a man relaxes in a hammock outside, carefree.
Evelyn Mousigian/Daily

The world was hushed and dark. Shadows softened the edges of my room and the sun creeped closer to the horizon. I imagine that before my alarm jolted me from deep sleep one early Wednesday morning, some manner of a perplexed look rested upon my face. I’ve been told that when I sleep, it appears as if I’m thinking. But when the chimes of my alarm sound, I’m completely lost in brain fog. And as those ever-faithful chimes did sound at 6:30 that Wednesday morning, an ungodly hour for my circadian rhythm, it was no different. I leapt out of bed, grabbed my phone and tapped that button to turn that damn sound off. ‘And there’s my bed, just one small footstep away’ … I laid back down, neither returning to sleep nor fully awaking. I knew I had about an hour’s car ride ahead of me. More rest felt like a good way to start my day. 

I attended the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival this past weekend in Flint, Mich. I won’t bore you with a lengthy explanation of what that is or what that means. It’s less important than it sounds. It’s also, more than likely, exactly what you think it is. Theatre nerds amassed together for a weekend of competitions, workshops and free performances. I originally planned to compete for the Student Dramaturgy Award, but dropped out last minute. The turnaround between the production I planned to submit for and the 15-page application deadline coincided with fall semester’s finals week — the timing meant it wasn’t manageable to apply. Still, I felt obligated to attend. The School of Music, Theatre & Dance already dished out the $100 fee to the Kennedy Center for me to at least go to a few workshops. 

And so, with little consideration for my future self, I signed up for the festival’s odd little side competition called Design Storm, an event in which students from different schools collaborate on a production concept from an assigned play. I had too much to do the week of the competition. For starters, the deadline of this article fell right after the festival wrapped. With a busy week of my first string of deadlines ahead, I forgot about the festival entirely until a few days before, when a professor reached out to me about the driving schedule. It snuck up on me in a way that, in the moment, felt unfair.

At 7:15 a.m., I found myself still laying in bed. I didn’t want to go. I couldn’t go. How could I? I was a fraud, attending a festival as an appetizer, not talented enough for its main course. Anxieties swirled through my head accompanied by a numbness weighing down on my body. 

Ten minutes later, I was out the door. I put my earbuds in but left them silent. Instead, I listened to the rest of the sleepy world. A little later, I pondered the guide I told my editors I’d write over the next few days.

Step 1: Ego and Self-Esteem

First, I’d like to detail who this guide is for. It’s for those who have found themselves with one too many commitments and are goddamn tired. It’s for those who struggle to venture outside of their comfort zone for fear of rejection. It’s for those who catch themselves overselling and underselling themselves out of insecurity. It’s for those who feel they don’t have a choice over how they spend their time or they’ll be a failure to every expectation placed upon them.

And it’s for those who legitimately have little wiggle room over how to spend their time, otherwise their essential needs — or the needs of those that depend on them — won’t be met. 

We are in an era of quiet quitting, a workplace trend that suggests applying the minimum effort required into one’s work is an acceptable avenue for achieving a better work-life balance. Some have attributed this trend to the growing demands of the workplace, especially as labor shortages continue around the United States. As every restaurant, law firm, theater company and all else in between finds itself short-staffed, greater and greater expectations are placed on their employees. For some, any effort level but the minimum becomes unsustainable.

Others look to who has been most responsive to this trend — Millennials and Generation z — and the lessons they were taught about work growing up. As children, many of these two generations in the United States were told that to lead a fulfilling life, they must approach their work with passion and make passion their work. On the surface, this approach may sound encouraging, especially in response to older generations that associated work with duty. But if one struggles to locate a passion, one is also told they aren’t fulfilled. If one must constantly be passionate about their work, one may start to become passionately tired.

