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Bonus Post: A Zen Valedictorian Case Study

I don’t normally post outside of my Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule. But this story seemed like a perfect addendum to Friday’s discussion of the Zen Valedictorian, and I have some time to kill this afternoon, so the result: a bonus weekend post. Enjoy your Sunday…

The Tale of TylerA New Beginning

Earlier this month, I received several e-mails from a reader whom, for the sake of his anonymity, I’ll refer to by the pseudonym Tyler. This student attends a top university. He recently returned after taking some time off to travel and work. In his recounting, he had burnt out trying to live the grind lifestyle. He needed the time off to get away from the undergraduate meat grinder and rediscover his direction.

His Return to Campus and Simplicity

On his return to campus, Tyler vowed to live a different lifestyle. Serendipitously, this decision coincided with the publishing of my Radical Simplicity Manifesto, which captures many of the core principles more recently detailed in the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. Motivated, in part, by the manifesto, Tyler made some major changes to his student life.

His changes included:

  1. Declaring a classics major.
    Tyler had been on track to major in biochemistry. He wasn’t interested in medical school, but people in his life assured him that such a major was “practical.” On his return, however, Tyler realized that if he didn’t focus on something that truly ignited his interest, he might once again tumble toward a burn out. So he declared a classics major. He enjoyed these courses. They helped him understand the world and his place it in. He wanted more of this intellectual stimulation. Practicality be damned.
  2. Slashing and burning his extracurricular schedule.
    Tyler was tired of running from one activity to the next, fueled by the belief that more was better, and without a full resume his post-grad options would dwindle. No more! On his return, he cut out all major activities from his life with the exception of one: assisting in cancer research in a campus lab. This work provided obvious meaning, and he made it the primary target of his extracurricular energy.
  3. Pro-actively enjoying his new free time.
    In his initial e-mail, Tyler shared with me a touching story. A few weeks into his newly simplified semester, he saw, at the last moment, an announcement about a well-known author coming to speak on campus. “With my old schedule, I never would have had the time to go to something like this,” Tyler recalled. But with his new, underscheduled lifestyle, he wandered over, got engrossed in the talk, hung around after and managed to meet and chat with the author. The event opened his eyes. There is a lot of meaningful living to be done when you give yourself the time.
  4. Focusing on his pared-down academics.
    With his schedule lightened and his major aligned with his interests — not some vague notion of practicality — Tyler has put renewed focus onto his coursework. Gone is the adversarial relationship with his assignments, as existed with his old, overloaded schedule — a context in which every new deadline stung him with a fresh injection of stress. Instead, he can now revel in his work. He takes his time with assignments. He can go back over readings and ponder their meaning. He can work on paper ideas for days before actually writing. Stress has been replaced with engagement and curiosity.
  5. Innovating.
    Tyler smartly noticed that his interest in biochemistry and cancer research as well as the classics, is an unusual combination. With this in mind, we recently applied for two different fellowships. One will allow him to stay on campus over the summer and work seriously on his research. The other will allow him to take classics courses over the summer while researching. As Tyler reported to me, his underscheduling allowed him to invest a couple weeks pondering his classics fellowship essay. Combined with the excellent grades he now earns in these classes, and the great recommendation this spawned, it was no surprise to hear, earlier this week, that he had won the grant.

The Zen Valedictorian at Work

Though I hadn’t yet described the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy when Tyler returned to campus, he had stumbled upon most of its core principles. He went from overloaded to underscheduled, cranked up his focus on his major and his single extracirricular, and, with his summer fellowships, he has begun the process of innovation.

The effects, you’ll notice, are exactly as predicted by the philosophy. The underscheduling led to an immediate stress reduction and a new engagement with college life. He enjoys his coursework and can now pursue random opportunities — like attending an author’s talk or applying for a fellowship. Also as predicted, the focus allowed by this underscheduling led to drastically improved academic performance. He credits his strong work in his classics courses as the key to him both being notified about and then subsequently winning the summer course grant. Finally, we can only imagine how the full innovative picture here — the departmental star, interesting, classics-spouting, cancer-researching student scholar — will open powerful, fascinating opportunities for Tyler after he graduates.

Imagine what would happen if you followed Tyler’s zen example…

20 thoughts on “Bonus Post: A Zen Valedictorian Case Study”

  1. I have been thinking about your posts a lot lately, because I don’t seem to follow the rules of your philosophy. For example, you mention only having one major. The thought of only having one major is odd to me. But I realized I have two majors because I actually want them to complement one another. I actually enjoy both of my majors.

    I don’t know if under scheduling is the key to this idea. Under scheduling gives you the time to really think about what you want. I believe those with the least amount of stress in their lives are those that enjoy expanding their self-knowledge.

  2. @Michael:

    I understand where you are coming from. But I think underscheduling is about more than discovering what you want to do. It also about helping you to maintain perspective and balance on what you are doing.

