A few evenings ago, my group of friends walked from Wishbone, carrying boxes of takeout. Party music and chatter drifted from the houses along Walnut. Groups of students stroll past us, ready for the night out. The early autumn breeze picked up, and we wrapped our jackets around a little tighter.
When we arrived at our friend’s apartment, we chomped down our late dinner, made citron tea and a friend picked up her ukulele and started to sing. We lazed around, sometimes chatting, sometimes scrolling through our phones. We played a few games of Bananagram and decided to head home around 2 a.m.
As I walked across campus back to my room, I tried to find words to describe the contentment I felt. Yes, I felt accepted, I felt comfortable, I loved the company and I loved how beautifully inefficient everything was.
I sometimes forget how wonderful inefficiency is, in a fast-paced environment like Penn’s. Sit at the back of lectures or seminars, and you will see rows after rows of classmates’ Macbooks lighted up with all sorts of windows and tabs obviously unrelated to the course. These are sometimes opened to Facebook or boredpanda.com, but also to math problem sets, coding homework and Anthropology readings.
The minute the class we are in starts prodding us towards the slightest feeling of boredom or non-productivity, we turn to our computers and fervently open new windows and tabs. We write our English papers in history class, code in anthropology class and design marketing material for our start-up in art history class — the environment must have been inspiring.
We give our classes ten minutes to prove their relevance, worth or entertainment before descending into our pursuit of maximum productivity, with occasional feeble half-stabs at listening to the ongoing lecture. We slowly begin to reduce each class into a list of papers to write, problem sets to complete and exams to study for, which will at the very end, hopefully add up to the grade we desire. “Is what the professor is saying now going to appear in the midterm or help me in writing my paper?” We suddenly lose sight of the process.
Learning is a process and it often isn’t efficient. It involves meanders and detours, planting and waiting, pruning and correcting. The mind is laboriously sharpened and slowly refined. It accumulates various unconnected thoughts and facts, and brings them into dialogue sometimes immediately, sometimes later, sometimes never.
Choosing the “process” means giving your professor the undivided attention and respect he deserves, even though what he may be saying is sometimes not of “urgent relevance" to you right there and then — especially in comparison to your English paper which is due by tonight 11:59 p.m.
Our chronic efficiency is most pronounced in our academic life, but also seeps into other areas. Some of us don’t like eating in dining halls not just because of the quality of food, but also because it “takes too much time”. We leave our friends mid-meal and mid-conversation once we are done with our own lunch to run off to finish a problem set. We attend talks because “hey, Penn has many opportunities and we should take full advantage of them” but end up doing our work within the first ten minutes there. We go for meetings late and leave early.
Our days, weeks, months are a mad chase to tick items off our growing, exploding checklist of to-dos and do-not-forgets. We are ruthlessly efficient, we do and accomplish many things and yet, we perhaps learn very little. We don’t give the process of learning, or friendship or developing relationships the chances they deserve.
Of course, on the flipside, it doesn’t mean we indulge in inefficiency all the time and in everything we do. Efficiency may be our problem, but it is also our strength. Time is finite and efficiency helps us cope with that. What I’m arguing for is for us to slow down a little, and give each moment, each process its opportunity to unfold and bloom.
Hold back on other work and focus on the class you are in. Let the dining hall meal with your friend spill over the hour. Choose to walk the long, “inefficient” route back home, if it allows you those extra minutes to stroll and chat with your friend on his way. Slow down on Locust Walk, watch the squirrels, and go beyond the basic “Hi” when you recognize someone. Some of our best college memories will come from the most inefficient moments.
Slow down. Be present. It’s worth it.
SARA MERICAN is a College sophomore from Singapore. Her email address is email@example.com. “Merican in America” usually appears every Monday.
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