Working in Dystopia

I've been working on meeting several intense deadlines over this past week which means I tend to drop everything else to focus. I can be a bit of a workaholic when I let myself, and it's never been a healthy thing for me. This shouldn't be a surprise, of course. Working ourselves to death is an American tradition.

We glamorize work so much so that it becomes a compulsion. We compete for the title of the hardest worker and look down on those who take time for health, family, or just to experience the world around them. We deem them lazy, unfocused, or unambitious. We buy into the myth that hard work leads to success when all around us, in the highest positions of power, we see the exact opposite.

I often feel like the academic push to work is more subtle than it was in industry and that makes it more dangerous. In the tech industry, even far outside of Silicon Valley, we were explicitly told that we were expected to work 45-50 hours a week, minimum. That was the low-bar, and our management team expected to see many of us working more. We did, but at least we could acknowledge that such an expectation was a plainly obvious form of corporate abuse. I'm not saying that it made things better, but at least we could acknowledge the inherent idiocies in the system. The emperor may have still held the power, but we could all see him for the naked fool he was.

It academia, the push to work is couched in concern, duty, and almost a sense of morality. We're privileged to be here, so we have a duty to work. If we're not performing, we're committing a wrong.

For much of my life, I found it far too easy to get trapped in those cycles of endless work.

As I did, certain things started to breakdown.

  • My activity level dropped.
  • My sleep patterns became erratic.
  • My eating habits dissolved into a a junk food free-for-all.

Soon, I was a blob in front a machine typing away at 3 in the morning.

For decades, this was my life. Every year, I got heavier, sicker, and lonelier. It cost me almost everything. Eventually, I did choose to stop. I rebelled in a thousand little and not-so-little ways until I left industry all together. It was the best thing I ever did for my health, my relationships, and my sanity.

So it's important for me to catch myself when I start to drift into this mindset while working on my research. Yes, the work is important. I enjoy it, and I do value the opportunities that I have here. It should never be the only thing that matters, though.

Sometimes, I need to remind myself that the values that drive a good portion of this society are seriously misguided. In some cases, I believe they are designed to actively hurt people.

So, to myself and anyone reading this:

  • Your health is more important than the work you do.
  • Your mental well-being is more important.
  • Work is not and should not ever be the most important thing in your life.
  • That mindset isn't admirable. It's sad and destructive.

It took me over half a lifetime to undo at least a small part of this social programming, and I still get tripped up more often than I care to admit. When I do remind myself of the above and treat myself as someone more valuable than the sum of my work and my paycheck, I find a sense of equilibrium that I have come to treasure. I don't intend to let that go.

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Image clipped from the a low-res version of Brazil