Toxic Productivity: Lessons Learned from a Beeck Center Student Analyst

April 30, 2021–By Sofia Chen Ma

Since immigrating to America when I was 13 years old, I have been conditioned to believe that hard work is the key to my personal success. If I study hard, get good grades, find a good job, and work tirelessly, then I’ll finally be successful, and happy. My happiness has always been directly tied to my productivity. 

When I first heard about the Beeck Center and the work of student analysts, I thought, “WOW! It sounds like an amazing opportunity, but can I REALLY do this? What if they accidentally hire me, and I fail miserably?”

Steeped in self-doubt, I felt guilty even applying. But, as a child of immigrants, I knew what I had to do: I would apply regardless of how competent I felt because I could not cut myself short and potentially miss out on one of the already limited opportunities available to me. 

My courage paid off and I was formally invited to join the Beeck Center in September 2020. When I began my position as a student analyst, I made it a point to emphasize how grateful I was for the opportunity. While I had not anticipated being hired, I embraced the unknown and  committed to trying my absolute best. I deeply familiarized myself with the public interest technology field, learning about its recent emergence as a professional outlet for those who want to apply their technology, design, and data skills to advance social impact. I read countless articles, blogs, and resources; attended training sessions and took notes from other student analysts who had been at the Beeck Center longer than me; did supplemental research and asked lots of clarifying questions; collaborated with fellows; and contributed to larger projects. I felt that I was on the right path. 

A few months into my work with the Beeck Center, a supervisor reached out and generously offered to connect with me. I was nervous, but nevertheless eagerly agreed to meet with them. The details of the meeting are now hazy, but the supervisor asked a single question that was pervasive for the remainder of my work: “Is that ALL you are doing, or are you planning on doing something else?” This question sent me into a frenzy of insecurity and doubt. I immediately began to recount every task that I had completed, every event I had attended, and every hour I had poured into my tasks. I asked myself, “Have I accomplished anything? What more should I take on?” 

From then on, I made it my goal to work twice as hard as I previously had and prove my self-worth through my productivity.  But still I could not shake the nagging sensation that my work was insufficient and subpar. I began to wonder if I was disappointing my coworkers and those who relied on my work.

I soon came to realize that my coping mechanism for self-doubt is overworking. I valued habits that pushed me to my brink in toxic ways. I gave up my personal and social life. My academic responsibilities became more overwhelming. I hardly considered my own mental health, because I assumed that taking time for myself meant giving up time that I could have used to do something more productive. 

Fortunately, I have been surrounded by great mentors, coworkers, and friends, who have shared similar experiences. While I am still in the process of unlearning the toxic effects of glorifying hard work and productivity, I have found the following lessons to be meaningful in my own journey. 

  1. Embrace the discomfort of experiential learning and devalue task-oriented learning.

Experiential learning embraces the power of introspective reflection and creates a collaborative environment where everyone is encouraged to learn from each other. At the Beeck Center, my supervisor helped me value my work more holistically by fostering a workspace that encouraged open and frequent communication and collaboration in lieu of micromanagement. Because of this approach, I now feel comfortable presenting my knowledge of the field in large meetings, am capable of conceptualizing my own definitions of what my work means, and can confidently contribute my own ideas and opinions. Experiential learning has been the key to further developing my perspectives on what unique values I bring to the table. 

  1. Establish new avenues of work recognition that aren’t tied to productivity and output.

We live in a society that is hyper-focused on efficiency. Given our need for social acceptance, we covet pleasing those superior to us and willingly give in to the demands of our work, but this mindset leads to burnout and disconnection.

I found a new perspective from which to evaluate my work contributions, which rekindled my connection to the mission of the work. Instead of evaluating how many deliverables I had completed, I asked myself, “What’s something new that I brought to the table? How have I grown and progressed?” Instead of striving for perfection, I looked to experiences and obstacles that pushed me. I recognized what I had given to my work, and what my work had given me. This mutual and reciprocal understanding of work valuation allowed me to acknowledge how much I had contributed and realize its significance. 

  1. Dismantle exploitative labor practices and create guidelines for mutual growth.

It’s tempting to fall prey to the sentiment that we must always give to our workplaces. The idea that we must ask for something in return from our employers still seems foreign to me. After all, aren’t companies and organizations paying you to do this work in the first place? But this mentality is corrosive and can lead to exploitative labor practices. 

As a student worker, I acknowledge that I have faced pressure to prioritize the needs of my organization ahead of my mental health, academic performance, and personal life. I have overlooked the value of expecting something in return from my employer and I have often overlooked their accountability. 

I now recognize that I must establish guidelines and expectations for self-growth throughout my work experience. Additionally, I must oversee and self-evaluate progress as goals are accomplished. And lastly, I have to hold myself and others accountable for the completion of these goals. It’s important to find fulfillment and self-growth to truly connect ourselves with the day-to-day tasks we accomplish. 

Last Thoughts 

Upon reflecting on my aspirations and goals, I can now acknowledge that while success is important, my happiness can’t be defined just by my productivity. 

The journey ahead of me to unlearn what I have embraced will be complicated, but naming the challenge is a step in the right direction. I now constantly ask myself, “Why do I feel the need to do X?” or “Why do I only feel good when I complete X amount of things?” 

My relationship with productivity has pushed me in many directions, but I don’t want to always “chase” after something. Being in constant motion has only meant that I never get to stop and enjoy what’s happening around me. Hopefully, awareness of how we value ourselves and our work can allow us to reflect on what it is that we are prioritizing and what we are giving up. 

Sofia Chen Ma is passionate about driving technology and innovation to be more equitable and inclusive. She is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business and a student analyst at the Beeck Center working on projects to support the public interest technology workforce. Connect with her on LinkedIn.