I feel immensely guilty when I’m not being productive. Even when I’m choosing to do something fun, or putting my work down because I know I need a break, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m wasting my life away.
This is not a unique sentiment at Duke. Everyone here is obsessed with productivity. When we’re overwhelmed, we add another item to our to-do lists. The feeling that you’re never doing enough is utterly unavoidable.
Whenever I manage to look beyond my responsibilities here at Duke, I’m reminded constantly of their burdens by a distant nagging in the back of my head, the voice of my anxiety battering me for my unproductivity. This is a voice we all have, and we’ve trained ourselves to obey it because it has allowed us to reap superficial rewards. Good grades, leadership positions and job offers usually manifest when we convince ourselves that we should always be doing more.
These rewards are appealing, sure. But we can have all of these things and remain unfulfilled. Many of us do.
In our heads, productivity means completing menial assignments, scheduling meetings and putting in hours of studying in Perkins. We struggle to convert our lives into products that we can hand in or show off for a shred of recognition. But in doing so, we waste most of our time and emotional energy trying to wrap ourselves into these pretty packages. Then, we sell ourselves for much less than we are worth, feeding into systems more consumed with goods and services than with our humanity.
This cycle is almost impossible to escape because we have been raised into a market culture. Our society defines success narrowly, in terms of what you can produce and what you can gain in return—specifically, fame and fortune. These appear to be the only forms of currency worth seeking. But how valuable are they really?
Today, we conceive of success as the result of intelligence and hard work, especially in high-paying fields. But hundreds of years ago, success had nothing to do with how smart or dedicated you were. It was determined by your ancestry and property inheritance. Before that, being successful meant you were a capable hunter and protector. For women, success has had dozens of rigid definitions, many of which were related to their perceived ability to bear children.
It’s fair to say that most of these qualities hold minimal weight in today’s society. But in the same way, what success looks like today is unlikely to resemble what success looks like hundreds of years from now. The tasks you’re slaving over may be completely inconsequential to future generations. Point being: our definition of success is arbitrary, as are the divisions between what is productive and what is not. Those parameters are controlled by society. They are not inherent.
Let’s get one thing straight: You are not a product. Your life is not the sum of the bullet points on your resume. You were not built to conform to society’s constructs.
These frameworks in which we live are ephemeral. They only hold as much meaning as you give them. But you—your happiness, your wellbeing, your fulfillment—those are fundamentally valuable. Those are the things that matter.
I’m not saying you should drop out of school and try to run away from the reality we’re embedded in. Attending this university is a privilege. But the real privilege isn’t in the jobs we might secure after graduation—it’s the opportunity to make ourselves into whoever we want to be.
There are bigger things to learn here than how to make it to Wall Street. Even though society’s arbitrary definitions of success and productivity seem to control our every move now, they don’t have to. We can lead lives that are meaningful by our own standards instead of someone else’s.
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As much as I worry about working harder, all I ultimately want is to be happy and to help other people be happy. I don’t care how I get there. I’d rather wake up on my 70th birthday with a feeling of fulfillment than with a three-page CV.
Rebecca Torrence is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.