The Self-Optimisation Conundrum

Cold, beautiful Luxembourg

A friend of mine recently sent me the Buzzfeed article How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson. As I started reading it, I noticed that it gave me a feeling of resonance that I had felt once before – yup, I had already read this. But even this time, there were certain parts that I felt deeply. As it’s written from the perspective of a resident of the USA, not everything can be applied to my own life (in Luxembourg), but I still found myself in many of the struggles that the author described.

In the conversation that followed the sharing of the article, my friend and I discovered that we felt incredibly called out by the author’s mentioning of the millennials’ constant self-optimisation. And the more we talked about it, the more we realised that far too many aspects of our lives are being dictated by said self-optimisation. The article describes self-optimisation as the millennial condition because of how we were raised: from a very young age, we were told that if we just work hard enough, we can get all the things we want.

Study hard, get good grades, get into a top-notch university, graduate, get an awesome job (that you love), earn lots of money, buy a house, settle down – congratulations, you won at life!

I understand where this came from: our parents learned (from their parents) that there’s a reward to working hard. And indeed, my parents did work hard. And then, in their early thirties, they were able to buy a patch of land, which they had their (detached, no less) house, with a garden, built on. I should add that my parents both have high school degrees, they didn’t go to university. This isn’t meant to diminish the value of their qualifications in any way, it just serves the reasoning of the rest of my post. When they were younger, they had a handful of professions and degrees to choose from, which could be considered a disadvantage given that the choices were limited and that they may not have been interested in any of the available choices. Their generation would either get a job after graduating high school (which, back then, was still worth a little something at the job market), or continue their studies at a university. Hearing my grandfather proudly mention that someone’s particularly smart because “they went to university” actually still makes me smile.

Then us millennials came along and we were taught the exact same things as our parents once were. But times had changed. High school graduation suddenly became the bare minimum, going to university no longer seemed optional. By the time I graduated high school (with a very good grade that nobody ever cared about, as it turned out), there was a debilitating amount of bachelor’s degrees to choose from. Besides that, my parents kept telling me that I could do “whatever I wanted”, while expressing all their doubts regarding any degree I was inclined to enrol in at the same time. Long story short, I panicked and ended up choosing a degree in economics, which (ironically) was still considered a “safe choice” in 2008, just to get the pressure off me.

I barely made it through the three years of studying and graduated with a mediocre final grade (which nobody ever cared about either), without having enjoyed much of the “university experience”, which, to me, was basically a whole lot of anxiety and fear of being revealed as a fraud. Something I had to do. Another chore on the list of the things I’m supposed to do in life.

Now, let’s get back to the self-optimisation issue that millennials seem to be so stressed out by. I generally consider myself a hopeless over-achiever, constantly striving to be and do the best, no matter the context. This obviously means that I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself and, even worse, that I constantly tie my self-worth to my achievements (and, by extension, failures – whether perceived or real ones).

If I don’t do this perfectly, I’m not a worthy person [and therefore won’t succeed / be liked / be loved by people].

This stems from the fact that somewhere along my journey to adulthood, I learned that I’m not lovable unless I am / act / behave a certain way, which is a belief that’s ridiculously difficult to overcome and which still frustrates me pretty much on a daily basis. It’s also the root of people-pleasing. But I digress (again).

Self-optimisation takes on many forms: not being able to sleep in on weekends and/or not being able to relax or do anything just for fun unless all the chores are taken care of, not being able to focus on books, TV shows or movies that are for entertainment purposes only and that are not meant to turn you into a better / smarter person (unlike self-help books or educational documentaries for instance), working out not because you want to but because you believe you need to in order to become better / healthier / stronger (or choosing one workout instead of another because it will make you look more impressive on your Strava profile), depriving yourself of certain foods in order to optimise your health (this can be healthy to some extent, but it can also lead to disordered eating), and many more.

