I grew up with full confidence that I am capable of achieving anything I put my mind to. I have my parents to thank for that mindset. As a little girl, when I came stumbling out of my bedroom in my footie pajamas and curly bedhead, whining, “I can’t sleep,” my dad would invariably answer, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” (A Henry Ford quote, by the way.)
In high school, this mindset drove my scheduling. If I’m capable of anything I put my mind to, why not take notoriously difficult courses like accelerated chemistry and Advanced Placement calculus? Never mind whether or not I had any interest in those subjects. I didn’t pretend for a minute that I thought I would actually enjoy either of those courses. I just wanted to challenge myself as much as possible.
I’m not here to brag about my high school course load. I would suspect that almost every student at the University of Michigan has had a similar experience, whether it was in high school or in a different setting. We attend this university because we’re motivated students who are willing to put in the hours to get things done. I don’t regret taking challenging courses in high school. It’s because of them that I learned to work hard, even when it’s not fun. However, I wish I had been told from a younger age that, though I can do anything I put my mind to, I can’t do everything I put my mind to.
Upon arriving at the University, I learned the world is full of problems and classes that are even more challenging than AP calculus. Additionally, I learned that I’m just not as smart as I thought I was. This discovery many of the University students I know had — to push myself even harder and learn what I’m truly capable of. Of course, I didn’t have a doubt that I was capable of everything I put my mind to.
I’m not alone in this instinctive, almost overwhelming desire to push myself too hard. As the Harvard Business Review explains, we tend to overwork ourselves due to a variety of “inner drivers,” such as, “ambition, machismo, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, pride, the pull of short-term rewards, a desire to prove we’re important, or an overdeveloped sense of duty.” Additionally, work (including school work) is often less stressful than our home lives. Oftentimes, we feel lost and out of control in our social lives, and working hard in school is a chance to prove ourselves.
Of course, it doesn’t always work like that. Spoiler alert: Every single day at this university, it becomes clearer and clearer that I am not, in fact, capable of everything I put my mind to.
It’s not that my parents were lying to me when they told me I can do anything. It’s just that I interpreted that “anything” to mean everything. I’m sure that if I focused on just school, or just one job, or just one organization, I could be great at any of them. But, we live in an academic culture that glorifies busy schedules and long hours. We live in an academic culture that glorifies doing everything. When you try to be good at everything, you won’t be good at anything.
I’ve experienced this firsthand, and it’s backed by research. The Wall Street Journal explains that only 1 to 3 percent of people can sleep five or six hours a night without it affecting their work performance. Additionally, of every 100 people who believe that they’re part of this group, only five actually are. The average college student gets less than seven hours of sleep, so if a student is getting a below average amount of sleep, it’s highly likely it is affecting their academic performance.
Additionally, high levels of stress can ultimately lead to anxiety, which can drastically decrease a student’s academic performance. According to Time magazine, “In spring 2017, nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said they had ‘felt overwhelming anxiety’ in the same time period.”
As students at the University of Michigan, we really are capable of achieving anything we put our minds to. But, when we try to turn that “anything” into an “everything,” eventually it will turn into nothing.
Hannah Harshe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org