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College Students’ Pursuit of Perfection Through Hyper-Achievement, Critical Conversation #8

Student Success
May 2, 2017 Gregory Eells


Over the past decade there has been considerable attention given to college students’ experience of pressure to pursue perfection through hyper-achievement and the psychological and emotional toll this process takes on them. The popular press has highlighted this phenomenon and raised specific questions about some of the related consequences like the need for more mental health services on college campuses, the increased risk of substance abuse problems, and the increased risk of suicide among students. This attention raises questions about how we develop and reinforce the desired academic skills in students without risking the many potential negative psychological and emotional consequences.

Respondent to questions posed by Jon Dalton, JCC  co-editor:
Gregory Eells, Cornell University, is the JCC Focus Author. His article “Hyper-Achievement, Perfection, and College Student Resilience” is published in the May 2017 Journal of College and Character.

1. How does excessive pressure to hyper-achieve typically manifest itself in college student behavior?

Students experience a broad range of pressures in college. Sometimes this pressure is external from parents, teachers, and family, but more often the pressure is internalized and maintained by the students themselves. This often manifests itself in being involved in more activities and expectations than any human being can manage. I frequently see students taking a course load beyond what is recommended and participating in more activities than they can manage because they are searching for an elusive sense of validation. The response is to help the students shift their perspective back on to what they value and what they find inherently meaningful rather than on what they think others expect of them.

2. Higher education is a meritocracy. Shouldn't colleges and universities actively promote excellence as a goal of personal achievement?

Without question colleges and universities should actively promote excellence; however, what is often lost is a focus on why the student is pursuing excellence in this area. For any of us to achieve something that is important to us it has to first be clear that this is something that is really important to us. That being said, choosing excellence in one area means saying “no” to some other activities. There is a difference between pursuing excellence and feeling compelled to say "yes" to too many things when it puts your physical and mental health at risk.

3. How can students cultivate greater resiliency in moderating hyper-achievement and perfection?

In my work with students, I have developed a resilience model based on research that is summarized by the acronym SAVES. The components of resilience in this model are Social connection, Attitude, Values, Emotional acceptance, and Silliness/humor. With social connection, students must realize that to be resilient, they have to get connected in ways that are about giving back to others and not just about piling up accomplishments. With attitude, students must focus on their own internal locus of control and the way they frame events and activities to themselves. It is essential students see themselves as growing and developing and not someone who is special and must regularly be validated by something outside of themselves. With values it is essential that students clarify what really matters to them and then pursue those values especially when it is difficult to do so. With emotional acceptance, it is important for students to change their relationship with uncomfortable emotions. Rather than trying to control feelings, students ideally shift to a stance of being curious about and learning from the full range of feelings. Finally, silliness and humor are essential to the process of resilience by learning  not to take ourselves so seriously.

4. What strategies might colleges and universities utilize to diminish hyper-achievement in college students?

Colleges and universities can take a broad campus wide approach to resilience by first focusing on the conveying messages that resilience is important. I have seen divisions of student affairs take the lead on these initiatives and work at weaving in a variety of aspects of resilience into the higher education environment. Examples include developing courses in resilience, creating and enhancing efforts at service learning, developing mindfulness meditation programs, and promoting humor workshops to name a few.

5. What role do values play in fortifying personal resiliency?

Defining our values, determining what is meaningful to us, is foundational to being human and is essential to bouncing back from setbacks and difficulties. Research on resilience points to the essential role in developing a moral compass. Defining values is about pursuing what matters most. One common value often related to resilience is gratitude. Gratitude can be defined as an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie, at least partially, outside ourselves. Also when we practice gratitude on a daily basis, like through a gratitude journal, we are truly able to be reminded of our deeper values.