It’s been more than two weeks since my last column. I have had ample time to think about a topic, to write a rough draft, to set aside a few hours to bang out 700 words or so. Instead, it’s Tuesday night and I haven’t started. My column was technically due today. I used to be the editor in charge of this section: I know how this is supposed to work. I need to put in at least a token amount of effort, because otherwise, it’s a failure on my part as a columnist. Or at least I need to look like I put in effort. But I’m starting right now, that is to say, 11:23 p.m., Tuesday night.
So, let’s talk about procrastination!
I personally procrastinated on writing this column because of a combination of apathy and perfectionism. I didn’t have a good idea for a column that wasn’t either uncomfortably personal or too broad a topic, and I knew that worst come to worst, I could spend half an hour writing and have a passable draft. Mediocrity was assured, and if I put off writing this long enough, then mediocrity would be my only option and I wouldn’t feel guilty about pursuing it. It would be a ready-made excuse.
We don’t typically think of apathy and perfectionism as going together, but I’d argue that maybe that’s the exact sort of personal trait that Penn attracts and cultivates — and what Penn students end up embodying. I’m not an outlier. There is the assumption at Penn that if you’re not doing something at all times, you’re falling behind. That is to say, “Penn has no chill” — if we do anything we do it either to the max, or at least we appear to do so.
If you tell a society that its inhabitants have to be “on” and constantly competing — hello, Penn having the fewest days off in the Ivy League — then you create several different mindsets in the population. Those who buy into the contest and earnestly pursue it, those who completely dismiss the contest and ignore it and those who buy into the contest and just “show up” because they know that this is how the system works. The outcome of these mentalities is not necessarily negative. There’s no moral imperative attached to any of these.
But at the same time, each of these mindsets have negative outcomes when taken to the extreme — and as stated, Penn students take everything to the extreme. Taken to their logical conclusions, these worldviews lead to decidedly unhealthy situations. One leads to perfectionism, the other two lead to apathy. And because these routes aren’t mutually exclusive, you get a perfect storm that leads to generally mediocre results.
Others have written about how Penn’s over-competitive culture is unhealthy or stressful, and I’m not going to make the fallacy of equating Penn’s culture with the cause of the mental health issues that exist on campus. But at the same time, I do think that Penn and the constant culture of one-upmanship which exists whether you buy into it or not, does not produce people who are best equipped to navigate the world after college. Excess in either direction is unhealthy.
Of course, this construct I’ve created is an oversimplification, and even more egregiously, I’m criticizing without offering any solution. I don’t have an alternative, other than to suggest that a culture that allows room for error, for uncertainty, for imperfection would perhaps be kinder and lead to better balanced, less neurotic and single-minded people. I think in some ways, the culture at Penn prepares us well for the workplace, not for life as a human being.
I know it’s anathema at Penn to ever admit uncertainty, but I’m not completely sure whom I’m criticizing for this culture’s existence, or whether I should be criticizing anyone at all. Should I blame the administration for the long semesters and short breaks? Should I blame the social scene? Should I blame the fact that most Penn students are coming from the top of their classes in high school and we’ve all internalized the idea that anything other than perfection is failure?
That being said, I suppose there is something to be said for a culture that assumes that everyone works for their own personal progression, that assumes competence, that assumes that the appearance of trying will lead to personal success and satisfaction. For me, though, it mostly makes me procrastinate.
ISABEL KIM is a College junior from Warren, N.J., studying English and fine arts. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “It Keeps Happening” usually appears every other Thursday.
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