Gunner, Savvy, Slacker: Pros and Cons

So in the last post I introduced you to the three academic breeds of Harvard student.  Now let’s delve a little deeper into the pros and cons of each:

The Gunner

The Gunner is hardcore.  Even as a freshman, she knows what she’s going to be when she grows up.  She already knows which grad school she’s going to, which companies to apply to, and which summer jobs to land to beef up her resume to max impressiveness.  She’s got her eye on the Rhodes, the Marshall, the Fiske, the DeJersey, the Detur, Harvard Med School/Law School, and the Presidency of the United States — or if that doesn’t work out, a spot on the Supreme Court.

Pros: Successful Gunners usually do very well and end up ruling the world or at least part of it.  They have distinguished themselves even in the rarefied atmosphere of Harvard, and are consequently in major demand in the world.  They do win the crazy fellowships which puts them in league with the likes Bill Clinton and Nobel Prize-winning scientists.  Gunners have doors open to them that most of us don’t even know about and get lucrative job offers thrown at them unsolicited.  Most of my friends who were in that category (and didn’t crash) are in good shape: hotshot professors at top universities (Harvard, HLS, Stanford, Yale), successful VCs, kicking ass and taking names.

Cons: The Gunner lifestyle is not necessarily a balanced one — ‘workaholic’ is neither a compliment nor a path to healthy living.  They can miss out on a lot of personal growth that happens during college on a social level — when else are you going to learn to interact with your peers?

Some of them are so preposterously talented that they just cruise through their work and never stress out.  And a small minority of them succeed over and over again.  However, part of being human is to stumble occasionally.  And because of their sky-high expectations, they put undue pressure on themselves.  As a result, what would constitute a major victory for a mere mortal — an A- in a tough class, or getting into the #3 law school in the US — constitutes crushing defeat for them.  This is why a lot of Slackers are actually former Gunners: one slip, and heavy disillusionment sets in, with a subsequent change in worldview and lifestyle.  They are susceptible to stress-related diseases.

Socially, because of their singleminded attention to achievement at all cost, the Gunners tend not to be masters of human relations.  When you have little experience in the realm of love, one bad breakup is all it takes to turn your world upside down.  Lots of Slackers are former Gunners who got dumped by The Love of Their Lives (aka their first real quasi-adult relationship) and just couldn’t handle the consequences.  Also, as buddies, they may not be a whole lot of fun to hang out with.  Two of my best friends were bona fide Gunners, and every time I’d call them on a Saturday night to go party, they’d turn me down: “Nah man, I’ve got some work to do.”  How about the other 6 nights of the week — why cantcha just do it then?  Drove me up the wall.

The Slacker

The Slacker is mellow.  She has figured out that you can get a B in almost any class at Harvard without straining yourself, and she’s cool with that.  The Slacker has found greater joy in the company of her peers and her extracurriculars than she does in schoolwork, so she spends her time on those instead. She picks courses based on how easy they are, how late they meet in the day (after 11am = bonus), and how skippable class is.

Pros: Just ’cause she’s not an academic ace doesn’t mean he’s not up to anything productive.  The Slacker is often socially adept, forging lifelong friendships that hold her in good stead for the long haul while the Gunners are slaving away in labs and libraries.  The Slacker also has a ton of fun, since she’s treating Harvard like it’s actually college.

Cons: Slackers can miss out on one of the most amazing opportunities of a lifetime — namely, to learn stuff at Harvard.  I mean, people — this is your education, for godssakes.  It’s like winning the lottery, then casually forgetting to cash in the ticket.  So let’s not miss out on the main show here.  And if that’s not compelling enough reason, consider: at $40k a year, a total of 8 courses per year and an average of 25 class meetings per course, each class you skip is about 200 bucks down the tube.  Explain that away to your funding agency (aka mom and dad).

Also, because of the merely mediocre grades they get, they sometimes shut themselves out of the best jobs and grad schools out there — things they could have attained with a little bit more effort.

