Young student, hard-worker, crazy?
September 30, 2010 4:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm a diligent student. Am I insane?

So, I'm having a special snowflake am-i-mental moment here. Wondering if my ‘social network for non-friends' can help me feel this one out. Right, so I'm worried I might be nuts. (background: I'm a 21 year old university student, male)

Here's the story: The other day I was chatting to a friend, and, as I was explaining why I wasn't going out to town with everyone that night, I started talking about the essay that I was writing. I told her that I'd spent about 15 hours working on it already with at least 10 to go, and she was really surprised - apparently she doesn’t know anyone who spends that much time. I started showing her the meticulous notes I'd been taking, with page-by-page quotes, annotations, and summaries, and the pages and pages I'd filled trying to work my argument out (these are 2500 word essays worth 30% for 200-level History and English papers). When I saw how stunned she was, I started to think: is there something unusual about the intense amount of work I put into school? I worry a lot about my work ethic, and in the past I'd get frustrated and disappointed with myself for missing lots of lectures, procrastinating, and putting work off. This year I have spent so much mental energy forcing myself to concentrate that I'm often exhausted, but I am finally starting to get the grades I want, consistently coming in the top-5 in my 200-level university classes.

This is the hardest I've ever worked, but I have always been really good at school. And, speaking of personal defects like arrogance, I should mention my difficulty fitting in with other people. I've never felt completely natural interacting with other people. It's not like I scream if you touch me, but I feel nervous, say the wrong thing, get into bad arguments and step on toes. I'm also thinking now that, to fix these problems, I may have started approaching relationships (platonic and otherwise) with the same microscopic intensity. I have been making a huge effort, and I do feel like I’ve lately been doing better at being friendly and personable with people.

So. I’m wondering - is this a normal story of growing up and improving yourself, or, am I some sort of... social computer, trying to pass myself off as a normal guy? Maybe a bit more background would help. I had a rough childhood with very fractious parents who split up when I was a baby, and then fought and screamed and fucked me around a lot. I was increasingly unhappy from the age of about 16 up until about the start of this year, when things got to their absolute worst. I left Medical School last year (oh yeah, I live in a non-American country with a non-American education system) and spent a year off, before coming back to school to try some arts papers. It’s helped, along with all the things I experienced and thought about during my year out. Recently, things have turned around, and I've been working to fix a lot of bits of me and my life that I didn’t like or didn’t know enought to not like about myself. It's been an improvement, but it has felt like an intense, and, sometimes, utterly overwhelming, project.

I will almost definitely talk to my therapist about this, but Askme can be really useful with these things, in a different yet complimentary manner to therapy, so I thought I'd give my non-friends a shot. Thoughts?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (42 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You're not crazy. You probably are working too hard, though. You are working so hard that it is making you question whether you are crazy. That's too hard. Talk with your therapist about *why* you are working so hard--is it to try to earn your (shitty) parent's approval? Are you proving to yourself you can make it despite a crappy childhood? Are you looking for approval or validation from professors?

It's great to be a diligent, hard-working student. It's not great to make yourself crazy doing it.
posted by shortyJBot at 4:13 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I actually knew "normal" people at college who worked just as hard as you're describing. They were normally also the ones with the "unreal" GPAs. So being really diligent, like you're describing, is not a bad thing in and of itself. I don't know how tough a school you're at, but it may be that you're at one where other people ARE slackers. I dunno. It's kind of hard to tell without knowing the school.

I'll let someone else speak to the relationships part of the question.
posted by bardophile at 4:16 AM on September 30, 2010

I can't really speak on the mental health/social computer aspect but you're not nuts for working hard. I think your friend's surprise is more a statement on how little many people actually work at stuff in college. I have seen some abhorrent papers passed of at the college level. People just can't write academically. I was always very meticulous in school (history major), always above and beyond as far as sourcing things, building an argument etc. I wouldn't worry about the fact that you put a lot of work into college-level papers. It's exceptional, and not a problem in the least in my mind.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:18 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You sound as though you get something out of your diligence. Go with that, and to hell with those who think you're weird. Relish the success you're having.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:25 AM on September 30, 2010 [12 favorites]

The spectrum of people's work load in college is staggering. My two closest friends in college sat on either end of that spectrum.

A. The Diligent one did so much work on projects that I would be totally humbled.

B. The lazy one did so little that I constantly felt like I was a fool for working so hard.

oftentimes we would all get the same grades on a project and it would seem absurd. But college only lasts so long and there real world rewards people like you and person A. Person B gets fired a lot or learns to be more like A.
posted by French Fry at 4:28 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ask your college tutor or the professor of the course how much detail, depth and how many hours reading / writing approximately (s)he expects. That should help you to be more objective.

