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On the Beauty of Doing Less

A Fable of OverachievementRelaxed Students

I received an interesting e-mail yesterday from a rising sophomore at a top 10 university. He described his high school years, modestly, as “pretty busy,” noting that he was, among other things, a magazine editor, president of the National Honors Society, a nationally ranked debater, and the recipient of a 2300+ score on the SAT — the standard snapshot of a student who gets into a top school. (Remember, of course, that just because it’s standard, doesn’t mean that it’s the only way.)

What makes the story worth telling is that this particular student was one of those lucky few who are born with both the talent and, more importantly, the organization gene that allows him to pull this off without much stress. As he puts it: “My social life was fine; I wasn’t a socialite, but I still had amazing friends.”

Not surprisingly, when this student arrived at college he picked up where he had left off, signing up for activity after activity, like a drowning man gasping for air. He even admits picking up my books at a Borders and thinking: “great, now I can get even more done.”

Then something changed.

Unlike the other case studies you’ve heard here before, this student didn’t have a breakdown; there was no moment of defeat in which it all became too much. His conversion was much more personal; not driven by problems in his current life, but a sudden desire for a new one. I like the way he describes it, so I’ll defer to his words:

[I came to] realize this summer: more isn’t necessarily better—even if you can do it. There is a beauty in doing little, doing it well, and choosing the few things that mean a lot to you. Less clutter in your life helps you focus. There’s more time for reflection and self-development—things that are more important than being an editor for a magazine. There’s also more time for spontaneity.

[Busy] students (like me last year) need a reminder about what college is for. They come in with the same high-school mentality and that outstanding-resume momentum. Rather, college is for personal development. It’s for pursing what you want, or at least learning what that is and for understanding and becoming who you are.

A bold sentiment lurks in these words. Here is a student who was an effortless overachiever. He changed not to solve a problem but instead to answer that big hairy metaphysical question that lingers in the shadows during our craziest moments: what’s the point of life if you’re not going to live it?

I’ve spent months detailing why doing less does not mean you have to become less impressive (see, basically, every article here). But this student offers a fresh take on the conversation. He doesn’t care about impressiveness (though he’ll certainly still exude it). He cares about living a life worth living.

What would happen if, like this student, you put aside your 10-year plan and ignored that insistent drive to constantly be proving to some non-existent audience that you are worthy of their respect. What if, instead, you built a student life around beauty — the simple beauty of a person who actively enjoys his place in the world.

Do you really think this would scuttle your shot at success or happiness in your future? And if it did cut off some options, would the trade be worth it? There’s no right answer here. But it’s certainly an interesting meditation for a lazy summer morning.

(Photo by adatcio)

12 thoughts on “On the Beauty of Doing Less”

  1. I couldn’t agree more… taking a moment to stop and concentrate on fewer but more important things is definitely worth any potential trade off. I see people trying to do too much and in the end they might achieve a lot but they’re merely a collection of achievements meant to impress others and they don’t know who they are or why they bothered to do all of those things. Great post and a good reminder that less is sometimes more.

  2. It is true that it’s a liberating idea to live life for the sake of living it, but not all of us ‘overachieving’ types are doing it to impress someone. I tend to get my hand in too many activities mostly because I really enjoy doing them all. Also, my ten year plan is designed, not for others to see my organization, but as a strategy to get me the things I want. Just wanted to put it out there that there are multiple ways to ‘live life to the fullest.’

    (Although I do agree that it’s good, healthy and refreshing to just step back sometimes.)

  3. I tend to get my hand in too many activities mostly because I really enjoy doing them all.

    There are an infinite number of activities out there that you could really enjoy. At some point you have to decide how many you want to take on. This number will always be much less than the total number you could take on. The question is how much less…


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