Also, a quick observation: for whatever reason, I knew a lot more male slackers than female Slackers at Harvard.  If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s a 3:1 ratio.  In any case, I’m keeping the female pronoun throughout this article for consistency, in spite of the apparent shortage of girl Slackers.

The Savvy

Ah yes, the Savvy.  This is a Harvard student in the know.  What does she know?  Well, first of all she knows her priorities: learn stuff, get decent grades, forge meaningful relationships, set herself up for success in the future while having the time of her life.  She also knows that it’s more important to work smart than it is to merely work hard.  So she uses her considerable brainpower not just to study hard, but also to figure out the most efficient way to perform well.  She juggles her responsibilities with aplomb and seemingly effortless grace — what the Japanese would call shibumi, what the Italians would call sprezzatura.

Pros: The Savvy gets Gunner-level grades without the stress or the austerity measures that a true Gunner imposes upon herself.  As a result of her efficiency, she also eats well, sleeps well, gets enough exercise and has fun with her friends.  She may even have time for a meaningful romantic relationship or two.  She has learned how to have balance in her life, setting her up for a happy, healthy, successful life after graduation and far beyond.  She basically gets to have her cake and eat it too.

Cons: The Savvy may pass up some of the top, top distinctions that Harvard has to offer (e.g. graduating magna instead of summa, writing a Hoopes-worthy thesis) in the name of a more balanced lifestyle, but even that need not be the case.  Can’t think of any other downside really.

Anyway, that’s an overview of the three kinds of academic beast at Harvard.  Read it and see where you find yourself in it.  Obviously, I’m a little biased towards the Savvy lifestyle, although people from all three realms have grown up to do just fine in the end.  If this is the what, then the HUGS live program and CD is where we talk a little more about the how.  Stay tuned, and throw me your questions and comments below.


Ali B

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An academic taxonomy of Harvard students: the three breeds

During my time in Cambridge (MA not UK), I noticed three breeds of Homo harvardensis when it came to academics: the Gunner, the Savvy, and the Slacker.

Gunners come to college to kick ass academically.  They’ve already got their eyes on the prize — Rhodes and Marshall fellowships, graduating summa cum laude, getting into the best grad schools — and they will work hard to get it.  These were the kids who were studying on a Saturday night, impervious to my entreaties to go check out some parties. In my experience, about 10-15% of the campus fits this category.

Slackers are the other end of the spectrum.  Sure, they worked hard in high school.  But now, they’ve figured out that they can pick classes such that they never have to get up before 11am; can have 4-day weekends by picking classes that only meet on Tuesday and Thursday; and generally not need to work too hard.  They’re happy to get by on the gentleman’s/gentlelady’s B while attending to their extracurriculars and social life.  They comprise about 10-15% of the student body.

In the vast middle — 70-80% of the students — are the Savvies.  They don’t take up the same austerity measures as the Gunners; nor do they eschew all hard word like the Slackers.  They’ve figured out how to work smart, such that they can perform well academically — sometimes as well as the Gunners — while having a well-rounded college experience. In other words, they’ve figured out how to have a balanced college life.

I started out as a Gunner, had a fall from grace which landed me in Slackerville for a while, and a gradual awakening which made me Savvy.  Unfortunately, by the time I had stuff really figured out, I was wearing a cap and gown in Tercentenary Theater.  What I would have given to have that knowledge, oh, say freshman year, or even before.  And that’s why I created HUGS: so you’d have the benefit of all that experience NOW when it’s actually useful to you, and not in the year 2014.

Being a Savvy is the middle way.  And the middle way — the way that avoids the extremes, as put forth by Eastern wisdom — tends to be more effective and fun.  We’ll talk about that a lot on HUGS Day, Sat Aug 7, and have a whole section devoted to it on the HUGS CD.  Until then, if you have questions for me, zap ‘em to me at ali at

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How to make $5000 in your first 2.5 months at Harvard

Some headlines try to get your attention with lurid references to sex.  I think money works so much better for that.  And don’t worry — we’ll have the lurid stuff later.

