Why does everything in our lives feel like work?

Here I am having fun last year, but also achieving Time Spent with Family, Travel, and Producing Pretty Content.

Earlier this week I cried at dinner as I talked about what my work takes out of me, though I love it. My companions, fellow high-achievers, nodded knowingly. For the past few days we’ve been swapping theories on why we work so hard — professionally and personally — that we, for example, accidentally cry in restaurants. We found catharsis in a new BuzzFeed piece, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”. Meanwhile an email group I’m on led me to the theory of “conspicuous production” as the new status symbol for our time. And from the same source material, I found another theory about “inconspicuous consumption”— using wealth on education and experiences — to perfect oneself, the ultimate symbol. I realized I’ve been digging into this topic from many angles for the last year or so — trying to contextualize and justify my own accomplishment-driven experience, but also somehow cure it.

We could tie these changes in what we feel compelled to do to our cultural detachment from religion and community, in favor of capitalistic individualism. Today our sins are against our own productive potential, not god or country. We refuse received wisdom about how to live (or balance our lives) from weakening religious, cultural, and civic institutions, but prize behaviors with scientifically-validated benefits to ourselves and our abilities.

This orientation in contemporary culture turns every part of life into a responsibility to be optimized, and inevitably into a job, or at least, “hustle”. The idea that you should be “passionate” about your job means it’s never okay to do work you’re not throwing your whole self into, or not turn what you love doing into a job. Even if not a paying job, each part of our lives is a responsibility with performance standards and metrics. Leisure becomes personal growth or self-care: a duty to oneself, not a relief from duty. Socializing becomes branding, networking and community-building: tools for advancement. Eating, sleeping, and physical activity become wellness: a responsibility to oneself, to one’s loved ones, to one’s job — which may suffer when one’s health isn’t optimized. Hobbies are about developing mastery rather than simple enjoyment of life.

Everything we do throughout the day, we log as accomplishments, rather than just living. Never are we truly off the clock, and our productivity across all areas of life is increasingly laid bare in tracking data of all kinds (Strava, SleepCycle, Foursquare/Swarm, Goodreads, our ever-multiplying personal email newsletters sharing favorite articles and original thoughts). Certainly I can’t suggest that this view is wholly new — the pursuit of hobbies and cultural absorption as a socially-validating duty, rather than simply a joy, has long been a mark of the elite. Especially achieving mastery in expensive non-professional activities not accessible to all (be they piano, horseback riding, tennis, counting countries visited on travels, religiously attending SoulCycle, eating Whole30…).

But I do lately find myself inclined to conceal certain hobbies and interests so they can truly be leisure, and never performance or advancement. Which leads me to ask — is privacy the condition of real contemporary leisure — or even the pursuit of passion?

Is eschewing recognition of any kind the only path to escape the burnout treadmill? Are the new counter-cultural heroes of our time those who avoid the limelight while secretly following their own will — in as much hermit-like privacy as they can possibly achieve in their chosen careers, ideally only to be recognized posthumously? Is actively hiding now the path to protect our joys and greatness?

I ask this as the founder of a company that builds data on people’s skills at work. I certainly don’t believe invisibility, or solitude, are conditions of success in general, and I despise the myth of the lone genius. But so many tools we believe were created, inspiringly, to connect us around parts of life that are important to us (Facebook, Instagram, Strava, Goodreads), in fact make us performers, and make us ask — are we high-performers?

In the absence of overarching religious, civic, or community-driven values, we subscribe to so many systems of belief and of reward, each with its own intrinsic goals. From career paths to apps, we participate in dynamics that pull us in a hundred directions a day, our energies scattered and our identities sprawled out across these micro-achievements. Sometimes we set goals and state what we value, but we mostly don’t evaluate whether all the parts of our life quietly push us to achieve something else.

So perhaps some privacy is just a building block to becoming more self-possessed and relaxed: a way to remove one of the dominant pressures of internet society. Another building block, perhaps a more challenging benchmark for our culture to work on: systems and tools that state their aims clearly to the people who use them. We may not be able to get subtle social signaling to explain itself to its participants, but we certainly could get Facebook to. Maybe that’s a start to helping us each process why it all starts to feel like work: just knowing what we’re being asked to do, and why.