Phillipian Commentary: Defining Effort

“Prioritizing my mental health over my grades is good until my grades suffer, which makes my mental health suffer, which makes my grades suffer, which makes my mental health suffer.”

I recently came across an Instagram post with this caption, and it resonated with me. I too had been trapped by this vicious, repetitive, and seemingly inescapable cycle, as have many of my fellow students. Stress and anxiety about working to achieve perfect grades frequently caused me to stay up late, which resulted in increasing fatigue and length of naps during the day, which resulted in less remaining time to do work and even less sleep per night. In the midst of a highly competitive academic environment, maintaining stellar grades seems like the baseline requirement to succeed. However, while it may seem borderline impossible to change this lifestyle, it may also be easier of a fix than we think, as the toxic pressure that’s been associated with grades may very well be our own doing.

Andover students are accustomed to being the best of the best. Since the earliest years of school, we breezed through assignments, spending less time on them than the average student. However, within this new school community, no single student stands head and shoulders above everyone else. It’s a concept that has been repeated to us in many contexts, and it’s not the knowledge of the concept that fazes us; it’s the more subtle consequences that spring up without warning and knock us off balance.

Coming into Andover, I was a student who experienced a high ratio of successes to failures. I was never confronted by a challenging assignment. I was never stressed out by schoolwork. I never even truly studied for a test. Good effort and good grades were two separate concepts I had never found necessary to consolidate, and as a result, I wasn’t able to develop an understanding of what constituted “trying my best.” Even though I arrived at Andover aware that I would be encountering more difficult territory, when the school threw its first series of major assignments at me, I was completely caught off guard.

Unsure of what Andover expected of me, I decided that a safe way of determining the quality of my assignments was to draw comparisons to my work ethic on past assignments. However, it quickly became clear that I could no longer reach that level of quality by breezing through the work as I had once done when I was younger. The new concept of “effort” was shoved into my face, and I could only measure this effort by what seemed to me as the most obvious device: the total time I spent on the assignments. The only way I could clearly understand how much time I put in was by observing how many hours of sleep I was getting — or, more specifically, losing.

As I adopted the method of measuring quality by sleep and time, I was forced into a position where I could only define myself by my grades and concrete results. The ease I once continuously had with schoolwork had destroyed my ability to gauge effort. I never felt that it was fair to say I’d tried my best if I hadn’t reached the goal I’d set. Whenever I didn’t fulfill a goal, the only excuse I could fall back on was “I didn’t try hard enough.” To me, there never seemed to be a situation where saying “I tried my best” was not just a halfhearted surrender but something I truly believed and accepted.

Not too long after my Upper year began, I started to consider again: “When have I really tried my best?” Even though it was extremely difficult to break my prior habits, and the mere thought of spending less time on each assignment was initially enough to make me panic, I knew it was paramount that I make a conscious effort to improve my health habits, especially to brace for the intense year ahead. Recognizing this as the reality is a critical step, and when we’ve tried hard enough is important to try and gauge. Even if you, like me, are just now beginning to understand when the concept of putting in effort has transcended into breaking yourself down, it’s not too late to start trying to escape the cycle. As the Andover community, we can work to minimize the amount of stress we feel by being aware of how much of that stress is self-created. Being conscious of how we are adjusting to life as a student here, what we are measuring effort by, and actively seeking to better your mentality if we pick up on toxicity are all steps to reaching the point where we will be able to confidently tell ourselves, “I tried my best.”