I am a high school student and a high academic achiever: I am used to getting high results in exams and teachers’ praise. I spend a lot of time studying, and sometimes I feel like I’m not spending enough time being a teenager with my friends and am wasting these years of my life.
How can I balance my need to achieve with being able to live in the moment and enjoy life while I’m young? Do I have to sacrifice one for the other or is there another way?
Eleanor says: Yeats said: “The intellect of man is forced to choose: perfection of the life, or of the work.” He was wrong, but only just. You don’t have to sacrifice one, but do you have to work hard every day to make sure you don’t.
You’re already noticing that time spent working is time not spent with friends. That time cost will get worse as you get older – between achievement-hunting and financial or familial responsibilities, “seize the day” often means seize the only hour left. Many an achiever has woken up aged 30, 50, 70, and wondered where all their friends and fond memories are.
The thing schools don’t teach is that friends and fond memories take as much cultivation as any achievement. You’d never expect to play a concerto first go, but we expect young people to already know how to cultivate relationships and meaningful experiences. Or worse, we expect they require no cultivation and will self-generate in the space between “serious” commitments.
Believe me: they won’t.
My advice is to work out exactly why you spend your time like this and see if you endorse what you come up with. Make sure it’s because achievements get you something you think is crucial to a life well-lived. It could be money, learning, opportunity to go to bigger and better places – just be sure it’s a choice, not a habit.
Then don’t let the amount of work you do subvert that goal. It’s perilously easy to forget that the point of having money or knowledge is to have a life well-lived and then let the other parts of life wither in the search for that money and knowledge. Smart people make this dumb mistake all the time, chasing the means to an end so much they forget the end altogether.
The trick is to see your day, not your life, as the place where you enact your priorities.
Every day there will be one more flashcard, one more email, one more task you could do. Teach yourself to stop even though there’s more to do. Think of things someone would do if they were missing out on life and promise yourself you won’t do them: “I won’t cancel on a friend’s birthday” or “I won’t speak to my family as though I’m the protagonist and my work is the plot.”
It might be reassuring to know that giving slightly less time to work doesn’t mean achieving less. I have been lucky to know some seriously achieving people in my life from Rhodes scholars to Nobel prize and Pulitzer prize winners. None of them are in their office at 11pm flapping papers. They would not have had the energy and tenacity for greatness if they were.
The aesthetic of being busy prizes exhaustion and self-involvement, neither of which actually make you better at what you do. You do not have to choose between life and work – both will be helped by making time for the other.
But you have to make the time. The outline of a day – not the outline of your life – is where to start. Life’s greatest insights have a habit of sounding stone obvious when said out loud, and this one’s no exception: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.