“Work hard, play hard” is somewhat of a normative ideal at Stanford. When asked to characterize Stanford students, many of us are proud to proclaim it; it’s even part of the official motto of Stanford’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Psi, the business fraternity. Under this mentality, all-nighters are viewed with awe and respect, as is winning a game of beer pong after pounding down ten shots.
One potential reason why the “work hard, play hard” mindset is so popular is because it connotes notions of a balanced life. But is it really a balance to have two long nights of partying after averaging five hours of sleep per night in the week beforehand? Simply put, the “work hard, play hard” mentality leaves little room for personal wellness. If anything, it suggests that the stresses induced by intense academic and extracurricular schedules can be overcome by partying, drinking and/or doing drugs. Instead, these behaviors only serve to mask the reality of the situation.
In 2001, David Brooks labeled Princeton students as “Future Workaholics of America.” Across the country and 11 years later, this label still seems appropriate. At Stanford, merely taking classes at one of the most rigorous universities is not enough; we pile on various other commitments: athletics, part-time jobs, public service, performing arts, research, start-ups, you name it. Most of the time, we decide to pursue these activities of our own accord, out of genuine interest. As Brooks wrote, “promises of enjoyable work abound.” And yet, our myriad commitments invariably add stress to our lives and, quite often, a feeling of being overwhelmed.
But whereas it is relatively straightforward to identify the excesses of playing hard, such as alcohol-induced vomiting and hangovers, it is not always as easy to recognize the dangers of being overcommitted. For instance, studies show that sleep deprivation and excessive stress are linked to increased rates of heart disease, obesity and other effects that are only apparent in the long run. And while the workaholic lifestyle can be emotionally damaging in the short-term, these effects are subtle and hard to attribute to any one cause. Even when a student is able to recognize that excessive work is having immediate effects on his well-being, there is not always a simple solution to the problem beyond riding out tough times. Many common commitments on campus are difficult to drop mid-year.
For its part, the administration has worked hard to address the excesses of the play hard mentality, at least with regard to alcohol consumption. Alcohol Edu, the “open door practice,” publicizing the “social zone,” and other endeavors such as the OAPE’s Cardinal Nights program all aim toward this end. But while the administration has been very active in promoting responsible drinking, we feel it has spent relatively less time on the other side of the equation: teaching students how working hard, if done excessively, can be hazardous to one’s health.
Certainly, there are services on campus, like The Bridge and CAPS, designed to help students deal with the effects of excess stress. But little is done to address the root of the problem. During New Student Orientation (NSO), for instance, we learn about many of the opportunities available on campus, but not how to prioritize or say no to any of them. In fact, some common orientation traditions only encourage us to feel as though we should do more. Take, for instance, the first welcome at Admit Weekend when we learn about the amazing accomplishments of a select number of our peers. This is inevitably followed by some affirmation of how “we all belong at Stanford.” The overall message, however, is concerning: You belong here, but work extremely hard because these are the kinds of people with which you’ll be taking classes.
We are not advocating for students to shirk all their commitments, or for administrators to encourage such behavior. Working hard, from our perspective, is better than hardly working, and it is only natural for students to want to take advantage of the many opportunities Stanford offers. What we view as problematic is taking on too much, sleeping too little, being too stressed and not dialing back because “everyone else does it too.” In short, we hope that students can start to better understand the physical and mental consequences of their lifestyles, and we ask that the administration play a more active role in this regard.