The Berkeley burnout

Off the Beat

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UC Berkeley is a hard school — there’s no debating that. When I was first accepted, I tried not to think too hard about the academic rigor, since I’d just gotten done with working my ass off to get in. But the more time I spend at UC Berkeley, the more I feel like I’m playing a game of water polo.

I played water polo for seven years, and it’s an incredibly rigorous game. In water polo, you do not get to touch the bottom of the pool. You are expected to tread water or swim for the entire quarter, even during the brief intermissions between goals. The only time you get the opportunity to cling to the wall is between quarters, of which there are four, not counting overtime. At UC Berkeley, you do not get the chance to cling onto the walls — even between quarters — and so at some point, you’re going to start drowning.

My high school life was water polo and swim practices, studying and practicing for speech team, rinsing and repeating every day. It was waking up at 5:30 a.m. for practice, school, then practice again. Once home, I would do homework and practice my speeches until 1 a.m. Over summer, I would wake up at 4:50 a.m. and drive about an hour to my morning water polo club practice, then drive an hour back to my second water polo practice, then go to work, then to studying, then sometimes to a third swim practice.

It was a lot of work, but after getting that confetti-covered acceptance email, it was worth it. College was supposed to be easier. Getting into UC Berkeley was my lifelong goal. I had done my time working nonstop to get in — wasn’t college supposed to be when I finally took a break?

Every class that I have taken in college, from two-unit DeCals to my five-unit language class, has challenged my brain and my patience. In freshman year, I would sit up late at night and read my English readings by the dull light of my computer. I didn’t think much of it, often falling asleep at 3 a.m. and then waking up at 8 a.m. for my 9 a.m. lecture. It was a regimen that wore me down, but not so much that I stopped; I took more units, took up more work at the Daily Cal. Around me, my peers were also taking more classes, joining more clubs, getting higher positions in those clubs.

Gradually, we reach a big UC Berkeley mood: burnout. According to Psychology Today, burnout is characterized as a chronic stress resulting in exhaustion, with detachment, cynicism and feelings of failure also among the common signs. I don’t know if you’ve seen UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens lately, but the self-deprecation often seen in Cal students’ memes seems to suggest that students should be overworking themselves. We upperclassmen warn incoming freshmen about the inevitable disappointments they’re going to face, but we do not tell them to slow down and take time for themselves now that they got in. We tell them to work harder and better than anyone else, rather than suggesting they give themselves a break.

I stopped playing water polo when I came here, slowly phasing out athletics in favor of writing for the Daily Cal. I was tired of athletics, and thought that developing my passion for writing would be a good course of action. Quitting something I had done for about half my life was a hard decision to make. I had never quit anything this abruptly, and even now, one year since I’ve played a water polo game, I have a hard time reconciling the fact that I cannot consider myself an athlete anymore. I still wear my varsity swim team jacket, for Pete’s sake; it is warm and incidentally blue and gold.

Burnout stopped me from continuing water polo; that much is clear to me. Burnout stops me from enjoying classes, too, and I see it affecting people around me. Cal students are tired of working — one glance at the memes page could tell you that, but what else can we do? I was excited to come to this university, to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before me. I was excited to be considered smart enough, good enough to go to UC Berkeley, whatever that means. And I wasn’t prepared not to like this school. Who am I, then, if someone named Berkeley isn’t even enjoying UC Berkeley?

According to Psychology Today, taking breaks and saying no is the best way to overcome burnout, and I’m working on adopting some of these practices this year. I am taking classes I enjoy and committing to projects that I enjoy, both in moderation. And I suggest you do the same. You do not need to keep treading water. You are not playing a game of water polo. This is life, where breaks are acceptable and where you set the rules.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.