Nth-ing the others who have said: it's not a sin or a crime to enjoy working meticulously. In history and similar subjects I bet it's a serious advantage in many respects.

Get advice from your academic advisors and make up your own mind.
posted by KMH at 4:41 AM on September 30, 2010

It might be worth asking yourself if you are working harder than necessary to receive top marks. From a professional growth standpoint, it makes sense to put forth your best effort in each class. But when that effort neglects your social life, you're favoring professional over personal growth.

Given your hx of choosing to leave school in the past, I would air on the side of working hard for classes. When the time comes to balance things out, you'll already have enough invested into your GPA that going out with friends won't affect it too much.
posted by WhiteWhale at 4:45 AM on September 30, 2010

1. Do you love it?
2. Does it make you happy?

I'm much the same way. I spend hours each day, 7 days a week, studying. Reading, thinking, writing, studying. It's all I think about and all I really want to do. I pass up opportunities to do the expected things...partying, socializing, etc. And my only real excuse is, "Hey, I like reading textbooks and that's what I want to do right now."

Back when I was really into surfing, I passed up opportunities to go out, party, drink, see shows, etc. Because I was really excited about waking up at 5 am and feeling good and rested so I could get in the water by daybreak and catch waves all day. Nobody thought I was insane (or at least it was a 'good' kind of insane), and that was partly because that particular activity is socially sanctioned with the blessing of cool. Studying just doesn't have that social cachet yet.

All of this is fine, you're fine. And congratulations, you've got passion and a work ethic. You're an academic.

(If you answered no to both of the questions above, then you probably should reconsider what's motivating you. But I suspect that's not the case.)
posted by iamkimiam at 4:50 AM on September 30, 2010 [15 favorites]

You don't have to be like everyone else, or spend your time in ways your friends would approve. I think doing what you enjoy, doing what brings you happiness and makes you feel fulfilled, is a sign of maturity -- not mental problems.
posted by Houstonian at 5:11 AM on September 30, 2010

All I could think reading that was "if only I worked that hard at school..."
posted by thesailor at 5:26 AM on September 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you're working towards your strengths. You're good at this stuff, you know what it takes to get an excellent grade and you get satisfaction out of vigorously doing it. That's great!

I think WhiteWhale has a point though - it sounds like you're neglecting your personal growth in favour of excelling academically. You have some problems relating with people. Generally speaking, it's a lot harder to find out what it takes to have good personal relationships with people. It's hard to "excel" in any meaningful sense. And when the end result is that you feel happy and have fun, it's hard to see that as any meaningful ahievement worthy of praise.

But I think that your social life is an important field worth developing. Everything in your academic behaviour suggests that you will be successful at work later on. But if you are only so-so at personal relationships, it will impact your life quality - and perhaps your career negatively. And in the long run, this may be more important.

So if you manage to cut down some academic time to make time for your social life, this may be healthy for you.
Also, there is one important skill you may have to learn (perhaps you have it already): The ability to do a mediocre job without letting it stress you. Sometimes time and other constraints don't allow you to be as rigorous as you like to be. Sometimes you have to do work that is significantly below your own standards. It will be good if you develop a tolerance for sloppiness.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:27 AM on September 30, 2010

...I am finally starting to get the grades I want...

This a hundred times. Well done.

I wish I had put in the effort to go from procrastinator to diligent student back in the day. You don't have to kill yourself so learn to relax & enjoy life in between work, but as someone who now lectures at university and continually tries to motivate students to put in the effort as you are, I wish there were more like you.

You can go to uni & put in just enough work to get a degree and party too but to actually get something out of the course takes self-directed study & engagement with the material just as you are doing.

I can usually tell which of my students will do well as they are the ones who work at it. And they get more than just a piece of paper at the end.
posted by i_cola at 5:36 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll say this. The med students I knew literally worked about 10 times as much as most students I knew. It's just who they are, or it's what they wanted to do, or the result was just worth it to them. Other students I knew went to class sometimes and did an hour or two of work outside class and otherwise just did whatever they wanted. There's no right or wrong unless it becomes unhealthy (not eating/sleeping, being too isolated, etc.) It's just a question of priorities.
posted by callmejay at 5:39 AM on September 30, 2010

Some people have to work harder than other.
posted by fire&wings at 5:51 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

But college only lasts so long and the real world rewards people like you and person A.

