Illustration by Michael Leo

Living beyond LinkedIn

Traditional expectations of succeeding in the world come with a heavy price when they are prioritized over our own mental health. It is time to reevaluate our priorities and take care of ourselves.

Apr 4, 2021

I should probably be polishing my résumé and writing passionate cover letters to bag coveted internships or research opportunities right now, or so I am told. That’s what most people seem to be doing: every time I check my LinkedIn feed, I am met with a frustrating barrage of “Incoming Intern at XYZ firm” posts and friends celebrating their admission to prestigious graduate schools, while others are participating in major conferences or “upskilling” to increase their “employability.”
While it’s important to celebrate these successes, I have, personally, also found them — particularly in the past few months — to be emotionally taxing. Despite taking an Arabic literature 7-week summer course, I feel the need to find an internship, the need to put myself out there, to hustle. Just going on Handshake or LinkedIn gives me anxiety and when I don’t, I am faced with arbitrary expectations, with a feeling I am not doing nearly enough.
There is, of course, nothing new or intrinsically unique about this feeling. Ever since the pandemic started, there’s been growing discourse surrounding toxic productivity. Many have attributed this expectation to be productive — whether it is in the form of interning at a top firm, learning a new skill or language or attending a conference — to a capitalist line of thinking. It is a systemic, cultural dilemma: there is a pressure to produce, even when it comes at the cost of your mental health. Of course, this is not to say that all productivity is inherently capitalistic or toxic, but when the marginal cost of productivity is your mental health or your general well-being, it is important to take a pause and reconsider said productivity.
For a generation that is at the forefront of the mental health conversation, it is particularly concerning to observe that the incidence of mental health issues is remarkably higher for Millenials and Gen Z than prior generations. This is, undoubtedly, partly a byproduct of capitalist culture. A consequence of this is our skewed understanding of mental health. Mental health conversations and support often focus on treating symptoms, instead of being preventive in nature.
Take the example of an undergraduate student who’s trying to juggle academics, extra-curricular activities and multiple jobs and is also struggling with anxiety. Far too often, the advice or “support” revolves around treating symptoms or even learning to live with them, instead of calling into question the “hustle culture,” the arbitrary expectations and definitions of success that lead to such a lifestyle.
This culture is reinforced all around us: from LinkedIn and the Career Development Center’s programming to the Life Beyond Saadiyat marketing material. There’s a reinforcement of linear, traditional academic and professional careers. And throughout our undergraduate career at NYU Abu Dhabi, oftentimes, we aren’t just striving for excellence, but also for conformity — which is a comforting notion, but which also forces too many of us on trajectories that make us anxious and unhappy.
It’s imperative that we learn to appreciate nonlinearity. We need to subvert hegemonic definitions of success. We need new definitions of productivity which aren't so deeply rooted in commodifying our labor. This is difficult to do — after all, we grew up in a culture that holds sacrosanct the notion of perpetual progress. However, all this isn’t to say that the world should be at a standstill or that all productivity is inherently toxic.
But it’s important to remember that spending time with family and friends during the summer is productive; catching up on your ever-growing reading list is productive; working at that local NGO is productive; writing articles for a small publication is productive; focusing on your mental health is productive. There is plenty of progress to be made and it is imperative to realize that not all of it will be conforming, listable, or quantifiable. You can’t — and most importantly, shouldn't — commodify all progress.
Over the last year, so many of us have grappled with disruptive living environments, financial difficulties, loss of loved ones, deteriorating mental health and so much more. Further, even with accommodations in place, even with reduced external expectations, we have been brought up in a world where we’ve been conditioned to put ourselves under the pressure to achieve — and the self-constructed need to achieve doesn’t cease to exist the moment external pressure wanes.
These difficulties, of course, don't translate to one’s resume. To dismiss them, however, would not only be lacking in self-compassion but also the loss of a potential epiphany. It’s important to set goals, pursue achievement, dedicate yourself to your work. But, through this piece, I invite you to consider — if only momentarily — why you set out on certain goals and for whom.
There’s a need for a radical recalibration of our values, a new approach to thinking about ourselves and our productivity. This involves decoupling traditional notions of productivity and our sense of self worth. It involves celebrating nonlinearity and nonconforming notions of progress. In a capitalistic world, this will, admittedly, at first, come at a heavy cost. At the end of the day, as long as we reside in a system in which arbitrary metrics of productivity determine one’s future, subversion at an individual scale is futile.
This subversion needs to also occur at an institutional level: through marketing materials, reframing the conversation around productivity and mental health and celebrating academic and professional nonconformity and nonlinearity. This is important because a sophomore at NYUAD today will be a partner at a top law firm tomorrow and universities can thus play a pivotal role in redefining corporate culture.
This is an opportunity to expand the domain of things we place value on — beyond prestigious consulting internships and research opportunities; beyond listable, quantifiable and commodifiable progress. Our lives and our time here are more important than bullet points on a flimsy resume. Whether it’s time spent with family, rewatching The Office for the sixth time or spending a few weeks to rebalance and refocus, all of it defines you more than your C.V. and if there’s one thing you will take away from this pandemic and this piece, let this be it.
Vatsa Singh is Opinion Editor. Email him at
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