Productivity is Selfish. That’s OK.
I was supposed to start work last week. Unfortunately, a delay in the processing of my visa has left me with two weeks of complete freedom. “If I’m not working, I better spend this time usefully!” I told myself.
The truth is that I have spent the past ten days exploring the many coffee shops of Williamsburg, reading fiction, watching great TV and going on walks down to the bank of the East River.
This is a far cry from the worker-bee persona I was prepared to embrace at work, and on an almost daily basis I have suffered from guilty couch potato syndrome — ashamed that I am not being more productive, but too lazy to do anything about it.
The Productivity Paradox
I suffer from a need to feel productive. I regret time that I “squander” on relaxation, and I am constantly afraid that my ability to make an impact in the world will be grievously wounded unless I keep moving forward. Throughout my time at University I challenged myself to undertake projects which could bring me closer towards something big. I started a business, I ran charity fundraisers and I organized conferences.
I don’t think my experience is unique. The Millenial generation believes it has the power to enact real change on an individual level, without needing to climb the rungs of a corporate ladder. We believe in the ability to amplify our voices and leverage the power of our actions through technology. We believe in our ability to eradicate extreme poverty and solve global warming if we are resolute in our commitment.
But there is a disconnect between what we believe, and what we actually do. In reality, it is all too easy to slip into our comfort zone. Personally, all too often I end up falling below the expectations I set for myself: justifying reading articles from Medium, The Atlantic or The New Yorker as “broadening the mind” when really I am procrastinating from a task at hand; congratulating myself (and receiving praise) for projects that were either trivial or fell below the potential I had envisaged; holding late night debates with friends about how the political system is broken, without engaging in any action to fix it.
My Existential Rebuttal
But over the past two weeks, the question I have been continually asking myself is whether my failure to be as productive as desired actually matters. What does it matter if I am not as successful as Mark Zuckerburg aged 23?
The first counter-argument to my productivity-focused self is to simply ask, Why Me? Why is my life of consumption — of good food, fancy lattes, quality TV and journalism — any different to my life of “production”? Am I really creating value? I personally think I am capable of unique insight and pattern recognition, adept at offering innovative problem solutions, but am I? What differentiates me from the hundreds of millions of people alive today who have received a comparable education to me? I may have lived through a great variety of life-enriching experiences, but am I really that egotistical to believe that I can bring something new to the table?
Secondly, and perhaps more poignantly, what does productivity have to do with quality of life? “Productivity”, as we have come to define it, is a modern manifestation of the evolutionarily-derived trait of “resourcefulness”: those who can provide the most for themselves and others are more likely to survive and pass along their genes, making them more attractive to potential mates. With the question of survival no longer an issue in our resource abundant society, why are we still valuing productivity over quality of life?
The Conclusion: I’m Selfish
The truth is that I don’t want to be productive for anyone else’s benefit, but because it makes me feel good about myself. I subconsciously deceive myself into thinking that the projects I complete are for the benefit of others; yet even when others do benefit from the work I do, I cannot deny that my instrinsic goal is either to enhance my reputation, earn an income or generate a warm, fuzzy feeling inside my body (all the better if it is a combination of the three).
I do want to work. I enjoy being productive, and I love the feeling of accomplishing a project. By recognizing that my productivity is ultimately a selfish act, however, I am able to relax, read a book and enjoy a Cold Brew without feeling guilty.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the final line of one of the many good books I have read recently (Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell):
“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain… and only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to one drop in a limitless ocean.”
“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”