Working Out, Harvard Style
Slowing down is for later in life
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—The final test was a mile walk. After racing to perform as many crunches in two minutes as possible, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a run that rounded out Harvard athletics’ “Operation: Summer Fitness” preliminary test.Little did the Hemenway staffers know, after three years of running late to class (including two all the way from distant Mather House) I had become a professional speed-walker and de facto captain of the Olympic tourist-dodging team. Although some Fabio from Harvard Law School had put my push-up total to shame, my first-place-winning laps around the Yard were fast-paced, yet all-too familiar. Walking away, albeit slowly, from the University Hall finish line, I realized I set a very challenging time to beat at the end-of-summer test. I also recognized that my approach to Harvard encompassed the same need for speed. I’m anything but eager to leave this campus and undergraduate life. But my inability to ease off the pedal and my advancing anxiety over having only one, very short year left here immediately made me question my approach.Five years ago, former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 issued a now-famous letter to incoming students. Entitled “Slow Down: Getting More out of Harvard by Doing Less,” Lewis’ letter begged students to refrain from over-committing themselves, to focus on the quality, not quantity, of their college experiences, and to value their leisure time. Admittedly, his philosophy seems both logical and enviable. The barometer by which Lewis and I measure a successful college experience—a satisfying academic and extracurricular life, exploration of the College’s offerings, discovery of passions, and development of meaningful relationships with peers—is exactly the same. But I reflexively approached Harvard by speeding up. This do-it-all mentality impelled me to a multiple-extracurricular-responsibility, no-semester-off, don’t-miss-a-moment college life. I strived to make the most of college, feeling that Lewis’ charge would only hinder my success. I have made trade-offs, sacrificed sleep, and lost moments of sanity. But I have no regrets. Some students are better served by taking it slow. The numerous steps the College has taken in recent years to improve mental health indicates that an overloaded Harvard life can be hurtful. For me, though, taking time away from the many opportunities was too difficult, and the personal choice I made to live a jam-packed life has ultimately been fulfilling.Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to ignore the message that Lewis, some professors, and even peers have spent years trying to impress upon me. Last week, a casual breakfast with a resident tutor turned into an unofficial advising session. I mentioned I was shying away from writing a thesis due to a heavy load of extracurriculars, courses, a fall internship, and job searching. “I need to slow down,” I told him. Though disappointed to be abandoning a project I’d already spent a semester on, I had scared myself into thinking that I was approaching senior year too ambitiously, and it was only mid-July.“You’re going to regret not at least trying,” the tutor said. In my heart, I knew he was right. A few weeks ago, I scheduled a visit to the Office of Career Services to seek some advice on my senior year and beyond. The problem, I thought, was that I have to choose one path to follow the next thirty years of my life. My mind rebelled at the thought—after four years of pushing myself to the limit, a one-track future seemed terrifyingly claustrophobic. It was a Dean Lewis letter moment, but for the rest of my life. After explaining this to the counselor, she reassured me that I could explore all my options. The familiar wave of excitement and impatience coursed through me.Someday, I’ll be living the relaxed life of a 70-year-old Jewish grandmother in Boynton Beach, Fla., with all the time I want to take walks, read books, and lounge in the sun. But for now, I crave pressure and intensity. Contrary to America’s stereotypical slacker college lifestyle, many of my Harvard peers and I thrive because of our refusal to ease off of the college throttle. So, Professor Lewis, I appreciate your message. But I just can’t do it any other way.Bari M. Schwartz ’07, a Crimson senior news editor is an East Asian studies concentrator in Mather House. She wrote this postcard for a witty tagline, and this is the best we could come up with.