Growing up, I’ve always been the studious, law-abiding type. I went to academically competitive schools and was surrounded by peers who were gifted in all subjects and disciplines and weren’t afraid to flaunt their talents. Consequently, I grew to be somewhat of an overachiever myself. I took as many high-level classes as I could, joined as many extracurriculars as possible that would pad my resumé and only applied to the best programs and universities upon graduation.
But the underlying foundation for most of my achievements was anxiety. If it wasn’t anxiety about school, it was about finances or family or friends. If I wasn’t studying, then I was undisciplined and lazy. If I wasn’t busy, then I was wasting my time. Anything I didn’t excel at right away was meaningless to pursue and anything I wasn’t the best in was worthless. It wasn’t only the pressure to succeed that became a driving force in my life, but the need to look busy—to be maxed out in all areas academic, social and professional—that pushed me to outdo myself over and over again.
As you might expect, this way of thinking becomes degenerating. That’s why, for my last year in high school, I was determined to power through. Graduation was in my sights. Years of CV-building, late nights and networking were finally going to pay off. I was going to be free, even if just for a season. I was going to relax, travel with friends, make some memories and then go off to college.
People told me constantly that the summer after graduating high school is the most important, because it is your last. It is the last time in your life when there is some room for irresponsibility, before you’re burdened with the hardships of adulthood. So when the pandemic hit in February, with quarantine in full-swing by mid-March, I knew my last true summer was over before it had even begun.
Previous anxiety about how to organize time became anxiety about how to use up so much newly available time. Posts on social media advocating for self-care were drowned out by posts preaching productivity and efficiency. The more I saw of this dichotomy, the more convinced I was that I should be adjusting to these new circumstances as fast and as perfectly as possible.
Nothing, not even a global pandemic, social injustice or political unrest seemed to be reason enough to be “wasting time.” Even moments taken for self-care were challenges of self-command. Now that you’re at home all day long, are you exercising daily? Are you mastering a hobby? Are you eating healthier? Are you bettering yourself in any way, shape or form? The new objective was no longer to survive, but to actively thrive—to come out better than you’ve ever been before.
I took up yoga. I counted calories. I spent weekends and evenings making sure my schoolwork was done to a T. Yet with every part of myself that I managed to improve, there was another that was rapidly deteriorating. I stopped speaking to friends. I argued more frequently with my parents. I procrastinated on work and side projects. Every improvement made clear to me my many other shortfalls. I would ask myself: How successful am I in my classes? At helping my parents? At maintaining my appearance? At honing my hobbies? At being lonely? The more I answered, “not very,” the less control I seemed to have, and the more overwhelming the need to be in control became.
Deep down, I knew my peers felt the same pressure to succeed—to be productive for productivity’s sake. We all knew we were all suffering, but this was largely overwhelmed by the need to remain in control. In our minds, there was no barrier that could not be overcome by technology or sheer willpower.
It’s a year later now, and I’m nearing completion of my freshman year of university, a year that was supposed to bring a fresh perspective, meaningful connections and newfound independence. But I’m still living at home, taking my courses online and barely speaking to anyone outside my immediate family. The mounting workload and increasingly difficult summer internship search are doing little to ease the voice in the back of my mind that tells me: “Do more. Do better.”
I doubt this mindset is one that will disappear even as the pandemic fades. With COVID forcing a paradigm shift in the way we work, learn and consume, this “do anything, anywhere, with whatever it takes” attitude is one that has stuck, and will continue to stick.
I have grown up with the idea of “Suffer now, reap the rewards later.” I am well-versed in the art of delayed gratification, but there is a limit to the extent to which I can delay burnout. A part of me that understands this sacrifice of teenage freedom is necessary. But an even greater part of me is resentful. I am resentful that above everything I could concern myself with during these difficult and isolating circumstances—my health, my family, my relationships—I am most concerned about my productivity. I am angry that I am still trying to find ways to control the circumstances around me in order to remain sane, and I am angry that I have to remain sane at all.
It is hard to look back at the anger, frustration and isolation I’ve experienced, and even harder to look into the future and see an end to it. What I can only hope for now is that out of this pandemic, I can walk away not necessarily with higher grades, a better complexion or better productivity, but with a clearer focus on the things that matter.
But for now, it’s back to work.