November 2, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Office Space Mentality

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A casual inquiry about how I’m doing seems innocuous, until I respond with “living the dream.” My answer evokes priceless expressions of amused bewilderment, as if I’ve told a sadistic joke and need to reassure people of my sanity. Before the fateful week of October 20, I never understood how a happy student could be so incomprehensible. Now I do. In retrospect, the whole week seems like one hellish nightmare. I simultaneously experienced the chaos and watched everything fall apart around me, as if from another place outside my body. When I awoke the next Monday, I somehow knew that the nightmare had given way to recovery.

Here’s the condensed version. Day 1: Having invested a lot of energy into research for the previous two weeks, I found myself deeply unsettled by some unaddressed issues regarding an organization I help lead. The burden of having not done enough triggered stress-induced insomnia, which led me to be mentally absent at my lecture on Day 2. My abysmal performance on a Day 3 oral test for this same class exacerbated the insomnia. Throw in a typical Cornell workload and Day 4 did not look pretty. Oh, and here’s the best part: a prelim on Day 5. Think I had done much studying?

Each individual component of my life had bled into the next, so that my priorities became indistinguishable and one undertaking directly impacted the diminished quality of work I produced for the next. Since being mercilessly dropped into this strange hybrid between more school and the real world, my metric for success has been happiness. Ironically, too much ambition had actually decreased my output and I felt less successful. Funny how that works.

See, I’m a Happiness major, but college ice-breaker questions demand a real answer. So I tell people Biology, emphasizing that I am not pre-med/vet/dentist. I usually follow up this surprise with a self-deprecating joke about how few of us there are (three, by my last count). The person inevitably asks what I want to do, often assuming pre-grad, which prompts yet another surprise: I enjoy research, but plan to focus almost exclusively on teaching after grad school. If someone were to ask why, the simplest answer would be two words: Office Space.

I admittedly take a 1999 comedy about white-collar life way more seriously than the film takes itself. In Office Space, Peter Gibbons visits a psychotherapist to discuss his seething hatred for his job as a bank software updater. He is subsequently hypnotized into not caring about anything, and decides to sleep in during his scheduled Saturday overtime shift. He follows this up with a series of increasingly badass decisions like going fishing during work, tearing down his cubicle and parking in his manager’s spot. Without spoiling the movie for you, suffice it to say that Peter ultimately ends up one happy guy.

Anyone can empathize with pre-hypnosis Peter. Oftentimes we choose the safe path over the satisfying one. Slaving over a problem set or paper translates into trudging through a miserable career. Curious, I enjoy asking people about their motives and many of them express how willing they are to make the sacrifices and endure the struggles. In the end, they are happy to. Not everyone seems so clear-eyed though. Stress without a goal, or goals without passion, make zero sense to me.

Honestly, students have nothing to worry about. Idealistic and utopic? Probably, considering today’s grim world of college graduate unemployment. But I doubt any alumni will tell you how the bad prelim grade or missed internship ruined their future. I think you will turn out just fine, if you don’t let your peers and the world convince you what to value in life. While no one should actually not care about anything like Peter Gibbons, no one should care too much either. In a hypercompetitive environment like Cornell, people often take on countless responsibilities or expectations and attempt to invest 100 percent of their energy in every one. You will not be able to. Period. I tried and failed, living for one week in perpetual dissatisfaction. Ultimately, everything I did could best be described as mediocre. While I’m still recovering, I don’t support jeopardizing health and happiness in the short term for perceived long term success.

Of course, some stress is healthy and normal, enabling us to respond to problems. But too much stress can consume you, and morph into counterproductive madness. Right around the moment I stopped saying “living the dream,” I realized that I also hadn’t been listening to music either. Music is pretty much my raison d’être, and I had forsaken catharsis. I tasted depression for just seven days, and my body and mind reacted violently. No decent human being deserves to experience such unhappiness.

What is happiness? Hell if I know. But I envision some sort of balance between ambition and fulfillment. Ambition, when fueled by your passion, can translate into success. For those who define ambition as a series of resume-builders and numbers, I genuinely want you to also be fulfilled. For me, fulfillment means acknowledging that all the rights far outweigh the wrongs. A little stress can do wonders for your appreciation of the positives in life, but a lot can ruin you. If you slip into a nightmare like I did, remember that all nightmares end. They aren’t real life. So please, for your sake, just try to live.

Amiri Banks is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.