Cheat to Win

There’s a small amount of pride I feel in being able to maintain that I’ve never taken a study drug. Study drugs, for those outside the know, are prescription drugs for ADHD or narcolepsy (Adderall, Ritalin, Modafinil) that undiagnosed students–and now young professionals–take in order to improve their performance in class or at work.

Having graduated college in 2015, study drugs were a fixture within my student universe. I remember first seeing them in my freshman hall and thinking: “Idiots. You don’t need those to do well in school. It’s not even that hard.”

All of those statements still ring true. You don’t need study drugs to do well, the kids I saw using them (at that time) were idiots, and college isn’t very hard. But having grown a few years older and hopefully a little bit wiser, I’m beginning to call my past opinion into question.

Sure, I didn’t need them to do well, but maybe drugs would’ve made me do even better? And yeah, undergrads relying on Adderall to pass their introductory core classes because they’re too busy pledging are idiots. But I now know a whole lot of people who are quite far from idiots who’ve experimented with study drugs and have nothing bad to say about them. What would I be capable of with a little bit of a boost? Am I holding myself back in my puritanical aversion to drugs?

It’s Cheating

The central issue with study drugs is that they are, by definition, performance enhancing drugs. This is a dirty word. Somebody on Adderall is going to be able to focus harder, work longer, and ultimately perform better than somebody who isn’t. If the field of academics is like sports, performance enhancing drugs = big no-no.

But this isn’t the NFL we’re talking about here. This is just your every day Joe Schmo looking for a way to become a better Joe Schmo. It just so happens that these pills, which are safe and prescribed arguably more than they should be anyway, help him achieve that end. What is the drawback? Joe Schmo takes Adderall, aces his exams and graduates magna cum laude. Joe Schmo’s resume looks good and he gets a job. He continues using study drugs. Joe Schmo starts doing better at work. The company starts doing better in turn. Joe Schmo gets a pay bump. Stock value rises, investors are happy. This example is blown astronomically out of proportion, but you see the point I’m trying to make. If these things help us function better–if these things make nothing but positive change–why not drive down to the doctor’s now and ask him to whip out his prescription pad?

Cheating implies that somebody loses unfairly. I don’t see a loser here. And as far as fairness goes, Joe Schmo is still putting in the work to get what he wants. He’s just employed some pharmaceutical help.

They’re Addictive

My rebuttal to this is to draw the comparison to coffee. I am a full-blown coffee addict. I am a caffeine junkie whose relationship with the drug–yes, it’s a drug and an addictive one–can only be categorized as no-holds-barred capital A Addiction. I crave it. I have withdrawals without it. I get headaches. I do not think I am at all unique in this diagnosis and I’m certain there are people more addicted to the drug than I am.

I need coffee. Without it I perform noticeably worse in literally anything I attempt to do. Whether it’s work or leisure. I can barely even hold a conversation if I’m not adequately caffeinated.

Pretty much any adult who has to function for the better part of the day leans heavily on caffeine, whether it’s coffee, green tea, or caffeine pills straight up. We need our fix and we need it immediately upon waking. But caffeine, coffee, what-have-you, makes us function better. It’s a performance enhancing drug if there ever was one, and it’s perfectly safe and acceptable to use in excess. Sure, you might not feel great when you overdo it, but caffeine isn’t going to kill you.

To compare coffee to Adderall isn’t totally off-base, and it seems like it’d fit in perfectly in the morning routine. Wake up, drink your coffee, take a shower, get dressed, straighten your tie, pop an Adderall, get on the train to work. A dependence will develop, sure, but we live in an extremely dependent time. The aforementioned coffee. Smartphones. The internet. GPS. It’s the way of the world now. Resources are available and it’s almost idiotic not to use them.

Things Will Spin Out of Control

I’m going to make a controversial analogy here. The argument people make is that if everybody starts taking these study drugs, everybody will become too damn smart and productive and throw everything off. Aforementioned Joe Schmo gets a job offer over some other candidate who doesn’t take study drugs. Joe Schmo gets a promotion because he can focus longer than the competition. The competition will simply be too intense and too unbalanced. Wrong.

I am an ex-cycling-fan and the heat of my fandom occurred during the Armstrong era. As we all know, Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs (and lied about it so vehemently that I can never forgive him, but that’s beside the point). What you might not know, is that so did literally everybody else. What resulted was some of the most exciting cycling that has ever, and probably will ever, grace this earth. Vicious attacks, fierce acceleration, sheer power in the time trials as disc wheels whirred across the tarmac of France. Jan Ullrich’s piston-like legs churning a monstrously difficult gear ratio while Lance spun at 100+ rpm  with fervor and preternatural ease. Would any of this had been so if they weren’t all on drugs?

The best cyclists of that era were amazing and seemingly superhuman–because they were all taking performance enhancing drugs. The entire talent pool was elevated, and until the jig was up, it was great for fans. If we elevate the talent pool–via study drugs–in universities and at companies employing millennials who’ve been taking these drugs since high school at this point, then we’ll end up with the Armstrong era minus the lies and the controversy. The stakes are different. Because we’re not dealing with a sport here, we’re dealing with brains and ideas and creativity. Three things that can brighten our future quite a bit.

As I read more about these drugs, here’s where I am left: I’ve still never tried them. I’m sure I’ll be entering a world of competition where competitors and colleagues will–at least some of them–be using them. The question isn’t whether or not I should try them. The question is can I afford not to?

People who use these study drugs are still working just as hard as they would be without them, they’re just working better. Just like Lance Armstrong was still training his sociopathic ass off, riding up the Alps in the snow, people who want to excel will still work hard. They just want to be successful badly enough that they’ll employ any means of help necessary, and I don’t think study drugs are out of the realm of fairness.

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