We Need to Do Something About Harvard's Work Culture

Even in the mountains, I could not avoid the PSETs (see, in the background, the White Mountains in New Hampshire)

        I am done. Like seriously this time. I have four PSETs, an essay, two lab reports, a research proposal, research work, club board meetings, three shifts at two jobs, and expos, all due on or before Sunday (and yes, I am done even though my classes for the week have yet to start). Sure, I have enough time to get all of this done (I am sure that many of you are unfortunate victims of this unconscionable workload as well–and, in fact, I bet you’re already comparing your workload to mine). But I also have to sleep eight hours a day, eat healthy, meditate, work out, and get a chance to, well, live my life. My biological functions, much more important than a PSET or (for God’s sake) another expos assignment, fall to the sidelines as the assignments pile up on the field.

I slept eight hours a night, every night, over spring break. I fell asleep within fifteen minutes each night, even when I was jetlagged (and even when going to sleep, on a non-school night, at 10:30 PM). But here, on the first night back before classes begin again, I am already an insomniac; I am writing to you all at 1:55 AM on a Sunday night, two hours after first attempting to fall asleep. I have been in bed contemplating my five to eight-page research paper (which I of course have not started) due in three days, meditating myself back to the present (and failing), and losing myself in the frustration of crippling assignments. I do not want to live like this. Why am I living like this?

I cannot say what you are thinking. But I know that you have found that our realities are not that much different, our self-imposed tug-of-war with “Next PSET due at 11:59 PM on…” quite the same. And I also bet that you have compared your workload to mine–perhaps you have five PSETs due, or three, or perhaps all your assignments are due a few days before mine. You wonder, I am sure, either how I am suffering when my workload is not as bad as yours, or how I manage to get all this work done in a week. There is no in between.

But this is the problem. We have thrusted ourselves in a system that focuses not on creativity, on process, on life and love and insight, but on workload. We have entered into an abyss of work without purpose (or of a self-imposed false purpose that we create to justify our workload). We are judged not by who we are or the values we hold, but rather by how busy we are. How many times have you heard, said, or been told, “I have so much work to do right now”? It is not an admission of stress or a loss of direction, but a point of pride! We would rather do 100 hours of menial labor (a PSET is menial labor if it does not teach you how to think–and I would imagine that when you are rushing to finish a PSET you started three hours before the deadline, or that you have absolutely no time to do anyway, you probably are not learning how to think at all, but rather going through the motions solely to see the “Assignment Submitted: Homework…” email from Gradescope) than forty hours of meaningful work. We would rather risk our happiness, our family and friends, our youth, our lives, for a marginally (if at all) better career prospect, or placement in graduate school (or perhaps we risk all that for nothing, because the entire point of our workload is to make ourselves look busy, when perhaps we are just directionless teenagers and twenty-odd year-olds trying to find direction not by soul-searching, but by crushing ourselves with work until our bodies give way). We would rather lose our sleep to beat the average on a midterm, or to be one of that “select group” (which might as well be the standard now) taking five classes, or 3 PSET classes, or Physics 143a as a first-year. You get my point.

I do not know if this comes across as childish, or as a plea for help, or even as completely incorrect (I certainly do not mean to come across as any of those things, for the “help” I am giving to myself is just the reassurance that I’ve spoken about this, and that I’ve sacrificed my sleep for something that actually matters to me, rather than for another PSET that I cannot use to do anything constructive for our community). But from what I know, this is the culture that we have inherited, fed into and created here at Harvard. Perhaps we have justified to ourselves that this pernicious, self-imposed work-life imbalance is critical to us achieving our career and personal goals, for the people around us (who are equally as motivated and intelligent) are also working incredibly hard–even too hard. But no justification can justify the fact that we have made our workloads cumbersome and our lives miserable. I am no expert in living (granted, I am no older than any of you reading this), but these last two months have taught me (and I’m sure, in one way or another, taught you as well) that the key to life (and thus the key to success) is something different from what the key is given to be here. So I will attempt to write what I think this key is, and how our culture needs to change to reflect that.

Let me first ask you a few questions: When was the last time, excluding spring break, that you had one entire day to do absolutely nothing? When (again excluding spring break) was the last time you spoke to your friends from back home, or had a long (that is, longer than an hour) conversation on the phone with someone in your family? When was the last time you did not feel guilty for pushing everything aside for a moment just so that, in a moment of pure life and humanity, you could enjoy the setting sun or the blooming trees or the robins whose vociferous tweets break the silence of the crisp winter morning? When was the last time you thought of someone–I do not mean that they accompanied a passing thought as you switched between assignments, or made your third or fourth attempt to fall asleep on a Thursday night–in a compassionate and human way, for longer than ten minutes? When did you last contemplate the very depths of our presence (not including in a philosophy class)–that is, the meaning of life, our pursuit of wonder, what happens after death, etc? When was the last time you went on a run, or worked out, or went on a walk or hiked? Chances are that some of these you probably have not done recently. And yet all of these are as, if not more important than your PSETs and your workload. 

We have come to value a culture that presses for more work rather than more meaning. But we need to live. We need to realize that our intrinsic value comes not from how much work we do, but rather how we do our work, how we approach our lives and our relationships, and how we create goodness for ourselves and our surroundings. We need to see that our PSETs are not designed for us to complete them, but rather for us to approach them (so, perhaps taking three or four PSET classes is actually not beneficial to your learning at all, and perhaps actually sets you up for failure, because you are only working on them to get them done, rather than learn from them and learn how to problem solve–you probably will never use Kirchhoff’s rules in your career anyway). We need to prioritize our health, our individuality, our humanity, our personality, our personhood, our life, our love. We need to call our parents, stay in contact with our friends from home, prioritize a dinner or two with our roommates and friends here, build new relationships and fall in love, hold the door for people when they walk behind us, wish a great day and a great life to everyone we meet, be in the present for every moment that we can, go on trips, take breaks and watch movies or read, unleash our energy, think deeply and sadly (and even despondently) so that, in one way or another, we can say on our deathbed that we actually lived.

Harvard is a place of intellectual, social, and personal transformation. All of us have been shaped by the brilliant conversations we have had and the brilliant people we have met. We have taken courses taught by some of the most revered intellectuals on planet earth, and entrenched ourselves in the content and passions of subjects once distant, even foreign to us. We have been exposed to vastly many more cultures than we had at any other point in our lives–and we have, in one way or another, become part of a distinct yet mutualistic culture ourselves. But Harvard has not made us good people (and actually, it has probably done quite the opposite). History may see the good people as those who are most successful (the richest, the most accomplished, the most powerful, etc.), but only those who do good achieve real success. And to do good, we must remember that the means must never be separated from the ends, but rather wholly connected to the ends. We cannot use the ends–success, achievement in broader society, etc.to justify the means–crippling PSETs, moral degradation, depression, loss of focus, etc. True success, true goodness, can only be achieved when the means are contrived in pursuit of the ends, and the ends in pursuit of the means; that is, when we realize that our individual success is dependent upon our goodness towards the whole, and when we form our workload and our lives now with goodness and love in mind–not selfish endeavor or unhealthy competition.

I do not know if this made sense at all (it is now 2:48 AM). But seriously, consider dropping a PSET class or a cumbersome club next semester–or maybe two, or maybe both. I will not care (and I certainly will be dropping some myself next semester). And I’d bet that extra time would do much more for your career prospects, your success, and (above literally everything else) your life than LS1000000 or Physics 90000 would.


  1. Absolutely love this thought. Those 2AM word blurbs are some of the most poignant — keep writing and keep upholding these beautiful ideals. Much love! 🫶✊

  2. Very real 👍🏼


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