When Alex e-mailed me last fall and asked if I’d consider endorsing his soon-to-be-released book, Thriving at College, I said I’d be happy to review the manuscript. It was the first time I’d ever been offered this privilege by an author. I was honored. Apparently some people endorse books without reading them, but I knew I would never do that. When I get excited about something, I’m excited for a reason. I want to really get behind it. So I took the galley to Minnesota with me over Christmas and read it in about two days.
I loved it.
Truthfully, I somewhat mourned the fact that this book wasn’t available when I was in college. Oh, I was never a slacker in school. I got good grades, was involved in many activities, and generally acted responsibly when it came to relationships, faith and stewardship of my time and talents.
But I could have done so much better. Looking back, I realize how I majored on some pretty minor concerns. I wasted energy on trivial things. I didn’t savor moments that should’ve given me pause. My primary goal was to survive college, not really thrive.
Thankfully, that doesn’t have to be your experience. If you’re in college (or preparing to go), you should get a copy of this book. It’s ridiculously practical and doesn’t pull any punches. It’s like an inside track to learning the “system” and making the most of it. Alex has been a student (several times over) and is now a professor. He knows college, and he knows college students.
Below is an excerpt of the book. Read it, and see if it inspires you to look forward to college as something bigger than just classes and late-night pizza study parties. And if you want to read my endorsement as well as those of a bunch of men much wiser and more seasoned than me, you can do that here.
Enjoy the journey.
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One semester when I was in college, a couple of friends and I set aside Saturday mornings to study together for a big exam. The exam was divided into six sections, so we prepared for about three months, taking a chunk each Saturday. We’d work hard, and then to unwind I’d head to the Berkeley Marina for some windsurfing. This exhilarating hobby exhausted me physically, but it was just the refreshment I needed after all that time in the library.
Working hard and playing hard pretty much summed up school for me. The workload can be intense and exhausting. But the fun times provide much-needed refreshment and can lead to lifelong relationships and memories. Both are important. The refreshing escape of racing over the water while windsurfing was the perfect balance to the strenuous mental work that my courses required. But if we’re not careful, fun times can become an end in and of themselves. Video games, for example, can either be a refreshing break or an addictive, harmful time waster, dangerous to both your health and your GPA.
In fact, many college students (and post-college adults) have it backward: getting through work as quickly as possible to maximize time for fun, entertainment and friends. But play was actually meant to equip us for work, not the other way around.
There are two equally serious dangers here: too much play without enough work and too much work without enough play. You may struggle with both of these extremes from time to time, but chances are your temperament inclines you one way or the other. Part of academic and lifelong success will require knowing which danger you’re more prone to and creating safeguards to stay balanced, productive and healthy.
A mistake many college students make is living out of balance — working too hard or playing too hard, not recognizing the pithy truth my sixth-grade teacher told me: “There’s a time and a place for everything.” To thrive at college, you’ll need to both work and recreate for God’s glory. Let’s look at an example of work and recreation out of balance.
All Play and No Work
I had a bright student a few years ago named Mike. An honors student, he was enrolled in one of my classes both for the fall and spring semesters, and I also served as his academic advisor. Mike turned in the first test of my fall class with 25 minutes to spare. While the other students sat there sweating bullets, I flipped through the pages of his test. A quick glance was all I needed to discern that he had scored 100 percent.
Congratulating Mike, I told him the good news the next day. I encouraged him that, if he applied himself, he could be very successful in college. But Mike just smiled, seemingly unmoved. Puzzled, I asked him how long he had studied for the test. He said he hadn’t studied very long at all, that the test had been easy, just like high school.
I suggested that he challenge himself by trying additional problems not required of other students. I assured him that the material would get more difficult and that the next test would probably not come as easily for him. But he remained unmoved. Joking, I apologized for the material being too easy and promised that by the end of the semester, the class would at least keep him awake. Again, no reaction.
Mike seemed totally uninterested. I wanted to get into his head: What did he hope to get out of college? What was he hoping to do when he graduated? It seemed that Mike himself had no idea.
Mike was not without interests in life. I soon found out that he was the reigning video game champ in his dorm and that games and movies typically kept him up for a large part of the night. In October, he had trouble getting to class on time. By November, he would sporadically miss classes entirely, unable to get himself out of bed. Though he started with a high A, he wound up with a B in the fall and a D in the continuation course that spring. By the next year, Mike was on academic probation and on his way out of the engineering program.
Too much play and too little work. Sure, he was bonding with the guys in the dorm and no doubt having the time of his life. But a semester of college cost $10,000 back then, and Mike took five classes per semester, which meant he’d lose $2,000 for every class he had to repeat. Not a wise investment.
Ironically, part of Mike’s problem was that high school was too easy. It is not uncommon for students to get As and Bs in high school but never learn how to really apply themselves. When Mike found my first test to be relatively easy, he assumed my class would be just like high school. He had never developed the discipline of studying. Unfortunately, by the time the alarm bell went off in his head, the semester was almost over. He became a victim of his own bad habits.
