Do Less in the Pursuit of More in Education

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By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse resume to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s prepared – for nothing in particular.

— Peter Thiel & Blake Masters, Zero to One

The highly competitive nature of college admissions creates a race to the top among students looking to get into elite institutions. Students begin prepping to take college admissions exams as early as middle school. They attend summer camps and enroll in programs for “gifted” students. They curate, in Thiel’s words, “a bewilderingly diverse resume” in the pursuit of getting into this elite school. They participate in debate club, cheerleading, marching band, baseball, science olympiad, and the musical.

All the while, they run from one extracurricular activity to another, from one test prep to another, from one summer program to another.

Ideally, they do this so they can get into the elite institution(s) of their dreams. They can attend Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Michigan, Penn, Rice, Vanderbilt. They can get that elite degree and go on to the life they had worked towards all these years.

The thing is, while building the best resume to get into college, they are overlooking building two very important things: themselves and their futures.

They participate in so many activities that it is difficult for them to give themselves over wholly to one or two. They participate shallowly, even if they are drum major, president, squad leader, or captain. They go a millimeter in twenty different directions instead of going a meter in one or two. Often, they find themselves so busy between activities and so stressed and focused on the point of admissions that they can’t honestly reflect on whether or not they truly enjoy the activities with which they chose to pad their resumes.

Simultaneously, they are actually working to sabotage their futures.

They may think they are making a trade-off for some enjoyment and focus now so that they can enjoy the benefits of elite education later, but as Thiel’s quotation from above notes, they are preparing for an indefinite future. Many of the same students find themselves asking, “now what?” once they get to college, or they continue the charade with grad school or on campus recruiting, putting it off for a quarter- or mid-life crisis.

The time they spend padding their resumes could be spent elsewhere, focusing on one or two activities, skill sets, or goals, and using any remaining time to devote to playing in new areas to discover yet-unseen passions.

Rather, this time is spent shallowly engaging in a plethora of activities in the hopes of sending the signal of depth to college admissions officers.

Admission comes, the students find themselves in college, and must either go through the intense focus and passion-finding they formerly put off, or they must put it off further in the pursuit of “depth” for graduate school officers, corporate recruiters, or fellowship managers.

A better approach would be to take the years usually given to the college admissions frenzy and focus on a handful of select activities that pique the student’s interest. Those that he can become skilled at and enjoys should be followed relentlessly, with creations (e.g., apps, programs, websites, blogs, books, etc.) being the natural consequence of this meaningful progression, not just a mere signaling mechanism to a college admissions officer.

This relentless pursuit will also, paradoxically, clear up time in the schedule formerly left to minutiae from signaling activities (e.g., traveling between activities, organizing, training to sufficiently scrape on by). This time can be spent to do real dabbling in activities (one of the many justifications given for resume-building, “it lets you try many things!”). Those that aren’t valuable are discontinued. Those that are are continued with the understanding that we choose to do them.

Ultimately, this comes down to the issue of choice. (Most) Students who participate in so many clubs, extracurriculars, sports, jobs, and volunteer opportunities don’t feel like they are choosing to do so. If you ask them, they’d likely say, “Because I have to if I want to get into X University,” “Because I have to to stay competitive,” “Because I have to…” “Because I have to…”

But they don’t have to.

Once this realization is embraced — the realization that we really can choose to whom and to what we give our time — each activity that we really do choose to participate in becomes all that more significant.

If you’re a young person who feel stretched thin between all the different activities that will help you get into college, ask yourself why you are really doing each, and for what reasons you want to pursue that school. My bet is that you your answers will surprise you.

Flip the burden of proof on its head. You don’t have to do anything. Next time you feel expected to participate in a club or go to an event you know you won’t enjoy, rather than look for reasons why you shouldn’t go, look for reasons why you should. If you can’t find any other than “because it is expected of me,” then there’s a good chance you shouldn’t spend your time on it. You could be spending that time elsewhere, building up yourself, your interests, your passions, your skills, and, ultimately, your future.

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