Underneath my yellow skin

American toxicity of constant productivity

There was a question in the Ask A Manager’s work open thread that really struck a chord with me (and many in the commentariat). It was about having a question about what did you do for self-improvement during the pandemic placed on their list of standard interview questions. She thought it was tone-deaf and was wondering if she was just being too sensitive since she had a (literal) breakdown during the pandemic. The question is here (search for Keymaster of Gozer if the link doesn’t take you directly to the question, which it should). It struck me not just because it’s an awful question, but because it’s so on brand for America and its passion for being productive all the time.

It’s everywhere. You see it often in fitness magazines that counsel how to turn ordinary events into exercise. It’s doubly so for parents who have a serious time crunch. I’m not against it in general because it can make sense to do a twofer when you’re running short on time. However, the mania for making every minute ‘productive’ is, ironically, counterproductive to mental health. I know for me personally that if I only think about maximizing everything for productivity, I start feeling like shit because you can never 100% that category.

In addition, it’s a con when it’s used in the business sense. It’s a way for TPTB to keep their workers down by holding up a mythical standard of productivity over their heads that no one can live up to. If the workers are pressed to be productive at all costs, they can’t take time to think about anything else. It’s always frustrating when non-Americans on AAM comment about how dismal things are for employees in America because we fucking know! They’re right, though, in that so many of us are caught up in that web. And, again, being told it’s unproductive to ‘only’ work 40 hours per week is not uncommon in America. American workers are told they’re lazy if they actually want to have work/life balance, much to everyone’s detriment. Not only to the worker who is forced to give so much of their life to the company, but for the company itself as an exhausted workforce is not good for anyone.

Anyway, in response to the question above, my answer would be thusly:



During the pandemic, I focused on learning taiji weapons. I became somewhat obsessed with them and have learned more in the past year-and-a-half than I had in several years prior. I have always been a fast learner, but I tapped into something I didn’t even know I had in me. In private lessons, I’ve learned the Sabre Form, most of the Karambit Form (not taiji), a bit of Deer-Horn Knives (also not taiji), a bit of the Spear (just drills), and a third of the the Double Sabre Form. In addition, I’ve taught myself the Wu-Li Wudang Sword, right and left sides, the left side of the Sabre Form, and another third of the Double Sabre Form. Some of it I’ve been learning at the same time, which I never thought possible before.

The thing is, there was a downside to this. The stuff I actually needed to do–writing in nature–was and is so fucking hard. In the Before Times, I could write for hours on end. During the pandemic (and still), it’s more, write for five minutes, surf the web. Write for ten minutes, take a quick break. So, in the case of the interview question, I would have the first part of it hands down, but it comes with a terrible downside that is actually relevant to the job at hand. Later on, Keymaster explained that the job is that of putting out IT (non-literal) fires so her supervisor thought there was a good parallel. Someone pointed out that they were two very different type of crises and one was not necessarily related to the other.

In addition, I would say that as someone with PTSD (which is one reason I had an easier time at the beginning of the pandemic) that I do well in a crisis, but that’s not going to happen with repeated ‘crises’ of the same kind. In addition, as the other person said, it’s very different than trying not to die during the pandemic.

Other commenters noted that it was potentially discriminatory against women (who by the vast majority had to take care of the children), anyone who had to still work outside the home during the pandemic, and anyone who had to look out for people who couldn’t leave the home during the pandemic. In other words, the very small slice of humanity that would benefit from the question makes it a discriminatory question.

It’s just so awful, too, because this wasn’t a vacation or party times. It was a fucking pandemic and the idea that people had to learn something about it or do something to improve themselves is beyond the pale. Alison of AAM had discussed a similar question several months ago and there were people in the comments defending it as being similar to asking someone what they did to keep up their skills during a time when they were unemployed. They downplayed the effects of the pandemic, saying of course it was terrible, but that’s life, innit? Then again, those people had shown to have limited empathy on other posts, but it was still shocking. In the middle of a global pandemic, there were actually people who thought that people should have the bandwidth to upgrade their skills or learn baking or something like that.

In Keymaster’s thread, some people pointed out that they *did* learn something new, but it was a way of keeping themselves together. That’s how I felt as well, even though it wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. Focusing my attention on taiji weapons meant I didn’t obsess about the pandemic, which was good for nobody (obsessing). That was another thing that I had to do–make a conscious decision not to mainline the news of the pandemic 24/7. Back in February/March of 2020, I was reading so much about the pandemic and it was not doing any good for my mental health.

Other people pointed out that they did lose their minds during the pandemic and had to put themselves back together again. There were parents who had to work and homeschool at the same time. There were other people who had to go into their jobs as usual. The few that did learn something new said they would not like that question, anyway, because of how tone-deaf it was. One person said they learned how terrible and selfish human beings could be, which really stuck with me. The lengths to which some people would go in order to deny reality had been really disheartening.

I know everyone wants life to go back to normal, but let’s not forget the last eighteen months as if they never happened. Seventeen. Whatever. How time flies and stands still at the same time. I would like to think that we have learned something as a society during the pandemic, but I fear it won’t happen. We seem determined to not learn a damn thing.

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