When I came back from South by Southwest EDU, I felt excited. Vitalized. Energized. Motivated. All the good words that end in -ed. But I also came back pressured.
It wasn't the kind of pressure that anyone put on me explicitly. It was the kind of pressure that comes from talking shop with some of the smartest people in the teenage jet set, the kind of people who start awesome nonprofits, build their own apps, launch political action committees, and compare speaking engagements the way some of my classmates compare who went to which parties. Instead of "Were you at Dana's? Joe's? Sarah's?" these peeps ask, "Were you at CGI? Davos? TED?"
In the New York Times article the Youngest Technocrati, UChicago economist Gary Becker was quoted saying, "This surge in youthful innovation and entrepreneurship looks unprecedented."
As our resumes get longer, younger, the insecurities pile up too. Impostor syndrome, which Wikipedia describes as "a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments... those with the syndrome remain convinced that they...do not deserve the success they have achieved. [They believe that others think] they are more intelligent and competent than they [really are]," runs rampant. I've heard inventors and TED speakers and university valedictorians under 20 years-old all say some variation of, "I don't think I'm that smart."
It's gotten so bad that at this point, hearing someone disparage their own intelligence has practically become a sign of its existence.
Combine a room full of smart teenagers with too many accomplishments to list, all thinking that everyone else is smarter and more accomplished, with the modern world, and you have a recipe for the kind of gut-wrenching, anxiety-breeding busyness profiled so prolifically in everything from books (Overwhelmed) to New York Times opinion pieces ("The Busy Trap"). In "The Busy Trap," author Tim Kreider writes, "Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."
And existential crises are, like impostor syndrome, common among the "smart" and accomplished. On the Davidson Institute's website, J. Webb writes, "It is such existential issues that lead many of our gifted individuals to bury themselves so intensively in "causes" (whether these causes are academics, political or social causes, or cults)."
Burying oneself in a cause?
Sounds like a lot of people I know, perhaps including yours truly.
On the flight home from Austin, I pulled out my iPad and started a frenetic brainstorming session listing all the possible organizations to get involved with, internships to apply to, influencers to contact, topics to write about, websites to write for, causes to advocate. I tried to dream up issues to have an opinion on and vulnerable groups that people hadn't stood up for already, because I didn't want to be late to any party.
Yes, this was how shallow I was on that evening flight out of Texas, and in retrospect, I hate it.
I got home that night and looked critically at my calendar. I decided, quickly, that there was too much emptiness. This, even though I regularly stayed up until 1 a.m. on school nights finishing homework and answering emails. This, even though I had to schedule in time with friends ("Hang out with J," "Froyo with H," certain days' appointments would read) and often had to struggle to find a convenient place to schedule a phone call. But it seemed like everyone else was busier yet. How could I complain when my friends were getting two hours of sleep and on red-eye planes to Europe and winning robotics tournaments and pulling straight As and getting jobs, and I was... napping?
It was guilt for not being busy enough. Tim Krieder in the New York Times went on to say, "Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren't either working or doing something to promote their work." It was immensely relatable. When he went on to write about a friend who'd taken a sabbatical of sorts from the whirlwind of NYC, he said that she'd changed for the better. "What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality -- driven, cranky, anxious and sad -- turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It's not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school -- it's something we collectively force one another to do."
"Force" might be overstating it. None of my friends at school or at conferences ever looked me in the eye and told me that I had to churn out some new accomplishments. In fact, our indulgent late-night conversations indicated the opposite: in our drowsy musings out loud, we idealistically assured each other that we would still be friends with each other, regardless of what we chose to do (or not).
And yet there's still that ever-present sound in the background like a heartbeat that reminds us to get busier. In the Washington Post article, "Why Being Too Busy Makes Us Feel So Good," Brigid Schulte writes, "People compete over being busy; it's about showing status. "If you're busy, you're important. You're leading a full and worthy life," Burnett says. Keeping up with the Joneses used to be about money, cars and homes. Now, she explains, "if you're not as busy as the Joneses, you'd better get cracking.""
I need my boredom. I need my sleep. I need my 30 minutes on Thursday nights with my family to watch The Big Bang Theory, because let's face it, the fate of #Shamy is way more important than anything I'm working on.
Most of all, I need a society that's okay with me having a Google Calendar that stretches on and on with unfilled white pages, the way the sky stretches on and on above me when I'm trying to trace shapes in the clouds. I need pausing to find beauty. And sometimes it takes beauty -- like a thought provoking late-night conversation with a friend, or a spontaneous adventure ditching class to run in the woods, or a highly relatable New York Times article -- to make us pause.