Uncoupling Productivity and Self-Worth

Uncoupling Productivity and Self-Worth


How do we behave without extrinsic challenge or expectation? Where do our thought patterns run? What stories do we tell ourselves?

Discovering those answers is a series of lessons in patience and in uncoupling productivity and self-worth. In a world of noise and distractions--both healthy and unhealthy--learning who we are apart from what we do professionally, academically, and socially feels like a task for another era.

I graduated from college two years ago and promptly moved across the pond to France with hopes of continuing what I had spent the majority of my undergrad years doing: learning and traveling around foreign countries, searching for a clearer sense of what vocational and relational paths I want to pursue as a fully-fledged adult, and eating good food. Don’t misunderstand--this wasn’t me using Dad’s credit card to party in Amsterdam without a care in the world. This was the product of years of hard work as a student that culminated in what I consider truer, harder learning: moving wide and far through the world as an independent human trying her darndest to be kind and self-aware. And hopefully to someday make the world a better place.

Exactly what makes the world a better place is up for debate, but I’ve been socialized to believe productivity is key.

I moved to France to work as a part-time teacher. Alone and faced with an abundance of unstructured time (which might sound ideal but is immensely challenging), I was forced to decide if who I am without external reward, praise, and gratitude is someone I habitually treat with the same care and compassion I would give to a loved friend. We are all worthy of connection and love regardless of productivity. I know this intellectually; you do, too. But putting it to the test and into practice is hard. Of the zillion messages we receive, the majority, when they’re boiled down, value financial productivity over other aspects of contribution to the world. But is this where I want to place my values? And what forms of productivity encapsulate both a feeling of contribution and one of genuine receipt? I had never been less financially productive than I was while living in France--I wasn’t legally permitted to work more than 12 hours (!) per week--but I had also never been more creatively or introspectively productive. It was unsettling at first. What am I doing in all these free hours? Am I wasting my time reading stacks of books and writing letters to friends and encouraging my young students to see the world as a wide, welcoming place? Why do I feel like I’m not being productive at all? And, more importantly, why does that make me feel like I’m not enough?

Are we not productive by reflecting, resting, loving, and encouraging? We are producing, after all—we are creating, just not monetary goods, status, or power.


As I reexamine what productivity means, I accept that it’s more nuanced than to-do lists and people pleasing, though this is what I’ve been socialized to consider productivity. I know I’ve already spent too much energy hustling for the sense of “having done” without giving it much intentional thought or choice. I know because I recognize the feeling of depletion without reward, without purpose, without true satisfaction.

It can be easy to bash the incessant forces of modern productivity and busyness, but rather than bashing them, why don’t we redefine them? Perhaps the more closely the privileged Western world aligns its collective values with reflection, rest, love, and encouragement, the less greed we will feel, the less power the powerful will chase, and the less imbalance of privilege our world will experience.

I’d like to cultivate a sense of self-worth grounded in internal ethic from which I can encourage people around me to cultivate the same. I always find that the people who treat themselves with the most unconditional care are those who give us each unspoken permission to do the same. Let us encourage each other toward sustainable, life-giving productivity--however we choose to define it.

Oh, and I know I sound like an idealistic puppy (I am a millennial, hello!). I am aware.

Three cheers for idealism. And puppies.