Drowning in Potential 

Melody Schwartz 



Night fell after a long day and I was … spent. The light from my laptop glowing too bright white like that which is described as off in the eternal distance when one has a near-death experience. Except this was the never ending bright white light of my laptop symbolizing work past-due and future-due forever … more work ever awaiting me. The day was already dedicated to an earlier shift of serving others at yet another obligation to myself and the world to keep the wheels turning and on this sputtering car, the machine that is me. I had school too … so I could make more money working eventually, maybe. I’ve been roadrashed and running down the road fueled by hope, following the promise of yet another “light” at the end of the tunnel. One I was having to practically squint to see. This evening though, I could suddenly no longer see this tiny light no matter how hard I focused. This promising light I was holding onto with my internal eyes for dear life WAS the fire inside of me I have felt dwindling for years. Blinding. Blinking. Blipping. Breaking. 

I’ve woken up every day for a while now, smelling smoke in my mind. I know something is burning and just keep my fingers crossed that the scent of swirling char can be traced back to a creative and fulfilling ignition of self burning off into the air … but deep down I know it is simply the smell of me burning down and out. The flame has been blown low and almost out by the harsh winds of change, many a time over time and reignited, time and time again, by gasoline I barely had to spare for myself to keep moving forward. 

On this weeknight the flame launched itself high, but this was a fire animated by rage. So I wrote down my rage trying to turn the accumulation of things inward outward. I had hit a wall, burnt toast now on fire was me now, on my couch sitting in front of my laptop trying to meet all of the requirements of living with purpose-ishness. To keep other, other lights on and the rest of the bills paid. Most of us don’t get to grow past purpose-ishness into the real territory of pure unadulterated fulfilling purpose … and I was pissed about that. What was I working for? Toward? Who was I working for? Why any of this? What did I have to prove except that I have the ability not to die? To be accountable for no worthwhile reason as seasons come and go. Unless of course I went through the mental gymnastics of injecting more meaning and value into the work I had little choice in doing. Be careful not to look at the variables which brought you to wherever you are too long, and dare not compare those variables to variables of others either. “Comparison is the death of joy” Teddy Roosevelt said. The kind of thing someone who is rich and tired of answering questions about how they have so much of that would say. This isn’t about Teddy Roosevelt. 

Working off of the rush of fire I wrote this. To cope, to spew, to put a hand out to you. Are you feeling how I’m feeling? Do you see what I see? Are you hustling like I’m hustling? Do you think about productivity? Are 

you obsessed with maximizing your time and efforts here on planet Earth-America? There’s so much connected to this topic It’s hard to know where to begin in pouring out what I see in front of me: productivity obsession, rampant achievement oriented action, the chokehold of personal responsibility, technological advancement and adjustment at top speed, the turtle speed of political progress (and not like in the story of The Hare and the Tortoise) couple with the inability of a government to offer support to a workforce it barely comprehends, general pressure to optimize, the baffling reality of the contents of something like an ‘Underearners Anonymous’ meeting, best practices, life hacks, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. 

Working off of the rush of fire I wrote the above and the below. To cope, to spew, to put a hand out to you. Are you feeling how I’m feeling? 

Holding the image of a visualized map of connection in my mind to lay out this topic, related areas, themes and data points would be so huge. It is overwhelming, frankly. I will do my best to lay it out a little with my words but please bear with me and remember I will be struggling to encompass the total scope of this collective frustration. 

As I’ve continued contemplating the topic of what I’ll refer to as “the phantom of productivity” I’ve heard various ads that feel relevant. One was for Calm Business which is an extension of the Calm app but geared toward people who need assistance in dealing with work related stress. Another one was a streaming ad for some eye drops with a script that included something like ‘you could be doing MORE to alleviate your dry eyes’. There would be so many data points one could thread and connect here eventually sewing things together into one fucked up quilt. I’ve begun collecting pieces of related scrap fabric from the world to share with you. This quilt will cover my deathbed rather than keep me warm if the world doesn’t change. 

Before I continue let me just say that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with feeling compelled to improve oneself. To be productive. It is a good thing to be motivated to do. I just want people to reflect on why they believe in their approach to productivity and optimization. I want people to explore and unpack their motivations and consider the driving forces behind hustle culture and its inevitable side effect – burnout. Different people from different economic groups/classes are affected by these impulses and pressures in varied ways. I observe many people disproportionately affected by the pressure to do more than is humanly possible … putting excess responsibility on themselves to personally improve in hopes that they may elevate themselves out of any variety of difficult situations they are facing. At the core the responsibility many of us feel around the need to be productive may be tied to a desire to feel in control in an out of control world. We want to have more opportunities and choices than we do so we try until we can no longer try anymore. To have a fighting chance we analyze, refactor, enhance and attempt to keep up with a global economy. We ask ourselves how to approach being our best selves more often? “Living my best life”. The gamification of everything. Comforting ourselves with actions that do (to a degree) improve our situations but also overwhelm us. Especially considering the increasing wealth gap. If these things are within our reach to improve it is maybe easier to cope with difficult realities and feel less crushed by the odds that are stacked against so many of us and the hard facts of life. Which as we all know, is unfair. Tough cookies. Too bad. 

