There's More to Life Than Productivity
As an English and Creative Writing major in college, I would often hear the same question over and over again, usually when talking to a business major or a white collar boomer:
“So what are you going to do with that?”
My friends pursuing studio art and theater reported getting the same question at least twice a semester. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to be forced to justify your interests or studies in a way that accounting majors never have to. I always assumed that people with practical majors either prioritized finances over the passion and heart of the arts and humanities, or had no interest in the arts and humanities.
It’s entirely possible that the people who found it appropriate to quiz me about my future have a passion for numbers or engineering or selling things in the way that I do for storytelling and verse. I just have a hard time imagining it.
Admittedly, I’ve always been numerically challenged, and never gifted at the sciences. I’ve always felt the most drawn to words, stories, poetry—so much so that it didn’t take me long to decide on my major or my aspirations. If I feel so drawn to something, why force myself to engage with things that don’t capture me? I wouldn’t have made it as an engineering or finance major, not just because I don’t have the kind of intelligence necessary for those fields (though that’s certainly part of it), but because I knew I wouldn’t be able to force myself to do the work required.
I’m guilty of heavy sighs and eye rolls in the directions of those doing the asking, but it’s not their fault really. They grew up in the same world I did: one that values money above all else. And what makes money? Production and consumption. The practical jobs all revolve around the production, selling, and managing of products that have measurable capital value. The value of words and paint strokes and monologues are harder to measure, perhaps because they don’t have much value independent of one another—the value is in the finished product. But I think it’s more important to acknowledge that our society not only finds them more difficult to quantify, but difficult to value at all.
Americans in particular are obsessed with productivity. We rarely measure our days in words spoken, walks taken, or breaths breathed, but rather in tasks accomplished. But if these tasks don’t have a dollar sign attached to them we find them more difficult to justify. I can write 3000 words a day, take my dog on a walk, do yoga, read for hours, and at the end of the day, I’ll feel as though I didn’t accomplish anything.
Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve relocated twice. Both times I sacrificed a job. Not a job I loved or hoped to keep forever, but jobs that paid the bills, jobs that made me look like a contributing member of society. If my passion projects and personal aspirations fell by the wayside because I had to devote the days to making someone else’s phone calls or bringing someone else a plate of food, at least at bedtime I could measure the day in dollars earned. But why? Why did so many of my undergraduate peers feel the need to interrogate my chosen study? Why do days of doing what I enjoy doing feel moot in the face of my Father’s Day at the office?
The answer I’ve come up with: training. I’m so used to being told that time spent on creation rather than production is time wasted, that I’ve begun to feel it myself. The capitalist society in which I find myself is driven by the idea that working to make money is the ultimate validator, the ultimate measure of success. I’m supposed to focus on doing, on working, and accomplishing in order to feel good about myself. That doesn’t sit right with me. To some extent, when I feel unaccomplished at the end of a day of writing, I validate the people and industries that discount creativity and beauty and human meaning by invalidating myself and the way I’ve used my energy. I’ve worked in the capitalist, so called contributing world, and for the most part, it didn’t offer me what I needed beyond financial sustenance.
And so I must untrain myself and my own thinking. This can’t happen overnight. More likely, it will take years of looking in the mirror and saying, “Reading poetry matters, writing matters just as much as money,” in order for me to convince myself. But it helps to remember the days I’ve spent carrying food and selling books or bras in order to make money, and the resulting lack of fulfillment. I am of the opinion that in addition to industry and money, a society needs art in order to expose truth and offer citizens like me something for which to live.
Unfortunately knowing this doesn’t mean I can disengage from capitalism completely, I still have to find a means of making money and a way to answer people when they ask, “What do you do?” But the way I make money doesn’t have to be my identity, and my answer to their question doesn’t have to be the title of my day job. I can determine my own method of measuring my productivity and accomplishments. It might be more freeing to refuse to measure them at all.