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Year One: A first-year’s take on the toxic productivity environment in university

By Anjali Choudhary, March 3 2021—

Work yourself to death. It still won’t be enough. 

This undeniably harmful mindset — a product of hustle culture — has become the universal mantra of students across campus. University has become an environment where students don’t feel content with their work unless they’re consistently achieving an inhumane level of sleep deprivation. Believe it or not, sleeping less than the rest of your classmates is not actually a “flex.” 

The largest and most surprising aspect of the culture shock experienced as a first-year student was the competition surrounding schoolwork and productivity. The less you slept, the more you cried over an assignment and the more you complained that you hated working on it seems to be all the talk. While everyone can enjoy some self-deprecating humour once in a while, breeding a culture based on praising declining mental health for the sake of school is toxic and detrimental. I am a strong advocate for pushing to outgrow the version of yourself at this moment in time — it is how we progress and thrive. But pushing each other along this path of unrelenting hustle culture for four continuous years will lead to a population that fails to create healthy habits and balance in later life. 

Yes, the students are not entirely at fault. We can blame the university for setting overwhelming standards and workloads in attempting to prepare us for “the real world.” Or, we can blame the real world and its constant perpetuation of these habits, ultimately tying them directly to capitalism. But for a generation that talks an awful lot about overthrowing the system, we fail to address our own harmful ways. 

In fact, while this notion of productivity harms individual, mental and physical health, it also fails to recognize the systemic barriers students of different backgrounds face. Working 10 hours on a presentation looks quite different for a student who has full financial support than it does for another who is working three part-time jobs to pay for school. Thus, this hustle culture further encourages the cycle of systemic barriers in underprivileged students being able to achieve the standardized level of success. Inadvertently or not, our behaviour is perpetuating extremely harmful behaviours and values on both personal and generational levels. On top of that, if someone dares criticize these practices, we claim they have a “minimum-wage mindset.” If you don’t feel the need to constantly push yourself over the edge, you’re simply content living in a (socially-deemed) undesirable position. Not to mention the complete disregard for the diversity in individual goals — not everyone wants to become a CEO. I admire our bravery in challenging uncomfortable situations, and it is time to open our eyes and tackle our own. 

While I am clearly opposed to this environment and culture, many first-year students will be led to believe this is simply the norm — for university and beyond. This concept becomes so deeply internalized and rooted into students from the starting line that they fail to develop positive habits. Self-care? Mental health days? Nope. None of that matters. Every day for four straight years students will drive themselves over the edge, simply because they haven’t seen any other routine. 

Quality of work should not be compromised if it is avoidable. Mental, physical and emotional wellness should not be compromised ever. Contrary to popular belief, these two notions can and should successfully coexist. We must reprogram ourselves from the destructive mindset of working ourselves to death in order to achieve success. If we continue to foster this environment of toxic productivity in university, I can guarantee it will be our downfall.

Year One is a column about the first-year experience at the University of Calgary.  This column is part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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