The night before my first final exam this semester, my friends and I sat around a table and reviewed the thesis statements for our orals. In the dingy fluorescent light, the circles under their eyes seemed even darker, the twitching and trembling of their hands more frequent. We took a long break halfway through the study session and in a moment of clarity, someone said, “I think the reason we're so stressed is because we know we can be nothing less than perfect.”
Entering senior year, I knew many people, myself included, who set a goal for their grades, whether it be maintaining Latin honors or reaching an honorable mention. Throughout the year, we tracked every quiz and spent hours poring over readings. At some point, I could recite portions of my professors’ syllabi, especially those that broke down percentages.
Being in the academic system and doing reasonably well can make a person measure their worth by the red marks on their tests. Making the grade can be a tightrope walk, with parental expectations and other extenuating circumstances making the chasm below seem dark and terrifying. The pressure, whether internal or external, is very real, and can lead to skipping meals, pulling all-nighters, and generally forgetting to care for the self.
Many things have already been written about the culture of overwork, how it becomes part of the “personal branding” to avoid sleep. The collective struggle, shared through memes on social media and tired sighs as people meet in the halls, is one that is almost glorified. It sometimes feels as if we’re driving a car with no brakes: there is no room for us to rest, to see the sights along the way.
“QPI” stands for “quality point index” and it is meant to measure how much learning students have done over the semester. At some points, however, I felt it take on another meaning, as my own quality point index. I slipped into a quantitative myopia, with the thought that the numbers defined me. It was an irrational way to think, but one that feels almost unavoidable in a cut-throat world where everything is rated on a five-star scale.
The experiences we go through are, of course, more important. The learnings we gain, the stories we hear and share, the people we meet: All these are infinitely more important than the three digits that quantitatively measured our performance. But the truth of the matter is that these numbers do matter. They can be proof of great potential and a commitment to excellence.
These issues aren’t limited to the QPI alone. If students aren’t focusing their attention on these numbers, they’re focusing on other output, other measures of success. The desire to prove ourselves seems even more pressing in the digital age, where you can hear about the achievements of child prodigies the world over. Glorifying the work itself, while better, would not keep people from tending to burn out in order to build a name.
In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, John Paul II writes, “The primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject.” Though your work shows who you are, you are not your work. A person’s life has room for error, room to take risks, to dream. After all, the most important things in life are worth far more than five stars and 4.0s.