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Back to school and glorified suffering

School is difficult, I won't deny that. The American Addiction Centers found 88% of college students report extremely high stress levels and they worry chiefly about exams. Another 82% are stressed about “academic performance pressure,” and 74% worrying about studying. Students are undeniably stressed to score high marks, and the pressure creates a counterproductive "grind" culture.

The "grind" falsely attributes student worthiness with their struggle to attain lofty goals and instigates a negative feedback loop of competition amongst oneself and their peers. The "grind" glorifies suffering in implying that distress itself is the foundation for high achievement.

There's a culture of ceaseless caffeinated hustling to achieve. Throughout all of school I feared the intangible consequences of a failed future if I didn't "grind" in the present. I typically joined ten million clubs, volunteered for honors projects, and applied nine months early for summer internships.

I didn't know how to say no to my own high achieving inner voice (AKA perfectionism). Sixteen and seventeen year old me went to the science honors society at 7am sharp after getting home from 11pm track meets. I was the club vice president. I was also debilitatingly afraid of what the consequences may be if I quit any extracurriculars, and guilty for even secretly wanting to lighten my load.

It was easy to justify my actions since it seemed my peers were also busy. Constantly talking about busy schedules normalized and reinforced these unhealthy behaviors.

Part of my internal pressure stems from my natural inclination towards generalized anxiety disorder. But University of Michigan found only 37% of students have diagnosed anxiety disorders. Compared with the 88% reporting exam-related stress, diagnosable anxiety is the exception, not the rule, to feeling school-related stress.

Not only was this "grind" overwhelming my schedule, it made me tired and burned out. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines burnout as physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.”

Burnout is not a medical condition, but it can have serious impacts on one's health. Many of the symptoms mirror major depressive disorder, like extreme fatigue, sleep and appetite disruptions, feelings of apathy. Stress too take a toll on the body. The APA explains how stress releases excess cortisone into the body, causing inflammation which can lead to a variety of complications.

I've noticed all this drive to achieve doesn't end at graduation. As Gen Z joins the workforce, Cigna's International Health Survey for 2023 found Gen Z the most stressed demographic and 98% exhibit burnout symptoms. Scholars and economists are attributing Gen Z's stress to the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19, but perhaps it started earlier than that. Perhaps the "grind" (as coined by the Millennials) became Gen Z's passion project in their work lives.

Gen Z workers' pressure to excel still exists, but it manifests differently outside the classroom. Gen Z is falsely labeled as quiet quitters, only working the job they are paid to do, but one in four are also working multiple jobs. That doesn't sound like quiet quitting, it seems more like the grown up "grind." Post grad Gen Z uses both work and personal time to generate shareable content for affirmation in the forms of likes and follows. The suffering glorification loop continues.

But self worth is about so much more than this intangible "grind." And learning to separate worth and personal fulfillment is key to knowing when enough "grinding" and suffering is enough, and that it's time for a break. Learning how to accept this truth starts in school.

College and high school are about so much more than resume building. It's where I learned to be comfortable by myself, and that temporarily feeling FOMO is worth the extra sleep. I learned that turning down drinks does not make me a social outcast and I am guaranteed to wake up hangover free. I discovered strategies to prioritize and care for my mental and physical health.

Importantly, those lessons from school were my foundational support against the "grind" in my post grad life. Another's successes and struggles are not comparable to my own, and they can't validate my wins and losses, either. Just because someone else stayed up later doesn't mean their grade outweighs mine, or that I should be guilty or ashamed of taking time for myself. And the same is true in reverse. If something requires more attention for me to learn than my peers, or if I'm taking longer to complete a task, I am not lesser, and I can still give myself grace and breaks.

I retired from the "grind" the hard way, after excelling so much at stress that I landed the full spectrum of issues from "musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems" to, ultimately, my mental health. I won't glorify it - the pictures, the grades, and the paychecks aren't worth my wellbeing. So yeah, enough is enough.

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