Capitalism and Self-Worth

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say they feel like trash when they aren’t doing something productive. They feel guilty as if they are doing something wrong. Some feel lost if there is no pressing work to do. Why is it that we feel guilty or lost if we aren’t being productive? Where do those feelings of guilt and shame come from? Why is it so bad to not be “productive”

Capitalism affects our lives in more ways than may be apparent. Capitalism is an economic and political system where the means of production are held by private individuals (not the government), and factors like prices and distribution of goods are determined by the free market. Capitalism affects many different aspects of life within our society. It’s the reason why we work the way we do. Additionally, it contributes to the unequal distribution of wealth. From school to healthcare to media, I truly do not know of one thing untouched by capitalism - ourselves included. A society that focuses on production fuels the link between our individual levels of productivity and our self-worth. It does this by shaping the way we view success, ourselves, and the purpose of life.

We love to work. And at Penn specifically, why shouldn't we? We’re here to work hard, right? How do we define success as a society? When I was applying to colleges my senior year, I wanted to get into a good school and then get a good job. I envisioned myself in an Olivia Pope suit with a power walk on my way to Capitol Hill. I thought that only then would I be successful, and that I had to take the right, careful steps to get there. Success is subjective, as it should be. However, the pre-professional environment at Penn forces me to pay attention to how we define success at a school. There is a lot of pressure to maintain good grades, have an active social life, and be incredibly involved in a good number of clubs and extracurriculars. Being well-rounded is great, but we also need to normalize not having everything completely in order all the time.

I’m guilty of viewing my performance as a part of me. School has always been something I prioritized and my academic results have become a part of my identity. During my transition to Penn, I never felt like I was doing enough. I viewed that not as a failure in itself but more of a testament to who I am. That I was the failure. That I wasn’t good enough. But I was wrong. Not “succeeding” at Penn does not equate to being a failure. Who is to say that you have to have good grades and a full resume to be successful? Why can't success in life just be living your life however you see fit? Success connects back to how we view the purpose of life. Being alive is a success in itself. Living your life, doing what you can to grow as a person, and leaving the world better than when you joined it is what I view as the purpose of my life. We must look and acknowledge how the system of capitalism informs our societies and its ideals and concepts.

And how does this tie back to our self-worth? Why do we link our productivity and performance to our self-worth? That initial feeling of guilt comes from the ingrained notion that what we are is how much we produce. How do you define yourself? Some people do so in terms of their accomplishments. Once again, in the pre-professional Penn environment,  it isn't uncommon that the first things you learn about someone is where they are from and their titles or involvements. I am not against people having titles and involvements. But we are multidimensional human beings and there is so much more to us beyond said accomplishments. I do not define myself by my accomplishments and titles or lack thereof, but by being Kavita and Rodrick’s daughter, a sister, a friend, and so on. These are the connections that I want to define me and this is where I put my worth. It isn’t all about what you do and what you have done professionally or academically — you are more than that.

This isn’t to say that people should not aim for greatness or success. Please do. But be aware of how you are defining success and what it means to who you are as a person. Your accomplishments and titles do not define you and they are by no means the only proof of your worthiness. At this school, it is easy to feel that it's all about those accomplishments and titles, but people are more than that. It is completely valid to separate accomplishments and failures from your worth because you are worthy, valuable, and powerful regardless. You are whoever you are and whoever you want to be.