So a couple of years ago, I started adding a short bit on career planning at the end of HUGS, which used to be only 4 sections: Academics, Extracurriculars, Logistics, and Social Life.  I didn’t want to belabor the point, ’cause let’s face it: you just finished high school, and have before you the best four (potential) goof-off years of your life.  Let’s first figure out what kinda winter coat to take to Cambridge — your career is way, way out there in the future.

Or is it?  ‘Cause you know what?  Not too long ago, some dude whose name ended in ‘erberg’ and started with ‘markzuck’ started a company you may have heard of right from his sophomore year dorm room.  Apparently said company is now worth kersquillions.

I firmly believe that right now, just out of high school, is the most creative you will ever be in your lifetime.  It’s a kickass combination of the mature capabilities of an adult brain and the unencumbered spirit of childhood.  Also, your brain still has crazy plasticity.  Ergo, this is an especially good time for you to come up with some of the best ideas anyone has ever had — before higher education gets a chance to pound every last bit of creativity out of you and turn you into a conformist zombie automaton.

So last year I expanded the HUGS section on careers somewhat, and this year the CD has a whole 5min section on it.  Why?  To plant the seed of entrepreneurship in your head, that’s why.  And this year, I’m doing something brand-spanking new: a segment entitled How to Make $5000 in Your First 2.5 Months at Harvard.  I’m not kidding about this at all.  With about $500 of seed money, a little bit of initiative and some elbow grease, you can totally make this work.  And I will give you all the details at the HUGS party in Pacific Palisades on Aug 7.  Deal?  Deal.

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The key principle for success at Harvard (and the rest of life)

Awright troops!  Welcome to the blog.  This is where I’ll be giving you quick tips on how to kick ass at Harvard (or whichever college you’re at) while having a great time.  Some of the advice will be Harvard-specific, but most of it won’t be, so feel free to hang out and post comments if you’re from another college.

Okay, so the key to success at Harvard is one word.  Here’s the really big one.  Are you ready?  Can’t hear you — did you say you were ready?  Oh good.  Here it is: BALANCE.  Let me repeat that: balance.  Let me say it in italics: balance.  And bold, too: balance.

Now some people may think balance is not sexy, finding it prosaic or even boring.  Well, maybe.  However, I submit to you that the opposite of balance is the opposite of sexy.  Observe: cyclist losing her balance and falling on the pavement.  Not sexy.  Observe: person tripping over crack on the pavement and going splat on the sidewalk.  Not sexy.  Observe: Lindsay Lohan getting canned for being way out of control.  Supremely unsexy.  So if the opposite of balance is unsexy, perhaps there’s something sexy about balance after all.

Balance is the opposite of excess.  The way you’re going to do spectacularly well in college and the rest of your life is by avoiding excess.  Too much indulgence and partying your buns off is excess.  Too much austerity and studying in the library every Saturday night is also excess.  Balance, dammit!

It’s the concept of the Middle Way so prevalent in Eastern wisdom, especially Taoism and Buddhism.  Your body knows about balance, too.  It’s called homeostasis (or allostasis, depending on the situation you’re in).  The goal of these postings will be to help you understand, find and maintain balance for your freshman year.  And your sophomore year.  And junior and senior year, too.  And maybe even after that.

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So Cal Summer Sendoff Party, 7 Aug 1-5pm

The seventh annual HUGS for THUGS (The Harvard Underground Guide to Success) summer sendoff party is coming up in about a month.  Clear your calendars, cancel your trip to Antarctica and set reminders on your cell phone to get to this party, ’cause not only is this going to be the highlight of your summer, it may be the most important party you’ve ever been to, yo.  Here’s the basics:

Date: Saturday, 7 August 2010, 1-5pm

Location: Will Rogers State Park, Pacific Palisades, CA

We’ll provide lunch.  You bring your brilliant and attentive selves, along with frisbees, soccer balls, volleyballs, and whatever else incites you to play on a summer day. And 10 bucks for parking.

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