This post has been a long time coming. I unfortunately lost my job last month, and while I’ve been offered another job, it doesn’t start until the end of the month. What that means is that I’ve had a lot of time to sit around and think. At times it’s been frustrating and boring and, let’s be honest, having an income is nice, but on the other hand it’s given me pause for thought about what it means to be busy.
At the moment I’m listening to Brené Brown’s lecture series ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, inspired by her TED talk of the same name. It’s been one of my favourite TED talks since my counsellor in third year of Uni recommended it to me, but the full lecture series is even better. Honestly, in that classic “who would you invite to a dinner party, dead or alive” scenario, Brené would be top of the list – she’s insanely clever, sassy without being snarky, and I just generally think we’d get on pretty well.
One of the things she discusses is our fascination with being busy. How we get a kick out of being able to reel off a list of things that are taking up our time and attention, how we brag about the hours we’ve put in at work, and how, if we admit that we’re feeling pretty relaxed about life, people don’t seem to know how to respond. In western culture, being busy to the point of meltdown is something of a status symbol. We endlessly compare ourselves to our peers and beat ourselves up if we suspect that we’re not making the most of our time.
It’s something that I witnessed all the time as a student. “How many words have you written yet?” was a hot topic of conversation and people would loudly moan about spending full days in the library and not leaving until they were thrown out at 2am. I don’t think these comments are helpful to anyone. Beneath the complaints is insecurity. Often people say these things not to vent their own genuine frustration or to encourage empathy, but to assess the competition. To find out how hard others are working. To see where they sit in the pecking order. To quell the universal voice of shame that insists we are only worthy of feeling joy if we’ve suffered the hard graft and “earned” it through tangible “success”. The culture of studying to the point of exhaustion is something that’s only going to get worse as Universities like my own introduce nap pods and 24/7 opening hours.
My main cause for excitement upon graduation was the thought that I could finally leave my work at work and have time to indulge my passions outside work hours. For the most part, I’ve been able to do so, but I can’t help but suppress that niggling feeling that I should be doing more. It makes me feel so stressed when I see people my age without an inch of wiggle room in their daily schedule, because I can’t help but compare myself to them. It think it’s a generational thing. There’s much more competition among us millennials to find full-time, emotionally rewarding work, and we must resort to filling every second of our time with activities, projects and courses that will enrich our employability. All this is often on top of paid employment that pays the bills in the mean time. Is it any surprise that, in a recent worldwide study of young people (defined as being 15-21 years old, but probably with similar trends just outwith this age bracket), Britons exhibited the second-worst mental wellbeing?
I’m sure to some, this kind of lifestyle provides good motivation and is perhaps even desirable. But in my opinion, it’s sad that the economy has gotten to the point where this is seen as a normal way to survive. Where’s the time to reflect? To be kind to ourselves? To work smarter, not harder? We often have to push ourselves to exhaustion just to be seen as competent, but with no support system to keep our wellbeing afloat. Mental health services are vastly underfunded, meaning not only a lack of services, but less money put into campaigns that encourage us to be open about our mental health. The vulnerability required to reach out and say “actually, I think I’m overworked” or “I need some time off to get my mind in order” is seen as weakness when really, being able to tap into your own emotions and ask for help is one of the bravest things you can do.
It’s time we stop glorifying this kind of exhaustion. I’m fed up of feeling a deep sense of shame when I’m not “busy enough”, and I’m sure I’m not alone.