This article is featured in the 2022 Winter Carnival special issue.
“You need to work. Do something productive. Strive to do something, be something, labor and toil until you have substantiated your worth. Prove that you are capable, that you are intelligent, that you are thoughtful and original and you deserve to be here, at this school, at this institution, in this world.”
This is my inner monologue. I do not necessarily verbalize these thoughts every day, conceptualize them so tangibly, but they are, nonetheless, there as an undercurrent running beneath my everyday concerns. In a way, these ideas are what got me to Dartmouth: I always believed that if I worked hard enough, my life would, in some obscure way, mean something.
And so, that is just what I did. When I was a child, I read every book I could get my hands on, peppered the adults around me with questions, and spent hours researching esoteric topics. At first, it was really about wanting to know everything I could about the world, to understand every phenomenon I experienced. But at some point, my thirst for knowledge turned into a need to be productive — I no longer wanted to learn for the sake of learning, but to excel at it. I spent my lunch periods studying for exams, took extra classes and stayed up until three in the morning working on school projects, just to wake up three and a half hours later to go to school. Of course, that’s not to say my life was academics and nothing else, but it was certainly my priority to an unhealthy extent — at one point, I worked myself so much that I fell asleep with my head on a textbook every night for a full week straight. Unfortunately, however, every time I put productivity above my own wellbeing, I was rewarded. I got into Dartmouth, after all.
But I do not think this complicated relationship with productivity is unique to me. At Dartmouth, I regularly hear stories from students who work sixteen hours per day, who stay up into ungodly hours of the night to finish papers or projects, who pack their days with so many things that they end up not having a break in their schedule until long after the sun has gone down. And on the rare occasion that students go a day without working, they will usually share that they feel awful about it.
But for all of the work students here do, myself included, it almost never seems to be about actually learning. I regularly hear “I am stressed about this grade” or “I need to do well on this if I want a good career in the future,” never “I am just very interested in this topic” or “I am really passionate about this subject.”
Yet, should we really expect anything different? Society teaches us from a young age that our value comes from how much we work and the quality of what we accomplish. We are taught to constantly market ourselves, to make ourselves appealing to employers, to attain certain GPAs and achieve degrees, to be the best and the brightest, to be contributing members of society, to “make a mark on the world.”
Thus far, I have drawn mostly from personal experiences, but there is a whole host of studies that confirm this trend. For instance, Psychology Today published the findings of Columbia University Professor Suniya Luthar and her colleagues: Depression, anxiety and substance abuse affect students of high-achieving schools, with more intense work cultures, significantly more than their peers at lower-achieving schools. Furthermore, these negative impacts on mental health and alcohol and drug use can last far into adulthood, far after students leave such schools. Finally, this pressure seems to come from the entire culture of the schools: parents, teachers, and even the students themselves.
Other studies have found that not only does “hustle culture” have significant negative effects on mental health, but it can actually harm physical health as well. Participants who worked upwards of 50 hours a week were shown to be at an elevated risk for elevated blood pressure and other heart problems, as well as a host of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular issues.
I, for one, am exhausted from always feeling as though I must justify my value at Dartmouth by being “productive.” I am tired of losing sleep to finish papers and of stressing over exams. I do not want to keep worrying about finding the time to do enough classwork, extracurriculars and creative projects to feel as though I have made my time here worthwhile, and to do all of that well enough to prove that I belong.
Ironically, however, I do not think I will change my habits. Of course, I want to put my own well-being first, but I also feel that I cannot afford to let my performance here drop. I wish I could go back to that person I was when I was younger, who cared deeply about learning, who loved creating just for the joy it brought. But Dartmouth and other institutions, both academic and otherwise, have turned me into someone who, even recognizing the detriments of toxic productivity, cannot seem to escape it.
Toxic productivity is a problem. And it is one not with individuals, but with institutions. Yet, if you look up how to fix this issue, you will find a multitude of articles telling you to “set healthy boundaries” and “prioritize relaxation.” Individual changes cannot, however, fix a societal issue. What we need is a culture shift, and for institutions such as Dartmouth to lead that shift. Perhaps that will look like expanding the NRO system and altering our grading system, or inserting more mental health days into the calendar, or capping homework allotment and doing away with final exams, or more likely, some combination of these and other factors. Personally, I do not know how to fix the culture that Dartmouth has helped create; what I do know, however, is that we have a problem. What I want is for us to recognize it.
Our culture has created this harmful relationship between individuals and their work, where people will work themselves to pure mental and physical exhaustion. If this school really cares about its students, and if this society really cares about the people within it, then there must be change. I want to live in a world that recognizes that there is value outside of work, and that encourages people to learn, and to create, in healthy ways. That world will not exist, however, unless institutions choose to alter the environments they are creating, to stop viewing humans as mere vessels of productivity.