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Worthless Unless Productive

Worthless Unless Productive

Man in a white dress lies face-down in front of the Sieve of Eratosthenes sculpture at Stanford University

“When all you wanted⁣ / Was to be wanted⁣ / Wish you could go back⁣ / And tell yourself what you know now …”

Taylor Swift, “Fifteen”

Content warning: Panic attacks, symptoms of severe stress, crunch culture

My eyes scanned the ticket I’d just been assigned. 

As a software engineer, I was given programming tasks in the form of tickets, which described some functionality that needed to be added to the app that I was working on. My job was to take that description, divide it into subtasks that included implementation details, and then code it all up.

Unfortunately, this ticket made no sense — I had no idea how I would even begin to break things down. The description was large and ambiguous and I had only been there for a few months and could barely make sense of the codebase and I was falling behind and I needed to get my shit together and — 

The room went still. Everything around me seemed to freeze, as if I’d pressed Pause on reality. A tightening sensation formed deep in my stomach, then spread to my neck, my legs, and the joints in my fingers. 

My heart beat wildly in my chest. My throat closed up. Spots danced in front of my eyes, and I felt mildly nauseous. 

I, too, was frozen — I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

I was having a full-blown panic attack. 

Fuck. I had no idea what I was supposed to do in these situations. I’d always been in control of my own emotions, my own reactions.

What was happening to me?

Why was this happening to me?

I blinked and forced myself to take deep breaths. In through the nose and out through the mouth, I thought, like I’d seen people in movies do when they were distressed. After a few tense minutes, my heart rate returned to normal and I could move again. I made my way over to the single-occupancy bathroom on shaky legs, shut the door, and sat up against it with my head between my knees.

God, I was so fucked. The task that I had been working on for the past three days — the one that I’d thought would only take me a morning to complete — had failed to pass quality assurance. I was already late because I’d spent so long on it, and now I would have to take even more time to fix everything. On top of that, I had this new monster ticket that I couldn’t even figure out how to break down.

You’re going to need to be more productive on your own, my tech lead had said earlier. My performance had been slowly trending downward since I’d joined the company fresh out of school, and people were running out of patience. I had to start getting results, or …

No. I refuse to go there.

Fuck, I’m so fucked.

What happened to being hard-working? Why can’t I be productive anymore?

What am I supposed to do?

I’m so fucked. I’m so fucked.

I spotted my reflection in the single hand mirror that leaned against the windowsill. This bathroom doubled as a service closet, so the tiny thing was the only reflective surface in the room. My face was pallid and worn; there were huge bags under my eyes, which were, at the moment, brimming with tears.

I had never cried at work before. Well, I thought resignedly, between this and the panic attack, it’s a day of firsts.

I turned the faucet on full blast so that no one outside would be able to hear me over the sound of the running water.

The six-month-long bad trip

I should have realized that things were off when I was told that my job offer would be rescinded if I didn’t start right away.

I had exuded “work hard, break shit, and succeed no matter what” energy when I interviewed with this company during my senior year of college. Indeed, I’d spent the entirety of my undergrad years upholding strong beliefs that I had a career legacy to create, that life was too short to be fucking around, and that everything had to be optimized around work. I’d ruthlessly worshipped productivity and efficiency, often at the cost of personal relationships and worthwhile experiences, and I wanted nothing more than to be a part of Silicon Valley, that great shining place where idealism and workaholism joined forces to create innovation.

“You can haul ass,” the CEO had told me approvingly as I was presented with my offer. “We could use more people like you.”

The pride in his eyes had made all of the late nights in the library and disdainful comments from my classmates worth it. I’d accepted the offer, of course, and looked forward to starting my new life as soon as I graduated.

I hadn’t, however, anticipated that I would start questioning every single one of my beliefs about legacy, career, productivity, and work during the last semester of school. When graduation rolled around, I no longer felt ready to head straight into the workforce. I reached out, asking whether I could push my start date out by a few months, only to be given an ultimatum — I could either start right away, or not join the company at all.

That should have been the first red flag, but I was too scared and too proud to walk away. I arrived on my first day of work in a state of uncertainty and confusion about what to believe in.