In fact, while observing my peers, no matter where I go or who I meet, it’s clear that we are tired. If there were a singular word to encapsulate the experience of collective trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘exhaustion’ is my winner. It’s not an exhaustion many have come to peace with, but rather a state that continually defies one’s personal expectations for themselves. There are too many new, bad habits to unlearn. Collectively, we’ve picked up addictions, social anxieties and perhaps a bit of coldness in how we see others and the world.

There’s too much disorganization and uncertainty to possibly be able to plan significantly far ahead. The cultural and economic production provided by small businesses faces increasing difficulties. Many of our largest institutions are increasingly well-documented to be struggling morally and logistically. And so, our stamina runs thinner and thinner, as if the disease didn’t just shorten the breath in our lungs.

Wonder what might occur if each and every one of us, let’s say at The University of Michigan, collectively let go of one of the many expectations we force on ourselves? It could be an expectation that’s being met. It could be an expectation not even close to having been met. Possibility lies, in whether completed or not, done poorly or done well, not allowing that expectation to affect self-esteem, one’s confidence in their personal worth. With a healthy self-esteem, the outcomes of one’s expectations can’t dictate their ego, how one views themself in relation to the world outside them.

Of course, such an act of unraveling one’s sense of self from one’s expectations is easier said than done. This is far from a skill I have mastered. My therapist informed me this past summer that I seek perfectionism as a trauma response. Sometimes I find that I’m chiding myself for the thoughts that I have, or for having experienced anxiety over something in the first place. I become stressed about having felt stressed. I’ve lost sleep over berating myself for not getting enough sleep. It’s painful and hilarious. By placing expectations on even my own self-care, I miss opportunities to raise my self-esteem. With patience, I’ve become better at being friendly to myself.

A person’s expectations are also shaped by broader societal factors. In large constructs such as social media or capitalism, we see the results of these expectations play out through their effects on health (among other things). It’s well documented that what many young people consume digitally profits from inflating a user’s ego and lowering their self-esteem in tandem. The internalization of the capitalist system in which American social media functions has been studied for its negative effects on self-actualization and general health.

Understandably, fighting against pressures this large is difficult. The nature and intensity of those pressures may significantly vary depending on to what extent the system has worked to one’s benefit. This means that alongside more obvious factors like one’s temperament, every person’s relationship to their expectations and needs will also vary depending on their intersectional identities and their environments. The expectations placed on a Black person in comparison to a white person, a woman in comparison to a man, between any identity and another, will be different. Thus, any identity’s struggle with ego and self-esteem on the way toward finding a healthy relationship to work will be unique.

But psychologically, there are common themes. When I struggle with the expectations I placed on myself, I find it imperative to find ways to simply exist, something which I call…

Step 2: Presence

A sense of presence makes me feel more engaged with my senses and the physical aspects of the world. Sometimes I struggle to find it. It can feel as if some mixture of current thoughts and imminent future activities disallows me from centering myself. But when I do find it, I’m startled by how quickly my to-do list seems to lighten itself. Being present, being open and allowing oneself to listen is a bit wonderful. 

The mode by which anyone finds presence may vary considerably. It could be meditation, journaling, a sport or a creative outlet. It doesn’t particularly matter what it is, as long as it allows for presence. When I’m doing my best at finding presence, I seem to both be the happiest and, relatedly, writing at my best. And of course, in these activities you can find presence with others as well as in solitude. 

When considering presence in relation to one’s work, I think of Gordon Marino’s “A Life Beyond “Do What You Love.” Through this short essay, Marino wrestles with the tensions that can arise when finding one’s passion and navigating social responsibility. If I only did what felt good all day, every day, I might begin to feel purposeless. If I only did what I love, I might limit my variety of experiences and not discover new avenues and ways to grow. As an arts major, work and passion become intimately intertwined. Depending on the environment in which I work in with that passion, I might start to lose grip on its value to me. Studying in a very competitive and stratified program, I believe this happens often.

