At the beginning of my sophomore year this year, I was lucky enough to serve as a trip leader in Dartmouth College’s First Year Trips pre-orientation program.
Trip leaders are upperclassmen who volunteer to lead groups of freshmen on a five-day wilderness trip before school starts and then serve as mentors to their “tripees,” (the freshmen on their trip) once they return to campus. I led a group of ten incoming students on a white-water kayaking trip, but, more importantly, got a chance to advise my soon-to-be peers on how to best navigate college. Well aware of the fact that there are only four short years to take advantage of all the opportunities college offers, one of the things I decided to focus on was how to make the most of your time. To prepare, I thought quite a bit about what I find most important and came to some conclusions about the way I spent my own freshman year at Dartmouth that I think will resonate far beyond the limits of our campus.
In my reflection, I realized that I spend a huge chunk of my time in my school’s various dining halls. I started to think about why. The food isn’t anything to write home about (and thankfully, because that helped me avoid the “Freshman 15”). The buildings aren’t particularly special. It’s not that I can productively work in the dining halls either. Why, then, do I gravitate toward them?
There are two kinds of meals that I eat at school. The first is rushed, more of a glorified snack on the run, than a meal. It involves a quickly eaten smoothie or a sandwich, and a lonely sprint to whatever class, club, or commitment I have wedged my “meal” up against. It gets the job done, nothing more. The second is a real meal. I sit down, relax, and really enjoy the entire experience. The fare is usually better, but, more importantly, there are conversations, because a “real meal” means spending time with my friends. A “real meal” means talking, venting, arguing, discussing, debating, laughing, and joking.
It means an hour or more of quality time with some of my favorite people.
If I’m looking to maximize my time at school, my “real meal” seems counterproductive. One of Franklin’s virtues, industry, encourages us to “lose no time,” “be always employed in something useful,” and “cut off all unnecessary actions.” On the surface, my prolonged meals could easily be described as “unnecessary actions” that should be “cut off,” according to Franklin. Why spend so much time around the table when I can pack in the calories I need in a fraction of the time, and get back to work, play, or sleep? Why set a personal policy to move heaven and earth to make time for a “real meal” at lunch and dinner?
Sitting down to a “real meal” provides so much more than physical sustenance. For one thing, it’s a key part of building relationships. Lunches and dinners are great for building close friendships, because they provide some of the only times we can regularly be together. When you’re too swamped to go for a walk, see a movie, or just hang out, it’s easier to rationalize much needed social interaction under the pretext of unavoidable nutritional requirements. In the same vein, the comradery of mealtime provides an outlet. Especially during more hectic stretches, when exams, papers, and other obligations all converge at once, a drawn-out meal can be a literal oasis between hours of drudgery in the library stacks. The chance to vent, reset, and take your mind off all of your obligations can be a wonder cure for your mental health. Mealtime interactions also foster intellectual growth. In college, I’ve found that I learn as much from my peers as I do from my classes. Whether we’re debating a contentious topic, weighing in on the latest political firestorm, or “auditing” each other’s courses by sharing the discussions from that day, mealtime gives me another venue to think, and exposes me to new ideas and perspectives.
Growing up, family dinners provided similar benefits: conversations there broadened my horizons and provided comic relief from my homework. Post-college, I hope to find the same fulfillment around the table.
Spending that extra time in the dining hall, then, fits perfectly with the virtue of industry. Industry is about efficiency. “Losing no time,” is not about rushing through our lives in order to experience as much as possible. It is about maximizing the utility we gain for our time spent (to borrow terminology from economics). Sometimes, that means slowing down and making the most out of an oft-overlooked activity. Whether you stop to appreciate something beautiful on your morning commute, or take the time to fuse mealtime with enriching, rejuvenating, social interaction, using your time wisely can make all the difference.