Having spent most of my career on college campuses (I’ve basically never left since I got my undergraduate degree in 1984), I’ve had the opportunity to meet amazing students. Their list of achievements never ceases to astonish me. But at the same time, their remarkable successes concern me. I worry that in their race to collect awards to bloat their already swollen resumes, they lose sight of the point of it all. What will happen when everything they do isn’t graded? What will happen when they reach their goals but there’s not another award in sight? How will they find fulfillment?
As the Writer in Residence at Yale School of Medicine, I read a lot of essays. One of my second-year medical students penned a piece that articulates the pressures that she and her peers feel. But she also offers advice—words of wisdom that she is trying to follow and hoping others will too. I’m happy to post her essay as a guest piece on my blog:
HAMSTER WHEELS: BREAKING THE CYCLE
BY CHAARUSHI AHUJA
When we were younger, my sister wanted a hamster, but my parents were quick to deny her request. They had heard too many frustrated stories from other parents who were annoyed by the critter’s incessant spinning in place. They found the hamsters’ habit of tirelessly chasing the ladder in front of its eyes to be pointless, and so they figured, not interesting, for a pet.
Ten years out, it baffles me that the quality my parents rejected in a hamster is what we are now embracing as a society. When I look around, I see young people, like my peers and me, running on our own wheels, pursuing fleeting goals with no real end or pauses in sight.
The National College Health Assessment reported recently that 60% of current college students felt “extreme anxiety” within the last two months of the survey. Younger generations, the Gen Z-ers and millennials, consistently report the highest levels of stress compared to any other generation so far.
The number should shock me. But it doesn’t.
It’s because what my generation often takes pride in is our relentless ability to collect accomplishments. We win some and then wake up the next day to keep winning some more. We don’t take breaks; we are constantly plugged in, constantly accessible, and constantly on the go. Our drive is applaudable. It brings about innovation, inventions and positive changes in our world. But it comes at the cost of our own sanity.
When I started medical school last year, I felt immense pride for all the hard work, sweat and tears that went into getting admitted. I beamed at the white coat ceremony, excited to enter training for a profession that I had been dreaming of for years. My enthusiasm, though, was short-lived.
One week into school and I moved on from my “win” and was already thinking of goals that lay ahead. What research should I do? What was my strategy for the next time I would have to apply and get admitted? In other words, what was going to be my next set of accomplishments that would shine on my wall, lead to respect, and maybe give me the same rush of excitement that I had gotten when I got my letter of acceptance.
This story, consciously or subconsciously, applies to almost everyone I know. We are running and running, until the thrill of the chase turns to utter stress, which morphs (for three out of five) into a health hazard: extreme anxiety. The irony, for me, is that I’m training to be a healer.
So, to prevent this pervasive culture from seeping into my life, here’s my new goal: I vow to create time for “reset weekends”. Once every month or two, I disconnect from my work completely; I hop off my hamster wheel and just sit in my cage. I go and find hobbies and passions that give me as much satisfaction as the thought of winning or accomplishing does. On my last reset weekend, I played badminton with my family, checked my phone a mere 4 times that day (a decrease of about 196% ), journaled extensively for 3 hours, and read a novel that had been on my mind for months.
These weekends strengthen my drive. I retune by reflecting on my actions and why the goals I am chasing are meaningful. I pause the journey, and make sure that I am not just spinning, but rather moving forward in a meaningful and satisfying way.
Resetting doesn’t have to be entire weekends; it can be a day, or mere hours—as long as the time reprograms the pursuit and revitalizes it to be more meaningful. One of my friends resets by taking week long vacations twice a year. Although not frequent enough and too long for my taste, it works for him. He is incredibly productive, healthy, and content.
Just imagine this: what if each one of us took moments to hop off the hamster wheel to celebrate, to feast, and to appreciate how far our hard work has taken us. Then rather than downtrodden hamsters fatigued by the constant squeak, squeak, squeak, we all stepped on again, refueled, reenergized, and re-motivated.