Recreation was not meant to be our default state in life. No, recreation is a temporary refreshment from God-honoring work. So whatever you do for enjoyment, see that it doesn’t become an addictive distraction. In college, away from your parents, a lot of the structure you had in high school is gone. A lot less time is actually spent in class, so it can feel like you have more time to yourself, to do what you want. But be aware of this inescapable principle: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man” (Proverbs 24:33–34).
The pattern is this: Ignore responsibilities, and they’ll overwhelm you. But if through disciplined effort you conquer your responsibilities, you’ll not only enjoy the fruit of your work (success, strengthened character, improved skills), but you’ll be able to truly enjoy recreation without it consuming your life.
All Work and No Play
Emily was an outgoing, bright and hardworking student. She regularly told me that she hoped to pass my class, that the coursework was very hard and that she was continually feeling anxiety about her grade. Each time I’d reply the same way: “Actually, you have an A or A- in the class right now. Just keep up the good work, and try not to worry so much.”
Interacting with Emily made me think back to my college days. Actually, I was more like Emily than I’d like to admit. God blessed me with a desire to do well, and I was able to earn a 4.0 GPA in my first semester. But the better I did, the more anxious I became. I started to find myself lamenting the fact that even an A- would knock down my GPA. After every test, every project I turned in, I’d be plagued by … anxiety. Worrying. And waiting.
“Uh, Dr. Jones, when are we going to get our tests back?”
“Dr. Sigmundson, I know you haven’t graded our tests yet, but is there a way we can have another chance to boost our grade this semester? I don’t think I did well on it.”
Now that I’m a professor, I feel sorry for how I badgered those poor guys, because I’ve heard the exact same lines.
Can you relate? Have you found that working hard to keep up your GPA feels all-consuming? You’re not alone. According to a doctoral dissertation on the subject, the average college student in the 1990s was more anxious than 85 percent of college students in the 1950s. And the problem has only gotten worse in the last decade.
What’s going on?
The trouble starts in high school, if not earlier. There is overwhelming pressure to succeed; to have the “right background”; to be able to get into the “right college”; to earn high grades, be strong in athletics, music and/or theater; to feed the homeless once a week; to exhibit leadership potential (somehow); and to stay involved in church, all while keeping up with your social and family life and getting enough sleep. No wonder we’re a generation of worriers.
Here’s an indicator: When you spend more time worrying about grades rather than working on your courses, grades have become too important.
When that happens, we’re working for man’s approval, not God’s. We’re studying to accomplish a small (and fleeting) man-made honor rather than to discover more about God’s world and God’s ways. Good grades should be a by-product of excellent work, not a primary and consuming goal. College provides an incredible opportunity to learn to love God with all our minds, to increasingly master math, chemistry, English and history as bodies of knowledge whose axioms and beauty owe their entire existence to the God of truth and beauty, the God without whom no truth or beauty could possibly exist. We’re to seek to please Him through our growing understanding of the various academic disciplines, because all truth is God’s truth.
Learn to Love Learning
So how do we study and learn without worrying? We do it by learning to love the process of learning — the discovery of new things, the challenge, the growth in understanding that only comes from spending focused time on our course work. Live fully in the moments of your study. When you do, you’ll find your anxiety about the outcome start to fade. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (NASB).
Remember Colossians 3:23–24: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. … You are serving the Lord Christ.” Give yourself rigorously to learning, to the development of academic skills, to being a good steward of the intellectual ability that God has given you, even if it’s not as great as you wish it was. Your Christ-like attitude and grace-dependent effort please Him apart from whatever grade you end up receiving (Philippians 2:13; 1 Peter 4:11).
Don’t confuse God and your professor. Here’s what I mean: Your professor’s job is to help you learn and grade your work. But God is your real boss. He’s the one you are to work for, to seek to please, and pleasing Him is more important than getting good grades. You can get a C in a class and succeed more in God’s eyes than someone more talented who got an A. The professor’s job is to grade based on external, objective standards, but God is more pleased by the raw outcome.
Avoid the temptation to compare yourself to others. Comparison inevitably leads to envy, discontentment and frustration. Instead, be a good steward of what God has given you. Don’t complain, don’t whine, don’t make excuses. Just do the very best you can, and sleep at night knowing that you did what you could. Leave the rest to God.
Work is fundamentally good; more than that, it is actually a gift from God. Working hard as a student involves vigorously developing your brain, like a weightlifter develops his muscles, so that you are prepared for the good works God has for you down the road (Ephesians 2:10).
But as I mentioned earlier, work, on its own, isn’t everything. Recreation is also important. In fact, without it our bodies and brains grow weary and break down. Through recreation, we restore our mental and physical faculties, reflect on and enjoy God’s goodness in creation, and develop relationships. In recreation we ought to be refreshed for further labors. In recreation we also say, “It’s enough. I’ve given it my best. I can trust God for the outcome.”
As a student, when I worried about grades, I couldn’t rest. Worrying saps energy for work and the ability to unplug. A diligent student can let go, take a healthy break and sleep at night.
So we need to live with balance; it’s easy to either play too hard or work too hard. We can’t neglect either; each is vitally important.
Taken from Thriving at College by Alex Chediak, Part 3: CHARACTER MATTERS, “Common Mistake #7: Living out of Balance.” Copyright © 2011 by Alex Chediak. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.