me: *tries to relax*

my mind: Be productive!... I should be doing something right now...maybe I should learn a new skill to make money… (*signs up for free trials of Skillshare, coding boot camps, and random certifications, barely cancels before the first billing period*)... AHH I’m turning 25 in 5 years and  haven’t accomplished anything yet – nope, yup, it’s inevitable: I’m a complete failure

As dramatic as my inner monologue  may sound,  I often find myself wrestling with the prospects of rest and directionless productivity countless times throughout the day. There are moments where I quickly go from casually scrolling through Instagram and saying “oh wow that’s a cute shirt!” to drastically pivoting and thinking “I should start and launch a clothing empire ~today~”. It’s almost this feeling of insatiable tenacity but also crippling unrest – never able to fully take an exhalation of ease but also never quite satisfied with what I’ve already accomplished. I can’t exactly pinpoint the moment this habit began but it now feels like second nature to constantly harbor this pressure to be on my A-game 24/7, to not just pursue but ~cultivate~ a “live to work, work to live” way of life, so to speak. 

It’s almost this feeling of insatiable tenacity but also crippling unrest – never able to fully take an exhalation of ease but also never quite satisfied with what I’ve already accomplished.

Whether it be from school, media or interpersonal relationships, I’ve noticed that as a collective society, we’re often told that our future happiness is supposed to cost us, that the sacrifices of present comfort, health, and joy are not so much necessary evils as they are a fact of life, or an unquestioned prerequisite to success The strife and struggle we stomach today will eventually manifest into a form of delayed gratification we’ll appreciate even more in the years to come — or at least that’s what we’ve been promised. In fact, success is supposed to be even more glorious if it nearly breaks you first. And through all the rags-to-riches stories (many of which bordered on meritocratic propaganda, frankly) I’ve heard since childhood, I so desperately wanted this to be true. If not for my own sake, then for my hopes and dreams of the broader society on what it means to have worth, purpose and power as individual beings. And as a “Gen-Z’er” myself, wedged between the time of traditional standards and a blossoming avenue of the internet, this concept of hustle culture is all too real. 

In high school, if you weren’t in three clubs, two sports (one traditional, one “interesting”), all AP courses, whilst simultaneously rescuing stray kittens and maintaining a robust personal life over the weekend, what were you doing? And now in a world of LinkedIn and constant comparison on a global scale, the pressure is definitely ON, or should I say, never off. This idea that our fleeting youth and uncapped potential isn’t particularly a facet to be lovingly embraced, but rather maximized and monetized, has bred a rise and grind culture overwhelmingly rooted in toxicity. When the world is at your fingertips, you’re not instructed to enjoy it; you’re challenged to capitalize on that stream in every possible way. There’s no excuse; and if there are, you’re supposed to “hack” your way through them. This is the only relationship that counts: what you can make out of what you’re given. And so now, in vast degrees, many of us correlate our self-worth and identity to the quality of our status, careers, and earnings. Worse yet, there’s a moral judgement assigned to this: our apparent successes or failures become proxies for who we are as people. The complexities of achievement become flattened to a single qualifier: did I want it enough?  So each day I question, am I really tired or am I just being lazy right now? I’ve deadened my instincts for rest. 

I’ve deadened my instincts for rest. 

After the novelty of social media wore off, it quickly got to a point where our shared moments were no longer about self-expression but rather presentation. Our profiles became a highlight reel to show everyone's best and most beautiful moments. It’s not an inherently bad thing, except that other people's highlight reels always felt like their actual lives and a lot of people (myself included) became disillusioned with their own reality because it didn’t resemble the precisely curated version of everyone else’s life. We could know, intellectually, that it didn’t make sense to compare apples to oranges. But we would look at our oranges and wonder why they weren’t apples. Or convince ourselves that if our oranges just tried hard enough or wanted it enough, they could become apples. And so, productivity culture seems innocuous because it’s an achievable part of the wider “aspirational” social media culture; not everyone can afford the designer goods or luxurious vacations, but anyone can make the choice to participate in a “hustle” mentality -- even as a means to someday achieving those material goods. 

Productivity culture seems innocuous because it’s an achievable part of the wider “aspirational” social media culture. 

We all have a limited time to achieve our goals, but we have greatly been conditioned to believe that reaching a stance of wealth, status and desired comfortability is the only noble use of our lives. But here’s the thing: you can love the work you do and still be exhausted by it. Or you can hate your job, but still find joy in life. Your work is not the entirety of who you are. Burnout is not some afterthought we should ultimately deal with when it eventually creeps up, but a byproduct of what happens when we live as if we aren’t full people. Let’s shut out all of the pressure we feel as young people and instead focus on the more human, beautiful emotions and moments we experience.

As I reflect on what my friends and I have experienced this past year, in a space and time where we are all quite honestly exhausted, we have frankly outgrown our need to facilitate performative productivity.  Productivity, we’ve found, is almost instantaneously rewarding until it’s not. And then it’s very, very much not. 

Especially right now, as we’ve worked through a literal pandemic for over a year, and struggled to maintain our professionalism despite the aggressive, often violent political discourse dominating our lives, I implore us all to not only be empathetic to others as they cope and gradually find motivation to work amidst this chaos, but to ourselves as well. We owe it to our present self to be receptive to the signals our body sends us when we’re in need of a break and should allow ourselves to feel worthy of tenderness and generosity even when, especially when, we’re not busy. All this time, we should have been normalizing rest, not the chaos of our circumstances. We should’ve named our individual and shared situations as, simply, overwhelming - not fought our own guilt over feeling overwhelmed. This year, our lives may only get more difficult. I’m not prescribing a universal “right answer” to the choices we make, even if they’re complicit in hustle culture. What I am saying is that rest, recovery, and reflection are human practices essential to a meaningful life. 

Here are affirmations that may help remind us all of that humanity:

  • You don’t have to earn your rest
  • Your work is not the entirety of who you are
  • You are worthy even when you are not busy