The best way I can describe the next six months of my life is that it was an all-consuming, ongoing bad trip without the luxury of knowing that I’d wake up or come out okay. I was falling and falling and falling and falling, and there was no one who could stop the spiral. I lost the internal drive that had carried me for so many years and became conflicted about how to proceed. Scariest of all, I realized that I was existing within a system that only saw me as a means of production — an insufficient one to boot.

Captain crunch reporting for duty

The company at its busiest when I joined that summer. A new feature was scheduled to be released by the end of the fall, so everyone was in crunch mode. I had been hired for my ability to be super productive and my willingness to give everything up for work — I was expected to “haul ass” as soon as possible.

It was, in other words, the worst possible time to have a personal identity crisis.

My productivity was shot, to say the least.  The role I was in used a way of programming that I had never been exposed to, which meant that, in order to deliver on time, I’d have to spend nearly all of my time outside of work practicing and catching up. I wouldn’t have had a problem with this in the past, but now I found myself questioning why I couldn’t be doing other things, like getting to know the city, writing for my blog, or hanging out with my new friends.

Pretty soon, my lack of progress began to show. The company used a color-coded spreadsheet to track progress — green for “on track,” yellow for “at risk,” and red for “behind,” respectively — and I watched as all of my tasks slowly turned yellow and red.

I tried to keep up during work hours, which slowly expanded to include the late afternoon, and then dinnertime, and then the hours after dinner until bedtime, and eventually the early hours after waking up, too. Everyone in the company was doing this, and I didn’t want to be a bad employee despite my lack of enthusiasm, so I went along with it. 

Even with all of this effort, I continued to fall behind, which was how I ended up finding myself having a panic attack in the bathroom that day. 

The panic attack wasn’t an isolated incident. A lot of things happened that really shouldn’t have. Like the time that I suddenly and inexplicably collapsed in the middle of a busy parking lot while hanging out with a friend one weekend. Or the day I washed my hair and saw clumps and clumps of it just falling out, so that by the time I was done, it looked like a small, dark animal had curled up in my shower drain to die. Or the time I called my mom to catch up with life, and started sobbing as soon as she picked up the phone. Or the multiple mornings where I’d woken up shaking and feverish out of nowhere.

I’d been under significant stress in the past, but this was the first time I was experiencing physical consequences. I could no longer ignore the fact that I was breaking.

When I brought up my concerns, I found them readily dismissed, or worse, normalized. Crunch time was just a part of startup life, I was told. Startups had a lot of tight deadlines to meet. Everybody worked overtime, and everybody was stressed. Nobody got more than four hours of sleep a night.

“It’ll get better after crunch is over,” my manager assured me, over and over again. “We just have to launch this feature, and then we’ll all get a break.”

So I tried to quietly push myself through it all. I worked until 10 PM most weekdays, came into the office on Saturdays, and even pulled an all-nighter at a coworker’s place to ensure that a ticket was completed in time. My self-esteem plummeted along with my physical health — who the fuck am I becoming? What happened to the old me?, I wondered on a near-constant basis. 

All of this only contributed to my diminishing output, which was deemed unacceptable. It didn’t matter if I was about to snap at any moment — there was work to be done. The way out, I was advised, was to go even harder, to grit my teeth and force it even further.

For the first time, I truly understood what it felt like to be a part of a capitalistic system, to be treated as a means of production — a tool — rather than as a human being.

It meant foregoing exercise, sleep, and occasionally meals so that I could churn out as much code as possible.

It meant destroying my physical and mental health in order to race towards the finish line, to make that launch date, all so some rich person could have another playing to use until the novelty wore out.

It was, in essence, to be considered worthless unless productive.

More time off than you can handle

Why don’t you quit? my friends all asked me at some point or another. If you don’t like it, you can just leave.

I thought about walking away many times — company turnover was high, another thing that was shrugged off because it was part of “typical startup life” — but I’d already gone through this much. Even if I took forever to push features through, they still went through, eventually. Launch day was coming up, and my work was a nontrivial part of it. I just had to make it through a little bit further, endure just a few more panic attacks, a few more sleep-deprived nights, and then I’d be able to relax.