While I think this is true, I also think that it's possible to carry it too far. Most workplaces are going to want the person that can spend a reasonable amount of time on any given assignment, rather than the majority of a workweek on it. I'm assuming that you're in some kind of graduate school, based on you saying that you dropped out of some kind of med school to attend your current school. Personally, I think that 25-30 hours on a paper is too much. Assuming that you work on this paper for 3 weeks, but that you are also taking 3 other classes that you have similar amounts of work for, that is at least 40 hours of schoolwork a week. That's a whole lot of schoolwork- I've often heard that if you don't have a job, you should treat school as your full time job, but if you add in the amount of time you actually spend in could be looking at 55+ hours of schoolwork a week. This is probably the reason that you say you're frequently "exhausted".

I think that it's great that you are finally getting the grades you want, but I think the fact that you are questioning whether you do too much work means that you very likely are. In addition, nothing in your question actually says whether you're happy spending this much time on schoolwork. If you are, then good for you...keep on doing what you're doing and don't let anyone tell you differently. If not, I would suggest talking to your professors and seeing if they have any ideas as to how you can still get your schoolwork done without spending 25 hours on a 2500 word paper that is only worth 30% of your grade.
posted by kro at 5:55 AM on September 30, 2010

I don't think there's anything wrong with you're doing -- you seem to be achieving the goals you've set for yourself. At the same time, there are people who will be able achieve your goals without working anywhere near as hard as you, and you have to accept that -- you can't throw yourself into a tizzy when you find out that not everyone is working in the way you are.

I would encourage you though to make sure you are also making the most of the non-academic aspects of university life. Four years will fly by, and it's a period in your life where you'll have all kinds of options to meet new people, do interesting things, and explore aspects of yourself. Academics is unquestionably a key part of the post-secondary experience, but it is by no means the only one.

Good luck!
posted by modernnomad at 5:58 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

This year I have spent so much mental energy forcing myself to concentrate that I'm often exhausted

This is key.

Do not work yourself to the point that you burnout. Do not work yourself to the edge of exhaustion, because that's an edge one can very easily fall over. I've seen incredibly brilliant and wonderful people turn into nervous, unhappy, sleepless wrecks all because they felt too pressured to work constantly. It didn't lead to them doing more work or doing it better... It just led to them stopping all work entirely so they could go and cry and scream and rage and suffer.

Do not allow yourself to feel guilty if, sometimes, you just need a break.

Many of the above posters are applauding your effort, and I want to say I sincerely applaud your drive and commitment to your education. However: don't let this drive kill you. It is not appropriate to force yourself to work so much that you end up feeling worn down, anxious, and sick. It is not even in your own interest -- the more you overwork and overtire yourself, the more extreme your eventual burnout will be.

Part of being sane is knowing the right combination of Work Time and Fun Time -- this isn't the same combination for everyone, and what's right for you will definitely depend on your goals and your personality. Right now, it seems like you might not know what the correct mixture is for you. You need to find out.

I say this as someone who spent almost all her time as an undergraduate doing work, and who got good grades because of it, not as someone who parties all the time. I say this as someone who now has a PhD and a good, hard job... and I say it as someone who knows that, after about ten hours of working, what I really need, for my own health, is a few hours to sit and watch a movie, or bad TV, or read a fun book. I'm not trying to tell you that you need to party more, not at all. All I want to get across is that, no matter what your goals, it is okay to relax and have fun. In fact, you need to -- that's part of being human.

Don't let peer pressure make you lose sight of your goals or preferred lifestyle. But definitely don't let anxiety about your grades turn you into an exhausted, anxious work-zombie.
posted by meese at 6:01 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Most people think most other people's methods of studying are insane. I use to write vocabulary words for foreign languages on the walls of my shower with whiteboard marker so I could study them in the shower. My roommates thought this was batshit. They used to make hundreds of tiny little flashcards. That struck me as a gigantic waste of time.

If you're getting results and you're reasonably happy, I don't see the problem.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:02 AM on September 30, 2010 I some sort of... social computer, trying to pass myself off as a normal guy?

This right here is a completely normal fear. Interacting socially is hard. We don't know what other people are thinking or necessarily how they'll react to things, and we really want to. We have limited inputs and feel like we need to find the 'right' ways to behave to get to a desired outcome, or even just to avoid lousy outcomes. Sometimes that's by following a formula (ok, so when she does that, the right thing to do is this. Try it... hey, it worked! There were no explosions of any kind!) and when you're following a formula, and paying attention to your own internal algorithms, you can start to feel kind of like a machine.

Here's the key, though: eventually it gets better. You learn what you need to learn, and eventually you also learn that you're doing ok, you can relax and not think about it so much. You learn to trust yourself, and to some degree to trust other people. This takes times, and lots of practice, and patience. You're doing fine, and your hard work is paying off. You'll get there.
posted by lriG rorriM at 6:15 AM on September 30, 2010

I'm also thinking now that, to fix these problems, I may have started approaching relationships (platonic and otherwise) with the same microscopic intensity. I have been making a huge effort, and I do feel like I’ve lately been doing better at being friendly and personable with people.

