Being able to lay in bed at night and list off all of the things you accomplished is an amazing feeling. I finished a paper, sewed a dress, painted a mural, cleaned my room, got a job… Fill in the blank with whatever is on your to-do list. Let me preface by saying there is nothing wrong with checking off your to do list; the problem comes when you find your worth in your ability to check off boxes.
I thrive with a to-do list. I am one of those people who doesn’t leave their room without their color-coded planner. For so much of my life, I have based my worth on what I can accomplish in a day. While I was on campus at Furman this system worked pretty well for me. I would work all day on schoolwork and extracurricular activities. I would let myself be happy when I got “enough” work done or when I got a good grade.
This fragile work and reward system I had perfected throughout high school and college came crashing down during quarantine these past few months. I woke up one day and realized I had no check list. There was no way for me to prove I was worth the space I take up that day. This seems like a dramatic reaction, but this is where my mind went. If I had no tangible evidence that I was productive that day, then maybe I shouldn’t get any more days. These thoughts led me into a deep depression, which made it hard for me to even get out of bed. As you can imagine, not being able to get out of bed fed these negative thoughts about my self-worth.
I came to the realization that I didn’t know how to just exist. How to just be alive. And to be content to be alive. I built my life on productivity.
Instead of demolishing this principle, which is my ultimate goal, I am starting small. Right now I am working to change my definition of “productivity.” I remember telling my therapist that I felt like I had no worth if I wasn’t doing something for the good of society. Holy sh*t. That is so much pressure!
Can we just unpack this really quick? I am 20 years old, and feel like I have to solve the world’s problems with every choice I make. Here is some quick perspective: Vera Wang didn’t design her first dress until she was 40, Frida Khalo only started painting because she was injured in a bus accident, and Julia Child didn’t write her first cookbook until she was 50. Our society idolizes prodigies like Bill Gates and Mark Zucherburg who changed the world in their teens. I am not a prodigy, nor do I want to be one. Life is wild and long and confusing. There is time for greatness, but in the meantime, let’s learn how to just exist.
What my therapist had me do was think of all the things I do in a day that I would consider to be “unproductive.” As we went through it all she pointed out the larger implications of my simple existence. By eating a bowl of cereal, I am contributing to employing dairy farmers and the Kellogg’s factory workers. When I drive to my YMCA, I am supporting thousands of jobs in the oil industry. When I eat an apple, I am supporting farmers, food transporters, and grocery stores. When I spend all day watching Netflix, I am supporting the IT industry and TV networks.
Just by existing, I am productive. One day I hope to be able to remove productivity from my vocabulary. But for now, my hope for myself and all those who struggle with this is that you see that there is value in every breath and every step that you take no matter how many boxes are left unchecked.