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The race to the bottom sucks. What can we do?

I can function on four, three, two hours of sleep. In my mind, that was a talent. It made me feel more productive back in high school. Of course, the words ‘can’ and ‘should’ don’t always overlap, and I really shouldn’t have done that. Sleeping poorly for three years straight will catch up to me. Look at what happened to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two famous proponents of that lifestyle: both of them developed Alzheimers, a condition now associated with sleep deprivation. They were incredibly successful, though, and it felt like this ‘talent’ would help me succeed, too.

As of late, I feel like my talent is fading away. At the very least, I’m using it less. I’m sleeping earlier, and waking up later. On nights when I have a lot of work due, I stay up until I’m tired and then I trust myself to be efficient the next morning. No more drinking coffee, staying up till three, and waking up the next day feeling like I’m about to throw up. I work less. Nowadays I’m doing enough to satisfy my conscience, and leaving it at that. Sure, I’ll push myself, but only within reason. Before, I would spend hours obsessing over a draft, studying for far too long, or procrastinating until midnight with the knowledge that I’d work later. 

This change got me panicked for a minute. I started entertaining questions like “am I weak?” and “have I lost my grip?”. “Maybe I’m broken” was a thought which seriously crossed my mind. For the longest time, I had associated this lifestyle with strength—it was a daily expression of my willpower. That’s until I realized that my level of productivity was roughly unchanged, and I felt better too.

As it turns out, there are decreasing returns on ‘hard work,’ and I can trust myself to gauge when I have worked enough. As long as I am confident in my own ability, and stay organized, there is no real reason to ‘overwork.’ The end product is the same, and it takes less time. 

Note that lovely word: confidence. If there was one thing which I lacked—which most people lack—in high school, it was self belief. The whole time, I felt that I had to prove my intelligence, to affirm that I was Good at School. Hours of ineffective studying, staring vacantly at textbooks, or revising the same essay dozens of times, were all performances of that aesthetic. Depriving myself of sleep was, much in the same way, a way to play the high-powered student. That feeling of exhaustion, the mental fog, was an affirmation of my status as a clever guy. It got other people to take me seriously. The other smart people around me were overworked, too. It was a status symbol.

It’s here that I remember the example of Margaret Thatcher, because her ‘work-ethic’ had an effect on the people around her. In fact, she caused an observable shift in the culture at Westminster. An article in the BBC quotes Thatcher’s biographer, and their observation that her successor, John Major, “found it difficult coming after her because the civil service had got used to a prime minister who never slept, and he used to sleep eight hours a night." Something tells me that Thatcher’s legacy is still felt today. She set a new standard, and every generation of public officials that followed can be held to it. That pressure will continue to exist, regardless of how effective the practice is, because it gives one the appearance of working harder. Everyone else looks inadequate in comparison to Thatcher. Why must they sleep when she didn’t?

I wonder, then, who was the first high schooler to sleep for four hours a day. Screw them. With that act, they created a new set of expectations for everyone else. That lifestyle is now normalized. It’s something that a ‘dedicated’ student will—and maybe ought to—live. The same goes for the first person who decided to become the president of ten service clubs. They didn’t make their own lives better, and they didn’t inspire a new world of productivity or altruism. They seemed better than the people around them, and that’s about it.

Let’s examine this idea of perception further; the ‘perfect student’ lifestyle is centered around being seen as diligent, rather than being diligent. That’s understandable. More often than not, hard work is taken for granted, and the rewards are limited when it isn’t. Meanwhile, having a full schedule, bags under the eyes, or an impressive resume, essentially guarantees validation. It’s superficial, but it’s conspicuous and easy to praise. Anyone who understands ‘finessing’ knows where the payoff is greater. That’d be fine if conspicuous work—pointless meetings, sleep deprivation, etc.—wasn’t so draining. And it’d be fine if it didn’t, invariably, lead to a game of one-upmanship, a game where you sacrifice your time and your health to win.

This is the race to the bottom. In the pursuit of academic, professional, aesthetic validation, we abuse our minds and our bodies through overwork. And the game only ends when you’re forced to call it quits—when your body cannot afford to take more punishment. All for what? To assuage our own insecurity? How profoundly unhealthy. Is there much we can do about it? Probably not. I might be an optimist but I won’t be counting on society, as a whole, avoiding performative overwork. Abstaining from that system is a terrible idea—especially if one is worried about their employability—while other people engage in it. Society should, though; I know that I feel better for it. 

Here’s something we can do instead: be more discerning about who, and what, we find impressive. We all know what resume padding looks like, and we all know what hard work looks like. If our problem comes from us rewarding superficial performances of ‘hard work’, then we can push back by acknowledging hard work, and dismissing performative nonsense. The more praise we give to people who quietly do their job, the likelier it is that other people follow suit, and the less likely it is that hard workers give up. The less praise we heap on people with five fake clubs, eye-bags, and absurd sleep schedules, the less likely they are to engage in the practice. 

Crucially, such a change wouldn’t force any of us to stop participating in the race to the bottom, which we cannot afford to do. Nonetheless, we would be undermining the culture which gave us this system in the first place. It hurts everyone, so we should all help slow it down. Where you can, work less. Whenever you can, disregard the finesse.

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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