Marino argues that the “do what you love” ethos “ignores the idea that work itself possesses an inherent value, and most importantly, severs the traditional connection between work, talent and duty.” By lowering the platform on passion as the path towards a life imbued with meaning, Marino perhaps allows for our passions to bring greater joy. This is not to say that one should avoid seeking careers of relation to one’s passions. However, without the prescription to base our way of living off those passions, one creates more freedom for themselves to move between their needs and desires. And arguably, a more fluid set of ideas on work-life, building around “inherent value,” allows more space for presence. 

But on the other end of the spectrum, some of us don’t have any immediate ability to choose whether to merge our passions with a career — if not a career, have the luxury of time or resources to explore our passions separately. Marino emphasizes that seeking a passion as a career is privileged, but purpose can also arrive from what one provides for others. Service, on its own, doesn’t bring about purpose. It matters what you serve. Selfishly drawing back Marino’s ideas to my own life, if my work as a creative writer and journalist is not workshopped or published, I’m saddened because my writing didn’t serve what I see as its purpose — to be read, enjoyed and create dialogue. In my own example, passion and service combine, which draws together the conclusion of the philosopher’s questioning. 

I’m curious about the extent to which one can feel present in service, or if there are discomforts that should be inevitable. In vogue with the times of quiet quitting, what can be avoided? What should be avoided? In the final paragraph of Marino’s essay, he suggests that we should do things we hate, or the things that need the most doing, and work on them to the best of our ability. 

Step 3: What is Underachieving?

It’s 7:15 a.m. again on a Wednesday and I still have a festival to attend. Every thought raises a little higher, a growing mountain of excuses for not wanting to get out of bed. My personal definition for underachieving isn’t completely letting go. It’s the optimized rebellion against a culture that prioritizes productivity. It’s setting new goals and then forcing myself to set them a little lower again. Then, I just have to not feel bad about it.

I began taking on too much work my junior year of high school. Traditionally, many schools dramatically increase their expectations for students in that third year: enforcing the expectation for AP classes, rigorous SAT and ACT prep, scheduling college tours. My experience wasn’t any different. There was a period during the first half of the school year when I submerged myself in homework. At the time, I needed a distraction, and it worked. I discovered that I actually could be quite smart if I just applied myself. 

But the spring of my senior year, global events interrupted my work ethic, like the majority of students my age. Fast forward to the winter semester of my freshman year of college, which I took online and at home, engineering the need for a distraction again. I took on far too much — in both credits and school organizations — and since then, haven’t fully let go. Ever since, a fair argument remains that I have underachieved in my work-life balance. I continuously find myself with one too many commitments.

Aside from writing for The Michigan Daily this semester, my responsibilities include working as the Associate Executive Producer for Blank Space Workshop, a new work creative writing school organization, playing viola and singing in a music ensemble, working on a FEAST research team and dramaturging the Musical Theatre studio production, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” It’s not as much as it sounds. In titling activities, the University of Michigan loves to posture its importance. Still, I don’t have time to write creatively as much as I would like. Sometimes there are nights when I want to go out, but feel obligated to what I committed to long before I knew that commitment came with work on this Thursday night. 

Rather, the type of underachievement I seek allows space for nothingness, not even to work on a stage play script and not even to go out Thursday.

Step 4: Forgive

One should not aim to achieve underachievement. Instead, one should work on changing their habits so it occurs naturally. This past weekend, I trudged through early mornings to get through a festival, received an honorable mention and ate possibly the best empanada I’ve ever had at a farmer’s market a few steps away from where I presented. I’d like to say I allowed myself to become a bit behind on a fair chunk of my school work very quickly, but in reality it just seemed to have occurred. I tried to consider new ways to nurture myself without having to ‘find a moment’ for any self-care. I let go of my guilt and ego for doing too much and I let go of my guilt and ego for not doing much at all. I forgave myself for both. I wrote the article. Now it’s time to rest. 

Statement Correspondent Nate Sheehan can be reached at nsheehan@umich.edu.