Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

Credit: Robert Hsu

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a masochist. No — not that kind, but the academic kind.

Coming into Penn, I remember hearing “Wow, that’s going to be a ton of work,” and “Oh my gosh, don’t you need to take six classes per semester to graduate?” as people pitied me for being in a dual-degree program.

But a part of me secretly relished this kind of attention — the overzealous, hard-working, overachiever side of me, which many people here have as well.

I am completely a morning person, and I have to fight with myself to stay awake once it hits two. This usually involves jumping jacks if there isn’t anyone around or buying severely overpriced Diet Coke in Huntsman. The desire to prove that I am tough enough can be a powerful motivator, — enough to get me past two in the morning at times.

Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, seeing how everyone else behaved, I felt a slight pressure to appear like an academic superstar Penn student — someone who can study diligently until three in the morning in a Huntsman GSR, who takes more classes than there are fingers on one hand, who sleeps no more than five hours a night, all while finding time to hang out with friends. I developed a perverse pride in accomplishing the occasional all-nighter or string of sleepless nights (I’ve since stopped staying up all night and have noticed that I’ve become more productive).

In an environment with so many hard-working, bright individuals, there can be an unhealthy pressure — whether internal or peer-induced — to take admirable qualities like being hard-working, involved in activities and attentive to schoolwork to the extreme.

College sophomore Roderick Cook describes the guilt he sometimes feels in this environment. “I’ve noticed that there’s this pressure that I really shouldn’t mention wasting time, relaxing for an hour or taking a nap around people,” he said. “If I mention to people that I have free time, I’m supposed to feel bad because other people don’t have that free time, and I’m also supposed to feel bad about myself like I’m doing something wrong.”

The unhealthy pressure on ourselves and others that we create is counterproductive and unnecessary. What’s the point in staying up late for the sake of staying up late? Should we really be proud when we sleep less, or take pride in taking six classes just because it sounds like a lot? Of course, being hard-working and ambitious are admirable qualities, but I’m sure everyone at Penn has proven that just by getting in. Instead, we should be bragging about getting nine hours of sleep and having time to do nothing for once, not the other way around.

Sharon McMullen, director of Campus Health Initiatives, describes a lack of sleep as a “badge of honor” for many students, but cautions against taking it to the extreme. “Students who don’t get enough sleep get sick more often and don’t learn as well. About 20 percent of undergraduate respondents to our biannual survey said that sleep problems negatively impacted their academic success,” she said.

This culture of extremism can also be damaging to our health and quality of life. “There’s also recent literature about how a lack of sleep negatively impacts metabolic function, which can be implicated in obesity,” she added.

As with any culture, this issue is so universal that it feels nearly impossible to create a noticeable change. Campus Health Initiatives has partnered with the School of Engineering and Applied Science to develop a sleep app that will allow students to see how their behavior affects their sleep and how their sleep eventually affects their performance.

Perhaps knowing that we can show signs of weakness is one realistic place to start in altering this culture. One night of going to sleep at nine isn’t going to ruin how hard-working you are. Watching an episode of “Game of Thrones” won’t be the end of the world, even if you watch it in a GSR with both monitors such that people walking by can see. Whether or not you stay up until three working or take more than four classes won’t define you as a Penn student.

Even Superman can’t be Superman every day, every hour.

Robert Hsu is a College and Wharton junior from Novi, Mich. His email address is Follow him @mrroberthsu. “The Casual Observer” appears every other Friday.

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