Before I began a ten-week web development program on campus this summer, my dad made me a proposition: If you hate it, he told me, call and let us know — you can come home. I remember laughing in response. I appreciated the fatherly support, but the entire notion seemed outlandish. Admitting I didn’t like the program and leaving partway through would be quitting. Quitting isn’t something we do.
When I say we, I mean Yale students as well as the rest of the gamut of high-intensity young adults. Just take a look at your neighbor’s iCal in lecture — I promise, someone around you is scheduling instead of note taking — and count the color blocks. Count the students at lunch who sigh emphatically and say, “God, I’m so busy, I just want sleep.” Count the dark under-eye circles and weary postures. Then count how many students can attest to genuinely loving each of their involvements — as far as I’ve found, the ratio is microscopic. But we keep doing what we’re doing, because commitment is the name of the game. Right?
It’s hard for us to qualify or compromise the commitment ideal, and for reasons that are generally noble. We heard the catchphrase “demonstrate commitment” enough in the college application process to know that the virtue is relentlessly conflated with many of the qualities society holds highest: duty, accountability, generosity, altruism. That incidentally poses commitment as antithesis — antidote, even — to the selfish and the indulgent, labels we scramble to eschew because they seem to verge on societal sin. In college, our obligations are often even higher-stakes; we’re raising funds, educating kids, maybe saving lives. With many of our activities, commitment and morality become more desperately entangled as we grow up.
There’s truth to the notion that commitment to challenging, not-always-a-bed-of-roses jobs builds resilience and teaches modesty. But I’m not particularly worried that Yale students face a shortage of tough, meaningful tasks — there are only so many gut classes. My concern is the very real threat of exhaustion and burnout. If we excuse our soaring levels of stress and sleep deprivation as part of the college experience, we’re demonstrating laziness and disinterest in the wellbeing of our entire community. We’re doing a disservice to our peers and ourselves.
Just as it becomes difficult to turn down opportunities due to a fear of missing out, our well-intentioned obsession with commitment makes quitting feel nearly impossible. Quitting is failure, or so we’ve been conditioned to believe. Occasionally that’s true, but given the high intensity of Yale schedules, I’m inclined to believe it’s a very necessary act — even a virtue.
When we set up a model of behavior that understands and accepts — even welcomes — the conscientious choice to quit an extracurricular or leave a job, we create a climate that values student wellbeing, focus and passion over minimized sleep schedules and maximized resumes. The college system purports to offer us freedom of extracurricular involvement and deep, meaningful scholarship. That’s only possible if we don’t feel ashamed to drop certain engagements.
This isn’t necessarily good practice for the “real world”; clearly a number of complicated factors, including financial and other material needs, make commitment crucial in certain situations. Even here that might also be the case for students, particularly those who hold part-time jobs. But on the whole, Yale isn’t exactly a microcosm of the post-graduation world. The particular stressors that academic life exerts are different from nearly anything else we can anticipate, and the rules for how we manage our non-academic lives should adjust accordingly. That means, at least for the time we spend at Yale, a more forgiving concept of what it means to quit — for our peers and for ourselves.
Caroline Posner is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.