The quest for self-optimisation doesn’t exist without shame and guilt, which are the main driving forces of the “hustle culture”.
The pressure to self-optimise can only exist in the presence of shame: I feel ashamed if I don’t manage to take care of all of my chores and find the time to work out and maintain my social life (meeting up with people [unfortunately, not so much over the past year], replying to text messages, staying in touch) while working full-time. Our parents managed (and they also like to remind us how [much] hard[er] their lives were back then*), so why don’t we?!
Engaging in enjoyable activities that don’t serve the purpose of self-optimisation usually comes with a side of guilt (which is expressed through sentences that contain the word “should”): this feels nice, but I should be working / studying / taking care of chores instead.

Considering that all of the afore-mentioned things were already concerning in 2019, which is when the article was published, imagine how much worse they are now, at the beginning of 2021, after almost a year of the pandemic (and many other unsettling world events).
Our social lives have been put on hold: there’s no more escaping the stressors of our daily lives on a night out with friends, no more losing ourselves in the sounds of our favourite bands at concerts, no more meeting new people, with whom we could potentially form meaningful relationships, at cafes.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we felt blessed for a hot minute because our lives had suddenly been slowed down. We finally got some much-needed quiet time, managed to spend more time in nature, even had enough spare time to start working out. And then the pace picked up again and everything went back to full speed: we went back to work full-time, with back-to-back video meetings, and life went back to being as hectic as before, with the *added bonus* of the pandemic still going strong.
On top of that, all the fun places are still closed / closed again and we’re not legally allowed to hang out with more than one friend at a time (unless they live together), and there’s a curfew**. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I know from talking to my friends that loneliness is running high these days.
The pandemic is particularly hard on single people and those who live alone and find themselves cut off from the activities and social interactions they used to be able to engage in before the pandemic. And while I fully agree that precautions and preventative measures are vital to keep the virus’ damage to a minimum, I think it’s important to not underestimate the psychological effect of it all.

I’m aware that I digress again, but the point I’m trying to make, albeit with a slight detour, is the following: right now, the hustle culture doesn’t make sense to many of us (and one could argue that it may never have made as much sense to us as it did to the previous generations). We work hard[-ish], earn money, and then what? A lot of us will never be able to afford a home of their own, let alone a house. We might also not find a partner, given that we won’t be meeting them at home, where we’re currently stuck.
We worked hard, saved some money and are still as lonely as ever. We didn’t “win at life”, despite the fact that we’ve been hustling all this time.

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, because there are many things to be thankful for (and I am***!).
I’m just a tired millennial, wondering if my generation was taught the wrong things for its time, re-evaluating my priorities and what I believe to be truly important.

* It isn’t my intention to deny their struggles. I’m sure they had their own hardships, just like any other past and future generations. I’m just tired of justifying my own struggles against theirs and of having the discussion of “who’s had it worse” in the first place, because – surprise! – not the point. At all.

** I don’t know about you, but even in my teenage years, I was never required to be home by a specific time (mostly because I never stayed out late anyway) – so this is a first for me!

*** I’m aware that I’m lucky to be employed and to have a roof over my head, which is not a given for many people, and that some of the points I’m making are “first world problems”. Nevertheless, they are important to me (and I’m sure they are to others as well), so I decided to write about them.

2 thoughts on “The Self-Optimisation Conundrum

  1. I hope you never stop writing because I get so much out of your posts, even if I can’t express it to you right now.

    Oh! One thing was that your post helped me see that all our stories are valuable, because they are facets of life that make up the whole. I’m GenX and was raised to hustle but couldn’t. Last year was not my worst year ever, and maybe because of that, and because I was aware that so many others were suffering more than myself, I found it hard to talk about myself. Like my experience was not valid. I’d sit here, ready to type, and think, “yeah, nobody wants to read about that.” But I enjoy reading about the myriad different experiences of any event. Thank you for sharing yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, this means a lot to me !
      I totally get what you mean, by the way – I also felt like a lot of what I experienced over the past year wasn’t “bad enough” or even worth mentioning, considering what other people were going through 💔… X

      Liked by 1 person

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