    It means, taking a whole afternoon to track down some extra sources and ponder an essay for class. Or, as I was known to do in college, spend a Saturday tracking down interesting people in your contact network to chat about some crazy idea. It’s attending talks and events in your major department and partying. It’s about not allowing a sense of exhaustion to build, semester by semester, until, by your junior year, the fire has dwindled out all together. It’s about coming back to the same interest, again and again, until it morphs from proficiency to mastery. It’s about launching big idea projects and deciding — as I was also want to do — that for the next three semester you’re going to start taking classes on something you know nothing about (for me: art history, astronomy, brain science, roman history and philosophy.)

    If you fill your schedule — both your course schedule and extracurricular schedule — though the situation may be tolerable, and you like everything you’re doing, you’ve cut off your ability to do all I mentioned above.

  3. @Michael:

    I don’t doubt it. I think it’s possible to have something like a double major without life being over-burdened — assuming the student is like you, and has his productivity act together. I think the bigger picture message I’m fighting is that more is always better, and if you’re not filling your schedule to your brim then you are slacking. Often, things like double majors fall from this flawed philosophy.

  4. I understand the big picture that you are fighting, and you are doing an excellent job at doing it. I was justing thinking of how my life fits into this great philosophy.

    Now here is a question you may think about answering. “How does a student know if they have room to add a new task, and how would a student go about integrating a new task into their schedule?”

  5. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this. What do you think about students on a pre-professional track (pre-med, pre-law, pre-dent) who choose to major in something other than the typical major for students on that track, if they really like the major. For example, a pre-med choosing to major in History instead of the typical Biology.
    Its not quite a double major because all they would have to do are the pre-reqs which are one year of Bio, Chem, Phys, and Organic.

  6. @Johnny
    Those classes are hard as sh*t and they are not going toward anything but prereqs for med school which you may not even get into or decide you want to do. Might as well make them go toward your actual graduation…

  7. Great article yet again Cal! I’ve been very swamped this semester and I’m gonna totally underschedule next semester :). I need to go back to why I loved my major and chose it in the first place. Though I’m not in the US and we don’t have frats in Singapore, it reminds me of the Phi Beta Kappa motto “Love of learning is the guide of life”.

  8. Thanks for this post! It made me realize it’s fine — even great, in fact — if a person is into two different things.

    This hit close to home since people have repeatedly lit into me about my Chemical Engineering major and my Graphic Design hobby. They often tell me my interests don’t mix, and I should just bury myself in my major.

    It’s cool to know it’s okay to think differently about what they’ve all been saying.

    Thanks again!

  9. @Jonny:

    I don’t know much about pre-dent. I think pre-law is a scam. As for pre-med, my understanding is that it’s pretty flexible. You need to take the recommended courses, regardless, because otherwise you’ll drown at med school, but it doesn’t affect admissions to be a History major.

    Udoka is right to point out that it can be a pain to take those chem courses on top of another major. My recommendation: if you like bio or chem, and definitely if you’re interested in being a research MD, then major in one of those sciences. Otherwise, don’t force a major that will make you miserable: just plan your pre-med courses way in advance so you can control when they fall into your schedule.

    Any pre-meds on this thread want to add something from your experience?

  10. @Siva:

    That’s a great motto. Thanks for bringing that to my attention…


    I’m glad to provide the confidence boost. As someone who balanced being the editor of the campus humor magazine and a computer science geek (and whom now balances freelance writing/blogging with being an MIT grad geek) I can personally attest that the unusual combinations are not only okay, but, often, the most interesting. They also yield cool opportunities.

  11. Now here is a question you may think about answering. “How does a student know if they have room to add a new task, and how would a student go about integrating a new task into their schedule?”

    That’s a hard question because the answer is so subjective. In general, I like to make a distinction between activities that don’t require your time or only require a finite amount of time (a week or two), versus those that will require your time and attention on a regular basis. It’s the latter that I’m wary about. Being free with former helps keep student life exciting and varied.

    Another wrinkle is strongly related activities. For example, if your thing is writing, then it might make a lot of sense to pile on a few different writing responsibilities (column for the paper, editing a magazine, etc.); it all melts together into one large focused activity.

    Maybe there’s a whole post brewing in here…

  12. I’m trying to decide whether to under-schedule my first year. I’ll be a freshman this fall. At my college a full time student is considered as someone taking 12 semester hours or more and 15 semester hours is considered a “full” course load.
    Would under scheduling mean taking 12 hours instead of the full course load of 15 hours, so I have more time left over? Sorry I’m new to this, I’m sure college will be radically different from high school.

  13. @Grace:

    Typically, the school has a “normal” course load you can find out pretty easily. i.e., most students take x courses per semester. Use this as a guide for your initial semester then you’ll develop a better sense of what’s reasonable and what’s not.

  14. Tyler’s story sounds very much like my own. I took a year off as well. When I returned I changed my major, and study habits. Your blog and one of your books (Im going to read the second one over the summer before I enter the college Im transfering to in the Fall) has greatly contributed to my heading down the right path!

  15. @Kate:

    If you’re interested, you should shoot me an e-mail with some more specifics. I’m thinking of starting a regular series — Zen Moments — where I share stories of students who had specific experiences or major changes involved a more engaged, balanced lifestyle.

  16. @Grace: I agree with the advice given on normal course loads. I also find it kind-of humorous how the normal course load for a freshman in my university is about 26 hours. A full course load goes about 30 hours. XD I wonder why it’s so different!


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