On Doing Nothing Students

Ben Sobel in Harvard Magazine:

HarvardI took this past semester, my junior spring, off from Harvard. What was I trying to accomplish? It took a few months to realize it, but the truest answer I can give is “nothing, really.” What kind of a Harvard student spends a few months he could have spent in Cambridge traveling aimlessly through Western Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa—trying to accomplish nothing? At Harvard, I had developed an obsession with ensuring that every instant of my time could be justified in terms of tangible accomplishments. “Productiveness” is a buzzword around here—as qualifier, quantifier, boast, and complaint—and the concept hovers spectrally alongside a disconcerting amount of on-campus dialogue. Most undergraduates have likely been on one or both sides of an exchange like this:

“How was your weekend?”


Because the word is used constantly in this sort of context, productivity becomes a universal validator, and, more disturbingly, an end in itself. In these conversations, it doesn’t matter whether the weekend was good or bad, as long as it was productive. On campus, what I was achieving didn’t matter, as long as I was achieving. In this way, my productivity fetish allowed me, paradoxically, to move through my life in a monumentally lazy way. As long as I was productive, “good” and “bad” and “happy” and “sad” were all subordinate considerations. The constant noise of commitments, which I had sincerely convinced myself were important and substantial, let me tune out larger uncertainties. These larger uncertainties—about goodness and badness and happiness and sadness; about who I am, what I like to do, how I want to relate to others; and most importantly, about what I’m trying to achieve through all this achievement in the first place—were and are far more difficult to confront than any number of innocuous, “productive” obligations.

So I buried my unsettling concerns in piles of schoolwork, term-time jobs, and extracurricular organizations. In some ways, this was one of the best things that could have happened to me. My fixation on generating tangible achievements helped me write the best papers I’ve written and think the most stimulating academic thoughts I’ve thought. Each of my productivity-chasing pursuits introduced me to wonderful people I wished I had time to get to know better and wonderful ideas I wished I had time to understand better. Indeed, I produced good things—but these products often felt secondary to the feeling of productiveness they gave me. Rare were my moments of unproductivity, but rarer still were my moments of genuine, uncompromising self-reflection. I never spent any time alone with myself, in part because I had conditioned myself to view such activity as a shameful waste of time, and in part because I was profoundly unsettled by the “larger uncertainties” that surfaced whenever I spent time inside my own head. This is why it is necessary for me to frame my semester off in terms that sound unconscionable to my Harvard-honed sensibilities. “Accomplishing nothing” is exactly what I had trained myself to abhor in order to fight off the bugaboo of meaningful personal scrutiny. With the goal of “accomplishing nothing” in mind, the worst that could have happened is also, conveniently, the best that could have happened.

More here.