Unfortunately I notice a lot of people blame themselves unfairly for their failure to meet certain standards. We do of course have a part in the outcome of things, sure … but absorbing so much of the responsibility for the outcome alleviates the powers that be … because our rage about the unjust world turns inward first before it can manifest itself in the world and produce positive outward action for change. Before people feel confident enough to demand that they too matter. Often the community or society blames people for their rough circumstances too. Even portions of the community which pride themselves on their conscientiousness. If only they empowered themselves and improved … it would change. Their lives would be better. Try harder! As if a possible tactic that moves you toward a hypothetical solution ALWAYS works out to solve the issue. It is a ridiculous lens many people do look through. This ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ achievement society angle. The meritocracy of it all. All I can say is .. .there’s a reason there’s an asterisk on most things which lead to a footnote with the disclaimer “results may vary”. 

As I type this I am reminded of an interaction I had with a student in a previous class I took who asked me what I was doing for the 4th of July. He phrased his question as such … “Are you going to BBQ with your family for the holiday?” … to which I replied honestly “No, to be transparent … I don’t really have a family to BBQ with. I do like BBQ though. So maybe I’ll have that.” to which he replied “Oh. No judgment.”. This took me aback and I responded “Thank you for not judging me for circumstances that were completely out of my control. Glad I won’t be viewed poorly for pulling a bad hand.” He added “Yeah. It’s not fair but people do judge.” I could only say “hmm” from there as he was probably unfortunately right on some level about this kind of judgment … but the absurdity of it and this interaction remained and the emotional gut punch it delivered sticks with me. By his logic the onus would be on me to not have had a parent who passed away early on in my life and another who suffered from extreme mental illness. Lest I be looked down upon or assumed to be xyz. This, that or the other thing. 

What does that have to do with productivity? It may not seem an obvious connection, but I see one because it relates to the fact that people have these distorted viewpoints about what is within our control, the burden we must own and how to measure the world and the people in it according to that viewpoint. So my point here is that these sorts of worldviews directly impact how people navigate the world and the 

likelihood that they will assume most things can merely be solved by simply “trying harder”. It’s all within our power! Haha … I wish. 

Many shudder at the notion of AI but live in rejection of the many things that make us human. Life is funny that way. How we contradict ourselves. We strive to be some exceptional, synthesized version of ourselves … We look inward and scrutinize. So many of us are affected by this pressure to be the best we can be. The opportunity to improve ends when we’re dead but maybe we’re closer to that much sooner than we think. Hands tied behind our backs by access to solutions to every problem under the sun. Too many options to exhaust to potentially change our lives ourselves before we look beyond. Little time to reflect. 

Focusing on doing things ‘just so’ to get particular results potentially arrests progress because we lose sight of so much. There isn’t just one rat race. There are many and the wheels keep spinning. Where to draw the line? I like to challenge myself and find myself competing with myself whether I like it or not. Analyzing what I should do, what I could do, what I must do to empower myself, what is needed and non-negotiable so that I don’t wither away … It all creeps through my mind. Competition is fine and wanting to excel seems reasonable … but I feel a bubbling anxiety all the time around this. I am burdened by guilt for not blocking my time better when it is already blocked to the nth degree. I reflect on how I could have utilized this, that or the other thing more intelligently. Time is running out. Bills are due. The only way up is to jump, jump, jump! 

Why do we feel compelled to forever improve while we also lower our expectations for our lives? 

We seek an optimal version of ourselves. You could even interpret this goal of self improvement to be in harmony with a Transhumanist philosophy which defines itself by advocating for the enhancement of the human condition by utilizing technologies that might eventually lead to expanding our capacities as human beings to the point that we would evolve past our current condition to become posthuman. A sprint toward the aspirational self. Utilizing technology to help us do more. Plagued by less overall. Achieving more. Less illness. Less bothered. Less poor. More sleep. More means. More muscles. More respect. More years to toil and boil. The aspirational self can survive AND thrive. A genderless Ubermensch for our age, if you will. From gym rats to mindful manifestors … the path to your higher self can look different … but productivity is key regardless of which expression of personal excellence you pursue. 

