PERNICIOUS OPTIMIZATION

Anne Helen Petersen’s viral Buzzfeed article, “How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation” resonated with us, as well as millions of others who shared the article widely on social media. Petersen’s piece hit a nerve in its examination of the erosion of any barriers between work and home life and it got us thinking about the damage that occurs when young people spend their youth and adulthood relentlessly devoted to priming for employment.

I think it’s time to come clean, because I suspect that many of you are doing the same and we’re all, collectively, responsible for the damage this has caused. I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life relentlessly perpetuating a lie: success or prosperity is difficult to achieve, but possible if we work hard enough and work smart enough.   The glaring truth is that efficiency and success are not always correlated and I know enough brilliant, but exhausted (and poor) optimization junkies that won’t be convinced otherwise.

This culture of hyper competition has deep, sturdy roots that took hold without us even noticing. As students, we were ultracompetitive, with CVs that listed more volunteer experience, extra-curricular activities, and internships in 4 years than our parents amassed in a lifetime.  Not to forget to mention that we paid record-high tuition for it all as well. Many of us went back to repeat the same process, even more intensely at graduate programs with the aspiration that there were dream jobs out there. And to have any kind of a shot at landing one, we had to stand out among our peers.


We graduated with honors and aimed for jobs that would be stable, well-paying, satisfying for the soul, and in some way glamorous.  We were convinced such roles, however unrealistic, existed and that we could get them if we bested the competition. What we never anticipated was that in the wake of  the 2008 recession, many of us would be competing against both highly qualified recent graduates AND far more experienced workers who had been laid off from the financial crisis. To adapt, a lot of us took jobs that paid us far less than we hoped for, but we vowed that we would prove ourselves through hard work and rise through the ranks.  We took on side hustles to make ends meet, answered work emails from bed, and leaned in hard, 24/7. We didn’t just drink the Kool-aid, we butt-chugged it and were left frustrated when years of hard work failed to get us any closer to a sense of financial security.

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We found partners, and sometimes started families, dreaming of achieving the same quality of life and stability that our parents had enjoyed. We fed our kids and dogs the good, expensive organic shit that’s supposed make them healthier, sent the kids (often at great expense) to the very best, cutting-edge schools we could. We enrolled them in all kinds of costly music and sports lessons because we KNOW first-hand that they will need an edge to stand out in a hypercompetitive world.


To sustain the demands we’ve put upon ourselves, in the limited time available, we’ve embraced an excessive number of habits and technologies to streamline life. We devour news in 140 characters or less, Slack emojis of support to our co-workers instead of well-wishes, and catch up with friends over 5 second stories. We listen to audiobooks on the drive in to work to save time on reading and we sync our personal and work calendars across all devices, destroying any remnant of barrier between work and home life. The pace of life is exhausting and relentless, making our daily 10 minute meditation breaks that much more crucial.


One quick glance at FB or IG tells me that on any given night, my friends are effortlessly meal-prepping Michelin Star-worthy Whole 30-compliant meals in 20 minutes, in between yoga sessions on a mountaintop and weeknight $20 cocktails with the girls. We dutifully curate and craft an online narrative of our lives that intentionally mask the grittiest parts of our struggles and disappointments. We could have used social media to commiserate over shared frustrations, but opted instead to use it as a tool to boost our self-esteem, prioritizing inspo over honesty.   If we allow ourselves to believe that all of our peers are cruising through life, while we’re perpetually on the grind, it’s easy to be duped into thinking we’re not working smart enough, because our hard work is undeniable.


Our obsession with efficiency hinges on the mistaken belief that it is an essential ingredient in the recipe for success. Our belief in and perpetuation of this myth is hurting us and our ability to connect with others. We’ve leaned in so far that we’re on the cusp of toppling over So as an experiment, I’d like to propose a deep embrace of the inefficient. Well, at least while at home. If you’ve worked your ass off for the last 10 years and feel like you’re spinning your wheels, taking a break and leaning OUT may be worth a try. This means quitting life hacks, app notifications, and anything by Tim Ferris. Cold turkey the moment you set foot in your house.  For maximum benefit, drop social media too. No one truly needs to see pictures of your new haircut, dinner with dad, brand new end tables, or adorable kid trying avocado for the first time. Take the pressure off from constantly performing, both at work and for an online audience, and use that space to be a little more forgiving and flexible. It’s okay to be unstylish, a few minutes late, or to just hang out at home watching Mystery Science Theatre 3000 reruns with frozen pizza. In most cases, emails can wait to be returned until you get to the office. And the sun will still rise if you don’t get in 10,000 steps each day, or abandon bullet journaling for a week. Pick up a good (hardcopy) book, browse a department store aimlessly, or take a 2 hour nap and cut yourself some slack.


The hustle is grueling and only made harder with the pressures we put on ourselves.  Yes, even during our down-time. Many of us have habitually competed for years so while shrugging off the yoke of optimization may feel foreign,  it is something we deeply need. Success, in whatever way each of us chooses to define it, relies not just on the quality of our efforts, but also on the influence of chance, privilege, and the behavior of others, all of which are factors beyond  the algorithms of optimization and control.

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