There is a War on Doing Less going on in this campus. And, not unlike many great wars before it (Second Punic, Cold, Fox television’s “The War at Home”, etc.), you may not realize which side you should be on until it’s too late. The war is fueled by a vast and destructive propaganda machine and an entire Activities-Industrial complex. And it is a war that you are fighting in—whether you know it or not.
The activities fair. Peer advisors. Bhangra posters. The lecture from some sort of NGO official in McCosh 50 that the hipster girl across the hall is attending who would totally love to see you there. They want you to Do More, to get involved, to try out, drop in, tune out the world and tune in to the glories of activity. They say doing more will be fun. “It builds your resume”, the seducers purr. “It is healthy, or creative, or fulfilling. No experience necessary.”
After all, look at you. You aren’t experienced, sure. But they believe that you too can one day be a cup-stacking, belly dancing, bee-keeping phenom. They want you to be one. You want to be one (and you’ll need to be one, too, if you want to get that job at McKinsey after graduation). All you need to give is your time.
A quick disclaimer—please, do not take this as an ode to sloth. Making the most of your time at college is a noble goal. But it is a fallacy to think that making the most of your time means doing more, taking on a role, becoming someone.
“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that, about some spoiled aristocratic boy, and it seems to have become a slogan for the Princeton student today. It’s painted on the walls of Frist, along with a menagerie of other wildly out of context things that Princetonians have spouted. Somewhere along the way, we started to take it to heart—we want to become something. Bankers, mostly. Doctors. Lawyers. Writers. Politicians. We want to, and we’re expected to. Who wouldn’t want a return on all the time and money invested here?
But if there’s nothing wrong with becoming, there is something wrong with the steps we take to become. If we have become anything, we are resume builders.
I know—it’s a tired enemy to attack. Many an author and college counselor has warned of shallow commitment to too many activities. We are supposed to invest in a few, to craft ourselves into archetypes that are easier to sell. Surely then, the remedy to doing more is to do less, better.
Another slogan or motto some like to live by: “I wished to live deliberately… to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” A man with a beard wrote that about his time living in the woods. He didn’t go to Princeton, so we don’t like to quote him as much, but a lot of people do regardless to justify their becoming. Doing more, they say, is just living deep.
Yet even Thoreauvian self-reliance has become a brand, an identity and not an identifier. Thoreau (or, insert your other favorite rustic ponderer), as a brand, is clearly about Doing More. At the least, it has become about lowercase doing more, about committing deeply to activities and building up an identity as someone who cares about select, important things, about becoming the Philanthropist, the Religious activist, the Actor, instead of being just the Generalist.
This article is not about assuming a façade of deep commitment to a few issues. This is about working to find out what you actually give a shit about, and freeing your time to do that. This is about being open to things that you may not think you should give a shit about, but finding out that you do regardless. This is about truly doing less; or, as Thoreau says in what follows the aforementioned quote about sucking, this is about learning “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life”.
It seems counterproductive. After all, the Princeton student has been bred for competition and ambition. It’s not in our nature to step back. Suggesting that we do less is like trying to start an intelligent conversation about controlling population growth; no matter how gently one brings it up, they will be labeled a baby murderer.
I am here to murder your babies, metaphorically. Open your email inbox. See all those messages from the listserves you signed up for? Tag them all in your inbox and revisit in two weeks. If you haven’t cared about them since then, unsubscribe.
Take a walk. Don’t check your email, don’t ponder life’s questions, don’t breathe too hard to turn it into exercise. Just walk.
If you want to do something because you like doing it, do it. If you want to do something because it makes you somebody, don’t.
Fight back in the War on Doing Less. It just might make you a bit happier.