“I’m so busy this week. We should definitely get together some time though.”
Almost every single interaction I had this past week included some variation of this sentence. To use the old adage, busy is the new black.
In some cases, I might actually find a time to gather with a person to catch up and have an authentic conversation, but far too often this surface level interaction is about as far as it gets.
Being busy is not just a Duke problem—rather, our lives at Duke exist within a societal context in which this is the norm. Simply put, it is our way of life.
We constantly run around trying to keep track of a variety of commitments all in the hope that, one day, we’ll attain some job or internship in which we will do the exact same thing in a different setting. In the midst of the glut of clubs and organizations in our student community, it grows easy to become consumed in a routine of meetings, classes and late nights cramming for difficult midterms. We strive to overachieve our peers in the classroom and, by the volume or intensity of our extracurricular involvements, attempt to gain some vain sense of satisfaction that the common observer is impressed by our resume.
The result, we either leave little time to develop our relationships or spend the majority of the time comparing ourselves to our friends instead of enjoying their company.
One moment, I’m talking about a life-changing summer with DukeEngage. Next, I’m second-guessing every decision I’ve ever made since birth because Patricia’s summer internship sounded much cooler than my experience. We love to be the subject of our friend’s envy instead of being secure in who we are. We use the idea of being busy to mask opportunities to engage with the people around us in an authentic and real way. Our relationships have become increasingly meaningless because we’re always too wrapped up in our own lives to invest in someone else’s.
Trust me, I speak from experiences. Being busy is completely understandable. That’s how I’ve lived the past two years always trying to keep up with the next meeting or task. It’s deflating, both mentally and physically—even a professor or two has remarked how by the end of the semester it looks like I have the physical weight of my commitments in my backpack the whole time. Perhaps that is the cost to pay when you try to collect experiences for some ulterior motive—attempt to do everything and in reality feel like all you do is barely anything.
Work hard, play occasionally, if you know what I mean.
Does this lifestyle pay off? The answer is likely no. The culture in which we live rewards such attitudes, so adhering to it and killing our happiness may yield some tangible benefits like a high-paying job and the so-called “Good Life.” However, I want the rest of my time at Duke to be more than acquiring additional bullet points on a resume. There has to be some middle ground. I am striving for these next two years to be marked by authentic relationships.
Graduating seniors have said that what they regret most when they reach the end of their time at Duke is not spending enough time with friends. Few will say they missed out on an opportunity or an organization to join. Twenty years down the road, when we’re managing a job and a family, we will not regret whether we worked for one professor’s lab over another or majored in Public Policy over Political Science. Instead we will regret what author and professor George Saunders calls “failures of kindness.”
When I think about the causes of my own failures of kindness, I largely come back to the same point—I have been willing to make time for things but not people. Now, I am in no way advocating dropping all involvements, but what I am highlighting is the tendency to value an executive board meeting over the opportunity to go to a basketball game with friends. Having a productive and “successful” say requires sacrifices, and people are often the first to be cut from the agenda.
It’s counter-cultural to take two hours to sit in Von der Heyden and chat with a friend you haven’t spent much time with since freshman year. Spending time with people is inherently risky. There’s no tangible benefit to you and there's an opportunity cost for your time. But when we fail to take the brief moments of opportunity to make time for a casual acquaintance or long lost friend, we lose out on the experiences that truly matter, the moments of happiness and connection you can’t quite quantify or explain.
I am going to challenge myself this semester, and I invite you to join me. Being busy has its perks, but it can shield us from fully enjoying our Duke experience and limit our freedom to develop meaningful relationships in this community. As we begin the new school year, the time to make such choices is now.
When my time at Duke comes to an end, every little step I took to strengthen the quality of my time here rather than the quantity of experiences will be well worth that sacrifice.
Jay Sullivan is a Trinity Junior. This is his first column in a semester-long series.