Toxic Productivity Culture

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

We live in a world constantly in motion. Musicians, like many others, live in a world of

perpetual productivity, and even when our bodies are practically yelling at us to slow down, we have a hard time listening because the world is still spinning. The pandemic’s appearance has come with one joy: the world has paused. Since March, we have been reevaluating our hectic lifestyles and trying to understand how they have gotten to the point that we are constantly exhausted, overworked, and busy. Having just graduated in May, I recently left behind nineteen straight years of student life. Because of this, I will touch on the contributions of both the education system and the music industry to what I will call, “toxic productivity culture.”

In high school, I did everything. Everyone did everything. The usual routine involved

waking up before the sun, a full day of school and sports practice, dinner, and then barreling

through piles upon piles of homework until I fell asleep on my textbooks at some odd hour of the night (sometimes the floor, if my eyelids were really giving up on me). I fought as hard as I could to stay up to finish everything, because from what I knew, not finishing your homework meant you were a “bad kid.” But I was a “good kid,” so I stayed up until 1AM, 2AM, 3AM, 4… every night. And I still didn’t usually finish out of exhaustion from running on fumes all day.

Had I attempted to approach my teachers, perhaps I would have been able to

communicate with them that despite using all of my brain power and sacrificing precious sleep, I was stuck in an overworked rut that I didn’t know how to get out of, and I desperately needed their help and understanding. But from what I remember, I got the impression that it wasn’t an option to ask for help in my circumstance. There was no open dialogue for admitting that you were drowning. In the mid 2010’s, there weren’t any widespread conversations about mental health, and I didn’t have an iPhone or access to wholesome memes telling me that anxiety was normal, therapy was a real option, and that I should be easy on myself.

I remember my parents begging me to go to bed. How lucky I was to have parents who

cared infinitely more about my sleep than my grades, but I, as a teenager, cared about the

opposite. All I heard were the voices in my head from teachers and classmates, seeing their

condescending faces and judging me as a “lazy kid" for not finishing my work. I thought I was doing the best I could, but since I didn’t know how to prove that to others, I never went to bed.

Band, like for many of us musicians, was my saving grace during this time. I was lucky that music wasn’t quite a source of stress (yet). I originally wanted to become a band director

because I felt a responsibility to provide the same community I loved. I needed to make sure my kids knew they were loved, that they were more important than their schoolwork, that their sleep was more important than their grades, and that they could approach me if they needed guidance, a friend, or love, because I desperately wished for this from my school teachers.

I tried to workhorse my way through high school, but I remember always knowing deep

down that society’s overly-productive predicament was ridiculous. Everyone I knew was losing sleep due to an excess of work. These were my first musings of toxic productivity culture. By my junior or senior year, I became more self-aware and centered in my beliefs. Why was I severely damaging my physical and mental health for such trivial reasons? To get good grades? To seem smart in subjects I had no interest in? And yet, my friends continued signing up for every AP class, so I followed, even though I was overworked and I knew I shouldn’t have. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeming less hard-working.

* * *

My story shifted when I got to college. I was relieved beyond belief to be a music education major. I could finally focus on what I was good at and what I enjoyed, right? While my classes became more relevant and interesting, it also began to feel even more crucial to

succeed. I remember feeling such an obligation to fill up my time in undergrad. I equated free

time to being lazy or not “wanting it” enough, and I know many of my peers acted in the same way. “I don’t have time to eat” was almost a brag, like students should be rewarded for being so hardworking, busy, and committed that they prioritize music over taking care of themselves. That phrase and many others became romanticized. Why are we bragging about being so busy that we’re unhappy?

Although I felt more fulfilled learning about the intricacies of music and teaching in school rather than taking general classes, I felt so unfulfilled in how the process was unfolding.

In my music education courses later in undergrad, I couldn’t help but remember the torture I put myself through in high school. I had wonderful professors who prepared me incredibly well for the world of music teaching, but the expectations for us as student teachers were so high that my already-high expectations for myself went through the roof. I loved teaching, but part of these classes involved getting thoroughly critiqued in order to be as prepared for the real teaching world as possible.

I put so much pressure on myself to be a perfectly creative, musically accurate, and

effective teacher that I hated the game. I felt trapped. Every lesson plan I wrote felt like a test, and I knew I would be judged with quality but specific feedback that I no longer had the energy to hear. Even though I was spending time doing something I enjoyed, I still dreaded these long nights of work with no rest. I still did well, but at the cost of lots of lost sleep, lost hair, and lost sanity. Because it was something I loved, I didn’t allow myself to put up boundaries.

