Aug 292010

Students often fall into a “survival” mindset and that can cause a lot of procrastination. Thinking that, “if I can just get through this, things’ll get better”. I talk to students all the time who don’t like what they’re doing in school. They’re not enjoying school or enjoying the process of getting a degree, they’re just trying to get a degree and “make it through” before their “real life” starts.

Here’s the problem, that last year or two is a long time. Too long to just “grit my teeth and get through it”. After I failed my first year and took some time off, I was contemplating how many courses to take. I considered trying to “get through it” by taking more than a 100% course load. But I realized that even doing that, it would still take me three years. That’s a long time to be working that much and I would just burn myself out.

My way out of this dilemma is to take fewer courses. I take a 60% course load every year. That, for me, is a sustainable amount. By sustainable I mean I could do this for many years to come. It’s not too little school and it’s not too much school. It’s just right for me. I don’t get burned out or resentful about the neverending march of assignments and readings, but I have enough courses to keep my stimulated. I enjoy my courses a lot more than if I was taking 100% course load, and I get way better grades.

I decided I wouldn’t wait till the end of my degree for my “real life” to start. I enjoy myself a lot. I spend lots of time with friends and have lots of fun. Since my plan after university is to start businesses, I asked myself why I had to wait and I’ve already started. School is not something to “get through” hopefully with a piece of paper on the other side, it’s an intellectual exploration and development. My “real life” is now and school is one equal and important (but not too important) part of it.

The survival mindset creates a lot of procrastination, cause you come to see every assignment as an obstacle to you “getting through it” hopefully with as little pain as possible.

This post was inspired by Cal Newport’s Open Letter to students on the Danger of Seeing School as a Trial to Survive. He didn’t elaborate what a survival mindset was so I thought I would.

Edit: Consider this – while I’m in university, I have way more time flexibility than I will ever again till I retire, I can live more cheaply than I likely ever will and am thus more flexible than ever, I have some of the smartest friends I ever will–indeed some of them are the smartest folks in Canada, I have access to some of the smartest minds in the world in the form of my profs (esp. at University of Toronto which is a top-30 institution in the world), I am more carefree than I ever will be in my life until retirement, I have the fewest obligations I ever will till retirement, I am more intellectually challenged than I may ever be in my life, and I’m growing more than I ever might in my life by virtue of being at this stage in my life. This is truly the best times of your life, and it may well be downhill from here. So, ENJOY IT!

Ask yourself these questions: your profs are ok with you showing up ten minutes late but can you do that in a job? Most people’s friends end up being the people they work with, which may not be the smartest people around, will you really have much smarter friends than you do now? Will you have as much access to leaders in your field as you do now in terms of profs and researchers? How long before you get a kid, a mortgage and an ever-growing list of obligations and can’t enjoy life as much anymore? Will you really be as intellectually stimulated as you are now? Will you be challenged to grow as much as you are now?

University isn’t something to get through, it’s something to enjoy to the fullest. I like to think of it as “intellectual exploration”. Wander around the campus, wander around the courses and take courses which seem interesting to you without regard to which program they’re for. After a while of exploring topics that seem interesting to you, you’ll hit on one topic that you’re so gripped by that it’ll sustain your interest for years. For me it was psychology. You’d be surprised where this approach leads. It’s more uncertain than treating university as job education and getting a “safe” degree, but it’s a lot more fun and interesting. Plus you can always go back to get a “safe” degree. Though ten years out of school, there’s no difference in wages between people who got “useless” degrees like philosophy or english and people who got “safe” degrees like commerce. The only difference is in people with professional designations like engineering or accounting.

  5 Responses to ““I’ve got a year left, I hate my degree but I’m just going to finish it.””

  1. While taking a 60% courseload may work for you, it will cost a lot more in the long run. Many students can barely afford 8 semesters of education, let alone stretch it out to 12 semesters or more.

    I take a full load every semester, and try to balance it between hard/lots of work classes, and blow-off required classes (PE or other electives like that). This way, I still get out of school in 4 years, but I don’t overstress.

  2. Thanks for your comment juliet. That’s an interesting perspective, however I disagree with you on one point: that it will cost more in the long run. Well, I agree with the part that it will cost more in the long run, I disagree with the idea that education is simply a cost. I believe education is an investment rather than a cost. Costs you try to reduce as much as possible without losing too much in value. Investments you try to get the highest return for. And you put in more money if you believe you will get the same or better return. I believe I am getting the highest return by taking more time in school to, like I said, explore rather than try to get it over with.

    Before anyone jumps on me: I am not financially supported by my family, or have won the lottery and have not been since I started university. Hell, for years I provided financial support to my family. I am in thousands of dollars of debt because of school, but I still see it as an investment. If nothing else, the better grades I get by taking fewer courses get me scholarships that help pay for the fees.

  3. Thanks for this post. All this time I had a survival mindset and I didn’t realize it was actually letting me down. Perfectionism also plays a role in students survival mindsets.

  4. I wonder what my uni experience would have been like during my first degree if I’d thought about it as you have? Not so much in terms of a survival mindset, but from the understanding that “real life” isn’t something that starts *after* uni.

    That’s certainly the way I see it now – that uni is as much a part of real life as anything else. But of course I’d have to see it that way, I’m doing a PhD and will probably become a full time academic. It’s much more likely that uni will become “real life” more than any other aspect.

    But I certainly agree with the idea of doing whatever you need to do to enjoy your uni experience, rather than just “getting through”. And that attitude should go beyond uni – I worked full time for 7 years after I finished my first degree. For the last few years of that time I was just “getting through” it, waiting for the work environment to improve, waiting for an opportunity to earn more money, all the while not enjoying it very much. It was more of a complacency mindset, though I think there are similarities with the survival mindset, particularly the idea that you need to put up with the current situation in order to get to a better one later, rather than changing the current situation for the better.

    And word to scholarships. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without one! 🙂

  5. Thanks for your post Mark! I agree. One thing that helped me realize that uni is a part of real life was taking a year off and people asking me what I was or what I did, and I couldn’t say, “I’m a student” cause I wasn’t in school. I could say, “i’m taking a year off” but well…that’s a whole year I’m…nothing? After that year I stopped seeing myself as a student and more as a person who’s in school for a bit.

    Congratz on getting those scholarships! Good luck in the future!

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