Critiquing our Achievement Culture

Dana Walden, Opinion Columnist

I am not successful. At least, I never feel successful, not here at Whitman. Like many on campus, I feel the constant pull to do more. I consistently ask myself: “Am I doing enough?” “Am I being productive?” “Is this really the best way to spend my time?” What is enough? What is productive? Several students, including myself, get caught up in the need to achieve — we feel pressure, whether self-instigated or institutionally perpetuated, to be successful. This pressure is not harmful to some — it can push students toward personal growth and ultimately improve their quality of life. For others, this pressure can precipitate unduly high self-expectations.

Like most colleges, Whitman is a center of activity. We are socially and intellectually engaged, and these engagements often overlap. We are a community of goal-oriented go-getters, where first years discuss detailed plans about grad school while downing shots of tequila. We are dynamic, multifaceted and unique to a fault. Whitman boasts about this quality in its advertisements and on the website, and many in our community take this to be a good thing. We have been taught that we are supposed to be industrious and mobile in this way.

Being active on campus is not the issue. Being hyperactive, however, is. Overcommitting oneself is never conducive to one’s mental or physical well being, and there are so many students at Whitman who overcommit themselves. It is becoming a campus-wide health crisis. This creates a toxic environment of overstressed and overworked students who are too busy to realize they are overstressed and overworked.

While there is value to the general business of our campus, this kind of environment creates in its population an unhealthy relationship with success and achievement. I was talking to a friend recently, and I asked him what he did around campus. He said, “Oh, nothing really,” and proceeded to claim he was incredibly lazy. After some prompting, I found out he was on two sports teams, fervently played guitar, had a job on campus and was taking some pretty hardcore STEM classes, not to mention anything of his social life. Nothing? My friend is constantly on his feet, balancing several interests and responsibilities, and yet he still feels lazy.

Instances like these are not isolated. When everyone around you appears to be living their best life, it increases the social compulsion to live your best life, and at Whitman, this means incessant involvement in just about anything. Whitman is notoriously non-competitive, but we still compare ourselves to others. We can’t help it — we are only human, and we will continue to measure ourselves against those we are surrounded by. When smart and capable people are surrounded by smart and capable people, the qualifications of being on par with your peers become exceedingly hard to meet. None of us want to feel inferior, so we do everything we can to avoid that feeling, even when doing so is detrimental to our own personal growth.

We cannot keep pushing ourselves. There is only so much time in a day, and we only have so much energy. We are limited beings who are encouraged to disregard those limits. We are expected to rise above expectation by our college, our community, and our world. I have no suggestions for how to address this prevalent and pervasive social condition; I am still struggling with the perception of achievement myself. I am acknowledging this issue because it is so inherent and integral to campus life that it has been widely ignored. We must figure out how to fix this together. Only then can we learn to resist the urge to achieve for achievement’s sake.