I was recently reading a book that centered on Millenial burnout. Although, I am not a millenial myself it really resonated. I found that the main components of the book were not dissimilar to reading a horoscope- it fits everyone that reads it in some way. The book in question? None other than Can’t Even: How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen— a Buzzfeed writer and former academic who published this work in September. In my personal attempt at using my time to be more productive, I set a personal goal for reading 30 books this upcoming year. In an ironic, but rather fitting twist, this marks “book 3” in the 2 weeks since the New Year began. It also, somewhat humorously, speaks to an intrinsic need to not only be more productive, but to continue that productivity into your personal life. We see a lot of our goals, even if for relaxing or vacation, as to-dos these days. I even started off my “to-read” list with books that I thought would be impressive, or so-called “must-reads” , but after seeing a brief article on the book I decided to nix that mindset and read whatever appealed when it appealed.
2020 for lack of a better term was a shit-show. But, the most universal experience from the shift to working and receiving an education online was an utter lack of boundaries. There were no more clear demarcations indicating when work, checking emails and working on assignments ended and when sleep, time-off and relaxing began. Certainly, I am more than guilty of responding to messages and emails way beyond “office-hours” , but I think that after reading this book it really occurred to me that that is the new normal. If I don’t hear or give a response within a day or two, I feel this nagging sense that it needs to get done at all costs. So, needless to say, the book really resonated with me on this front of needing and perpetuating cycles of constant productivity. In a way, we are all responsible for this as much as we are injured by it because we begin to feel behind if we aren’t 10 steps ahead like everyone else.
In the pre-med community there’s a term for students that prioritize productivity and results above all else : gunners. These are, by definition, typically students that earn top grades, are not receptive to failure and are ambitious to a fault. I’ve met plenty of such students and they thrive in online communities where anonymity results in brutal criticisms of anything less than perfection. Look no further than a forum like SDN for an example. Of course, this is not unique to pre-med students. Look into an engineering class and you’ll see gunners setting the curves and bragging about their latest gig at a small, little-known startup called Google. Peer into business classes and see the fierce competition for a lucrative internship at a Big 3 firm.
So why are people trying so much to constantly be productive and work hard?
But these students were convinced that their first job out of college would not only determine their career trajectory, but also their intrinsic value for the rest of their lives.https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work
We are always told from a young age that success means financial stability and financial stability comes from a rewarding career. But, not everyone is meant to (nor should they be forced to or feign passionate about) the holy trifecta of an immigrant parent’s wildest dreams: engineering, medicine or law. They make an occasional exception for exceptionally successful business ventures I hear as well (but that may just be hearsay). We are also taught that a meritocracy still exists and that working hard means achieving the best results – always. It’s only when we begin to end our years in college or start our jobs in the workforce that many of us begin to see that it’s not simply always the case. For many people in the US, this realization occurs even sooner. Sometimes in life, when you are behind in a race and crippled, you don’t end up beating the world-record holder. And sometimes the “guy in your class” has the connections and cash flow to yield some pretty swanky automated open doors.
Now, are there people who started nowhere and eventually made great contributions and earned a ton of money? Sure there are, but we need to start seeing that that is an exception and not the rule with the current structures in place. I think it goes without saying that a small upfront loan from a family member to the tune of a million (give or take) dollars does help propel a successful career forward. I hear that asking your affluent friends or using your Ivy League school’s resources may work as well just in case you needed a completely realistic Plan B. It always perplexed me when growing up when we hear about all these successful (and exceptionally young) individuals and fail to consider that this is not an achievable norm for most people.
It leaves people feeling behind before they even begin and in my opinion is where our unhealthy obsession with achievement begins.There are many exceptional minds in poverty, unstable homes or that are otherwise disenfranchised that may never get to show the world their visions for changing it. If you weren’t lucky to be born in a set zip code and have gone to XYZ schools then, well, in many cases you’re out of luck for ever finding that support. According to a Princeton study, ” a person preoccupied with money problems [or in poverty] exhibited a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13–point dip in IQ.” For every successful 10-year old there is a family and community supporting them or in some cases a particular devoted parent that is overbearingly inflicting their own personal inadequacies and discontents on their far-too-young-to-deal-with-it children. Again, it might just be so they have some bragging rights in their WhatsApp group though.
Ready for it to be more complicated? When we go to our career counselors and mentors (found or discovered) we are told to just do what we are passionate about (if we’re lucky enough to see them). Simple right? Follow your wishes and dreams and wait for a shooting star! Many students take this to mean, once again because of the belief in meritocracies, that the most outlandish ideas can be accomplishable. Frankly, the sad truth is that, not every idea is a good one. Just like not every hopeful model or actress will ever be more than an extra. Fact is that passion is a great thing, but it sure as hell dissipates when you realize you’re behind on rent and up to your head in student loans. What we really should be teaching is to be passionate and realistic and to, above all, have a plan. It’s easy to get captivated by the interesting lives of people you admire on social media. But, just like their bodies, faces and entire lives they are without a doubt fabricated to some extent. Why do we hold ourselves to ideals that don’t even actually exist in the first place?
We enrolled in PhD programs, law school, med school, architecture school, education master’s programs, MBAs. It wasn’t because we were hungry for more knowledge. It was because we were hungry for secure, middle-class jobs — and had been told, correctly or not, that those jobs were available only through grad school.https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work
There is, more than anything, an absolute psychological and moral toll of realizing that sometimes things don’t and won’t work out they way you think that they will. But, we need to tell people more that it isn’t because of personal inadequacies.
Self-care is a commodified “solution” to a perpetual cycle of stress, inadequacy and more stress. It’s a start, but it’s not a real fix to something so systemic and elusive. What we need to do is set more boundaries on our end, but also make sure that our work and school environments recognize and adhere to those boundaries too. We need to do more than just recognize privilege we should make sure that those with it are using it to uplift the voices and ideas of others. It should be less about being the most successful kid on the block or the most famous alumnus and a little bit more about happiness, contentment and internal parameters.
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