleep is rightly considered a luxury on many nights. I do not think, however, that being busy is not an automatic sign of success. The “once in a lifetime opportunity” argument that is often touted in support for being involved in a multitude of things on campus can be flipped, too. This is also a once in a lifetime opportunity for self-growth, to reach out to peers around you, to have conversations, to discover passions beyond items that can make our résumé’s shinier.

My other issue is with the way we advertise all that we do. With thinly veiled, halfhearted attempts at hiding this self-promotion with complaining, we constantly try to validate our actions and larger experience by letting people know exactly how busy — and hence how on top of our work — we are. Of course, boasting openly about one’s achievements became socially unacceptable after middle school, but this alternative isn’t much better either. Not only is it a cheap attempt to cover boasting behind a façade, it is a symptom of a larger culture at Princeton.

I have seen it in the disdainful looks I receive when I tell people that I did nothing “productive” (used in a strictly one-dimensional way) that day, or in their fake bouts of jealousy at how much free time I seem to have. Come on, we both know that you’re not jealous at all. In fact, it is quite the opposite. This becomes even more ridiculous when other less-than-appetizing facets of campus life are mixed with this. Complaining about the work assigned to us by selective groups is not just that we have a lot of work, but also that only we were deemed worthy of this work.

This kind of peer pressure forces one model of success upon everyone and discourages alternate lifestyle by equating busyness with success and hence free time with failure. It brings the already widespread competitiveness on campus to everyday conversation, and breeds a sense of deflation among those not doing enough by these exacting standards. We carry our busy schedules on our sleeves, ready to spontaneously erupt into a soliloquy about how awful (read: awesome) our lives are, and by extension and perhaps more worryingly, how unsuccessful those who aren’t quite so busy are.

I think that it’s important that we all chill out a little, and take the time to make free time. And if that is too hard, we can at least keep it to ourselves.

Ali Akram Hayat is a sophomore from Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at ahayat@princeton.edu.

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