This seems to be working for you, keep doing it. Those of us who didn't learn proper social skills early in life can educate ourselves at it, whether by reading books on the topic, working with a therapist, carefully observing how "normal" people interact with one another, etc. When you change your natural way of relating people in order to fit in better, at first it will feel artificial, but eventually it will become second nature. It's what "fake it til you make it" is all about. And the til you make it part is key. You really won't feel like you're faking it forever.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:28 AM on September 30, 2010

Some people have strong work ethics. Some people are perfectionists. Some people are detail oriented. These aren't necessarily good or bad traits. An analogy is "caring about your appearance." Is that a good or a bad thing? It's good (or at least not bad) if it's about personal pride and aesthetics. It's bad if it becomes obsessive to the point where it makes you unhappy -- where you can never leave your apartment because you are five-pounds overweight.

But the world needs detail-oriented people. Most people aren't detail-oriented, so you're always going to feel like the odd-man out. And non-perfectionists will always tell you to chill. But if everyone was casual about work, we wouldn't have Stanley Kubricks, Marcel Prousts, Bachs, etc. (Kubrick is a good example. It's legendary that he demanded a huge number of takes, and people tend to act like he was over-the-top for doing so. Meanwhile, many of these same people are big fans of "The Shining" and "2001.") We tend to have a double standard about workaholics: "We appreciate your effort! Please keep it up... now quit being so obsessive."

There are a couple of things I'd watch out for: first, is this an addiction? It's great to be detail-oriented about stuff you care about. But can you stop if you want to? Are you a perfectionist about everything you do, even if you don't want to be -- even if you don't HAVE to be?

Second: is this a general work ethic for you (e.g. if you quit school and became a carpenter, would you apply this zeal to carpentry?) or is it specific to school? I ask, because school tends to come with a whole set of values and rituals that may or may not be healthy for you to turn into a "religion."

I will put my cards on the table and confess that I'm not a fan of school. I am a HUGE fan of it in the abstract. What I mean is that I'm not a fan of most ACTUAL schools. I think they teach a lot of warped values. I won't go further with this (you can memail me if you want to discuss it), and you don't have to agree with me. Many people don't. But -- good or bad -- school DOES come with values and rituals aside from pure learning. It comes with grades, exams, particular kinds of relationships between students and professors, etc.

I've noticed that people who devote themselves to school with a monk-like passion tend to pop out the other end with certain handicaps, prejudices and (though it's hard for an anti-school person like me to see them, certain advantages).

It's worthwhile thinking about this -- thinking about the other stuff you're soaking in and how it might affect you, for good or for ill. This is particularly important for you, because you're soaking in it so deeply. Someone with a casual attitude towards school won't be as affected by its values as you are.
posted by grumblebee at 6:34 AM on September 30, 2010

The concept of mental health has practically ceased meaning anything scientific and instead seems to be some kind of social measurement. Or (as in some of the previous responses) a measure of one's suitability for employment. If you are asking if you are like everyone else, I haven't done the statistics to give other than an impression, but I don't see you as having a disease.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:42 AM on September 30, 2010

is there something unusual about the intense amount of work I put into school?

Yes, it is unusual. But being successful is also unusual, so expect that doing stuff that other people aren't willing/able to do is going to be required if you want to be very successful.

I am finally starting to get the grades I want, consistently coming in the top-5 in my 200-level university classes.

Well, then, it looks like you're on the right track. No one gets to be in the top 2.5% of their class by doing what everyone else is doing, now do they?
posted by deanc at 6:49 AM on September 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Not insane. Maybe overcompensating. I am not a psych/ologist/iatrist.

As an instructor, I loved students who worked so hard on everything, yet I would also counsel that they needed to learn to read & write tactically. That is, I would routinely assign around 100-150 pages of reading for a first year writing course. The idea is to assign a fair amount of diverse yet related readings so that the students would find things that resonated for their approach to the writing assignment.

There were weekly discussions, but one can't realistically expect to discuss 100-150 pp. weekly in any kind of depth. Instead, there are key moments or passages that students would locate in the readings (no, the goal was not "find key passages"; there were no winners or losers based on memorizing content). Too few pages assigned and there isn't enough to talk about. Too many, and the students read nothing.

The same theory of assignments is what I remember from graduate seminar courses, where the load was 300-400 pp per week. To read all of that, and to understand it all, is not within most people's ability. Instead, we find topics that relate, or form constellations that help us form a systems approach to the coursework at hand.

