This September, waves of students arrived on college campuses and readied themselves for the academic challenge ahead. Armed with lists, schedules, planners, and budgets, they sought out classes, classmates, bookstores, dorm rooms, financial aid offices. There it was, that energetic, refreshing, busy to-and-fro of individual students carefully figuring out and enacting their plans of action in pursuit of their educational ends.
Sadly, the coming weeks will reveal that many college students are in fact quite passive about pursuing their goals.
Rather than making and abiding by purposeful choices, they will go through the year regularly compromising their plans, distracted by the lure of television shows, dorm parties, and flashing AIM icons.
On the face of it, the reason for this seems obvious: being purposeful takes work. It means thinking about when to study, what to study, how to study. To stay on top of your game, you will have to figure out what days and evenings to take off, what errands to prioritize, what entertainment to pursue. And then you will actually have to do the studying–and a lot of it. With so many tempting distractions, is it really surprising that some students will find it difficult to stay the course?
When a freshman impulsively abandons his plan to prepare for tomorrow’s test by accompanying his roommate to a movie, he is aware, at a gut level, that he is blindly departing from his carefully chosen course of action. If he could put into words the unspoken excuse that he makes for himself, it would be something like “I know I planned to study, but I feel like having fun.” On the face of it, it’s hard not to sympathize–the poor guy isn’t committing a crime, he just wants to enjoy life.
But he is committing a crime: he’s stealing enjoyment from himself. Will he actually enjoy life more by indulging such an impulse? He might enjoy that night more, but that’s not the same thing. What if he fails the test and has to retake the course–what effect would that have on his life?
The freshman’s essential error is not that he decides to see a movie instead of study. There are, after all, many cases in which such a decision makes perfect sense. His error is that he doesn’t decide at all. He doesn’t think. He abandons thought and acts on the impulse of the moment.
In so doing, what the freshman really abandons is the goal of enjoying life. After all, why is the test important? Why is he at college? Why does he want to educate himself? So that he can make money doing work that he enjoys. So that he can enjoy life.
The issue is one of hedonism vs. happiness. Pursuing hedonistic pleasure means reacting to whatever impulse you feel, without considering future consequences. Pursuing genuine happiness means trying to live a life of pleasure. Any human value–a Friday night movie, a college degree, a successful career, a fulfilling marriage, good health–is the product of sustained, thought-directed action. A person who characteristically fails to act according to a thoughtfully chosen plan will not even be able to stay on top of simple things like paying bills, buying groceries, and remembering birthdays, let alone be able to achieve profound values like an enduring romance or a Ph.D.
So if we need to be long-range, does that mean long years of ascetic grimacing while we wait for pleasure to come? No. The student who thinks and plans also plans his short-term pleasure. In fact he is the only one who is capable of appreciating the pleasures big and small that life has to offer.
It is easy to overlook the fact that we study to enjoy life. For an animal, rewards motivate and follow directly from successful effort–a wolf hunts, then it eats. For a human being, whose goals are long-range, rewards don’t usually follow so immediately. The effort you exercise in planning and studying for a calculus test is rewarded, but it’s hard to map out the exact causation (it might mean a better job years later). You, unlike an animal, can lose sight of the justification for putting forth the effort–you can forget that your reason for studying is your desire to enjoy life. This is why every student counselor that you’ve ever had has advised you to put aside lots of time and money for leisure and entertainment. Leisure and entertainment help you remember that you’re working so hard, not out of duty or obligation, but for the sake of pleasure. Rewarding yourself for hard work gives that work an emotional reality–it shows you what you’ve just been achieving for yourself.
In this way, the pleasure of watching a movie or going out dancing after writing a test is just like the satisfaction of the wolf eating after hunting, transfigured into a human context. For a wolf, the effort of hunting produces the pleasure of eating. For you, the effort of studying produces the self-esteem that comes from knowing you are securing pleasure many years down the road, and that self-esteem is what enables you to enjoy a date, a movie, or a night out with the boys. You know you deserve it.
And there is, of course, the joy of the doing itself. Just as the wolf enjoys not only the meal but also the hunt, so you can enjoy the effort of studying. Work is effort, but it should not be pain. If you seek out work that you love, the process of pursuing pleasure itself becomes a pleasure.
A student who accepts the idea that his purpose at college is to earn a life of enjoyment will not feel that there is a conflict between working hard and having fun. Such a student plans to enjoy life both today and in the future, and so sticks to his plan. When unexpected opportunities arise–he wins free tickets to a concert, say–he neither sticks militantly to his work plan nor abandons his work plan, he just revises his schedule to see whether he can fit it in (and because he is organized, he can). This is the approach of the many students who live it up on the weekends while staying on top of their courses, jobs, errands. The rewards they pursue–food, video games, sports, novels, movies, parties, bars, clubs, conversation with friends, road trips, sex–are healthy and desirable values…because they are pursued thoughtfully. It’s not as though enjoying the student life precludes being a good student.
The student who does not grasp the relationship between studying and enjoying life will feel that there is a conflict between working hard and having fun. He will feel like tomorrow’s test is what is keeping him from that party he yearns to attend–and will therefore struggle to resist the pull. He may even sincerely tell himself he intends to study, but in the teeth of a tempting phone ring or IM pop-up that conviction dissipates.
Pleasure is the result of action–and action, for a human being, means thought-guided action. To the extent that a student fails to grasp the importance of thinking as a means to enjoying life, his modus operandi will be not action but reaction. He will constantly be reacting unthinkingly to things that seem worth having or doing now, without due consideration of what is actually good for his life and happiness. A student who find himself tempted to abandon thought for the sake of pleasure should remind himself that what he is abandoning is pleasure. He should see the distraction for what it is–a temptation to give up the pursuit of happiness because it seems to hard–and then instead of blindly indulging it he should apply his mind to the task of squeezing every ounce of pleasure he can into his life, today, tomorrow, and into the future.
Ray Girn graduated last year from the University of Toronto, and now teaches math and science at a private elementary school in Orange County, California. He is a student at the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center.