Harrison: Save Yourself The Stress

In a world of trade-offs, don’t underestimate the value of taking time for yourself.

by Michael Harrison | 9/7/21 4:20am

This column is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.

In the Dartmouth bubble, students like myself are conditioned to believe that success is independent of character. What matters most is the outcome, not the effort that an individual student puts into their work and studies — or that outcome’s relation to a student’s potential. While my values, identity and personal satisfaction are just as important as the things I list on a resume, that is not always recognized by others. Students seem to be constantly chasing a prestigious internship, academic accolade or Greek house affiliation. And once they get one item checked off the list, it’s on to the next. 

But as we all emerge from the pandemic and the Class of 2025 acclimates to Dartmouth, we have the ability to resist the unnecessarily competitive nature of academic and social life. As a prospective economics major myself, I believe the concept of diminishing marginal returns best illustrates an important takeaway from my freshman year: At a certain point, the additional benefit derived from putting in an additional fixed amount of effort starts to fall off. From my perspective, many Dartmouth students seem to expend great amounts of effort to win “rewards” that offer additional social and academic benefits that just aren’t worth the trouble — and load themselves with tons of unnecessary stress in the process. In doing so, they run the risk of missing the forest for the trees, forgetting that there is an actual person behind their efforts, who needs free time to relax in order to enjoy the fruits of their labor. At a certain point, you are better off focusing your attention inward: spending more time with friends and family and doing things that might not win the praise of your classmates, but are more meaningful in the long run. So, if there’s one thing I want to stress, it's the following: Don’t stress yourself out trying to “win” the competitive games that your time at Dartmouth will put in your path, because you can’t win at anything if stress consumes you.

Before my freshman fall this past year, I was not truly aware of just how pervasive Dartmouth’s  competitive social and academic pressures would be. Of course, I was aware of the stereotypes — that economics majors were cutthroat, that pre-med students did not have time for healthy social lives, that one cannot have good grades and adequate sleep and a social life, among others — however harmless and jocular they may have seemed. But it wasn’t until I was thrown into the deep end of college that I realized how such stereotypes were not only based in reality, but were also quite harmful. 

Taking three major-level economics classes in my first year was hard enough, as was moving away from my younger brother, who struggles with several physical and mental disabilities. But having to perform at a rigorous academic standard while struggling to fit in as a queer, first-generation student brought me unhealthy amounts of stress that threatened to derail my social and academic efforts. As someone who shares the aforementioned identities, I am accustomed to having stressors in my life that others do not. But I’m afraid that even for those who arrive at Dartmouth without having experienced this type of  stress in their lives, Dartmouth’s competitive pressures present obstacles to “thriving” and “fitting in.” 

It goes without saying that Hanover is remote, so finding camaraderie early on becomes essential to one’s success. But despite what I had in common with many of my classmates, I struggled to find my place for one main reason: a lack of time. I suppose I was so caught up studying for my econ midterms and trying to understand Dartmouth’s social hierarchy that I couldn’t dedicate enough time to less stressful — and more wholesome — endeavors. But, in all fairness, many of my peers were also pressed for time — which made genuine interactions even harder to come by. 

I must also recognize the tragedies of the past year when weighing the rewards with the risks of dedicating more time to yourself. The Dartmouth community was forced to mourn the unexpected losses of four undergraduate students this past year — including three freshmen who died by suicide, Beau DuBray, Connor Tiffany and Elizabeth Reimer, and Lamees Kareem, a member of the Class of 2022 who died from a medical condition unrelated to COVID-19. Speaking from personal experience — and the experiences of peers — Dartmouth’s fast-paced, competitive culture is not conducive to good mental health. Nor does the school have the adequate resources to assist students in need. As such, students ought to carefully consider the effects of trying to be “the best” at all costs.

Imposter syndrome is also a very real phenomenon at Dartmouth, particularly for students from marginalized backgrounds. Feelings of inadequacy — despite putting forth my best effort — and a sense that I didn’t belong at Dartmouth plagued me during my first two terms. While my confidence level did improve in the spring, it was only after two grueling terms of social isolation and lower-than-expected grades that I was able to see the value that my presence brought to those around me and to the College. 

To bring in another economic concept, there is a great opportunity cost to judging yourself by your accomplishments — especially those you plan to list on a resume. When the going gets tough, you’ll need to know that you have value, regardless of how stressful you decide to make your life. You belong at Dartmouth regardless of what grade you get in an individual class, the number of followers you have on Instagram or the prestige of the internship you’re lucky enough to have already lined up for next year. (Yes, that was meant sarcastically — only at schools like Dartmouth, it seems, do students regularly secure jobs and internships over a year in advance.) Put another way, the opportunity cost  — what you forfeit by overstressing — may very well be your own sanity. 

Going into the next year, post-pandemic Dartmouth offers us all a chance to reintroduce ourselves as more genuine, compassionate and sensible people. And, just as reducing stress made spring term more pleasant for me, alleviating some of the pressures that consume our lives can help us get there. An important step in this direction is realizing everything is likely to work out just fine — no matter the sleepless nights, endless grinding and social anxiety. 

Many Dartmouth students care about their post-college standing in society. They worry about securing a decent-paying job, having a relatively high social status and perhaps one day sending their own kids to a school like Dartmouth. As the first in my family to go to college, I am guilty of this myself. For all of us, subscribing to this version of Dartmouth comes with the promise of unlocking these returns in due time.

However, for all this and the concomitant stress, what’s missing is context. As a first-generation college student, I can appreciate the fact that the majority of American adults do not hold a college degree. Most Americans also don’t work on Wall Street, nor do they live in the upscale suburbs of New York and Connecticut. In fact, just being at Dartmouth already places me well ahead of the average person. The marginal benefit that one derives from four stressful years at Dartmouth — as opposed to four more leisurely-paced years at another college — is nominal. On the other hand, the marginal benefit associated with taking time to unwind and finding a sense of community is great.

I will admit that I came to Dartmouth believing that majoring in something “popular” like economics would allow me to fit in more easily, even if doing so might be stressful. I thought “following the crowd” might lead me to stability and security during my college years and beyond. I was sadly mistaken: It can never be that simple. Ultimately, fulfillment comes from within. While I still intend to major in economics, I can now appreciate the discipline for what it’s worth: not just as a stressful means to a professional end, but as a way of understanding the complexities of the world around us. There is no doubt a human element to the implementation of the kinds of economic theories and policies that are regularly thrown about in political discourse that I’d love to be more familiar with. I hope to concentrate in labor economics — rather than finance — and perhaps even get involved with research in the department this upcoming year. 

I hope that incoming freshmen will realize, as I have, that there is so much more to college than spending your time taking experiences and opportunities only for their outcomes. Each member of the Class of 2025 should carve out a niche role for themselves at Dartmouth that does not resolve around constant studying, performative social media posting or “yielding” to the competitive social pressures that are bound to accumulate down the road.

I want to end by emphasizing that my identity as a queer, first-generation student matters to me not because it sets me apart from the crowd, but because it makes me a unique human being. It can be easy to lose one’s sense of identity in a sea of affluent, extremely motivated, almost “superhuman” Dartmouth classmates. But we must remember that for all the stress that goes into “keeping up” with those around us, we are moving farther away from our roots — the version of ourselves to whom we should remain loyal.

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