Once again, my saving grace was playing the flute. I had a deep love for playing and

internal motivation to get better without as much external pressure as I felt in my degree classes. I spent much of my free time practicing, including many late nights, which I suppose soothed my ego by proving to myself that I was working hard. Performing made me feel fulfilled. I preferred this specific type of grind over any other, and decided that I wanted to get my Master’s in Flute Performance sometime around my junior year of college. 

As musicians, we need to practice. If your goal is to get into an orchestra, there are many

competitors and few spots. Objectively, you will not achieve this goal if you do not put enough hours in. But how many hours are “enough?” Of course, it depends on how efficiently you practice and what instrument you play, but the notion of “number of hours practiced” always looms. If you don’t practice enough, are you a true musician? Do you “want it” enough? (Hint: yes).

Entering another phase of school, I again thought that this time I would really be focusing

only on what I wanted to do. While this was partly true, as a grad student, I was tired. I spent

much of my free time working in my school’s admissions office and babysitting on the side to

make ends meet. Practicing, which used to be a source of comfort, fulfillment, and maybe some ego-boosting, had become my either/or to resting. After eight years of tough schooling, I felt strongly about my values that mental and physical health were more important than work. And yet, it is so hard to believe your own words.

Guilt was constant. “You haven’t practiced enough to rest.” Rather than resting, I would

sit at my kitchen table, waiting until I had enough energy to take out my flute, feeling guilty,

because I thought I was wasting time. My body was consistently shouting to me that I needed to rest, but the voices of society’s urge for productivity were louder than the voice in my own body.

* * *

I’ve always dreaded the essence of toxic productivity culture: “you’re only a hard worker

if you’re exhausted, miserable, and busy.” Somehow in music, we mix up passion with having no boundaries. Musician culture means late night rehearsals, skipping meals, and practicing whether or not you want to or have the energy to. The reason that this culture of musicians exists is because we produce something so beautiful and compelling and worthwhile, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for eliminating boundaries.

Teachers of all levels have a responsibility to be open with their students and to remind

them that their well-being matters much more than their performance on their instrument or in their classes. The point of education is to expand our knowledge and enhance our lives. If

students are skipping lunch and pulling all-nighters constantly, we as a society are doing

something wrong. Teachers and professors have an obligation to make sure that their students are taking care of themselves. There is something to be said for working hard and doing the best you can, which I very much agree with, but there’s a toxic culture and misunderstanding that you are not doing your best unless you’re sacrificing your health. If there’s more energy to wring out of you, do it. Otherwise, you must not want it enough. But I will tell you, as I’m sure you’ve also experienced, it is impossible to learn and actually retain knowledge on two hours of sleep. 

The reality is that there are hoards of young people who are sacrificing their health

because they are not receiving the messages that they need to hear. We are rewarding unhealthy behaviors in the name of productivity, success, and hard-work. We need to be able to tell students and musicians that they need to work outstandingly hard, but with boundaries. When our students “fail,” we need to ask why. We are scolding the symptoms without treating the illness.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we will lower our expectations to “mediocrity” (whatever that means). It means that we must teach with compassion and empathy in order to achieve goals of excellence. We need to shift our objectives in order to excel at music while enjoying music. Correct notes but with a sense of dread are pointless.

We as teachers, supervisors, classmates, and colleagues, need to be the ones to open up

the conversation so that students know they are allowed to join. I teach young people to give

them the message that they can excel in life while also getting enough sleep, not skipping lunch, setting boundaries, and not feeling the need to do everything. We can’t expect young people to be able to break out of this system themselves. I truly wish that I decided against taking AP History classes in high school, for example, but I can’t blame my 15-year-old self for caring what others thought of me when that is a staple of being a teenager. This is why it starts with private teachers, and band directors, and professors, and conductors, and principals, and deans. It starts with musicians being honest and open about what they can achieve without causing themselves harm.

I am admitting these details of my life over the past ten years to be open with society and honest about the benefits and consequences of working your ass off. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better about voicing my experiences in an effort to hear others’ voices, because I know that my experiences are not unique. Had the conversations that we currently have about mental health existed when I was in high school or early college, I might have been strong enough to set reasonable boundaries for myself. I am sharing this in the hope that one student decides to get help, either from a teacher they trust or a trained professional, or that one teacher of any subject adapts their teaching style to open a dialogue with their students about mental health and setting boundaries. 

Written by: Ali Hoffman, Boston, MA

Ali Hoffman is a freelance flutist and teacher in the Boston area. She currently teaches virtual flute lessons to all ages and abilities with an emphasis on creative problem-solving and healthy practice habits.

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