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Cancel Busy Culture: Reject Those Project Offers. Please.

by Zach Terrillion

Staff Writer


Obies like being busy. As prospective students, we were advertised hundreds of opportunities. Clubs. Sports. Employment. These ads were coupled with a promise of outstanding academics. To somehow live both a life of the mind and the heart. And the legs. And the arms. And maybe certain other areas. This holistic promise continues to be advertised throughout our four years. In King and Mudd, giant posterboards cover the walls, revealing diverse clubs to check out. Specific times to jump on and fill in for our calendars. These clubs could be great opportunities to find nice niches in our personalities. Overall, this can be defined as Oberlin’s “busy culture.” An Obie’s need to do as many things as possible, often to their detriment. It’s a drive we all get and encourage in one another. This school gives us plenty to chew on. In response, we bite off way too much.

Illustration by Emerald Goldbaum, Contributor

My foot pounds into the ground anxiously as I write this article. I can’t give it my full attention because of the many other commitments bouncing about in my head. I have a work shift in the Writing Center an hour from now. After that, I am sending administrative emails and finishing history homework that has taken me way longer than the hour-long slot I planned out, which disrupts my plans to apply to that one summer internship, which then forces me to delay my plans to research for another project by yet another day. I can’t even think about asking my teachers to be references for a completely separate job application because I have to deal with all this other stuff first. This isn’t a flex; it’s a slightly manageable nightmare.

I got into this mess to make as much of Oberlin as possible. This school has flaws, and we spend a lot of cash to attend. I tried not to let a single opportunity go by the wayside. To do so creates a seething guilt complex. For example, I once wandered by a poster advertising a pretty cool club. I automatically wanted to be a part of it. The impulse was to join and invest in it. Always keep your options open as it “could be a great experience.” I didn’t think at all about the other stuff I was doing. Somehow, my several other commitments faded immediately into the background. What made this whole event worse was that I technically missed the general interest meeting, seeing the poster after the day advertised. By god, I was devastated. I felt like a failure—a NEET with no academic or extracurricular fulfillment. I melodramatically messaged the club head, desperate to get into this thing I had not heard of 15 minutes ago.

This case epitomizes Oberlin’s busy culture. I failed to consider all my other commitments at a particular moment and thus decided to add another. We reside in an external world. Social media gives us plenty of ideas for how we present ourselves. Everything is moving. Everything is upcoming. There is no chance to sit, breathe, and ponder the now. This overstimulation allows other priorities to slip to make way for what is most relevant in a given moment. We are also insecure. We need to say YES to things to avoid disappointing others. We can present our best selves through a thorough resume to show employers. We can present ourselves as the life of the party by doing all the things. To show we are worth being around. What we can’t do is be flawed to anyone.

The problem with busy culture’s overdoing is that it stretches us too thin. I had always heard this term, but until this semester, I didn’t get what it meant. How can you do so much yet get so little done simultaneously? As you saw from my earlier anecdote about writing this Opinion piece, such a thing can happen. It’s hard to focus on a single thought when you have other things to work on simultaneously. You can time manage, but we aren’t Hermione with a time-turner. Our days are finite. You may be doing a lot of projects, but few are up to snuff if you aren’t spending the proper amount of time on a specific one.

The thin spread of “busy culture” also stretches to our enjoyment, and that stretches to poor mental health. Frankly, many of us Junior/Senior Obies seem pretty miserable. We are jaded and tired. At the start of this semester, my usually enthusiastic attitude started to shift. I was down, dreading my slate for the next day. Even the funnest things seemed tedious, obstacles on the way to get the next thing done. This included social activities with friends and jobs that I loved last year. When you ask students about their semester, they’ll probably say “busy” and leave it at that. Not “fun.” Not “meaningful.” To be busy doesn’t mean to savor.

Oberlin’s busy culture is debilitating and based on a toxic cycle. It is something you can’t just halt but rather must actively disrupt. I disrupted it just this week when I was offered an additional project. It checked all the boxes. It would let me hone skills that would look nice on a resume. It seemed like a lot of fun. Most importantly, it would fill a nice gap in my schedule, satisfyingly filling up my week. It was a great opportunity! I then started reciting my activities with my friends. They did not say, “that sounds fun,” but instead cast an intense look of concern, like I was going through a list of crimes rather than clubs. “Please drop the things, Zach!” They proclaimed. Drop the things, and miss out on this great opportunity? How could I? I was reluctant until pulling my first-ever all-nighter. I was convinced to try out this “dropping” thing.

The process was ugly, like a casual withdrawal. I writhed in guilt over my decline of the offered project. I felt now like I wasn’t doing enough. I was an underachiever. An unemployable loser. A slacker student. It was busy culture triggering a guilt complex. Still, I couldn’t turn back now. I already sent the email declining the offer. I’d just have to seethe and deal with it. As the days went by, I noticed a shift. I had a spare couple of hours a day. I had more time to revise that article, making it closer to my ideal vision. I was having more fun too. My clubs were clubs instead of chores. All because I said “no.” Turning the project down was difficult because I wanted to do it, but I realized there were many other things I wanted to do.

Overall, Obies are playing a cruel game in adding up their activities. The capitalist mindset of “more, more, more” is ingrained in our minds to some degree, no matter our Marxist politics. We are taught the more activities, the better. This semester, I’ve begun to realize it’s not that simple. I thus must request: Say no to projects if you already have others scheduled. Recognize you have limits. Look at those hundreds of posters and think about the 1 or 2 that most matter, then go from there. It’s a fine balance between being bored and overworked. Still, it’s something each of us Obies has to think for ourselves outside of external influence. To cancel busy culture is to go in and learn what “busy” means to us.

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