As a researcher and instructor at elite universities in the US, I watch with interest each year as parents and their children celebrate students’ admission to big-name schools with single-digit acceptance rates. I can attest that Ivy League schools and their competitors offer truly excellent educations. But if I could offer one piece of advice to incoming freshman, it would be to learn to take care of themselves—because they are about to be surrounded by people who often have the misconception that racking up achievements and accolades is more important than leading a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.
This skewed view of reality can do major damage to a young person, not just during their time in school, but further down the line. I understand the danger because I’ve gone down this rabbit hole myself.
When I first moved from France to the US to attend an Ivy League school at age 17, I was shocked by the way my fellow students worked. They weren’t just studying hard for class—they were serving as presidents of multiple on-campus organizations, doing community service, launching start-ups, and writing a book on the side. Nothing was ever enough.
Even when it came to working out, my classmates were on top of their game. Growing up in France, I hadn’t seen many people exercising; now I was surrounded by joggers. Of course, exercise is a wonderful thing (and Americans are way healthier than French people that way). Yet I couldn’t help but wonder: Where was everyone running to?
Soon enough, I got caught up in the overachiever culture: I would burn the candles at both ends, sleeping less, eating haphazardly, and leaving myself with little downtime. In return, people told me that I was “successful,” which of course gave me a high. So I kept going—and that’s when my health started to break down. I developed anxiety, and I stopped being able to sleep. Soon I realized that this was happening to many of my friends as well. Yet elite university cultures, as well as high-pressure workplaces, often reward us for pushing ourselves past our limits.
I later learned that the quality I was observing was a form of grit: The ability to keep going, no matter what, in the name of achievement. But we had not understood how to apply it properly. Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the best-selling book on Grit and has conducted groundbreaking research on the topic. Grit is a phenomenal predictor of professional success (pdf) and an often-admirable quality to boot. Whether you’re a corporate employee facing a big deadline, a Marine struggling through strenuous training and deployments, or a stay-at-home mom persevering after yet another sleepless night, grit is your friend, your ally, your strength.
As Duckworth herself has observed, the real lesson of grit is the importance of working hard at a sustainable pace, without any expectation of immediate payoff. Yet often, students in highly competitive environments miss this message, viewing any grade less than an A as absolutely devastating. As the problems of persistent stress and anxiety in such schools shows, it is possible to push yourself too much.
But as I found while researching my book The Happiness Track, all of the traits that people need to be successful are dependent upon learning self-care. For example, creativity is the number-one attribute that CEOs look for in employees. And yet creativity cannot come from a mind that is stressed and overworked. Creativity does not emerge when you’re sitting at your computer for 12 hours a day. Creativity emerges when the mind is at rest, daydreaming, or spacing out.
Similarly, when we overextend ourselves—skipping lunch, racing from meeting to meeting, and relying on endless cups of coffee to stay awake writing a presentation deep into the night—we break our bodies down, day by day. Stress impacts both our physical health, including our immune function, and our attention and memory—all vital functions for a successful career. Ironically, the more we push ourselves, the quicker we burn out, and the less we can achieve over time.
Should we encourage our children to work hard? Absolutely. But young people need to learn that grit is only effective when coupled with restorative activities like sufficient sleep, exercise, a well-balanced diet, meditation, walks in nature, and time off. Research shows that these basic yet essential self-care habits result in greater focus and productivity, not to mention increased creativity, better decision-making, and stronger emotional intelligence.
Today, programs like Yale’s Emotional Intelligence Project are working to help students understand that success doesn’t have to come at the price of their health and happiness. Sometimes, self-compassion means choosing to cut back on extracurriculars or drop a class. Accepting your limits is an essential part of grit—and so is knowing that, no matter what your fellow high-achieving students might think, getting a B on a test is not the end of the world.