Why I Stopped Pulling All-Nighters: The Dangerous Side Effects of “Grind Culture”
Editor & Writer
Editor & Writer
It's 7:55 a.m. I'm waiting outside the door of my first class of the day, theater history. Today, we're discussing "The Duchess of Malfi," a painfully long play of which I made it about halfway through the previous night before giving up and hitting the sack. If there's a pop quiz, I might be screwed. Oh well.
As I'm scanning the plot synopsis on my phone, my friend Ricky trudges up to me. He looks like he's having a rough morning — still wearing the same outfit he had on yesterday, complete with food stains and wrinkles. He's holding the biggest iced coffee I've ever seen. He's not smiling.
"What happened to you?" I ask. As the doors to the lecture hall open and the class files in, he tells me a story I've heard a hundred times before: His professors had piled on assignment after assignment, he'd had to work a full shift at the writing center, and by the time he got home he'd realized the only way to get everything done was to pull an all-nighter.
Ah, the dreaded all-nighter — I'd pulled a few of them myself and was familiar with the process. Moving your desk to face the wall because even looking at your bed would throw you over the edge. Sucking down a Red Bull every hour because making coffee would be too loud and might wake up your roommate.
Staying up all night is arduous and straight-up crappy. But as we settle into our seats, I notice it's not just Ricky with that dead-tired look in his eyes. It's the girl in front of us who can't stop yawning. The person with their hood pulled over their face chugging a canned Starbucks triple-shot. Even our TA looks exhausted.
The pop quiz wasn't that bad. Though I hadn't read the play, the synopsis I'd skimmed included enough info for me to get a 7/10 and even participate in a group discussion without sounding like a total fool. Ricky missed half the questions because, in his altered state, he mixed up the names of two characters.
Let me guess what you're thinking: Ricky sounds like a chump. I can pull myself together after an all-nighter. My friends and I do it all the time. It's just part of college.
Here's my question for you: Why?
Why is it considered normal to lose sleep to keep up with academics? Why do college kids gloat about over-caffeinating, staying up late, or not sleeping at all? Why is self-neglect lauded as a mark of success, an example of rigor? How did college-kid-culture steer us to a place where getting enough sleep — a literal base necessity for, you know, staying alive — is considered a loserly trait?
When I was a first-year student, I took a lot of cues from the older students around me about how to act, what was normal or abnormal in higher education, how I should behave, and what I should strive for. This is natural: Puppies watch the big dogs as they learn how to play, bark, sit, stay, and nap. And the big dogs loved to brag about how little sleep they were getting.
It seemed to be a status symbol. The fewer z's you got, the more concrete the proof of your grind — your ability to push through pain, discomfort, and stress in pursuit of summa cum laude. Lying down for a nap was giving up, and giving up was unacceptable.
This was especially true for my peers whose families had sacrificed so much to send them to college. Picking self-care over academics was hard to justify to a family counting on you to succeed.
While I had the luxury of slowly coming to the conclusion that upper-level students were uninformed in their dedication to the grind, students around me — notably first-generation students, international students, and those depending on scholarships to attend college — didn't see a choice in the matter.
The more I ruminated on the disparity, the more I started to see parallels to the "hustle" of post-grad work life. I watched the big dogs graduate and move on to unpaid internships that demanded everything of them while giving nothing in return but "industry exposure."
I watched them complain, less proud this time, about how they were expected to be consistently "on and available" — how the boundaries between their work lives and their personal lives were dissolving. I witnessed breakdowns. I witnessed burnout.
It made me think about why I was going to college in the first place. To gain skills and discover career opportunities, sure.
But for me, it was more than that. I was in college because I wanted to become the best human being I could be — one who valued curiosity, community, hard work, and fun. I didn't want to destroy myself in pursuit of an unreachable goal. Was it selfish of me to want a life in which I wasn't losing sleep over numbers on a piece of paper?
I wondered where the value was in a higher education that deprioritized students' physical and mental health to the extent I'd seen in school. I thought about the inherent silliness of the all-American mentality that you ought to be able to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.
How could anyone be expected to do such a thing on one measly hour of sleep or on a minimum wage that barely keeps you afloat? Couldn't it be possible to work hard and take care of ourselves? Why weren't we all desperately clamoring for some sort of compromise?
I don't have answers. I still wonder about it all the time. I wonder if grind culture is a poorly disguised attempt to mold a future workforce that doesn't know how to set boundaries or advocate for their needs.
I wonder if Ricky weighed his grades against his health and decided the grades were more important. I wonder if his family applauded his decision. I wonder how much overtime he does now — whether he remembers college fondly, or whether looking at his framed diploma just gives him a caffeine headache.
They say the best way to cement a new memory is to sleep on it. Sleeping helps the brain retain memories you've formed throughout the day.
So now, post-grad, as I close my laptop and prepare for bed, I think of college — the community I formed, the knowledge I gained, the strong sense of self I built — and I'm endlessly grateful for the sleep on which those memories are built.
Meet the Author
Monty Rozema (they/them) graduated from Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University in 2021 with a BA in theatre arts, where they served as artistic director for WWU's Student Theatre Productions. They are now a multidisciplinary arts educator, devoted bookseller, and ticket peddler at Arts Corps, Outsider Comics, and Taproot Theatre, respectively. They live in Seattle, Washington.