A French perspective

When I was younger, it usually took me two to three hours to fall asleep each night because my mind would be buzzing with ideas, stories, plans for the future. Once I started high school, the nightly musings ended and I became a master at falling asleep anywhere, anytime. I brought that skill with me when I started college. 

The past two years at Williams, I’ve often felt that I’ve barely had the energy to slog through the days, weeks and months. Now, for the first time since I was maybe 12, I find myself lying awake at night, wide-eyed with all the possibilities in the darkness.

Unless you’re one of those magical people who manages to squeeze in eight hours a night at the College, you might be wondering how it’s possible that I’m still feeling well-rested. Full disclosure: I am not, in fact, at Williams at the moment. Instead, I am settling into life in Paris for a year abroad – and life here moves at a very different pace. The other day, I saw a café with a sign on the door, bragging that, “If you’re in a hurry, we can get your lunch to you in 45 minutes!” (Lunch typically takes a couple hours here, as does dinner.)

Courses and activities at the university start later and seem to take some time to wind up, and even then, it’s mellower – I don’t even start my fourth class until next week, and sign-ups for sports are only just starting now, with the games themselves starting in October. I take long lunches, long dinners and long walks. I write and read, I sleep late and nap when I want to nap.

To a Williams kid, it might sounds like I’m wasting this time – to achieve, to produce, to do something. In fact, the No. 1 response I got upon telling a student at the College that I was leaving for a year was, “Oh, I couldn’t imagine missing a whole year of Williams courses” (yes, we are a bunch of nerds, but you already knew that). And I know what they mean – our courses are pretty great.

But at the same time, I see a different view. It came as a surprise to me too, but my brain is not, in fact, rotting away because I’m not constantly cramming it with stuff. Au contraire, I feel like now that it’s had some time to putter around in peace and quiet, it’s finally ready to rev up the engines, to start creating again.

At the College, it’s all too easy to slip into the cult-worship of productivity; we believe if we constantly have too much to do and if we rack up enough accomplishments on a resume that the life-satisfaction fairies will sprinkle us with their magical dust and we’ll live happily ever after.

At least, that’s what happened to me in my first year at the College. I did a lot of activities and put in absurd hours for studying. Then by the end of the second semester, I had good grades and had “achieved” a lot, but I was angry and sick of school and unable to see the point of everything I was doing, of the sanity I was sacrificing. When I returned for sophomore fall, it was with an attitude of “screw it.”

My grades tanked, I shrugged off responsibility in my activities and I was saner and happier, with more time to hang out simply because I couldn’t care enough about everything else. But it didn’t really feel like a solution – it wasn’t a situation I was proud of.

It wasn’t until I chatted about it with some friends from Sweden that it occurred to me that it might just be our cultural lens: After telling them about my harried schedule, filled to the brim with activities, work and school, their reaction was – laughter. “That’s so American,” they said. “Why can’t you just be a student?” (These were two very bright university graduates, both well on their way to solid careers.)

When we talk again and again at this school about the culture of effortless perfection, we say often that it is important to take care of yourself. Sometimes we go so far as to say, “Maybe the success this lifestyle would provide is not worth what it costs.” But I would go further: I think that you can be a successful person, a creative person, a person who achieves great things – without propelling yourself to do as much as is physically possible at all times (and then inevitably, crashing).

You are not a machine that can work continuously and efficiently with a consistent output. Give it a rest. And if you can’t do it at Williams, go abroad!


Sarah Rosenberg ’14 is a political economics major from Chicago, Ill. She is studying abroad in Paris, France.

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