We all take our vitamins to delay and decrease the suffering associated with our inevitable decline. Our bodies are as much our houses as the houses we can’t afford to live inside of no matter how cleverly we schedule our weeks or the world we can’t afford to neglect but can’t afford to pay attention to either. The intangible house beyond our “home”. Our body is maybe a realm we have more control over than most. It is our machine even if it is rented out to pay the bills. We try, try, try to keep it well oiled so it may survive the symptoms of a conflicted time, society and world slipping away with the ice caps. Self care to prepare. Prepare … to do more, and more. Sometimes when I think about productivity and hustle culture in The United States … I can’t help but imagine someone trying to get fit in a gym that’s on fire. It makes me want to laugh and cry. It gives the feeling of smiling with a mouth full of blood. 

I see our relationship with optimization in this country as a relationship with death, which is funny … because on the surface it looks to be concerned with the opposite. Health and wellness, for one. For some in the extreme … they may even be seeking immortality. In actuality or through impact. A song that will never die or a body that lives on through science. Whatever the personal goals are at play for the individual, it remains that the obsession with productivity and perfection often keeps us from living and being present. Disconnected and at a deficit. A rupture to repair mentality in tow, keeping us motivated but also disempowered. 

Now is the time to shift our thinking before our actions seal our fate and declare one too many times that we are okay with living in this impossible way. We are willingly optimizing ourselves to fit the needs of this country’s machine rather than making IT optimize to accommodate the needs of the people. There is much good and plenty to be proud of here in The U.S.. We persevere, we compete and we fight to survive. We should be proud of our resilience … but our pride should not blind us from the reality that most of us are suffering in this system. Or did we evolve to rise and grind? You tell me. 

Again, I’d like to posit to all of you that optimization obsession leads to the opposite because it keeps us from living and appreciating our imperfections. Our humanity. Not to mention optimization obsession or this perfect ideal people strive toward just puts us on a path toward perfection which isn’t attainable or human and might even be in line with moving toward our replacement via AI or other Transhumanist outcomes and endeavors. 

We are acting to almost unconsciously eradicate ourselves by rejecting our individual/ collective needs and interests as human beings with productivity obsessions that offer supposed worth, value and protection from decay. The anxiety to maximize every moment seems omnipresent. A ghost haunting us all. For what? For who? What is the benefit, really? Also there’s an element of this obsession with productivity which feels related to our lacking healthcare system and the responsibility we put on ourselves since we can’t count on our government to support us in attempting to cure what ails us … so … you guessed it …we can continue to be viable in the workforce and as resources to society. That’s a whole other shit pie to chew on, though. I don’t think any of us expect life to be a cakewalk … but should we not be whipping things into shape as opposed to whipping ourselves? 

Striving toward “perfection” and optimizing the self doesn’t promise innovation, fulfillment or a better quality of life. It just moves the goal post and distracts us from the big picture, ourselves and each other. We can’t find balance with it in this country because we aren’t afforded a reasonable work/life balance in the first place. That’s entitlement. Bratty. Maybe we don’t even believe we deserve that subconsciously because of internalized programming about what is and isn’t valuable, reasonable … etc? We are failures if we aren’t doing the MOST at absolutely every moment so we lowball ourselves. Shoot the future in the foot. Act against our best interest as a collective people. Somehow the difficulties of life are totally our fault if we don’t maximize opportunity from every angle. Even the ones we can’t predict. In my opinion most people won’t even acknowledge that the internal relationship to this is as harsh as I describe but I see faces that say otherwise every day even if they cannot utter out loud with their own mouths because we are after all lucky to be alive. The odds that any of us would even exist are so incomprehensible that maybe that’s enough … and maybe we should want for nothing more than to try? If we bring religious beliefs into this conversation it becomes even more layered. Regardless, we soldier on. We get a counselor, a psychiatrist, a friend who will listen. We do what we can. We don’t want to feel or be seen as victims so we delete the contributing factors in favor of focusing on something within our grasp. The free will argument and grit! How very American. Well, let me just say … maybe your free will isn’t so free. Maybe your will is just willing. Too willing, perhaps. Creating value helps to keep us alive and feeling worthy … which incentivizes being super productive to have the most perceived value and self worth. By that logic it’s kind of like … let’s all kill ourselves being well oiled machines so as not to die! lol 

A better self for a better world? More like a better corpse. 

What does our humanity mean to us? How much value does it hold? 

Page 7 of 7 Melody Schwartz Drowning in Potential

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