Growing Up in University

And Why Saving Time for Yourself is so Important

Posted by Jacob Power on August 11th, 2020

University is a time of great – and sometimes overwhelming – change. Our social circles and schools change, we see our family and high school friends less, and for some our lives are completely uprooted. We become subjected to higher academic pressures, and are surrounded by what can seem like crowds of highly productive over-achievers. University is also when we experience another change.

For most people this period of time encompasses our psychological transition from our adolescent years to adulthood. This transition is extremely important to our wellbeing, and it is important that we reserve the time and energy to acknowledge, welcome, and foster this change. To be frank, we need to make sure that we “grow up” properly.

So far, we have grown up in an education system that emphasizes our productivity, or what we output into the world, much more than our own personal growth and mental health. Traditional education, and basically all of western society is extremely results-oriented, focusing success on things like final grades rather than the journey of problem solving itself.

A lot of organizations love to share stories of their most successful students. This person created a tech start-up in their second year of university, that person is leading the charge for some noble cause, this person graduated top of their class. The list goes on. We see this idolization everywhere. From school and social media all the way to Hollywood, we are surrounded by examples of the world’s most “extraordinary” people.

But the problem is, the vast majority of life is very unextraordinary. Very few people actually find themselves in the upper echelons of human exceptionalism. But because we’re exposed to it so much, we begin to feel entitled to be exceptional; we normalize it, and because the vast majority of us are indeed average, we feel unworthy and unvalued.

I’m not saying we will never be successful or above average at something. All I’m saying is that exceptionalism should not be our main focus in life, and we should not tie our self-worth to it.

This is because it is very easy to let it control our lives. Without the right values, we can lose sight of all the other aspects of who we are, leaving many parts of us undeveloped in this grind for success. This can lead to something called hustle culture, or as I like to call it, productivity panic.

Productivity panic is when we become so driven to produce great results that we let it overtake our lives. We define ourselves by our achievements and how hard we work. We save little to no time to reflect on who we are outside of that work, and we unintentionally push our friends and family away in the process. A lot of people have been there. From my experience, it can lead to overwhelming stress and diminishing self-worth.

By engaging in productivity panic, we try to emulate these extraordinary examples without thinking of the personal values we should develop to not just be successful, but to lead meaningful, enriching lives outside of our external achievements.

I’m going to say that again. We must think of the personal values that will lead us to live meaningful, enriching lives outside of our external achievements. Overlooking this can leave us feeling extremely inadequate and incapable of meeting what we believe to be the standard for social and personal value.

Here’s why productivity panic is so damaging: if I’m not the best or most successful, if I’m not constantly working on that project, then I am not living up to my potential and am therefore a failure. In the months or years it will take us to maybe accomplish that big goal, we will likely devalue ourselves because getting there takes a lot of failure. As soon as we accomplish it, we are left without a goal and will likely feel the same way we did before.

What we have done is prioritize our external achievements over other, better values like honesty, compassion, creativity, and humility, and used those achievements as a metric to define our self-worth. A bad choice.

So then how are we supposed to know what values are good and which ones are bad? What metrics should we use to asses ourselves against these values? Should we just give up on our academic and career goals altogether? After all, we would still like to be successful and contribute to the world.

To answer that, I’m going to let the experts speak for themselves. My all-time favourite self-help book is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. Without exaggeration it has fundamentally changed the way I prioritize my values, and helped me realize the steps I needed to take to get out of the most anxiety-ridden and lowest part of my life. You should read it.

In his book, Manson says that:

Good values “are immediate and controllable and engage you with the world as it is rather than how you wish it were.”

And bad values “are generally reliant on external events [… that] lie outside of your control.”

Manson also says that the best values are ones that give you good problems. Our entire life will inevitably be a long process of figuring things out, so we should pick values that give us problems we don’t mind thinking about. By being selective of our values and choosing to only focus on them, we automatically limit the things we have to care about.

As an example of a poor value, say yours was to “be successful at X”. Well, in order to be successful at X, you must be better than other people at X. So now we start comparing ourselves to the successes of others, and we use that as a metric to assess our self-worth. But the successes of others are out of our control and our self-worth is now at the mercy of other people. You can see how this doesn’t end well.

I’ll give you an example from my personal life. I am currently the VP Academic for the UBC Engineering Undergraduate Society. I am one of the main student contact points for faculty and I advocate on behalf of our students on a whole range of issues, with the help of several committees that I lead. It can be stressful. But the value that this role helps me pursue is not “being influential” or “being a successful leader”. One of the main values I’ve chosen in my life is compassion: caring about the struggles of other people and making a genuine effort to help them. This does not rely on what others do or think; it only relies on my attempts to listen and care about what others are going through. Every time I do that, I am working towards my goal and I feel accomplished. As a result, this role is rewarding - despite the stress - because I am constantly working towards a core value that does not diminish my self-worth, and that I am in complete control of.

So, how do we grow up? How do we live meaningful lives? How do we deal with the oftentimes overwhelming pressures of life?

  1. Evaluate how you are feeling. Like, actually think about it. What is the feeling and why do you feel that way? Negative emotions are signals that there is a problem that needs to be resolved. Figuring out why these problems exist can lead us to discover faults in our core values and our definition of successes and failures.
  2. Think explicitly about the values you live by. Write them down. Criticize them. And be honest. Answer these questions:

    • Are these values genuinely helping you become a better person? Or,
    • Do they make you feel bad about yourself?
    • Do they rely on the actions of others?
    • Are they out of your complete control?

If your answer was “yes” to any of those last three questions, you need to have an honest conversation with yourself on how you can reframe your values to help you, rather than work against you.

Once you know what those values are, and you have chosen healthy metrics to assess your progress towards those values, you have begun the process of reprioritizing your life. You have refocused your goals to include only the most meaningful parts of life.

I say “begun”, because this never really ends. We should always be revisiting our values and our metrics. And if we have chosen our values correctly, they will be broad enough and vague enough that we will always be working to achieve them. The best values are never 100% achievable; they always provide us with a way to improve and grow, in ways that are in our control.

This, my friends, is the core of growing up and becoming mature, healthy adults.

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