With that as a background, though, if you do decide to pursue the arts into graduate school, your work ethic will serve you well, especially because of the organized note taking, annotations, and summaries. This is what most grad programs are about, after all. However, it is important to realize the difference between being able to catalog massive amounts of work and being able to produce your own original take on it. I have seen students with that prodigious ability to take notes but who can't synthesize other's viewpoints into something that goes beyond that.

Still you will be far better served to overdo for now, learn to read and note-take more tactically, and perform at a high level (because learning is after all a performance for your class and your instructors) than your friends who just do enough to get by. They are the ones who unfortunately give us the backbone of commerce and industry, those who barely passed their BA or BS degrees, and then turn around to say how poorly the education system performs.
posted by beelzbubba at 6:58 AM on September 30, 2010

With regards to your schoolwork, you don't necessarily sound crazy. Here's the checklist I would use to determine if you're working too hard:

a) you could get an "A" for a project with 5 hours of work, but
b) you spend 15 hours on the project instead, and
c) you don't get any personal satisfaction out of the extra 10 hours of work, and
d) the extra 10 hours of work hurts your quality of life by stressing you out, depriving you of sleep or keeping you from doing other things that are important in your life,

then you should probably back off.

On the other hand, if you're enjoying the process and the extra learning you get from all the extra work, then stick with it. Here's something a lot of people don't realize - the amount of work required to earn an "A" in most college classes is trivial next to the effort required to really learn and internalize a subject so that the knowledge and skills actually stay with you past your final exams. If you care enough about your subject matter that you would like to retain your lessons and make use of them in later life, then you are on the right track with the work you are doing.

One caveat - there will be times in your future professional life where you will need to deliver a "good enough" project in a limited time. You don't want to be so locked into producing a "perfect" result that you are unable to deliver when the boss says he needs a report in 2 hours time. As long as you are choosing to spend the extra time, when available, rather than feeling compelled to do so, then you're probably fine.

With regards to your relationships, you're not that atypical. Analyzing things is often a good way to learn. Over time, the relationship lessons you're learning now should become internalized and start feeling more intuitive. Be patient with yourself.
posted by tdismukes at 7:09 AM on September 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

If this is about typical. . . you're working hard, but you're not working insanely hard.

When I did my prelims, I essentially spent 6 weeks writing 8000 words.

You're spending about 50 minutes per percentage point in the class. If that's typical, and you're taking 5 classes which each meets 3 hours a week for a 13 week semester, that works out to 47 hour weeks. That's hard to sustain, but it's not CRAZY. If you're in grad school, it's even less crazy.

You're getting the marks you want, but, depending on how long this program is, you may find that level of achievement hard to sustain. You're not doing your long-term prospects any good by burning out.

The people you should be talking to about how much you could slack off are not your peers, (especially not peers who don't share your work ethic) but your professors. Go ahead and ask them whether what you're turning in is "top of the class" or "over the top".

You might (and I am saying this as a college instructor and a former unsuccessful student turned highly successful) look around for some things you can half-ass; if you're an undergrad, look at Rocks for Jocks and other "intro non-majors" classes; if you're a graduate student, you may need to pick something that's not going to get your full attention.

When you're seeking to balance your life out, don't think in terms of getting lower marks, but in terms of taking a handful of classes you can do well in without quite as much effort. You can still learn in that kind of context!

Putting your full attention into what you are doing is admirable, and I think it's a good way to live. In order to sustain it, you have to work at 95%-100% most of the time, NOT 110%.
posted by endless_forms at 7:13 AM on September 30, 2010

Person B gets fired a lot or learns to be more like A.

In the US at least, I've seen the work world to reward person A with the work of the 3 person Bs who aren't pulling their weight.

There's a balance between doing a spectacular job and working to exhaustion point. Only you know where that line is, and if you can figure out where it is, and pay attention to it, then absolutely do what you need to get the grades you want.
posted by Zophi at 7:22 AM on September 30, 2010

iamkimiam: "1. Do you love it?
2. Does it make you happy?

This. A hundred times this.

Additionally, this is all good prep for grad school. But, of course, you shouldn't go to grad school unless #1 and #2 are true anyway. People like to do different things. If you like taking thorough notes (or even if you like working hard in and of itself, which I actually believe people can do), then go full steam ahead, recognizing that your professors and peers will never reward you in proportion to how hard you work.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:24 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You sound like a normal guy who is just being very honest about a lot of relatively normal thoughts and insecurities.

Relish your ability to work hard, but as others said, please try to do so without burning out. Learn to take some breaks during work or even whole nights off, if you want, to hang out with friends or do something else you'd enjoy.

