Privilege in Productivity

There’s this thing about accomplishing things (especially when you’re young): people love to tell you about how you got lucky

Really, though, this isn’t about how you got lucky, this is almost always subtly about how they got unlucky. They could have accomplished X, too, you know, if they had better luck. 

And don’t get me wrong: I’m very lucky, in a lot of ways. But there’s more to it than that—like work—and in other ways, I got unlucky. (And, a lot of people do recognize that—I’m just trying to address a specific point here, not complain.) 

So, privilege in productivity: let’s unpack my case.

Ways in which I am frequently told I got lucky (and the reality): 

  • Told: I have rich parents. Reality: largely untrue. My father died with a negative net worth, and my mom is a now retired public school teacher. My mother seriously helped financially support me until I was twenty-one, though, yes. People really like pulling this one out when you accomplish things young: it’s not really you, it’s your parents (and their money). There’s another way they do this, too: 
  • Told: I had good parents, throughout childhood and to guide me in young adulthood. Reality: largely true. My parents took an interest in my education, nurtured my talents, gave me rides to a million extracurriculars, paid for those activities and a few years of private school, plus school supplies and gas, helped me with my homework, met with my teachers, volunteered, gave me a nice space to do homework in, all of that. But things weren’t straight up idyllic: my parents divorced when I was sixteen, my father probably also had some kind of psychotic disorder, I didn’t speak to him for several years before we reconnected—and he passed on when I was twenty-one. Parenting is a lot, but it isn’t everything. Say, my sister and I are very different people, who were (largely) raised by the same parents. 
  • Told: I got lucky with my inheritance. Reality: largely true… though it’s hard to call my father suddenly and traumatically dying young lucky. Still, I did financially benefit from this, inheriting a house (though, in need of some major repairs/still with a hefty mortgage) and his life insurance policy. There was some skill involved in handling things to get the best of the options with that, though (and I had advice from my mom, my wife, and friends). 
  • Told: I married rich/my wife takes care of me. Reality: somewhat true. Granted, my wife doesn’t come from money, either; she’s self made. She’s also not a millionaire or anything. She also quit her job earlier this year, and right now, our primary source of income is my projects. I also contributed to buying our house with the life insurance money, and all of the rent from (and money from eventual sale of) my father’s house went into our shared budget. I’m also the housewife who handles basically one-hundred percent of the domestic side, on a full time level schedule; she actively doesn’t want me to work outside the home (and I don’t either). So it’s not like I’m a total freeloader here. Still, there’s some truth in this one. But money—whatever it’s source—doesn’t inherently make you productive. It might give you more resources and control over your time, but money alone can’t do all the work for you. Money can give me time to write, but money can’t publish six books if I don’t use that time wisely. My wife had supported previous partners, too, and found the results to vary wildly. 
  • Told: it was easy for me to find such a spouse because I was young, female, conventionally attractive, etc. Reality: I’m not so sure. I was honestly less conventionally attractive when I met my wife (and I’m still not a model or anything)—I was overweight, had blue hair, wore sparkly blue glasses, and overall had an interesting fashion sense—and I’d been actively seeking a partner via the group we met through for over a year; I had to put myself out there repeatedly. Age was actually more of a barrier than anything, given our age gap: she got a lot of skepticism over my age. (We also met through a group specifically for eighteen to thirty-five year olds, so everyone was within a certain range). As far as female: I think being queer might balance this out (plus, we’re both on the down side of the wage gap). I also came with some hefty health issues (like being recently out of an involuntary psych hold across the country, then dropping out of college and coming home), and she was in a long term, open relationship with someone else at the time (which ended soon after). It wasn’t just that the stars aligned for us. 
  • Told: I am young, and therefore healthy and abled. Reality: untrue. I have chronic pain and fatigue, I required surgery to finally be able to breathe vaguely like a normal person (at twenty-one), I have paranoid schizophrenia among other mental illnesses (anxiety, autism, PTSD, anorexia?), I likely nearly died of toxic black mold poisoning when I was twenty, and my spine goes in multiple directions on multiple axes. Could it be worse? Sure. But did I get seriously lucky in this category? Eh. 
  • Told: I’m White, I’m cis, (so on). Reality: true. I do have a few definite positions of privilege that affect my life, if they are not responsible in themselves for everything I’ve done. 

As far as using privilege and productivity for good: I try to keep my works accessible, I run many free events and classes, I donate regularly, I volunteer regularly, I write and teach on topics I think need more awareness. A few specifics:

  • All of my writing is available online for free. I publish paperback and ebook versions people can purchase if they choose, and offer early access via paid subscription, but all of my primarily written content is available for free. I write nonfiction on mental health (particularly psychosis), productivity for those outside the typical mold, alternative sexuality educational content, and fiction in which I commit to exploring important themes and representing diverse characters. 
  • While my classes and class content is currently paid, I ran all of my self hosted webinars for free for the first year (over twenty of them on eight different subjects). I still frequently teach for venues and conferences for free. I also pledge half of all income from my schizophrenia related classes to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I still don’t turn anyone away for lack of funds. I teach on productivity, mental health, and alternative sexuality topics. 
  • I run a local group for young adults interested in alternative sexuality. All events (usually three per month) and online participation are completely free/donation based. I’ve also hosted/run such events/groups in the past. 
  • I volunteered once a week for the local library district for most of a year before the pandemic (and have a long volunteer history before that). Volunteers were then laid off. (They’re welcome back again, but due to taking up the above, I have not gone back—yet, at least.) 
  • Upcoming plans: starting/being a steward for a Little Free Library, becoming a regular plasma donor. (Update: gave my second donation this week.)

Privilege doesn’t equal productivity. But it’s a factor we should all examine for ourselves—how we got lucky and unlucky, unpacking our privilege and educating ourselves. We should all examine how we can use our position to accomplish good things and help others. 

