"They say marks don't matter," a friend of mine who had long been through the rigours of an undergrad once told me. "But come grad school admissions, marks are all they look at. So make sure you get good marks. Oh, and letters of reference … a few extracurriculars help there too. And don't forget volunteer experience!" It wasn't hard to start believing that a career was everything, and that without a CV brimming with committee experience and pages of extracurriculars, I would amount to nothing.
For a while, I thought I was onto something good with the "never say no to anything" approach. I was getting good marks, and I got to experience some really cool things that pushed me and challenged me in a way that school sometimes did not. One opportunity led to another, but there came a point where I was balancing a full course load with seven extracurriculars and two part-time jobs.
I was just feeling tired all of the time. "Yeah," I'd say to my best friend, "Of course we can hang out. Just let me look at my calendar and pencil you in." I began feeling depressed, as if everything in my life, even social commitments, were a chore. I had lost that spark that used to keep me going in high school, that passion and curiosity to learn more. I was constantly comparing myself to others. Did I measure up? Was I even a leader, or just someone who had become indoctrinated into the cult of busy?
Like many other students, I think I came to fear the word "no." For me, like for many others, university was a time where I lost the comfort and familiarity of high school. I learned about a lot of things that weren't going right in this world, and like many other high-achievers, felt responsible for finding a solution. There were so many things that I wanted to contribute to at university and such a wide array of opportunities that it was almost easier to do everything than to just pick a couple.
I also hated disappointing others. I had developed excellent relationships with some of my mentors and supervisors, and I never wanted them to feel as if I was letting them down. I knew that in many cases if I wasn't going to, no one else would step up and they would be faced with the inconvenience of doing it themselves. And of course, there was just the pressure that came from within. So much of my identity had become linked to my leadership roles that I felt as if I wasn't myself if I wasn't doing something important.
I'm not sure when Generation Y turned into Generation Y Do We Work So Hard. Maybe it has something to do with the uncertainty of our times. After all, we are graduating in a time when the job market is tough and permanent, well-paying employment is tough to find. Many of us feel as if we need to set ourselves apart from others, or that if we miss an opportunity now, we'll never get the chance to experience it again. There's pressure from everywhere we turn to stop "free-loading" off of our parents and to start looking harder for employment.
But I think the problem is more widespread than just that. It doesn't stop at Gen Y: I see parents cramming little kids into three or four different after-school activities per week. I see young professionals working late into the evening, typing furiously away at e-mails.
The first time I said no was very anticlimatic. The world went on as it always did; nothing feel apart and no one was angry with me for trying to achieve a healthier balance in life. In fact, a couple of people told me that they were proud of me for saying "no." And they were right. Figuring out what you actually love, what you're actually good at, and what you want to make a contribution to in this world are possibly the most important lessons that you will learn in university. They are also the hardest. It's easy to spin your wheels and fill your résumé with pointless time-consuming tasks, but it's hard to find something you care about deeply and make a difference in it. We all need to stop doing for the sake of doing, and actually take the time to critically reflect on what we are involved in. Is it something you care about? Is it something that will help you develop as a leader? Or is it just something that you signed up for in hopes that you'd get into professional school?
It's time we reclaimed the word "no."
Anita Acai is a Biochemistry Co-operative Education student at the University of Guelph with an interest in student governance and academic policy. She was also one of 10 3M National Student Fellows.