One of the important thing to take out of all of this is that you've set goals and you're achieving them through your own means.
posted by zephyr_words at 7:37 AM on September 30, 2010

I've found that there are two types of people who go to school: 1) very physically-oriented workers who seem to benefit from meticulously organized notes and summaries and outlines and lots of time spent on these physical, written things, and 2) people who seem to put work off until the last minute and then just sort of effortlessly sit down and do the entire thing, all without having written down any notes from readings or maybe even have gone to class.

I've always been type 2. Some type 2-seeming people are the ones who end up dropping out of school, because they are not really type 2, they are type 1 people who want to be type 2 and are trying to fake it. Real type 2 people make it work really easily. I've been questioned about it a lot ("how many hours did you study for the midterm?! I pulled an all-nighter." "I didn't study" "Did you fail?" "No, I got an A-." "HOW?!" "...") and I've recently figured out how it works.

Type 2 people are just less physically oriented than type 1 people. Hence, they are often doing work when they don't know they are doing work. When I have a huge paper due, I don't block off time and sit and write outlines or notes, because I do this in my head while I daydream on the bus or take a shower or walk to school, and then once I sit down to write the paper, I already know what I'm going to say because it's been sitting in the back of my mind for awhile. I don't take notes in class because writing things down doesn't help me remember them. I pay attention the same way I'd pay attention to a conversation with friends and thus I remember the important parts.

I have often wanted to be type 1 because I have a fondness for really organized and neat things. But I can't get myself to do it because for me, it's just not necessary, because that is not how my brain works. And that's the point I came here to make with all this--if you're doing all this and it works for you and you're happy with it and its necessary for you to learn, then you're fine. Your brain just might need to see your thoughts written down in order to understand them. Don't judge yourself based on what other people are doing. Everyone has their own style of learning things in school. Jobs prefer people like you because they like paper trails.
posted by millipede at 7:47 AM on September 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Not too many people have spoken to the "human relations" part of the question. I'll take a stab at it, I guess!

I should mention my difficulty fitting in with other people. I've never felt completely natural interacting with other people. It's not like I scream if you touch me, but I feel nervous, say the wrong thing, get into bad arguments and step on toes. I'm also thinking now that, to fix these problems, I may have started approaching relationships (platonic and otherwise) with the same microscopic intensity. I have been making a huge effort, and I do feel like I’ve lately been doing better at being friendly and personable with people.

I'm an introvert. I know what it's like to feel nervous about what to say to other people. I don't think there's anything wrong with you (or that you're a computer!) Plenty of smart people have problems interacting with others - that's why we have the "brilliant nerd can't understand people" trope on TV and in movies (think The Big Bang Theory). If you're making an effort, great! Just be careful not to try too hard - if people notice you have flashcards with their favorite colors or something, they might be weirded out.
posted by coupdefoudre at 8:01 AM on September 30, 2010

This kind of work ethic/approach will seriously pay off if/when you go for a Masters or other advanced degree, and will be essential for "hard" fields like medicine or law. You keep on with your hard-working awesome self.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:33 AM on September 30, 2010

My father's favorite saying was, "I may not have been the smartest guy around, but I could outwork anyone." And that has paid off for him, and it has also paid off for me. I wish I had taken that tack in college; I was inconsistent at best.

I don't believe you can try too hard, and who cares if other people are 'weirded out'. You have to live with the results of this for the rest of your life. I applaud your diligence. You are learning skills that will not just benefit your academic career, but also anything else you undertake. Check in with your academic advisors and see if you're overdoing it, but you say it yourself: you are finally starting to get the results you want to get. Effort = results. What other people do doesn't matter because they are not you.

Good for you all the way around!!
posted by micawber at 8:34 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

From the advice column in this month's Elle magazine:
"Other than getting into a decent grad school and associating with the cream of your generation, getting straight A’s means diddly-squat in the real world, where it’s all about hustle, determination, focus, dressing right, sucking up, and who you know."
If you add "and some element of luck" -- I've found it rings true.

You may indeed want to continue on to grad school. If so, good grades will keep your options open. But if not, it's worth asking yourself -- to what end are you working so hard?

I think the bigger-picture benefit of your current intensity is that it's been a learning process for you -- figuring out to be more disciplined, focused and hard-working in school can help you pursue other life goals beyond acing classes. But your efforts are effective insofar as they're sustainable. And it doesn't sound like they are. In your description at least, you sound at best grimly determined and on the brink of exhaustion and burn-out.

