Through the Looking Glass: The Consequences of Overcommitment

by Don Casler | 5/1/14 5:55pm

Ever since The Mirror added its “Through The Looking Glass” feature during my sophomore year, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I’d say if given the opportunity to write one of these pieces myself. I’ve written thousands of words in this newspaper, first as a columnist and then as an editor of the opinion section. I’ve also watched three graduating classes depart Dartmouth and fill these pages with prescient commentary, seemingly so much wiser than me and so profoundly different from when they first arrived in Hanover. Now that I’m about to walk in their shoes, I thought I might have collected some wisdom of my own to impart. I should theoretically be able to prove that I’ve learned something in my time here. Otherwise, what was the point of the last four years?

I’ve always been a little too focused on the future to totally live in the present. Yet we’ve now reached the time of year when seniors are expected to be reflective. One friend keeps reminding me how rapidly Commencement is approaching, a point after which I’ll have to start saying things like “I went to Dartmouth,” rather than “I go to Dartmouth.”

But as I reach back into these exhilarating four years, I am struck by how little good advice I have to pass on, in comparison to that which I have received. The image that I constructed of those sagacious upperclassmen has been mostly shattered by my own feelings of ineptitude as I face the impending doom of real life. I feel none of their great wisdom, none of the certainty about the lessons I should take away from Dartmouth. What has remained is the lingering paranoia I’ve felt since freshman year about how I was going to find a way to do Dartmouth wrong, how I’d never be able to repay the debt I had accumulated from picking the brains of those who came before me.

Perhaps it began on Trips, when I was introduced to two leaders who seemed to squeeze every ounce of excellence out of their college years and were eager to help me do the same. Maybe it was reinforced when I joined a fraternity, where I met older students whose diversity of experiences convinced me that I too would be as confident, self-aware and respected as they were by the time I grew to be a junior or senior. It was almost certainly influenced by being on a Croo to start my junior fall, as I forged wonderful new relationships with a group of ’13s who seemed so sure of themselves as they began their senior year. And it was definitely shaped by the executive positions that I assumed at The Dartmouth and in my fraternity as a junior, in which I was expected to be the one who held all the answers. I understood this to be the natural progression of your career in Hanover — the older you got, the more knowledge you accumulated and thus the more you had to give back to those who were coming after you. This was just how Dartmouth worked.

On Green Key Friday at the end of my freshman spring, I was sitting on the lawn in front of the ABCDs with the two people who I would still consider my best friends at Dartmouth, along with an ’11 who had taken us under his wing. As we sipped some Knob Creek and puffed on cigars, he mapped out Dartmouth for three wide-eyed freshmen. He told us that our jobs, first and foremost, were to learn and grow as people over the next three years. School was important, he said, but not nearly as crucial as what we were going to accomplish outside the classroom. I immediately internalized those words, which came from someone I deeply respected and who had clearly earned the wisdom he was dispensing. Attempting to maximize my personal learning and growth was the defining theme of my next two-plus years at Dartmouth.

But as I embarked on the journey from annoying freshman to wizened senior, I expected to unearth some profound revelations about what future Dartmouth held for me or pick up tidbits of advice that I could relay to some needy underclassmen at some point in the distance. I wanted desperately to pay it forward, to become the kind of person who a younger me would have looked up to. I owed him for my entire outlook on college life and since I couldn’t pay him back directly, I felt compelled to prepare for the day when I’d find myself in his shoes, speaking with some freshman that needed the perspective about Dartmouth that only a senior could offer.

In practice, I thought that meant seizing every opportunity to be involved and committed outside of the classroom. I had to collect the experiences that would be valuable to me and potentially to some younger peers at some nebulous place down the road. I didn’t find this impetus to be bizarre in the slightest, because nobody comes to Dartmouth just to go to school, right? I convinced myself that scheduling my day from the moment I woke up until I passed out at night wasn’t insanely masochistic, but rather good for my productivity, and more importantly, aligned with what I wanted to get out of and give back to Dartmouth.

So much has been written about overcommitment and the “busy trap,” and yet I managed to fall right into it. I finally broke down during senior fall. Over four days, I had to turn in my first assignment for my thesis, apply to more than a dozen jobs, finish over 300 pages of reading for a seminar and take a midterm, all while editing the opinion section and fulfilling my responsibilities as one of my fraternity’s social chairs. My worst fears had been realized. I’d become the poster child for how not to do Dartmouth. I was the type of person who spent all of his time thinking about where he had to be next rather than simply existing in the moment, too busy to catalogue or share much of what he was learning or doing.

In hindsight, I guess I had an extreme case of FOMO — I was so determined not to miss out on anything that I ended up missing out on a lot. For instance, I don’t have many distinct memories from my sophomore summer. I used to routinely pull all-nighters on Tuesdays during my junior winter and stumble through the rest of the week in a sleep-deprived haze. I never had those clichéd 3 a.m. conversations with my best friends that I’m supposed recall 30 years from now. I didn’t have time to stay up late unless I was working!

Dartmouth has taught me many things, but I never learned how to get stuck in a moment. How to capture and internalize the essence of a conversation with a close friend or an afternoon spent at the River, rather than merely trying to check all of these boxes to say that I did them. With this, I do not mean to create a stereotype for the Dartmouth experience, but rather acknowledge that there shouldn’t be one. In fact, based on what I’ve seen in myself and in my peers, the only thing that can be stereotypical about Dartmouth — and maybe all that I’ve learned — is how frighteningly natural it seems to bite off more than we can chew in the name of constructing that idyllic collegiate career.

I still don’t know whether the wise old senior is an illusion or if I merely did this all wrong.What I have figured out is that Dartmouth really boils down to time and how you choose to spend it, and I wasted a lot of it focused on the future rather than the present. Make no mistake — I have undying love for this school. But I also recognize that I let the ideal of the Dartmouth experience dictate how I approached these four years.

The only real wisdom I have for anyone who made it to the end of this column isn’t even original; it comes from a recording that most of us probably heard for the first time at Moosilauke Ravine Lodge during Trips. As Baz Luhrmann has told every incoming class for perhaps the last decade, “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it is worth.” Put differently, don’t make a habit of taking others’ experiences at their word. Only you have the power to make this place your own.