Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Case Study: How Skidmore’s Busiest Student Discovered the Secret to Happiness on the Other Side of the World

August 6th, 2008 · 6 comments

Imagine if the busiest, most overloaded student you know was sent to spend six months at a school that forbid hard course schedules or extracurricular activities…

The Obligation Saturation PointRelaxing Down Under

By the beginning of his junior year, Skidmore student Toph had reached what he called his “obligation saturation point.” He was taking five hard classes, three of which were at the 300-level — a designation for exceptionally advanced subjects. He had five paying jobs on campus: a feat that required special permission from the Dean. He was also active in two clubs and kept agreeing to time-consuming side projects.

“I expected that this onslaught of obligation would empower me and drive me to do even great things the next semester,” was how Toph explained this to me. But this is not what happened. He instead ended the semester drained and exhausted. He felt out of control of his time.

“I had a heartbreaking feeling that, while I had done a lot of things, I had actually accomplished very little.”

The Escape

Toph then did the unexpected. He packed his bags, kissed his girlfriend goodbye, and boarded a plane to Australia, where he would spend the next 6 months as an exchange student at the University of Sydney.

Enforced Simplicity

“It wasn’t a conscious decision that led me to cut back,” recalls Toph. If anything, he had no choice. True to his old form, he tried, at first, to sign up for several advanced 300-level courses, but, as an exchange student he could only get into two. He tacked on two additional courses for a reasonable schedule of four subjects, only two of which were high-level; a far cry from the previous semester’s academic bloodbath.

Toph then discovered that joining student clubs required a $200 fee, which he couldn’t afford. In addition, as he also recalls: “I had no connections at this new school, so I didn’t receive any request for ‘favors,’ thus ended up with no side projects.”

In a bid to earn a little pocket money, Toph took a part-time, “brainless data entry job” at a local software company. Because of a timing conflict, this required that he drop one of his courses. The end result: The once insanely busy student was taking only three courses and had no extracurricular activities.

He loved it…

The Beauty of Simplicity

I’ll let Toph explain, in his own words, what happened in the months that followed:

When I stepped off the plane six months later here’s where I stood: I had aced all three classes with a High Distinction mark in each. I could say with complete sincerity that I learned more that semester than I had in two full years at Skidmore.

Because I had more time to really fall in love with my topics of study, the contempt for “work” that begets procrastination was never given a chance to take hold. My productivity went through the roof.

Toph enjoyed more than just academic success. By giving himself the time to relax and really embrace his small number of obligations, the company where he had been working noticed his potential. Toph eventually met with the VP of Marketing who upgraded him from data entry to working with the marketing team for the entire Australian branch. He loved the new upgraded job. He loved his classes. All was well.

Perhaps most important:

I had grown as a person; my character was stronger, my energy radiated, my friendships were true and meaningful and my overall perspective had matured. There is no way I would have had this experience if I had been as ruthlessly busy as the semester before.

What Employers Don’t Care About

As Toph looks back on his experience, he sums up the wisdom he learned as follows:

Employeers could not care less about how many ‘things’ you did in collegethey don’t care that you were the president of 47 clubsthey are miles away from caring that you took ‘really hard’ courses…you will never get ahead by doing 1000 things well because there will always be someone else in the interview room who did 1001 things, better.

So what can you do? As Toph put it:

Develop an absolute mastery of one simple thing: you. Take a reasonable course load, work on only one truly inspiring project, and spend as much time as possible with the people you love and admire. As they say in Australia: Full stop. That’s it.

Toph’s Plan for Moving Forward

Since returning in June, Toph has planned his fall schedule. It’s a work of minimalist beauty. He was even so kind as to put together a graphic which compares a screenshot of his calendar last fall to his calendar for the upcoming fall: Toph’s Schedules — Before and After (click the link to see the image.) Notice how last year every day had obligations from morning until late at night. For this upcoming fall he has nothing scheduled past noon.

The approach has already returned real dividends. The company that he worked for in Australia — where he was able to thrive because he had nothing else going on — has offered him a full-time position after graduation. In the meantime, his extracurricular attention this fall is focused on a single passion-saturated activity.

Could This Be You?

Imagine for a moment what would happen if you too adopted a Toph-style Zen Valedictorian lifestyle. If you cut down your courses, and put your focus onto one activity — leaving the rest of your time free for exploration. Would your life fall apart? Or, like Toph, would you end up more impressive, and happy, than you are right now?

Given serious thought, the answer might surprise you.

(Photo by reinn)

6 thoughts on “Case Study: How Skidmore’s Busiest Student Discovered the Secret to Happiness on the Other Side of the World

  1. Nate says:

    Cal –

    Is there any likelihood of writing a Zen Valedictorian book in your future?
    I can’t possibly be the only one interested in a book like that.

  2. GBM says:

    Cal,

    I’m a moderately but not unreasonably busy (I think – I don’t have many standards for comparison) student. I’ve been reading Study Hacks for a while, and the one thing I can’t shake is the feeling that one can’t really make the jump without hitting bottom – that is, unless one has that moment of realization, or in Toph’s case, the forced change that showed him the error of his ways, one won’t commit and successfully transition to the new lifestyle. Any tips?

  3. Alex says:

    Cal,

    I assume from your posts over the past week that we should engage in extracurriculars that are

    a) balanced
    b) provoke our interests, not the interests of others

    Am I correct?

    p.s.

    Can we expect a new book soon? Lol, I know im not the only one interested in that

  4. This was a really great article. Delivered the message very very well.

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Is there any likelihood of writing a Zen Valedictorian book in your future? I can’t possibly be the only one interested in a book like that.

    I should have news about a new book (or lack thereof) by the early fall…

    I can’t shake is the feeling that one can’t really make the jump without hitting bottom

    I’ve noticed this too. My hope is that through a combination of case studies and well-reasoned technical articles I can help some change before that waking up in the gutter moment.

    I assume from your posts over the past week that we should engage in extracurriculars that are

    a) balanced
    b) provoke our interests, not the interests of others

    Kind of…I’m not sure what “balanced” means in the context of activities, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have your eye toward impressing a future employer or graduate program when you choose your activities. The advice I’m trying to get across in my recent posts is that the best strategy is to: (a) do a very small number of (time-consuming) activities — one, maybe two — and stick with them; and (b) choose activities that you enjoy, and whose other members you like to hang out with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *