In November 1857, American writer-philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote in a letter to his friend, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”
If you’re an Emerson student, you can answer that question in many ways: a to-do list as long as your arm, the latest copy of your resume (already printed and ready to distribute to potential employers, of course), an iCal that looks like a double rainbow of scheduled commitments. I’m proud to say that my classmates are some of the most industrious young adults around — and I’m even prouder of our many accomplishments during our time at Emerson.
But this admirable dedication often comes at a personal cost. By semester’s end, many of us end up sick, stressed, and exhausted. Some of us steal precious, between-class naps in library chairs, and others rely on two (or six) coffees to get through jam-packed days. However it happens, busyness often gets the best of us — but we’ve only got four years of college, and that’s no way to spend them.
Thoreau might have scoffed at the way Emerson students can get hell-bent on industry, how we rush and worry and stay up all night. After all, he’s the one who skipped out on the daily grind and spent two years writing Walden, cabin-bound in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. And while most of us would be maddened by that kind of idleness and isolation, Thoreau had it partly right when he set out into the wilderness for some seriwbut there’s just as much worth in learning how to slow down.
Luckily, I’ve found a way of thinking that challenges the haggard-by-December model so many of us exhibit. As a writing, literature, and publishing major, I’m a sucker for a good metaphor — and a former Emerson student leader who I greatly admired, told me one that I’ll never forget. It goes like this:
Inside of each one of us, we’re cooking a pot of soup. I imagine mine as butternut squash, but maybe yours is chicken noodle or Miso. Either way, it’s there, and it’s sitting on top of a burner. The temperature of that burner represents how busy we are. The heat’s on high if we’re running all day long, and it’s on low when we’re on breaks or vacations.
The other factor? The amount of soup that’s in your pot. Each time we stay up late to answer emails, get up early to finish a project, or sacrifice our own needs in favor of other obligations, we lose a little bit of soup—and those missing cupfuls can add up.
Three years at Emerson has left my soup pot depleted on many a late night (or early morning). Though I thrive on the feeling of striking out the items on my to-do list, my own busyness has reached unhealthy levels on many occasions. My stress-induced habit of sorting through emails while on the treadmill might seem completely rational come mid-November—but I imagine any outside observer would either laugh or raise an incredulous eyebrow at my phone-clutching, lopsided jog through the second mile.
It does feel good to be productive, to lead and participate in student organizations, and to finish the homework you couldn’t even start until 10 p.m. the night before it’s due. But at the end of the semester, when we’re still running on high heat and doling out soup with abandon, we often come close to cooking up a great big pot of nothing. And I speak from firsthand kitchen experience when I tell you that when too little soup gets too hot, it turns into a burned mess (i.e., us in the middle of finals week).
Emerson students will always be cooking on high heat—Thoreau be damned! What we need is to make sure we keep our soup pot’s full. I do it by writing in my journal; spending time with my friends and family; and (when things are really bad) with a nap and a cupcake, in that order. Everyone replenishes their soup pot differently—but you’ll know yours is filled to the brim when, even if just for a moment, you feel peaceful, rejuvenated, and honestly ready to complete your next task.
Imagine your pot of soup right now, just a few weeks into the semester. Are you up to the top and rolling at a steady boil? Or are you almost empty and about the set off the fire alarm in the Little Building? You’ll have to dole out some soup when your friends need your support or when your group presentation is depending on that PowerPoint by the morning—that’s inevitable. But don’t forget to add some back in and stir well. It’s the best recipe for success.