Why University Students Should Embrace Stress, and Gen Y-ers Must be Flexible | By Emerson Csorba

Another university year has arrived, with tens of thousands of students returning to campus. For those looking to involve themselves in university life from day one, the university experience can be truly outstanding. However, ambition and drive bring stress with them, particularly for the most involved entrepreneurial students. This mini-series shares several experienced students’ thoughts, where they touch on hyperconnectivity, the value of stress, loyalty and persistence, among other themes. These opinions are those of the individual writers, and do not represent the views of The Wanderer Online. 

“If millennials want to lead, they need to stop jumping ship.” This is the title of a controversial September 4 article written by Gen Y consultant Dan Schawbel, published in the Globe and Mail. The major idea behind the article is captured in the first paragraph, which reads “Our recent economic collapse has created a nation of workers who only have loyalty to themselves. Gone are the days when you stayed with one employer for life.” It’s a damning critique of Generation Y, those mostly in the 18-30 age range, who seem to put themselves first, well above the interests of their peers.

Though I’ve heard several criticisms of the article, the one that stands out most comes from a close friend and highly-regarded Canadian student leader, Jaxson Khan, via his Facebook page: “The truth is that we can’t count on that linear career path anymore, or staying with one company. Sometimes, it’s a little more about survival, and paying off that exorbitant student debt, Dan.” Between debt, unpaid internships and little job security, Gen Y-ers are in no easy position.

In a similar vein, consultant Mark Manson shares a piercing message in his piece “Being Special Isn’t So Special,” where he writes “Today we live with more information than any other point in human history. According to Google, the internet produces as much information every two years as the rest of all of human history combined. And all of that information is theoretically instantly accessible by us all. It’s truly amazing.”

Loyalty, stress-testing and hyperconnectivity are among several of the key themes that shape Gen Y-ers’ lives, as well as those currently in university studies. As part of this mini-series on student entrepreneurs’ mental health, I hope to both share some honest thoughts about the demands of intense involvement in university life, while also sharing some strategies that can make for an excellent university experience.

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Let’s cut straight to the chase: the world is now ultra-competitive, fast-paced, and constantly shifting. Generation Y faces a plethora of challenges: significant insecurity in job prospects, employers that spend less and less money on training, issues such as obesity and environmental degradation, and – because of the massification and globalization of higher education – extreme competition against those not only within one’s own city, but across the world. It therefore comes as no surprise that a considerable number of Generation Y-ers have short attention spans and are riddled with anxiety. The world has never been more cut-throat and demanding.

Because of this, there’s more pressure than ever to be “outstanding.” Our constant access to information means that we compare ourselves to our peers, whether we want to or not. Media, employers and universities often speak about “adaptability” as being the number one quality looked for undergraduates, and there’s little guarantee that even university professional degrees will lead to jobs in that same field. The reality is that if one wants to excel in a particular profession, one must be in the top 1-5% of not only their city, but their country or continent. There’s always someone out there working as hard as you, and these people are likely vying for similar jobs. Because of increased mobility, these people are now in direct competition with you.

This is where I disagree with Schwabel’s thesis, which is that Gen Y-ers should focus more on becoming loyal employees than on constantly pursing new opportunities. Though I certainly agree that patience and commitment are virtues, he underestimates the burdens placed on Gen Y. Indeed, the options presented to Gen Y are pretty simply: relax during one’s 20’s (because 30 is the new 20, right?) and be left behind in the dust, or work vigorously and intelligently in order to compete and build a strong personal reputation with others. I much prefer the latter selection, with university serving as a valuable first step in accessing valuable social networks across the world.

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At this point, readers are probably thinking about the obvious, which relates to mental health: “‘vigorous work’ is much too stressful; one should simply step back, pause and enjoy one’s 20’s.” This is the obvious response, and it’s naive. It’s fairly normal for the most ambitious, talented and driven young leaders to be confronted by peers who are worried for their well-being. And in some cases, friends are right: stress, if not handled correctly, can inhibit success. All too often, however, stress is automatically interpreted as something to be avoided. Though it’s great to have concerned peers, one of the things that we tend to miss in these sorts of discussions is that stress is often a good thing.

Indeed, stress builds character, and it builds capacity in one’s work ethic and ability to persist. Several months ago, I was fortunate to speak with an Edmonton city councillor, who said that often times, he finds himself stressed by an already overflowing schedule, only to learn that two or three more projects have been added to his plate. In these situations, however, persistence leads to success. Grit and determination, though painful at times, are beneficial in the long run. Simply put, what was once a challenging situation for someone gradually becomes second nature.

Stress builds capacity, which is one of the reasons why I view university as an experimentation lab, where students have four years to push their limits and see how much they can physically, emotionally and mentally handle before they falter. In these instances, failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s simply a sign that one’s limits have been reached, and that different strategies need to be adopted in order to further these limits.

To university students beginning their four-year journey, my advice is that you involve yourselves in several activities and through trial and error, determine what it is that you enjoy. At intervals throughout university, adopt William Shatner’s wise advise and “say yes to everything.” Work diligently in order to execute on these projects, and if some slip through the cracks, then so be it.

This experimentation process takes years, and you will slowly develop personal values along the way. During my first year, I could not list a concrete set of values that informed my actions. Four years later, and through innumerable experiences, I feel that this is possible. All of this takes time, and it’s amazing that we have such awesome opportunities at our fingertips as students in our early 20’s.

Of course, read widely, spend time with family and friends, treat your body well and sleep. These things can all be accomplished (most of the time, at least), despite how demanding they may seem. Though I’ve received flack for this over the last several years, I find that it’s always good to be an optimist. See the good in people and the small lessons in adverse situations. Positive thinking will ensure that you remain resilient and steadfast in your goals despite the barriers set in front of you.

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Indeed, the world is only becoming more complex and unpredictable. You owe it to yourself to become a flexible and engaged thinker in your years on campus. Contrary to what Schawbel leads one to believe in the Globe and Mail, Generation Y should assume that life will throw countless curveballs in one’s way. Entire industries will crumble and new ones will form, particularly as technological innovations disrupt what was once taken for granted. Yes, patience and loyalty are important traits, but the ability to shift gears and feel comfortable in uncertainty is one of the most important things that you can do for yourself.

It is much better to embrace competition and maintain an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit in one’s youth, than it is to let opportunities pass and say “what if” many years down the road. University is your four-year ticket to experiences that will shape your values system and develop a flexible mind. Use every minute at your disposal, and I guarantee you’ll look back and be proud of your accomplishments.

CC photograph courtesy of FeatheredTar on Flickr.

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