09/08/2010 01:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Speed Bumps: Slowing Down Today's Youth

How'd everybody get so busy? It feels like the fast-forward button's stuck on, like the treadmill's been turned up.

I recently gave my students at Scripps College an assignment to act out scenes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and they were unable to find a time outside class to rehearse. But this is an important assignment. It's how they learn what it feels like to be in a Shakespeare play, to say the lines, to figure out what to do with their bodies while they're saying the lines. It had never happened that a class couldn't come up with a few hours to go over scenes. And I saw they weren't kidding, weren't shirking -- they had that sort of queasy look people get when they've just been ordered to do the impossible.

And I thought, whoa! There's too much going on, too many deadlines, jobs, activities, pressures, distractions.

In my day -- don't you love it when someone starts a sentence like that? -- in my day, it was easier. We weren't trying to cram so much into 24 hours. We didn't need all those extracurricular activities to put on resumes -- we didn't know what a resume was. The competition was less fierce. Fewer teenagers and college students worked for wages. Oh, the occasional part-time job, but not these long work hours. The costs of college weren't so over the top. We didn't have the shopping habit, or malls, or all these high-tech gadgets...

And the internet -- I think it's given us all a touch of Attention Deficit Disorder. I Google "busy students" and a world of information opens up and I see there's this book, "The Overachievers: The Secrets Lives of Driven Kids," and I think, while I'm ordering this, I'll check my Amazon rankings, and then I think while I'm here I'll just check the headlines, and suddenly I'm reading about Sarah Palin's body language and then I check email and I come to, half an hour later, thinking, "where am I?"

On the up side, I get some really interesting information from that Google search. I learn it's not just me wondering whether it's healthy for students to be this busy.

Also, on the up side is how well most of my students bear up under the pressure, hold it together, balancing double and dual majors and activities and athletics and all the rest. They're impressively well organized.

But I'm a little alarmed at how tightly wound some are, at how often I hear the words "stressed out," and at how many are taking some sort of pharmaceutical. And the binge drinking -- that worries me. Seems like a response to all that pressure. We drank, but not like that. Anorexia and bulimia were words we didn't know.

And the work that gets turned in? Much of it is excellent, but some seems a bit perfunctory. To do well at a subject, you have to go into it, stay with it, live with it a little, engage. And that takes time. When you're moving so fast, when there are so many things tugging at you, you get spread thin.

There are papers I feel like grading as "P": Perfunctory. Passing, passable, pointless. Papers that read, "the purpose of this paper is to get this paper in on time so I can get on to the next paper..."

So slow down, pare back, ease off. Drift a little. Figure out which activities nourish you and which are just hopping through hoops, living up to some image that may or may not be you. Of course some hoop-hopping is necessary so you can get on to what you want to do. But these years should be exploratory, not madly goal-directed.

And sleep -- take time for sleep. Less than six hours of sleep, and all that cramming won't do much good. You need sleep for memory. You need it for imagination.

Imagination -- I don't think it thrives when you're organized to the hilt. We're a culture that's good at doing, making, producing, mastering -- and it's served us well, in ways. But creativity requires that you step back a little, ease off, cultivate a sort of wise receptivity, negative capability -- yin as well as yang. Some of the best ideas bubble out of nowhere. I get 'Aha' moments in the swimming pool, when my mind's in that sort of mulling-over mode it gets into while the body's swimming laps, when I'm not hunched over the material, ganged up on it, trying to beat it into shape. Things need to percolate.

And that takes time. Quiet time, time alone with yourself, time to hear yourself think. A cell phone-free space, an internet-free zone.

Your imagination is your most precious resource, what you'll most need in the years to come. It's your resourcefulness, your versatility, what you can do. It's what the world will reward, as a matter of fact, more than a grade or a GPA. It's a delicate flame, easily squandered, smothered by too much going on. Use these years to protect it, nurture it, feed it.