Slow down and relax. If you'd gone out with everyone that night, would what you've achieved this year crumble away? Could the loss of those 3 hours working on your paper be offset by what you might gain in terms of enjoyable company and interpersonal experience/"fitting in with others"? Taking a more balanced, long-term perspective won't hurt.
posted by amillionbillion at 8:36 AM on September 30, 2010

25 hours of preparation for a 10-page paper (2500 words = approx. 8-10 pages) sounds to me like it's at the upper end of what I'd consider a reasonable expenditure of effort, but not so extreme as to be "insane," necessarily. As other posters have suggested, though, what qualifies as "insane" really depends on context and how the behaviors affect your life.

If it's taking you so long to write a paper because you're struggling to read and comprehend, or your concentration is very bad and you have to constantly bring yourself back from distraction, you might look into whether you have a diagnosable learning disability.

If you are working yourself so hard on the papers that other areas of your schoolwork are suffering—if you obsess over a few tasks to the point of self-sabotage on everything else—then you might want to change your behavior.

If you are making yourself miserable but can't see a way to be less miserable, or if you feel like you're stuck in a very deep hole that you can't ever climb out of, then you might want to get a psych evaluation.

If you are satisfied with the way you're working and feel OK about the trade-offs (not being able to go out on weeknights, etc.) then your work habits are probably not "insane." Just watch out for self-defeating behaviors (don't study so hard that you exhaust yourself and can't keep on going—everyone needs breaks), and think about whether you can leverage your prior "meticulous" work into a more "efficient" style of working. After reading 20 history books "meticulously," can you derive any lessons about how to work more efficiently? Did you learn anything about how to find the most useful parts of the book, or narrow down faster which books are going to be most relevant to your research? Did you learn anything about how history books are typically structured, that might help you skim-read them until you find the most relevant parts? Can you come up with a system of shorthand or sticky flags / bookmarking that could (partially) replace your page-by-page annotated quotes?
posted by Orinda at 8:36 AM on September 30, 2010

I was also a diligent student, I spent months meticulously researching and working on my senior thesis as we'd been told by the university would be expected of us. There would be strict deadlines at every phase of writing.

By the time we were supposed to be putting the finishing touches on said thesis, I learned many of my classmates had barely started, meeting said deadlines in as half-assed a way as possible. This was annoying, but what really infuriated me was the department's tacit approval of this by granting extensions to anyone who applied. So much for the high expectations, as two out of three students in my subject got extensions that year. I felt like a sucker for being the one in that three.

Years passed.

I could probably reproduce my senior thesis in a few weeks now. I remember the articles I referred to and still own a number of the books I used. And not only just the thesis; to this day I can recite facts and figures from virtually every phase of my college career. I remember most of the papers I wrote in freshman level classes, from the role of Women in the French Army in Vietnam to the strengths and weaknesses of Durkheim's theories on suicide (I studied humanities, can you tell?). Like with the thesis, I can find fairly easily the books and articles I used to write these papers; the diligent effort I put into writing them has greatly assisted me in having a high retention level of what I learned.

For my classmates who stayed up all night the evening before a due date popping Adderall to get that paper done, this retention is just not there. I would get upset when they got the same or better grades than me, but now I couldn't care less. I remember the subject, they don't. The people who treat college like a 4-year waiting session/party before they get their work certificate will go into their boring jobs regretting or outright not knowing the opportunity they missed to cultivate a rich intellectual life.

I retained my education, and so will you. Most people don't. Find others like you, they do exist.
posted by Ndwright at 9:21 AM on September 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

is there something unusual about the intense amount of work I put into school?


am I insane?

Probably not.

Look, there's a huge stigma associated with taking your schoolwork seriously, at least in American high school. Studying isn't "cool" and such, and anyone who does it is generally ostracized. So, someone like you, who has developed amazing study habits and applies them with a generous dollop of work ethic is going to stand out, and -- much like drunks don't like having non-drinkers at a bar who they view as looking down on them -- standing out in this fashion is going to earn you a lot of disparaging attention.

The thing is, provided you're not losing sleep and losing the ability to function because you're obsessing over it, you are a very fortunate person and should resist the peer pressure to relax your standards. I say this as someone who never managed to develop habits like yours, and looking back really wishes he had been able to (although I would have disparaged it at the time.) So keep on keepin' on.

Having said that: if your study habits prevent you from having at least some amount of social life, or are preventing you from sleeping at night unless you have every single footnote annotated, then you might benefit from some perspective, and might want to talk to someone. You don't sound that obsessed, though. Just don't forget that success in the post-education world relies as much on your interpersonal habits as your scholarly ones, so make sure you're getting adequate social experience as well.
posted by davejay at 9:48 AM on September 30, 2010

I think Ndwright's comment feeds into other comments that have been made about what the true value of an education is, and with grumblebee's comment about the educational process teaching "warped values".

