Balance in the Bubble- And Outside of it, too

This fall has been my most enjoyable semester at Princeton thus far by an incontestable margin. My days seem rich and balanced. In the span of just a few weeks, I have made meaningful new friendships and picked up a few new hobbies–swing dancing, playing guitar, and longboarding, among others. I’m happy.

In stark contrast, a year ago, I was perhaps the most stressed I’ve ever been at Princeton. I felt like I was running from one assignment to the next. Often, when people asked what I did during a certain week, I’d be at a loss. I don’t have less work now than before—fellowship applications, a thesis, and four courses keep my plate full. So what changed?

My view this weekend, rock climbing in Vermont with friends I met in New Zealand!
My view this weekend, rock climbing in Vermont with friends I met in New Zealand!

The answer, I think, lies in some often-unquestioned aspects of Princeton life that I have made an effort to reject this year. Stepping away from campus during a semester abroad in New Zealand, I recognized some non-ideal parts of my Princeton experience.

Too often at Princeton, constantly working–on homework, projects, or other commitments– is a norm and even an expectation. In retrospect, I realize that, last fall, even when I wasn’t really working, I went through the motions. I spent many nights last fall hanging out with friends by simply doing homework in the same room together. We weren’t really studying—but we weren’t really socializing either. Too much time in this gray zone took its toll– I felt like I was doing academic work all the time, and I felt exhausted.

Virginia Postrel’s Bloomberg piece on Princeton’s work culture from a year ago recalls the same phenomena. She quotes a Princeton student who says, “the culture tends more towards, ‘I’m doing everything I possibly can and I’m almost at the breaking point and about to fall down, but I’m not.’”

Now, when I’m working, I put myself in environments where I know I’ll be able to finish a reading or write an application. And when I’m not, I make a conscious effort to do something else– whether going on a local hike, singing with friends, or learning how to rock climb. Having these “pet projects” has put my schoolwork in perspective, given me delightful breaks, and sparked unexpected connections. I approach the relationships I already have differently too. When I want to spend time with someone, simply coexisting doesn’t cut it– we take a walk, see a concert, or share a meal instead.

Perhaps most importantly, I realized that if I plan little adventures like this, the work gets done. Realizing that I can complete my work even while taking hours or days off enables me to use my freedom to go away for a weekend, even when my schedule seems otherwise packed. I committed to going for a daylong hike last Saturday, when I had two fellowship applications and a week’s worth of reading to finish. The hike was marvelous–I made new friends, and never regretted going. I returned focused and motivated, and the work got done.

It took me three years– and a semester away from Princeton– to find the balance I was looking for, in and out of the Orange Bubble. When the balance skews away from time to time, I remind myself that doing things that make me happy will make my academic life more enjoyable.. I’m typing this post on a train back from a weekend in Vermont, with a paper and plenty of readings waiting. But a few days off have made me excited to return to Princeton– and everything will get done.

— Vidushi Sharma, Humanities Correspondent