Stress + Pressure in Creative Education

Students attending college today are highly achievement-oriented and have grown up with competition. The aspects of competitiveness related to stress and the pressure to perform can become overwhelming at times. How individuals navigate these stresses is an important key factor for the success and well-being of each graduate.

A successful mindset is one of self-reliance and flexibility where students transcend the stress involved in being a passionate learner. Academics should avoid success and failure defined from the outside-in. Freethinking is at risk in an environment of fear and exclusion and more stress is likely to result from this type of closed system.

As colleges tend to their student base, they sometimes overlook the psychic frailty that can impact campus life. Shaken by a cluster of suicides in 2010, Cornell put forth a strategic plan declaring that it is now “the obligation of the university” to help students learn life skills. Colleges now have the responsibility to support students psychologically.

At the Ivies and other highly competitive school environments, populated primarily by those from a narrow band of the achievement spectrum, “weakness has to be invisible,” says a Princeton student. “You have to come off as infallible in all domains and to appear effortlessly excellent.” Students at Penn openly speak of the phenomenon as putting on a “Penn face,” although their glibness makes it no easier to crack. 

Perceived competitiveness increases by 40 percent the odds of positively screening for depression. Students who reported that their classes were ‘very competitive’ had 70 percent higher odds of screening positive for anxiety.

(Psychology Today – “Crisis U” – by Hara Estroff Marano)

Degree paths should avoid becoming so competitive and stressful as to move students away from the motivation to learn [Being] and into that which is considered task-oriented [Doing]. To focus on rote tasking as the means of achievement in a performance driven context can diminish passion for play, discovery and lateral thinking. Students on a path of doing for the sake of doing miss the more important aspect of discovering the why. The end result is a level of stress associated with a singular type of motivation that is expedited by a success or failure mentality.

Allowing students space to develop self-motivation that stems from their own passion fosters the ability to navigate the pitfalls and inevitable challenges on the pathway to creating a rich meaningful career and personal life.

“There are two kinds of power. “Power Over” which is based in separation, domination, divisiveness and control and “Power With” which creates connection, collaboration, alignment, and unity. The choice we make will create what kind of world we will live in.” – Michael Stone

A sense of community linked to live interaction on campus and in the classroom is a great equalizer in the face of performance stressors. To be included and to have inclusiveness as an experience in a community of peers is a critically important aspect of campus life. The ability to share thoughts, feelings, insights, successes and shortcomings can provide an important social platform aimed at overcoming stresses that might otherwise become overwhelming.

‘A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.’           Ayn Rand

Any student involved in a creative degree path can identify one clear origin of stress originating from the creative review process. These reviews have the potential to support wonderful exchanges of knowledge and helpful criticism or they can become a pejorative and crushing rush of judgment where students put their work on display for feedback only to become discouraged in the end. In most cases, many students are excluded from participating. Staunch reviewers sit in the front and critique work while those students remaining await nervously for the anvil to drop.

Why would student input not be allowed during reviews? The most common answer is: “In the interest of time” however, it seems a missed opportunity to exclude student input in consideration of fellow students, instructors and invited critics. Inclusionary interaction diffuses stress and pressure that results from competition on both sides of the front row of reviewers during a formal review.

If students can’t connect then the learning institution is the source and the answer.Connectivity eliminates stress that would otherwise occur in an environment of fear of judgment and alienation. This does not discount the responsibility of the individual students themselves who must be vested in their own educational path.

A large segment of the more than 5 million first-generation college students who come from poor families, are challenged with hardships outside of the experience of their 16 million peers—manage to get themselves through college in many instances without much parental input or guidance. The experience of a tempered steel life promotes a perspective of gratitude fostering a more open mindset.

The result of a grateful and supported life for students is the level of personal learning and aptitude that transcends the station point of lack verses one of gratitude. The self-imposed and or idealized expectations of students who operate from a belief system of lack create an added layer of self-doubt and stress that is unfounded and destructive. The difference between trying to fill perceived ‘holes’ in a system of lack verses one of ‘being’ suspended in learning as an additive context is enormous. With this approach of understanding that there is no perfection, only one’s passion, goals and learning objectives can then, and only then, become engraved within a college or university, and the chosen degree path marks the beginning of a lifelong journey, not merely a means to an end.