It’s no secret that higher education has become increasingly competitive in recent years. Starting in high school (or earlier), students may begin to experience pressure to “perform”—get straight As and a perfect SAT/ACT score while juggling 37 extracurriculars to get into your dream college, make Dean’s List every semester and launch a start-up company to land a top-rated graduate program, and then maybe you can take a moment to breathe.At the same time, students are constantly reminded that their teens and 20s will be the best years of their lives. After all, when else will you get to live free of any worry (“I think I failed the LSAT, there go my chances of getting into law school”) or responsibility (“College apps are due next month so I can’t hang out this weekend”) before retiring?
All sarcasm and exaggerations aside, it can be difficult to strike a balance between working hard to achieve your dreams and enjoying your life in the process.
As someone who has experienced many highs and lows on the path to becoming a resident physician, here are three lessons that I have learned about the relationship between academic success and personal wellbeing.
Lesson #1: There’s a reason why airlines tell passengers to wear their own oxygen mask before assisting others
It might feel counterintuitive to ignore the child sitting next to you while you put on your mask, but would you rather the child goes ten seconds without oxygenated air, or that you pass out while struggling and failing to place the child’s mask? Now, think of the child as your academic success and you as your personal wellbeing. If you prioritize this child (academic success) over yourself (personal wellbeing), then you may be dooming everyone to an unhappy ending.
Of course, balancing academics and wellness is much easier said than done. A trick that has helped me over the years is creating separate “work” and “fun” to-do lists to remind myself that going for a walk or calling my best friend is just as important as doing 40 practice questions or reviewing 100 flashcards. There are certainly exceptions to the rule (e.g., it might be worth skipping the walk if you forgot to read a chapter that will be tested on your exam tomorrow), but you are setting yourself up for success in school by dedicating time for things that bring you joy outside of it.
Lesson #2: Try to appreciate the journey on the way to your intended destination
I know, I know, it’s such a cliché. I always brushed this piece of advice off, firm in my belief that I would start “appreciating the journey” after I got into college. This quickly turned into “after I get into med school,” and I had to stop myself as soon as I started thinking “after I get into residency.” There will always be another goal to work towards, which is why it is so important to see the value in everything you’re doing to achieve this goal.
Practically, “appreciating the journey” can take many forms. Have you dedicated your summer break to memorizing MCAT minutiae because you want to be a doctor? Yes, but maybe you are also developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will be invaluable in your future career. Do you spend your weekends in lab because you want to be a competitive applicant for graduate school? Yes, but consider the incredible foundation of knowledge and research skills that you are acquiring along the way. Whatever your goal is, try to think about how each step you take towards that goal is important, rather than “just pushing through” until you reach your intended destination.
Lesson #3: Asking for help is a sign of self-awareness and strength, not weakness
As we all know, 2020 was challenging (understatement of the year) with a record-breaking pandemic, tense political environment, and horrific acts of racism. Amidst this uncertainty, students were told to remain socially distanced from their friends, transition to remote learning, and work harder than ever to remain competitive as applicants to undergraduate or graduate programs. It’s no surprise, then, that 2020 also saw a significant worsening in the mental health of students across all age groups.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that there are many ways to ask for help and that it never hurts to ask for help early. Confiding in trusted friends and family members is a great first step. Scheduling an appointment with your school counselor can be invaluable—you don’t need a diagnosed mental health condition to benefit from speaking with someone in a confidential, judgment-free environment. There are also several apps that offer mental health services in a more convenient online platform. Asking for help is a sign of self-awareness and strength, so never hesitate to ask for help in whatever way works for you.
At the end of the day, academic success and personal wellbeing are undoubtably connected. I hope that my three lessons encourage you to reject the idea that that success should come at the price of wellbeing. Instead, consider the idea that prioritizing your wellbeing can actually foster success in your chosen field—that these two entities can be friends, rather than foes.
If you are in crisis, please call 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to speak to a crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.