There is so much discourse around the startup idolisation of working harder. Being more productive. Life hacks. “Work hard, play hard” has become such a startup cliché - and yet we somehow never get around to the play part.
Some parts of this relentless productivity narrative resonate with me. I’ve been in this world for all of my adulthood and you soak up some of it. I spend time automating the things that don’t matter, planning and scheduling so I can use my time better, and building structures that will help me have more impact quicker. But this is all to make space for focusing on what makes a difference to me as a person - outside my job.
Our work shouldn’t be our only measure of self-worth, despite how it sometimes feels. We connect our identities to our job titles, where we work, what we do when we’re participating in capitalism and how good we are at that work. Work is an integral part of life for many of us. But it is not the same as life.
Hustle culture has no place in our restorative time. It distracts us from finding balance between work and the larger part of our life. We fail to play at all, let alone ‘play hard’.
I want us to change this.
What even is Work?
A few years back, I grew obsessive about what value I was providing to my employer. Was I delivering great work? How much of a difference was I making? Was I trying my absolute best? As hard as I could? Could I try harder? Could I work more? Could I cut the time I spent on non-critical activities? Could I spend more time on work and therefore do better?
I burned out.
I took weeks off work in a depressed, anxious state. Towards the end of this time off, I started setting myself goals. This sounds like the slippery slope back into Being Better and Working Harder, but my goals were deliberately pointless and extremely achievable. For example, have a shower or make an origami butterfly or go outside, buy something tasty, then eat it.
These gave me a thing to achieve, something tangible. At the most trivial level, each of these goals was work - because work doesn’t just mean doing things relevant to jobs. There are at least two other flavours of Work:
- in science, work means transferring energy into something else to impact or impel it.
- in education, especially early childhood, work means doing something purposeful & engaging.
Both of these describe what I was trying to achieve by setting these types of goals. All three goals that I set out above also produced something tangible and were binary - they clearly & visibly either complete or not.
What do we need to produce to feel productive?
I’ve been interrogating my urge to be productive, this sense that productivity is meaningful and essential. Through this I’ve found some ways to be exactly literally productive - to produce something - without being meaningful to the broader world.
For instance, origami is literally productive, there is visible output, but a folded piece of paper is broadly useless. My family found it baffling that I’d spend time making origami animals then put them in the recycling bin.
Painting, jigsaw puzzles, and cooking are also literally productive.
Interrogating this further, I wonder whether we need to produce a thing, or if it is still productive when we do something to produce a feeling? Is producing joy worthwhile? Or is it only worthwhile when we produce things which are valuable to others, or tangible?
From this point of view, hustle culture feels absurd. Why is “get shit done” the startup manifesto? We should be building something different, something better, but all we’ve disrupted is our personhood.
We’re stuck on “Get Shit Done” but honestly just doing shit all the time doesn’t mean anything. I’m calling for us to analyse what we get done and how and when and what else we should be doing. Here are a handful of mantras I’d prefer:
- create meaning
- produce value and feelings
- be kind and do good work
- focus on what matters
- have a nice time and help others
Learning to play
I don’t think the mindfulness movement has taken us far enough into unadulterated play. There’s still a performative element; there’s still a point to a lot of what activities mindfulness encourages us to do (meditation; yoga; running; skincare as self-care). These are all still very wholesome and earnest and serious with a flavour of self-improvement.
Play for the sake of playing is valuable. Play makes space for back-of-mind thinking (when we “sleep on it” - do we need to do that while we’re sleeping, or can we do it while we’re having an enjoyable diverting time?). It buys us cognitive freedom.
I’ve been thinking of play as a fundamentally important need to fulfil each day. Play as doing something specifically for myself, that doesn’t connect to what my paid role in the workforce is, nor my societal role as parent, sibling, partner.
What would happen if we all added play to the list of things we must make time for? Hygiene, nutrition, movement, play. Sometimes work, sometimes not.
For me, it’s become natural to make space for something that feels utterly defiantly pointless. This could be anything from playing video games (especially ones for kids), late-night karaoke with friends, trampolining, climbing a tree, playing card games like Uno, finding a park with swings and swinging as high as I can…
It’s play if there’s no purpose to it apart from creating joy and fun. Bonus points if I laugh or it feels transgressive for a Serious Adult with a Career to participate in.
This is how we need to rebel against the hustle narrative. Learning to not take ourselves too seriously. Remembering we’re each a whole person, not just our jobs and our obligations. Having more pure joy and daft fun.
We perform vulnerability & boldness for social acceptability; instead let's introspect to learn and grow.
Learning to cook using a JSTOR subscription, a topographical map & a case of wine.