Can we just take things slow?

Novi Zhukovsky ’22 demystifies Dartmouth’s work hard, play hard culture.

by Novi Zhukovsky | 5/20/22 3:15am

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by Gabe Quealy / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2022 Spring special issue.

Work hard, play hard: The cliche that many Dartmouth students enthusiastically use to characterize the College’s social and academic culture. Yesterday you stayed in the library from 1 p.m. until 1 a.m., left the Stacks to attend your sorority meetings only to come back and finish your essay slightly buzzed? Light work. Took an all-nighter to finish up a CS problem set and then crushed half a dozen keystones at a darty? Your dark circles are a badge of honor. Sometimes it seems like we romanticize the cycle of working ourselves to near exhaustion, drinking and repeating. 

It is common knowledge that our fast-paced 10-week terms affect academic timelines. But also, maybe less obviously, the D-Plan impacts how we design our social lives on campus. Ten weeks doesn’t give us much time to progress burgeoning relationships before we are interrupted by a break and then return to campus with a shifted schedule and new commitments. The quick turnaround can make it feel like we have to be constantly working to develop friendships or romantic pursuits before they fizzle out. Our productivity-oriented mindsets induced by the fast-paced term make every moment of free time seem like an event we have to maximize; if we aren’t going hard –– either drinking, dancing or pursuing a hookup –– the opportunity cost of being away from our work may not be worth it. And with such intense academic pressure, many feel the need to –– bringing up another cliche –– “blow off steam.”

With over 60% of the student body involved in Greek Life, much of this activity happens within Greek spaces. This usually entails drinking to excess, forgetting academic or social woes, being reckless both physically and emotionally. And yet, with music so loud you can barely hear yourself think, it’s also the least conducive environment for fostering real friendships. Ok, I know you decided that you are best friends with those two girls who held the bathroom stall door for you in Beta, but will you actually recognize them when you see them walking across the Green? And that cute boy you made out with at Psi U — did you manage to squeeze out any meaningful words in between breaths? I know the answer to those questions, because I have done these things. And the answer is no. 

Although drinking is not a requirement of spending time in a Greek space, being sober sure does affect the experience. After dabbling in sobriety for a few weeks this past winter term, I came to the conclusion that a frat basement is simply a sober nightmare. When you’re fully aware of the guy who just burped up a White Claw in your face, the many instances of being stepped on by large men and your sweaty friends giving you bear hugs, a few stiff drinks can seem more delectable than a gooey Foco cookie. And the drinking-Greek space cycle feeds into itself; you drink because you’re in a Greek house, and you’re in a Greek house because you want a place to drink. 

Truthfully, Dartmouth’s “Animal House” reputation initially deterred me from applying. I am not a fast and furious person. I enjoy leisurely mornings, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper; my usual bedtime is a ripe 11 p.m.; I am generally averse to any kind of cramming, rushing or stressing. While I do like to “go out,” I also enjoy lazy evenings with friends — perhaps even more. But I had decided that the other parts of Dartmouth that I fell in love with during my campus tour made it worth the risk that the reputation rang true. 

Despite my original apprehension, I quickly became swept up in the excitement of going out. I drank a lot my freshman year. My fresh and energetic body luckily never left me too hungover to function, but the cycle of work to hard-core play took an emotional toll. The exhausting process of heavy drinking and constantly chasing a “scene” left me feeling unfulfilled and somewhat disillusioned by my friendships. I got the impression that my friends only wanted to hang out in a place where we could be seen and were never willing to spend time together, just us. Obviously, not all friend groups at Dartmouth are like this. However, many Dartmouth students I know have shared similar experiences and feelings of dissatisfaction with their friendships due to going-out culture. 

Maybe those former friends actually can “blow off steam” in a frat basement. But from my experience, going out and drinking does little to actually relieve any of the social and academic pressure –– it just makes us forget it exists for a little bit. And even so, the anxiety still festers in our subconscious and with an alcohol-induced lack of inhibition, can drive us to act out.

I also found toxicity within the “work hard” aspect of Dartmouth. As an overachieving high schooler who was constantly anxious about work, I knew I wanted to reduce the pressure I placed on myself when I entered college, focusing less on grades and more on studying for the sake of learning. I assumed that others would be doing the same. Instead, I found myself surrounded by students who were constantly feeding off of each other’s academic anxiety and practically competing for who could grind the hardest or stay in the library the latest. 

That’s not to say that Dartmouth isn’t an academically challenging school, because it is. But I think that Dartmouth students love to egg each other on to create stress, rather than diffuse it. While our tendency to toss around “I’m fine” isn’t the most constructive, I don’t think that it should be mindlessly replaced with “I’m stressed,” either. Because in such a high-achieving environment, stress is contagious, and not being stressed can induce a fear of not working hard enough. I also suspect that the “work hard” culture feeds into our “play hard” culture, as the academic pressure creates an even greater need for finding some kind of social release. And since being drunk works as both a distraction to the stress and an excuse to give yourself a break (assuming most people can’t study for an exam while sloshed), it makes excessive alcohol consumption a favored pastime.

I don’t really have a solution to offer, aside from maybe suggesting that we could all do well to work and play a little less hard. Not everything we do needs to fulfill some kind of goal or tangible objective, whether it be academic achievement or social clout. Spend some time alone. Go on a long walk along the river, or maybe wander around the Hood Museum for a bit. You can also choose to do nothing at all; that’s good, too. Let utility maximization stay in the economics textbook you use to prop up your head while lying on the Green and soaking up the glorious sunshine. Your to-do lists and social calendars will still be there when you get up, but no need to let them plague you all the time — and especially not right now. I’ll come join you in a minute. 

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