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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Too busy to live

<ucation is the one area of life where people consistently try to get less bang for their buck” – Eric Manley ’11, quoting someone more famous.

I am taking 8 credits this term. Last term I accidentally registered for only 1 credit of COMPS instead of 6, which left me with an additional 5 to register for this term. This means I can be fully enrolled in Carleton while only taking Data Structures, Jazz Piano, and Voice lessons.

You’re initial reaction to this might be jealousy.  “Man, he must have so much free time…” But why? Somehow it doesn’t bother you that I’m spending $16,000 to write a few programs and dick around on the piano for a few months. In fact, you want that.

Hmm. If we’re spending money to be here and learn, why does not taking classes sound so appealing?
I think the answer lies in “busy-ness.” We are all busy, and we desperately want to not be busy, and somehow we do nothing to change it.

It took me a while to put words to this feeling of busy-ness. It’s the feeling of just barely having enough time to do the things that are expected of you. We all have some combination of appointments (Ebony practice at 7), deadlines (problem set due tomorrow), and general ‘should-dos’ (calling parents, laundry).

My sense of things is that Carleton students (and probably a majority of the busy people in the world) process things in that order: appointments, deadlines, ‘should-dos.’ If you don’t have a commitment for the current time, you put effort into completing a task by the next deadline in the near future. Lacking a proximal deadline, you’ll wonder if there’s other things you should be doing and maybe do some cleaning or reply to some emails. Before you know it, there’s another appointment or deadline rolling around, and you continue to be busy.

In the creative writing classes I’ve taken at Carleton, one of the things I’ve heard most often is: “I need this class to make myself write every week.” Creative writing, for many, is a private act of passion that is often its own reward. However, there are no consequences to not writing a poem or story in any given week, so it’s easy to have it take the back seat to other things. Creative writing classes attempt to bridge this problem by providing negative consequences to not writing. If you don’t write, you may lose the respect of other students and the prof, and maybe not pass the class.

Creative Writing classes, and all classes for that matter, take advantage of the psychological principle of ‘loss aversion’ to make students more productive. Loss aversion is a survival instinct designed to protect what we already have. As some studies have shown, losing $20 feels nearly twice as bad as finding $20 feels good. It’s why we love getting things for free, even when they suck and we don’t really want them. We don’t like to lose our money.

Precocious students that we are, we enter each class with an expectation that we will finish the class with a pretty good grade, let’s say a B or higher. In some sense, from the first day we walk in we give ourselves that A-, and every assignment is a new chance to tarnish it. By not turning in an assignment, you risk losing your grade in the class, or even failing. And as the term progresses, the academic work takes on more urgency as you don’t want to lose the grade you’ve earned thus far.

The problem here is that loss aversion is irrational. Losing $20 feels twice as bad as finding $20 feels good, but it isn’t twice as bad. If I offer you a chance to bet $20 on a coin flip where you will get $45 when you win and nothing when you lose, you should take me up on this deal as many times as humanly possible. You should take out a mortgage. But you won’t, because losing $20 sucks.

It may be entirely true that turning in a paper late and getting a worse grade in a class and then using the time you would’ve spent to make sculptures out of matchsticks is exactly the right thing for you to do. But you won’t see it that way. Not doing your homework will make you lose the grade you’ve worked. Not making matchstick sculptures won’t make you lose anything.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do your homework. It’s generally a good use of your time. I’m just asking you to be wary of the culture of negative reinforcement that surrounds this place. There are plenty of amazing things for you to do with your time that won’t have clear repercussions for not doing them. I want you to think about what those things might be.
Maybe there’s a field full of $20 bills out there waiting for you. Are you too busy to look for it?

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