Motivation and expectations.
May 18, 2010 7:08 AM   Subscribe

How do I motivate myself when studying for my college exams, when all I can think about is not disappointing people?

There's a lot of pressure to do well, get a good job, be successful. I don't want to disappoint my parents or my friends. This is stupid, because my parents have said "as long as you're happy, we don't care," but it still feels like they do. My friends are wonderful, but still competitive. It's hard not to think they'll look down on you in some way when they're doing so exceptionally well. And teachers, too... Everyone invests something in you.

I still love learning, and I still have my curiosity, but the trouble is whenever I'm studying that never seems enough. The pressure crushes all enjoyment out of it, and with it makes studying very, very difficult.

The trouble is, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but I don't see a place for myself in the world. I'm coming to the end of my third year, with one more next year assuming I do well in my coming exams. There's this education path that I have to follow, and if I keep following it I take it on faith I'll get somewhere, but it feels like if I'll stop even for a second I'll just sink. I'll just be told "turn around, not good enough, go back home" and never be able to get anywhere. Never be able to escape my hometown or my parents...


I suppose I should mention why I'm posting this. An acquaintance of mine recently had a break down due to a rejection from a very competitive postgrad program. And I just thought "what's the point?" .. "What's the point of all this, if we get so stressed, and never have time to do what we enjoy?" My free time comes in small doses, so I fritter it all away on the Internet or TV shows. I love reading, but I read very little because I can't concentrate knowing I should be working when I try to read. Everything I do that isn't work is procrastination because work never ends. But with the procrastination comes guilt... and it just never ends.

Thank you, anyone, for any advice you can give, or any insights from your own life.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Here's something that has caused me pant-shitting terror at times, and comfort at other times: The world really doesn't care. It's indifferent. You're not letting other people down nearly as much as you think; they're caught up in their own stuff. Unless you're actively fucking something up, no one's going to tell you to turn around an go back home.

Since your free time, at this moment, is only good for frittering (as you say), revel in that. Watch shitty TV. Read Cosmo, or whatever. It's ok.
posted by notsnot at 7:25 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Let me tell you something: When I dropped out of university, not a single one of my friends gave a shit.
posted by 256 at 7:57 AM on May 18, 2010

Failure is a necessary aspect of growth. Show me someone who has never failed and I will show you someone who is living far below their potential.

So failures will happen. The question is what failure means. Is a failure a judgement of your self-worth, of your intrinsic abilities? Or is a failure rather an indication that you need further practice or you need to explore alternative strategies? Does a failure indicate that you're setting yourself stretch goals, knowing that you'll get some parts rights and will have to try again on others?

Jazz great Art Tatum said, "There's no such thing as a wrong note." It all depends on what notes you play next. Some of the greatest music in world grew out of wrong notes --- out of failures, mistakes, f-ups. But the music was still great because the musicians didn't let themselves get derailed They integrated, built on it, made sure that the piece still added up to something. In the end, there were no wrong notes at all.

For more on this, check out Carol Dweck. She's a great inspiration for anyone worried about working hard and failing.
posted by alms at 8:13 AM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

This may not be the advice you're looking for, but this is exactly why colleges have mental health departments and therapists on staff. It's easy to think that these services exist only for people suffering from some "obvious" psychological issue, and it's just not true.

I'm an undergrad academic advisor. In my experience, these sorts of mental barriers to success are totally orthogonal to a person's actual mental capacity. I know folks who have sailed through school without giving a second thought to the sorts of issues you describe; I know (many) others who took anti-anxiety meds and/or went to regular therapy to get through doctoral qualifying exams. All of these people are fantastically successful -- what they all have in common is that they did what they needed to do, and got whatever help was necessary, to progress.

In the short term: Get lots of rest (fatigue makes you dumb), and try to talk to friends about this.
posted by range at 8:15 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Everyone invests something in you.

Not... really. If a friend of mine experiences success, I feel happy for that person; if a friend experiences failure, I feel sad for that person. However, I would never be "disappointed" in a friend for receiving a bad grade or taking an unimpressive job, and I don't base my liking of a person on how impressive his or her achievements are. I am not unusually kind or generous with my friends: this is what people do, it's what friendship is. Unless you have extraordinarily lousy friends, no one will judge you as harshly as you fear. And if you do have extraordinarily lousy friends who would judge you for falling short of a goal rather than just buy you a beer, say, "That's tough" and wish you better luck next time--well, then you need new friends.

And with regard to your instructors--your role in their classes is to learn the material for your own sake, you are not doing them a service of any kind; their role is to teach the material to you. If you do poorly in a class, some instructors will assume they need to amend their lectures and assignments and others will assume you've simply not made enough effort. Either might be true, but it doesn't really matter: it's not your job to worry about your instructor. If you find that you're doing poorly on assignments or exams, go to office hours and ask for help. If you ultimately get a poor grade in a class, consider what you could have done differently, learn from it, and move on. You do not need to impress or please your instructors. Some, you'll click with, others, you won't--regardless, do the work for your own sake, not theirs.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:48 AM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Success is something you end up defining for yourself. Having "glory" is different, and I think you might want really is just to have people think well of you, envy you a little.

The truth is is that you leave school and you get out into the world and you know, your grades sometimes don't make the difference between getting a job and not getting one. I recently recommended a hire because he was friendly, warm, and seemed competent. There isn't much meritocracy in the world, honestly, so whatever you do now, grade wise, but it's important to practice having the skills necessary to be able to be calm, focused, and motivated even when you don't feel that way. That's when "doing your best" comes into play, and don't beat yourself up in the end. You put in the best effort you could. But nothing is promised, ever, or a sure thing.

So your challenge now really is to somehow practice getting focused, which means you have to focus on learning how to focus when you can't. It's good practice for later in life.
posted by anniecat at 9:46 AM on May 18, 2010

The trouble is, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but I don't see a place for myself in the world. I'm coming to the end of my third year, with one more next year assuming I do well in my coming exams. There's this education path that I have to follow, and if I keep following it I take it on faith I'll get somewhere

Leaving college for the "real world" is kind of strange because in school there is such a rigid structure to it (get good grades, keep moving up the academic ladder) that doesn't really exist in the rest of your life. In school, success is quantitatively measured in the form of exams and assignments, whereas in life you're not going to have those kinds of metrics to guide you unless you decide to make them up yourself. You could make things like money and promotions into the equivalent of a GPA and grade levels, but personally I would advise against that.

It may seem like your whole life has been building up to this and your college transcript will be an overall measure of your worth as a person. In reality, it's just a piece of paper, and it may lead you into a fulfilling career in the field you've studied or you may never use it and instead go off in a completely different direction. There are some baseline assumptions that most people have for adult life (getting a job, moving out of your parent's place, etc.) but other than that the world does not have any grand and important expectations for you. A life isn't something you build, it's something you experience every day and you need to appreciate it while it lasts. In 20 years, the important thing won't be how much of a "success" you are at that point, it will be what you decided to fill those 20 years with.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:19 AM on May 18, 2010

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