That was what I’d been told. I wanted to believe it, so I did.

The feature was finally launched six months after I joined the company. I drank champagne in the office with my coworkers. I read the excited announcement articles on the Silicon Valley news sites — the same sites that I’d stalked voraciously in college. I recognized, in the back of my mind, that I’d done a truly hard thing … and yet I couldn’t feel proud or accomplished for some reason.

I booked a small vacation with my best friend, ostensibly to celebrate, but really to forget about everything that had happened in the company’s collective race to the front lines. Here was my chance to relax, as promised, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the ordeal was far from over.

A few days after I returned, I was called into a meeting room and told that my position was being cut. The feature was done; the company no longer needed all hands on deck. Funding was too tight for a junior engineer to be on payroll. Plus — it was never said aloud, but heavily implied — my constant underperformance had made me more of a weak link than an asset. It was time for them to cut their losses.

As a reward for giving up my time and health, pushing myself to my breaking point, and enduring constant criticism of my work ethic, I had been fired.

The old Marty can’t come to the phone right now

Maybe you were all faster than me⁣⁣
We gave each other up so easily⁣⁣
These silly little wounds will never mend⁣⁣
I feel so far from where I’ve been

I found myself playing Vanessa Carlton’s “White Houses” and Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen” on repeat in the weeks after my departure. Being routinely mistreated and then let go from what I had once considered my dream job made songs about first heartbreak and lost innocence strangely relatable. Just like the protagonist in these songs, I had been naive, I had been idealistic, and I had gotten hurt as a result.

So I go, and I will not be back here again⁣⁣
I’m gone as the day is fading on white houses

Once all of the negative emotions dissipated, though, I realized that I was grateful for the experience. The whole thing was a reality check that I didn’t know I needed. 

At one point, I’d been the poster child for startup life. I was young and hungry and foolish and ambitious. I had energy to burn, a craving for glory, and a willingness to bullshit until I got there. I didn’t mind giving up all of my free time — what free time? I used to joke — over to a project. My aspirations were grandiose, my details meticulously attended to, my results obsessed over.

Throughout my entire time at the company, I’d wanted nothing more than to be that person again. Granted, there’s nothing inherently wrong with big dreams and dedicated work. But now, after going through half a year of crunch-time hell, I saw how toxic the idea of productivity for productivity’s sake was, and how unsustainable workaholism could be. When I’d held those things up to be the gold standard of how life should be lived, I’d perpetuated these beliefs without knowing what the consequences were. I’d judged the fuck out of everybody who I’d determined to be “lazy” or “not going anywhere” because they weren’t pushing themselves as much as I was.

The six-month-long bad trip humbled me and knocked my ego down a few pegs. I winced when I thought about how insufferable I must have been. After experiencing what it was like to be little more than a defective coding machine, I never, ever wanted to judge anyone’s worth by their output, or to shame people for doing “unproductive” things, ever again.

I’ve found time can heal most anything⁣⁣
And you just might find who you’re supposed to be⁣⁣
I didn’t know who I was supposed to be

I’d arrived in Silicon Valley questioning the true value of a productive life. Now, I was ready to renounce it completely.

That left just one little problem: I’d touted these values for so long that they had become pretty much my entire identity. My name was pretty much synonymous with productivity, efficiency, ambition — hell, I still ran a personal development blog. If I wasn’t about these things anymore, then … who was I?

With this question, I was pushed out of one identity crisis straight into another. I would have to take some serious time to think this one through, on top of exploring the shifts in perspective that had gotten me into this situation in the first place.

At least I actually had time now. I was fortunate enough to have been compensated well for my efforts at the company, so I could afford to dedicate a few months to figure myself out.

Was my determination and drive gone forever?

Did I still want to be a software engineer? 

What would I be, if not that?

Who was I, really?

It was high time I find out. ♚

All parts in this series

Part 1: The End of Certainty

Part 2: Worthless Unless Productive

Part 3: Decadent and Disillusioned

Part 4: Coming Full Circle

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