Pressure on success can add unnecessary stress


Personal success alone is not the key to happiness. This may seem obvious but in the daily hustle to get my articles in on times, get all As, work out and find time to practice my hobbies, I have often forgotten to enjoy the moment and live for today.

Our culture is notoriously competitive. This is not a new development. The New England work ethic, brought to the colonies by ultra-stringent puritans, looked down on any activity that was not worship or work.

Sociologist Max Weber’s classic work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” outlines how America’s protestant and puritan roots developed a culture of rugged individualism marked by lifelong dedication to work and competition.

“Calvinist believers were psychologically isolated,” wrote Weber. “Their distance from God could only be precariously bridged, and their inner tensions only partially relieved, by unstinting, purposeful labor.”

To be sure, deriving a sense of purpose from work is one of the most fulfilling feelings one can experience. “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself,” said Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology.

To work hard and prosper from one’s efforts is the American dream. Martin Luther King Jr. said “if a man is called a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well, that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a streetsweeper who did his job well.”

The problem comes when work becomes everything and we neglect our relationships, our mental and physical health and the need for reflection and respite. If there are four years, which are most determinant for the rest of life, it would either be high school or college. We need a distinguishing academic record to get good internships or get into grad school, so we can have the careers that we have always dreamed of.

However, this means completing that 12-page paper, the math presentation, your work-study obligations, and your club activities, all while finding time to sleep, exercise and have a social life. If you think that sounds daunting, you are not alone. According to a survey from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, 41.6 percent of college students experience anxiety and 36.4 percent experience depression.

Especially as an Early College student, I have felt an enormous pressure to be on top of everything all the time. In the times I felt alone, instead of reaching out to those who truly cared about me, I told myself that I did not need anybody else, and just buried myself in whatever project I was working on to distract myself from everything else. Weber’s observation that the Puritan desire to work hard arose out of psychological loneliness is one I find fascinating, because it is exactly how I responded.

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to traveling, find a job I love, and study at North Carolina’s Governor’s School. But things went off to an awful start. I had fall outs with several friends. A friend I had known since my childhood and helped with schoolwork all year texted me to let me know that he was not inviting me to his birthday party.

I felt alone and was angry at everyone. ‘Why is it that everyone else is so shallow,’ I asked myself. I began reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, her masterpiece philosophical novel. I became drawn to Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, a ruggedly individualistic ideology, which criticizes the idea of service for others.

In Rand’s world, we are all individually motivated, and self-serving by nature. To reject that is to reject the essence of human greatness. Notions of “service to mankind” and “brotherly love,” are inauthentic and grossly over exaggerated if not downright unnecessary. Your personal happiness, your success, is an end, not a mean. The novel recognizes the idea of self-actualization, but nothing further.

For a while, I came to believe that Rand was right. I gave everything I had to my work and writing, and the results were amazing. A play I wrote made it to the National Level of the National History Day Competition, I earned stipends from my internship and presented research in social psychology at the Governor’s School East.

I was happy, and I never imagined that there was anything greater than the feeling of accomplishment. But I was riding on a wave, and eventually the wave burst. Life happened and my old anxieties crept back up again. These past weeks, I have been beating myself up inside for losing focus and falling off my productivity high.

I expressed how I felt to several close friends, and they reminded me that I am valued and loved. I realized that success is not a healthy measuring stick for self-worth because we cannot be successful at all times. Even the most ambitious of us will have times when we fail to live up to our own goals.

In those times, it is important to have a support network of friends to lift you up.  So if you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or just plain down, do not try to go it alone and do not beat yourself up further. Make time to reconnect with those who matter. No man is an island and your value is not dependent on your money, your GPA, your test scores or anything else. Whatever might happen, just learn from it and keep going. Things do get better.