The Myth of Productivity

I was at a concert here in Córdoba a few weeks ago, and I was having a good time. Beer in hand, I was dancing to the music with new friends at an intimate venue. The vibe was familial, relaxed. Everyone was clearly there to unwind and enjoy the show, especially since it was on a Thursday night and a lot of people were likely coming from work. The concert was phenomenal and I knew it would be, but I wasn't expecting a cultural lesson.

Most cultural experiences arrive when we least expect them, though, and this one tumbled forth from the microphone: "La prisa mata." In English: Hurry kills.

There has possibly never been a more Spanish phrase uttered, at least not in my presence. 

Contrary to many of us in the United States, where we quite literally work ourselves to death, the Spanish understand that work is only one part of life. I don't want to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Spaniards, so let me be clear: a vast majority of the people I meet here are hardworking, just like in the States. The difference is that the Spanish don't necessarily center their entire lives around their work. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Ride the metro in Madrid on a weekday morning and you'll see businesspeople of all sorts rushing off to the office just like in any other major city in the world. 

In general, however, there seems to be a different attitude towards work in Spanish culture. Work is seen as a means to an end; it enables people to enjoy life by providing resources and, at times, fulfillment. The Spanish work to live; in the United States, we live to work. 

I enjoy work. I have always had a strong work ethic, which I attribute to a mixture of my upbringing and my own drive. There is a massive difference, however, between enjoying work and gleaning the majority (or all) of our meaning in life from work. 

I used to think that I had a good work-life balance, in the sense that I spent time on and derived enjoyment from elements of my life outside of my work. And I guess I did, by external measures. But leaving my traditional job and spending time traveling, writing, and just living has shown me a side of myself that I don't really like, and one that is very un-Spanish. 

I am obsessed with productivity. 

I make lists, I set goals, I get down on myself if I don't meet them. Even though I have worked so hard throughout my life (albeit also coming from a background of immense privilege) I still tell myself that I am not working hard enough. Or perhaps it is because I have always worked so hard that I find it difficult to take a damn break. 

More disturbing is that I don't just find it difficult because I'm not used to rest. The reason I find working less and living more to be so deeply uncomfortable, I'm finding, is because I derive my sense of self-worth from my productivity. I am what I put out into the world, the tangible and measurable positives that I create. And that is incredibly dangerous. 

If I am only worth what I produce, then my worthiness is always dependent upon external factors. I only merit the space I take up on this planet if I can point to accolades, achievements, things that prove that I deserve to be here. But there is no way to measure the value of human life, and no way to prove the positive impact I have on the world in less tangible ways.

The myth of productivity tells us that we are what we produce, and so if we do not produce then we are worth nothing. It is the lie upon which American capitalism and our resulting workaholism is built. And it is bullshit that I have deeply, profoundly embedded within myself, which I am now trying so hard to dig out. It is difficult. It is ugly to discover this part of myself. I don't like it. But for precisely that reason I am being gentle with myself, and trying to be more like the Spanish I'm so lucky to be living among for the time being.