Why College Students Today Are So Burned Out

By Carly Stern, student, Duke University, from the Huffington Post

April 7, 2016

In some very simplified words explaining Einstein, relativity is all about acceleration in respect to another object. A body's measured speed depends upon the gravitational force of something else.

Upon learning this, my first impression was that this is a very reactive definition. Shouldn't every being have an innate speed? If you removed that "something else" from the picture, how fast would an object be on its own? Can something even be characterized as fast or slow if nothing else exists?

In today's world, and especially within the Duke bubble in which I live, students operate in a state of constant comparison. Though perhaps we don't admit it, we are always measuring up and attempting to classify where we fail. I wouldn't call this phenomenon perfectionism or drive because such traits could exist in solitude. I could live on a deserted island and still meticulously strive for success. This kind of mental outlook boils down to how we quantify our accomplishments: by comparing ourselves to others rather than judging ourselves based upon our personal potential. At Duke and other similar institutions, with thousands of whirring brains and uniquely talented individuals, this attitude of relative value can grow to feel diminishing.

During the fall semester, I ran a timed mile for a cardio conditioning class. I ran significantly quicker than what I had aimed for and faster than I ever had before. It never occurred to me that this trivial feat deserved acknowledgement because several others had finished before me. When speaking later with a friend, I recapped my day's activities and he interrupted, inquiring if my time was a personal best. His exclamation of praise that followed made me realize I hadn't commended this personal record -- or even recognized it -- because I had been comparing it to everyone else's results.

I don't want my evaluation of self-worth to stem from others, but I've grudgingly admitted that sometimes it does. I know there will always be someone who can do something better than I can. This is simply a fact of life. Nonetheless, being directly surrounded by these individuals every day at Duke can make this fact harder to accept. My perception of my own success becomes distorted by the successes of others. I forget how to feel proud of myself because hundreds of others have done just as much, or more.

In high school, this somewhat paranoid sense of comparison was justifiable because everyone was striving for the same goal: to get into college. Our complex identities were reduced to numbers and statistics, mere pieces of paper in an immense pile. Although that game has been over for a long time, I fear that we don't know how to rid ourselves of that subconsciously ingrained mentality.

All Duke students would achieve mental clarity by learning how to switch off our comparative mindsets at least sometimes. When I reflect on a passion I have pursued my whole life -- drawing -- I realize that perhaps I love to immerse myself in art because it is an activity that is unique, entirely my own and assessed by me. Ultimately, the satisfaction I feel upon completion depends on my emotional attachment to what I have created. One cannot compare two artists' work or attach numbers to it. I have protected this refreshing escape into a private, creative world where no one can quantify what I produce and no one ever tries to. Appreciation is utterly subjective. The value of other accomplishments is subjective too, but collectively, we have forgotten this.

I do not know how to reframe these mental standards, but I know that we all need to. We must learn how to stop for a moment to feel proud of ourselves instead of simply careening onto the next goal. This mentality of relativity is one facet to the umbrella of effortless perfection that pervades Duke and affects college students across the nation, contributing to the increasing prevalence of mental illnesses. To attack this greater issue, first we must recognize, understand and deconstruct the habits that underlie it.

Countless problems exist in the world that humanity struggles to solve, which will always remain true. As bright minds, it is imperative to recognize what we do accomplish; otherwise, we will never note the progress we achieve and will remain stuck fighting a relentless fight. We college students must redefine our interpretation of validation and instead examine ourselves on an individual pedestal, subject to our own ambitions and standards rather than to the greatest capacity of others.

In the scheme of the universe, we are all spinning objects. The fact that another body of matter can spin faster should not undermine the perception of our innate speed. Speed in itself must hold some inherent value, or else the universe will comprise of a frenzied race to some unknown finish line.

This column originally ran in The Chronicle, Duke's independent student newspaper.

Empire State College offers a confidential 24-hour counseling resource, Talk One-2-One. In addition, you are entitled to three free face-to-face counseling sessions in your local region. For more information, call 1-800 756-3124 or visit the Health and Wellness portion of the ESC website. No problem is too small. Sometimes it just helps to talk to someone other than friends or family.

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