Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” my grandfather would always tell me, meeting my tear-filled eyes with a calm gaze. As an 8-year-old heartbroken by the ...

Feb 14, 2015

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” my grandfather would always tell me, meeting my tear-filled eyes with a calm gaze. As an 8-year-old heartbroken by the loss of my yellow Tweety Bird fishing pole to the muddy river, or a 15-year-old shocked by the loss of my first iPhone to the sly hands of a hoodie-clad stranger, I let these words pass over my self-indulgent rage without taking in the gravity of what he was saying. These were losses that could be remedied, objects that could be replaced and energy I was wasting. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to see his point, but as I grew and experienced more of the so-called big stuff, I gradually understood what he meant. Sweating the small stuff, it turns out, is a luxury.
My grandfather didn’t see the point in stressing over the small stuff because it was always fixable. The problems were measurable, concrete and could be remedied. I recalled his words often throughout my formative years, finding peace in their assurance. There have since been times, however, when I could not relinquish my problems to the category of small stuff, where my yellow fishing pole had been put to rest. I know that I am not alone in this. By the time that students reach their college years, students face problems of a greater magnitude, but the problems can differ in nature.
First, let’s consider the state of many typical college students. In the USA, both local and international students are constantly aware of the tremendous debt that they accrue every day. The average student graduating from US American colleges has $26,600 of debt, 10% graduate with over $40,000 to be repaid. Whether this debt will haunt students in the form of gargantuan loans or the guilt of a tremendous burden placed on their families, the sticker price of college is inescapable. Many college students take up part-time jobs and work themselves nearly to death during the summer to sustain their educational and other expenses, which they try to whittle down by living off of ramen and chocolate milk.
Many NYU Abu Dhabi students, on the other hand, are able to spend summers interning in choice locales while living off of school-provided budgets. This realization struck me again when my friend walked into the room with something he’d purchased with Campus Dirhams and announced: “I just realized I’m not even looking at the price of the stuff that I’m buying.” Clearly, lacking financial resources is not what occupies our minds.
It is not that NYUAD students don’t have problems to grapple with, but it’s that the problems are definitely not the same as our counterparts in many other universities. We certainly face an incredible amount of academic stress, but most students seem resigned to this fate — it is, after all, self-imposed. In my experience, many students at NYUAD instead discuss less tangible issues: those of identity and belonging, connection and fulfillment. The administration often asks us to examine questions of our identity in classes, workshops and events, but students do much of this examination without being asked.
Since becoming an NYUAD student, I’ve had more deep, late-night talks than ever before. Often, the questions posed can never really be answered. Am I spending my time in meaningful ways? Am I really connecting with my environment? Can I ever feel at home in this elusive-seeming city? Will my friendships last? Students at NYUAD examine their choices, their relationships and their futures while students elsewhere are too overcome by problems of a more concrete nature.
Now, I don’t want to portray having these problems as preferable, because they are problems nonetheless. This reminds me of the idea of tame versus wicked problems, a concept first introduced by Horst Rittel, a design theorist. A tame problem can be solved, while a wicked problem never really can. College debt is a tame problem; it could be solved if students had enough money. Wicked problems, on the other hand, are difficult or impossible to solve. Like poverty, while an individual’s state may be bettered, the issue can never fully be eradicated. Identity crises would fall into this category, along with many of the other philosophical issues that we toss around over tea and biscuits from the convenience store.
This stark difference in perspective provided by the college experience was especially apparent to me when I was with my friends from high school over winter break. They were all discussing their common struggles despite attending different colleges in different locations and finding company in misery. They moaned about their terrible dining hall food, the ridiculous price of printing and laundry and, in light of all this, the ridiculous sum that their education was costing. I had little to contribute in the way of tame problems, and apart from nodding or mumbling “that sucks,” I felt quite out of place in the conversation. I found that I was no longer used to discussing tangible issues, but larger, more unwieldy, less concrete problems: wicked problems. When I tried to dig deeper into their experiences, asking the types of questions that we pose so often at NYUAD, the conversation lacked middle ground and quickly faltered.
My point is not to trivialize student debt or make the wicked problems that NYUAD students grapple with seem like the ultimate big stuff, but to bring attention to the fact that the problems we face as NYUAD are inherently different. This can lead to a disconnect between us and our friends and even our families as the problems which affect us here are often of a different nature than their day-to-day or even consistent problems. No problem is more or less problematic, because they take a toll on us equally, simply in different ways. I’ve learned, as many have by the time they reach adulthood, how to not sweat the small stuff. It is more challenging, however, to learn how to stop sweating the big stuff, which for us may be our wicked problems.
Hannah Taylor is deputy features editor. Email her at
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