The Negative Externalities of the Cult(ure) of Over-Committing

It is a v. well-known fact that Harvard students tend to over-commit themselves to difficult classes, time consuming problem sets, sports teams, term-time jobs and leadership and axillary positions in approximately 13 extracurriculars.

While the effects of over-committing are well-documented (anxiety, stress, lack of sleep), the external effects of over-committing are often glossed over. In fact, we live in a culture that praises the nearly over-committed. We want people to work hard and long hours to achieve what they want (money, fame, success), but we don’t want them to necessarily crash and burn.

However, a population of the (nearly) over-committed isn’t quite optimal either.

1) Jack and Jills of All Trades

While it is obvious that over-commitment likely turns the over-committer into a Jack or Jill of all trades, the implication for campus groups is that you end up having many half-committed members. People just don’t have the drive to go that extra mile if they are merely a “member” or “associate,” and as a result, the vivacity and health of a lot of communities for organizations is slightly lack luster. Instead, a network of friendships ends up bonding many organizations together more often than I think they should.

While most organizations with such a structure do encourage new members to (apply and/or comp) join, the problem is that it is difficult to break into the previously established network of friends as a casual member. As a result, many organizations are unable to get as much out of the members who are not personally involved as those who are more involved. While this seems like a given, in practice, the contrast can be stark.

Those in the network often use much of their own money and spare time to do things for the organization. Those outside of the network barely show up to non-mandatory events. Those outside of the network end up taking a very utilitarian stance towards the organization, usually pondering: what will it do for me? what will it do for my resume? what will I get out of it?

While we are all doing things for our self-betterment, there is definitely a lack of culture that encourages giving 110% for the simple fact that you are doing something. What ends up happening is that people are spreading that extra percentages around. Instead of doing 3 activities with 110% focus, you’re doing 4 things with 40% focus and 2 things at 80% focus. (And no, I’m not trying to demonstrate an additive rule.)

2) Masters of None

The first thing a newly accepted student of Harvard notices is the ridiculous number of student organizations on campus. The clever Harvard student then concludes that the number of student organizations allows for a ridiculous number of leadership roles so that each student is a leader of some student organization. Demand, supply, market-clearing. Beautiful equilibrium.

In practice, organizations are usually top-heavy or bottom-heavy. Top heavy organizations are organizations where those with titles and large amounts of responsibility have few to actually lead. An example would be a business manager with no associates. As such, delegation is not possible.

Another possible result is the bottom-heavy (or pear-shaped) organization. There are many many members who are marginally committed to the organization, but very few members who wish to have major roles of responsibility.

Now, why am I babbling about organization structure when I want to talk about negative externalities of over-commitment? Because these structures both partially blossom from the cult of over-commitment.

The top-heavy structure is unable to attract the general over-committed student because the wise student observes that a business board of one business manager and one business associate means that said associate does a lot of “bitch work.”

The bottom-heavy structure is unable to recruit leadership from within the organization because many of the members give only about 40% of their effort to it. These members are devoting their time elsewhere and cannot possibly take on yet another leadership opportunity.

While there are many organizations that do not fall under these two structures, many many organizations do. I hear stories about the problems with both types from my friends. It is a sad thing indeed.

3) Culture of Collective Anxiety

Harvard ain’t easy. Yeah, freshmen fall is a breeze (if you actually take the advice that upperclassmen give you), but you realize that anxiety sets in quickly.

While there isn’t a competitive environment per se — in which we pour over lists of collected GPAs from friends (although the pre-meds might) — the unique chemical and mental composition of a Harvard student allows for an inner environment of competition to exist.

I am always blown away when I find out people are members of organizations I never thought actually existed on campus, or that they’re working a 20-hour job, or that they’re taking 5 pset classes, or that they survive on 3 hours of sleep and a lifetime supply of Starbucks. When you’re always hearing about the activities, the classes, the research, the internship searches, the networking events, the career exploration days etc. etc. etc. that Jane, Bob, Harry and Greta are doing, your mind irrationally creates a weird sort of Additive Paradigm of a Harvard Student.

Now, the Additive Paradigm of a Harvard Student is composed of all the activities, classes, research, jobs, internships that you have ever heard about somehow compiled into one mythological, impossible Harvard student. While this sounds stupid, well, it is stupid. But, this Additive Paradigm of a Harvard Student does exist for the sake of mental comparison.

Aka, when I am bemoaning my lack of extracurricular activities, I refer to the Additive Paradigm of a Harvard Student. This APHS is curing cancer, donates her money, plays in the stock market, does art in her spare time, is an award-winning violinist, is the president of The Crimson, is the business manager of The Lampoon, is the columnist for The Indy, started up Save Darfur, is the vice-president of the U.C., volunteers at a local animal shelter, is pre-med, and pre-business, and pre-law, and wakes up each morning looking fabulously polished in business casual clothes.

I compare myself to this impossible APHS — gee, I’m not curing cancer! or programming the next It social-networking site! or X! or Y! or Z! instead of dividing APHS by the number of Harvard students from whom I draw on for comparison and coming up with an Average Paradigm of a Harvard Student who is over-committed and fabulous, but is not both the youngest brain surgeon AND an Olympic-qualifying ice skater.

This A(dditive)PHS is what drives the Culture of Over-Commitment. I compare myself to AddPHS, freak out, and attempt to do 1/10 of what my imaginary AddPHS does. Bah humbug.

To conquer this AddPHS, you need to mentally destroy the AddPHS and realize that yes, 6700 odd undergraduates can get 4-years worth of over-committed awesomeness out of this place, but that doesn’t mean you need to get 4×6700x4-years worth of over-committed hell out of it.

You can get whatever it is you want out of Harvard. The problem is that most people (myself included) enter Harvard without knowing what they want and are easily swayed by what AddPHS does.

Thus, the hack? Figure out what you want. What’s important to you. Easier said than done. Perhaps another post, for another time.

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