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The Citizen

COLUMN: Too Busy: A Narcissistic Sense of Grandeur

By Irene Shih

For this year’s opening Citizen issue, I’d like to tackle the myth of being “too busy.” If you are reading my column right now (which of course you are), I congratulate you on finding the time between class, social events and procrastination to skim this first paragraph.

First-year students, especially, are suffering a champagne problem: So much tuition, so little time. Every day is a buffet of options. Brown-bag? Forum? Happy hour? Would anyone mind if you sipped your happy hour drink out of a brown bag at the forum? (Consolidation is key.) First-semester FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, not to be mistaken with Fear of Making Out) mostly involves warming as many seats with your butt as possible. At some point (mid-October), you concede that it is physically impossible to have your butt in five different places at the same time.

So, you’re busy. I get it. But are you too busy?

These days, I find myself putting people I love on a calendar (and vice versa). That is, if they win the lottery and make my calendar at all.

I didn’t do this in college. Somehow, real face time with friends just fit the rhythm of my life.

It meant I could end lunch with someone without a melodramatic farewell (that sad hug you give when you can’t summon the imagination or foresight to know when/if you’ll meet again. Star-crossed lovers, tragically separated by 60-hour workweeks. Wherefore art thou, indeed).

At that point in my life, it would have been unthinkable – repulsive, really – to put my buddy on a waiting list. I used to prioritize play over work, all the time. And it didn’t wreak havoc on my GPA. (I have this theory: I don’t think spending time with people will screw you over. Usually what screws you over is all the nothing you do during the time you said you would be busy. Or a drug habit. Or a clingy, suicidal boyfriend – uh, hypothetically. Or a combination of the above.) I’m being somewhat facetious, of course: But about which part?

Yes, I’m a much busier person now, absorbed in the kind of frenetic lifestyle that reeks of self-delusion. A masturbatory sense of my own grandeur. When I started working, it gave me twisted pleasure to say, “Next week? Let me check my calendar!” – wink and wank. I loved the way those words rolled off my tongue and forced the other person to accept my importance, my unavailability. To confront the short supply of and unquenchable demand for ME. I had arrived.

“Wait a minute,” you – the reader – protest, picking up on implied accusation in my harsh reflection. (Bear with me: This is the part where I pretend to talk to a chair.) “Wait a minute,” you say, “you’re being unfair to yourself. You juggle a lot more now than you did in college.”

I do – between classes and extra-curriculars and building professional momentum – I won’t deny that I make greater demands on myself now. It’s the story of the tortoise and the hare, and I don’t want to doze off while some slow reptile passes me by. (This is a good metaphor, I can feel it.) But I also didn’t measure my worth with today’s metrics, which prize a stupid appearance of productivity – one that has almost nothing to do with being happy or feeling alive. I’m not sure it’s even about getting things done.

For one, I didn’t use to feel so guilty about spending an unplanned afternoon with someone. These days, I’m always on the run and don’t even know what I’m running TO. My anxiety is its own end. The world I know has become a revolving door of 26-year-olds who never have time for each other, who aren’t even present when they are with each other. For all the time we spend thumbing through someone else’s photos on Facebook – No? Just me, then – we probably could’ve sat down with that person and had several good conversations.

This is to say that it’s perfectly rational to panic at a place like HKS, which seems designed to overwhelm your senses. It’s even understandable to forget that before Harvard, before work, before adulthood – there was a simpler you who put people before profession. But at some point, if you find yourself missing out on a gesture, a joke or even an entire relationship – be not surprised. As it turns out, being too busy just means you’re never available. You see, it’s perfectly rational to be too busy. But it’s not really reasonable, not in the context of things that we really ought to hold dear. In our hierarchy of needs, family should trump work. Hanging out should trump networking. It isn’t always either-or, but when it is, what do you choose?

Oh, I know. You will push back. “But I AM busy, I swear.” (I’m talking to a chair again.) We’re at some overhyped forum event, bored to tears but pretending to be intellectually stimulated. Sipping from our mysterious brown bags. Far be it from me to tell you what you should prioritize.

And really, my entire column has been one long example of something I did instead of hanging out with you. See what I did there?