Overcommitment is the new mark of success and stress levels are a social competition. How did these become our priorities and at what cost?
A crucial plot point in most recent conversations I’ve had on campus is comparing who’s more stressed and who’s overloaded themselves the most. No matter the subject of conversation, at some point the topic is bound to shift to an exhaustive list of assignments, commitments, and tasks.
In these conversations, high stress levels are a badge of honor, overcommitment is a measure of drive, and burnout is a given. We’ve turned our workloads into a competition, and we measure success by who has spread themselves the thinnest.
Societal pressures have created a culture that celebrates overcommitment and creates high standards for success. The result is a generation of college students that are burnt out and unmotivated before they’ve even entered the workforce or started their careers.
Part of this culture of overcommitment stems from a shift in the way young people perceive what’s expected of them.
In a study on the rise in perfectionism in younger generations, author Thomas Curran found that college students’ perceptions of excessive expectations from others have dramatically risen in the past 30 years. The result is that college students are more likely to compare their accomplishments to their peers in a system of meritocracy in which competition is seen as a necessary evil to socially and economically advance.
“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” said Curran. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves.”
Overcommitting yourself in response to heightened expectations of success is an unsustainable way to live. Since one person can only do so much, assignments are inevitably bound to slip through the cracks and quality of work will decrease.
Clinical psychologist Tony de Gouveia told Huffington Post that putting so much pressure on success can quickly become detrimental to our mental health.
“When we fail in a particular project or event, this invariably affects our sense of self-esteem,” said de Gouveia. “As a result, we tend to perceive ourselves — our person — as failures, rather than limiting the feeling of failure to a specific disappointment in our lives. Over time this can develop into depression and anxiety.”
The high stress levels experienced by Generation Z adults reflect a manifestation of failure that ultimately results in negative mental health responses.
The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America study reports that Gen Z adults have significantly higher stress levels than those of past generations. Furthermore, 87% of Gen Z adults in college indicate “their education is a significant source of stress.”
There’s no objective way to define success since it means something different to each person. However, the evidence that students are turning to a meritocratic system of personal value signifies that the modern view of success includes excelling educationally to land a prestigious job that will pay lucratively.
In a sense, success has come to mean competing to achieve more than others even if it involves negative mental health repercussions.
Justin Watson, a computer science major graduating in December, has a different view of what success looks like.
“Society’s obsession with success stems from a flawed understanding of how to obtain it,” said Watson. “To me, success is a holistic accomplishment. Financial stability is definitely important, but so is being content in your current situation and finding fulfilling work. This is always easier when you know your value is not conditional.”
Watson’s view of success points out a healthier way to find fulfillment in life than pursuing success through overcommitment. Instead of placing personal value on his ability to achieve or his merits compared to his peers, Watson understands his personal value as something independent of others’ perceptions or others’ expectations.
Rather than spreading ourselves to the breaking point to achieve unattainable goals, we must work towards balanced lives by shifting our view of success to a more holistic version of fulfillment.
In an article for Inside Higher Ed, author Steven Mintz argues that colleges must respond to the issue of overextension to combat the mental effects institutionalized pressures place on students.
Mintz’s suggestions for colleges are as follows: “Address the problem head-on … Make co-curricular and extracurricular activities more integral parts of degree pathways. Adopt course designs that discourage cramming. Eliminate high stakes tests that encourage students to vacillate between cramming and blowing off steam. Instead, encourage more frequent lower-stakes assessments and projects that culminate over time.”
It’s time for college students to be real with themselves. Stretching yourself thin and taking on unnecessary stress isn’t the ideal vision of success; it’s simply self-sabotage.
We must flip our conceptions of success. Stress levels are not a competition, overcommitment is a sign to reevaluate your priorities, and burnout is to be avoided at all costs. Mental health is a higher priority than a lucrative career path, and personal value isn’t conditional on accomplishments.