Trying to throw away our privilege, claiming we don’t have it, or sitting around just feeling guilty about it doesn’t help anyone. 

We should also be open minded when evaluating the privilege of others, considering how they use it as part of the picture, and realizing that we may not have the full picture—not jumping to conclusions.

Privilege is something, but not everything. 

We have to do the rest and close the gaps ourselves. 

Productive vs. Making Money

The thing is that I live in a capitalist society where money is basically seen as a reward for productivity. If you’re more productive at work, you make more money, theoretically. But unfortunately, this is far from true. Good work is not always rewarded.  

And if money is a reward for productivity, does that mean that if you don’t get it, you’re not productive? Well, no. Not getting a reward for something doesn’t mean you didn’t do it. Though, getting it is a good indicator that you did do it. 

So if not by making money, how do we know if we’re productive? What does productive even mean, removed from capitalism? Is any goal productive? What if the goal is to not leave the couch for an entire weekend? 

I had a good discussion with an acquaintance once, and they said that when they put something out into the world—a creative work, education, event organizing—they like to get something back, though they don’t care as much what it is. Maybe it’s gratitude, praise, acclaim. Maybe it’s money; maybe it’s not. 

But money is easy, they said. 

In some ways, it is. It’s easily measurable, it is something that can be asked for without reducing its value (unlike the issue of fishing for praise); people generally understand money trading hands as a fair exchange, whereas gratitude sometimes seems meager. When people give me money, they don’t wonder if it’s enough—especially if it’s something I set a specific price on, which they paid. But somehow, many find their gratitude or praise inherently lacking, even if I’m thrilled to receive it. 

The money has the same value within a society to both of you, the same ability to be traded for other goods and services; it’s a placeholder for those things. (But, if one of you has significantly more of it, the same dollar amount might mean less to one of you. What’s dropping a dollar on the ground if you’re a millionaire? But what if it was your only dollar?)

Money can also be spent again. If someone gives me ten dollars, at some point I probably give someone else that ten dollars. I might spend it on a class or a cookie or the mortgage, but money moves around in a largely trackable way. But if someone gives me positive feedback—where does it go? Maybe it puts me in a good mood, and I pass on that good energy to others, or put that inspiring energy into producing more of the kind of work they praised. Or maybe it just lifts my spirits a little in the middle of a long day, and I don’t have overflowing good energy to pass on. Where does that positive intent go? That is harder to track. 

Yes, money has a lot going for it just as an indicator of productivity—forget the fact you need it to survive. 

However, it’s not the only one. There are all kinds of other ways to barter or compensate someone for their work, and there are many ways to measure productivity. It may be someone else compensating you with acclaim, favors, gifts, education, experience, exposure, etc. It can also be as simple as knowing that a thing got done that wasn’t done yesterday. 

Though, this brings us back to a question—is accomplishing any goal productive, then? 

I have mixed feelings. Ultimately, I think it’s best if we all answer that question for ourselves. I’ve seen good cases for both. For myself, I’m going to go with no. 

A lot of things lure me in to feeling like they’re productive. Consuming even relatively mindless media can feel very productive. With that nice little progress bar at the bottom of a video or audio player, with chapters and episodes checked off, with dwindling to be read piles and watch lists, with entering items into spreadsheets of what I’ve finished—anything can feel like an accomplishment. But is it really productive? For me, no. 

I’ve based this blog on values based productivity. So if something doesn’t serve my values, I’m not going to consider it productive. Rewatching Lilo and Stitch for the millionth time, while tempting, is not productive, because I don’t see which value on my list it serves. However—reading a new nonfiction book on a subject I’m trying to learn more about because I write or teach on it? Sure. Not the most crucial thing on my list, so not going in my productivity system, but I’d say it is productive. 

Another question I see a lot is, Is self care productive? My opinion on this one might be a little unpopular, but hear me out: no. 

However. Here’s the thing. Self care is not productive to me in itself. It really doesn’t serve any of my values in a super direct way, nor any of my spheres of life I select based on those values—except that I dedicate a whole sphere to it anyway, because it is step one towards serving any of the others. (Here, I’m talking about largely basic, routine, health oriented self care.) 

I can’t write much of a book if I’m dehydrating to death. I can’t teach a good class without getting any sleep. I can’t host a fun event if I haven’t eaten in days. So, it’s a crucial baseline to start at to be productive—it’s something to be maintained to build productivity on top of—but I don’t consider it productive in itself, like being conscious isn’t productive in itself. Or, putting gas in a car isn’t driving a car. 

Something not being productive doesn’t mean it’s bad. Sure, you should keep an eye on how much time you spend on it, and you want to make sure it’s not unproductive as in undoing your productive efforts, but it’s not evil. 

Now, here’s a reverse question: is making money always productive? Here, I’m again personally going to go with no. Now, making money will pretty much always fall under at least a form of self care, because it’s a resource you need to survive and to be productive at much of anything else. But it may just be that—forming a base to help you accomplish other things—if the way in which you make money doesn’t serve your values, and so on. 

Hence, the concept of doing the minimum at a day job to pay the bills while you build up your passion project (which may pay the bills itself one day, freeing up that day job time to work on that project, or may not, depending on your vision for it—perhaps it’s charitable or something exploratory and creative you don’t want money and obligation mixed up in.)    

So, money isn’t the only way to measure productivity. You don’t have to be making money to be productive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is productive. Some things may not be, and that’s okay; just watch it. Some may just be part of setting yourself up to be productive—including making money. 

For me, I define productive as something that serves my chosen spheres of life, based on my values, and the goals and projects within those spheres. 

This is another reason I like my values based system: it makes that definition easy for me.