Honestly, grades are not your education. If this process is to be valuable to you, the actual content you learn is important, but so is discipline, self-motivation, and the ability to plan and carry out projects. You are learning to say, "no, I can't party, I have to work tonight. . ." and then *work* that night instead of procrastinating it away.

Learning this skill-set, I'd argue, is *more* important than the actual content (as valuable as buckling down to the actual content is.)

I'll add that this is *also* why it's important to not be on overdrive the whole time. You want to be able to maintain this level of work for the rest of your career. You need to learn to plan for downtime, plan for unexpected interruptions, plan for tragedy. That means leaving yourself some room -- in your energy and your schedule -- for real life to intrude. Your cat gets cancer. Your girlfriend's father dies. Shit happens. And it will continue to happen, as long as you live. Learning to appropriately anticipate that is a life skill.

Finally, about the social part -- I found my sociality improved hugely once I was enmeshed in a culture where people share my values surrounding an intellectual life. There are some simple life skills that help one make friends**, but a lot of it was just contextual for me. If you're a book-hitter and you're surrounded by party-kids, you're just going to have trouble.

** Look people in the eyes, and smile. If you want to make a friend, ask a favor. At cocktail parties, try to join odd-numbered groups. Ask people about themselves, and then really listen. I'm not saying it's easy, but it helps.
posted by endless_forms at 9:59 AM on September 30, 2010

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Perfectionism can be a trap that you work yourself into. It can keep you from budgeting your time reasonably, because there's always something else you need to fix, so it can make you think you're never allowed to stop working. You don't have to spend your free time like you think a typical college student ought to, but you do have to be able to find your own stopping place. Perfectionism can also keep you hammering along on the wrong nail because you're too afraid to just stop and take a breath and look at the sky for a moment and re-evaluate what the remaining problems are.

I also had an old boss who used to say that the first 90% of any job often took as long as the last 10%, and so sometimes you had to stop and re-evaluate whether that last 10% was really worth the effort. I think about that a lot, and I've found that the last 10% of most of my work often involves my perfectionist side taking over, and if I catch myself going down that road, I often find that my boss was right and it's better to just move on.
posted by colfax at 11:26 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of generalizations being made here that may or may be applicable to you.

If you're passionate about the subject, intend to make this field your life's work, and it's a very competitive field to get a foothold in, it can make total sense to focus on it the way you are. Both from the standpoint of personal fulfillment and career success.

But for many a student, college is about something else entirely. Many will never use the material they learned there ever again after graduating. Working as much as needed to get good-enough grades while taking advantage of the social opportunities that college offers is a perfectly rational strategy for many people.

And don't underestimate how important those social opportunities are. At college people make connections that often enough turn into lifelong friendships, or become soulmates and spouses. It's a big deal for how your life turns out and how happy it is whether you make those connections in your twenties or not until much later.

Even in straightforward career terms, in a great many fields who you know will matter as much as what you know when it come to opening doors.

So there are trade-offs to be made, and it can make sense for different people to make different choices.

Final point... since it seems you are on the verge of exhaustion, I would suggest that you don't make socializing into another form of work. Your evening off from studying isn't an assignment on making friends. And you'll probably have more fun and actually make more friends if you don't look at it as yet another aspect of self-improvment.
posted by philipy at 11:46 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nah not crazy, you are just in a discipline that requires you to do a lot of work to do well.

In school I didn't need to do as much work to do well, namely because in science there is a correct and an incorrect answer for your classes. Working more on something does not make the answer more correct. A derivative done correctly is correct and it doesn't matter if you did it in your head in 3 seconds or worked it out on 5 sheets of paper over an hour.

Thankfully I've always been the 3 seconds in your head person, but you sound more like the 5 sheets of paper person. As long as you are enjoying it don't worry.

Also though make sure you know people outside of class and emerge from college a well rounded individual with some good lifelong friends. Those friends will be much more important in ten years than any class you've ever done.
posted by koolkat at 2:19 AM on October 1, 2010

Just be careful that you don't become that person who is only interested in schoolwork. I know people who have the same incredible drive to do well in classes. And yes, some of them are socially awkward.

But what makes them fun to hang out with is that they have interests outside of school. My sister is one of those people who spends unreasonable (to me) amounts of time stressing out about bio-chem and anatomy/physiology classes, but she also plays rugby and loves board games. So although she's much more driven than I ever was at her age, she's incredibly fun to hang out with. Make sense? School is a huge part of her life, but it's not her entire life.

So no, you're not crazy, you're focused. Just don't focus on schoolwork so completely that you miss the other parts of college, which are as valuable as classes in the end.
posted by lockstitch at 7:29 PM on October 2, 2010

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