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Without context, success is a meaningless word. Does it mean a particular bank balance or fancy title? The admiration of others? A level of impact on the world? A state of mind? The ability to sleep comfortably at night knowing you've lived up to your own values? There is no way to independently answer these questions. The advice "how to be successful" is pretty useless (or worse, guilty of implicitly reinforcing the unexamined and often harmful assumption that success means being rich and powerful). It also means that there's no one who can tell you you're successful (or not) but you.
Whenever I am asked about my work, I dodge the question. Earlier this year I published my first book and whenever someone says how proud I must be, a bubble of shame grows inside because, well, I'm just not. In an attempt to rid myself of that feeling, I do more, work harder. I endeavor to be more productive. The only thing more overwhelming is that I feel like I've done nothig at all. Thinking of this unhealthy relationship I have with my professional achievements as "productivity dysmorphia.
The term 'productivity dysmorphia' popped into my head while I was reading Otegha Uwagba’s recent memoir, We Need To Talk About Money. She labelled her relationship with her finances 'money dysmorphia', a phenomenon first described by the data journalist Mona Chalabi. "It is possible to feel as though you don’t have enough money – and act accordingly – even when you do," Uwagba writes. I read that and thought, I have this, but with productivity.
"Do you ever have a disconnect between what you've objectively achieved and your feelings about it?"
"[I wrestle] with the fact that I’m happy with a certain amount of internal conflict when I’m being creative, but also feel a sense of letdown after achieving something big."
"It was like a work version of COVID; I’d lost my sense of taste for accomplishment."
Productivity dysmorphia sits at the intersection of burnout, imposter syndrome and anxiety. It is ambition’s alter ego: the pursuit of productivity spurs us to do more while robbing us of the ability to savour any success we may encounter . Some of us suffer from productivity dysmorphia because of a deep-seated sense of inadequacy that can best be addressed in therapy. Others are impacted by horrible bosses or workplaces that don't value and reward their contributions. One expert blamed capitalism's persistent message that your worth lies in creating ever greater levels of material wealth.
PRODUCTIVITY DYSMORPHIA IS SIMULTANEOUSLY A SYMPTOM OF MODERN WORK'S AFFLICTIONS BUT ALSO THE CAUSE. FIXING IT IS LESS ABOUT RIDDING OURSELVES OF THESE FEELINGS AND MORE ABOUT LOOKING TO WHAT THEY ARE TELLING US.
There is no single, simple recipe for fighting productivity dysmorphia, but what you can do as a first step is name the problem and remind yourself of the simple and empowering truth above. You determine what success means. And if you're never meeting your own definition of the term, something dramatic needs to change.
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