Confronting performance-based identities in lockdown

Over the past five weeks many of us might have been surprised to discover just how much we personally care — at a deep, emotional level — about our own productivity and performance, writes Dr Ben Walker.

Productivity is a big deal in our culture — especially when it comes to work and careers. This idea will be news to virtually no-one. Over the past five weeks, though, many of us might have been surprised to discover just how much we personally care — at a deep, emotional level — about our own productivity and performance.

For some, this realisation might have been triggered by a massive shrinkage of time available for work, stemming from things like full-time parenting or caring for vulnerable relatives. With so little time to get anything done, we’ve been treading vocational water: doing our best to keep our work and careers afloat, all the while weighed down by feelings of anxiety and frustration at not being able to deliver at our usual level.

Others who suddenly found themselves with an abundance of time might have first felt excited about the lack of distractions (“now I can finally get to work!”), but guilt when the much-anticipated productivity surge never showed up.

Humans have evolved to get emotional about things we care about. The fact many of us get emotional about performance is a clear signal it matters to us. A specific research interest of mine as an academic in the social sciences is performance-based identity: when people come to feel “being good” at their job is not only important but an essential part of what makes them “them”, so much so that anything related to performance (eg, praise, awards, results) also matters at a deeply personal, emotional level.

To those of us in Aotearoa New Zealand, the idea of defining yourself based on performance might seem a bit gross — as something native to more individualistic, competitive cultures like Australia or the United States. But just like that Joni Mitchell line, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, often we don’t truly understand the ways we define ourselves until they’re threatened. By blocking our ability to perform at our best, Covid-19 has, I suspect, threatened more than a few performance-based identities in recent weeks, leading many to realise just how intimately connected they are to their output.

I’m no more immune to the pressures of our “productivist” culture and performance-based identities than anyone else. When the lockdown was announced, I first counted myself incredibly lucky to have stable employment and income, but was nevertheless concerned about the impact four weeks of full-time parenting (shared between my wife and me) would have on my output — particularly in terms of delivering for my students.

More generally, I’ve always noticed I tend to be happiest at the end of those days when I’ve achieved a lot, and antsy on days when I haven’t. And while that drive to excel is probably great for one’s employer and career prospects, there’s research suggesting letting self-esteem hinge on performance isn’t particularly great for mental health, families and day-to-day happiness.

The sustained period of reduced work has forced me, and I suspect many others, to finally confront my psychological relationship with performance. And while the emotions this stirs up might be unpleasant, we should trust it’s a beneficial and worthwhile exercise.

We might have found ourselves asking why exactly we care so much about doing well at work and the extent to which those things really matter to us in the overall scheme of our lives. While we might have had less time to perform on the work front, perhaps we’ve found more time for other things, neglected identities that when given a tad more attention provide us with immense joy.

We might have similarly found ourselves asking what it actually means to us to “do well” or why we focus so much on how well we’re doing relative to others instead of focusing on how much we’ve developed and improved since the same time last year.

Crucially, we might have found the answers to these questions are far less black and white than we thought, that there’s actually a lot of complexity, nuance and ambivalence there when we start peeling back the mental layers — an activity the busyness of “normal life” never allowed.

If there’s one thing my research has taught me so far, and which has been reinforced by this lockdown, it’s this: productivity and happiness do not always go hand in hand. Our world might push us to build identities and our sense of meaning in life around performance and output, but each of us is also capable of resisting these pressures.

We’re capable of developing a more deliberate, thoughtful relationship with performance, beyond the extreme, pedal-to-the-metal default society prescribes. By no means is this an easy mental trail to venture down, but of the good to come out of the lockdown taking our first steps is surely something.

Dr Ben Walker is a lecturer in Organisational Behaviour in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

This article was originally published on Stuff.