How Colonization Gave Rise to the Productivity Myth

It was 4 a.m.
I was the only one left in the quiet section of my college library.
I had been staring at my computer screen for 10 hours.
My eyes were so dry that my contacts had begun to harden.

I was reading my essay titled, “Hierarchies of Power,” for the 12th time. It has to be perfect, I thought to myself. I have gotten straight A’s since third grade, I can’t mess up now. I hadn’t had any other time to write the essay, there are no excuses for imperfection, I thought. My body was exhausted, but I was numb to that fact.

Lack of sustenance, sleep, and self-compassion left me feeling like a zombie.

I numbed my burnout with my addictions to busyness, stress, hunger, exercise, and most of all: external validation.

As I strained to find any last typos or redundancies I might have missed, my stomach grumbled audibly.

I hadn’t eaten since 6 p.m. because I didn’t want to exceed my calories for the day.

I was already severely underweight, but to me—I was never thin enough.

Likewise, I got straight A’s, the praise of my professors, and leadership awards—but I never felt accomplished enough.

All of my accomplishments were invisible to me, because all I could see was where I was lacking.

I was stuck deep down in the achievement trap, the belief that my worth was equal to my productivity.

I didn’t know it then, but I was devoting my life to living up to someone else’s standard of productivity.

I was devoting so much of myself to externally driven goals that I had not consciously chosen to deem important.

I was living my life in response to the default definition of productivity, and had not yet invented my own meaning of the word.

How many times in a day do you self-monitor to assess whether you are being productive?

What joyful or pleasurable experiences do you withhold from yourself or ration, depending on how productive you feel that you have been?

How often do you judge another’s productivity against your own, and feel the victor when you come out on top or insecure when you don’t?

All of these are consequences of the collective agreement about what productivity is.

We all act as if there is a real, verifiable standard of objective productivity. And our lives have become an attempt to live up to it.

What I urge you to consider is that no such standard exists. That our notion of what is and isn’t productive is a myth—it is a subjective narrative that was (slowly, over time and not entirely intentionally) created by those in power to ensure our obedient conformity.

Activist and social psychologist Melanie Joy explains that “dominant narratives are the stories told by the dominant culture; they define our reality and guide our lives like an invisible hand. And when the dominant culture is oppressive, so, too, are its narratives. Such narratives are fictions, constructed to delude people into supporting the dominant way of life even though that way of life runs counter to what they would otherwise support, and to silence the voices of people who seek to tell the truth.” 

The productivity narrative is such a fiction.

The essential meaning of being productive is simply achieving a result.

Inner peace is a result.

Happiness is a result.

Fulfillment is a result.

Connectedness to nature is a result.

Forgiveness is a result.

A deeper understanding of one’s self is a result.

Laughter is a result. 

These are not lesser results than making money, working long hours, becoming famous, losing weight, or producing goods. We may categorize them as lesser because we have been indoctrinated with top-down beliefs about what is valuable.

Productivity itself is a value neutral idea. However, the default values of our oppressive capitalist, patriarchal, and colonialist society impose meaning on the word, which in turn dictates our understanding of it.

Extracting massive amounts of oil is extremely productive to the Exxon CEO yet extremely unproductive to the Greenpeace activist.

Working 80 hours a week is extremely productive to someone who values acquiring assets while extremely unproductive to someone who values quality family time.

There is no objective productivity.

Why should it not be totally acceptable for any of us to stop participating in this rat race of a society and live in a self-sufficient commune where we can paint and garden all day?

We have so internalized the “productivity police” that most of us would feel overwhelmingly uncomfortable doing this.

While we are all running around frantically trying to be productive enough, we are blind to the fact that there is no inherently “right,” “good,” or “valuable” ways to spend our time.

But the absurdity of this is lost on us because we are on auto-pilot, trying to achieve a standard of productivity that we did not choose for ourselves.

As Melanie Joy explains, most people have “no idea that they’re behaving in accordance with the tenets of a system that has defined many of their values, preferences, and behaviors. What they call ‘free choice’ is, in fact, the result of a narrowly obstructed set of options that have been chosen for them.”

Our assumptions about what is valuable are hiding behind our notions of productivity. Beliefs that symbolize the patriarchal pecking order of masculine values over feminine values, individual over community, profit-making over meaning-making, doing over being, and rational over emotional. 

Our beliefs about productivity and value are not personal, but political. They are not “the way things are,” but fiction. They are not unbiased, but self-serving to selective interests. They are not timeless, but an invention of the recent capitalist, colonialist past.

As Richard Swift points out in his book, S.O.S.: Alternatives to Capitalism, “It is the diversity of real possibility that we are losing under the homogenizing influence of corporate capitalism. Today, the large institutions that shape the world economy (the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization) lay down rules of trade and investment that they insist that we all must live by from Mongolia to Mozambique. They bury centuries old differences in an avalanche of commercial rules so as to bring order in the form of their particular notion of profit-based calculation. These rules are usually shaped not to accord with the desires and needs of the people most affected but rather to provide a degree of predictability for the large corporate and capital or bond markets that structure finance.”

We have been made to believe happiness is a product of achievement, that life before the industrial age was devoid of fulfillment, purpose, and meaning—causing us to strive for personal fulfillment in a way that aligns with capitalist interests.

This is why I urge you to consider the narratives affecting your life.

Consider whether you are feeling unhappy as a result of an oppressive ideology.

Swift continues, “happiness is not a modern invention. Many values that today’s societies take for granted are very recent interlopers in human history. Life before capitalism was not devoid of pleasure—and was certainly not as individualistic. The doctrine of progress that accompanied the rise of capitalism would have it that, in the words of that early advocate of the rule of property, Tomas Hobbes, life before capitalism was ‘nasty, brutish and short,’ but this is a self-serving half-truth.”

The self-serving half-truths that allow capitalism to flourish at the expense of individual fulfillment work in the same way as the self-serving half-truths that work in service of colonization.

Colonization is generally referred to as “the process that is perpetuated after the initial control over indigenous peoples is achieved through invasion and conquest. Perpetuating colonization allows the colonizers to maintain or expand their social, political, and economic power (…) Their power comes at the expense of Indigenous lands, resources, lives, and self-determination. Not only has colonization resulted in the loss of major rights such as land and self-determination, most of our contemporary daily struggles are also a direct consequence of colonization (poverty, family violence, chemical dependency, suicide, health deterioration). Colonization is an all-encompassing presence in our lives.”

Our country was founded upon the genocide and attempted cultural erasure of Native Americans. To cover up and justify this atrocity, those in power put forth the narrative that indigenous peoples are uncivilized and their culture, religion, language, and beliefs were inferior to that of the Europeans.

Living within the omnipresence of collective agreements such as these creates the illusion that we are choosing our own values (like what is and isn’t productive), and hence how to spend our time—when in reality our creative ability and freedom to choose has been severely constrained by a society of pre-set values.

Both capitalism and colonialism are sociopolitical systems built upon collective agreement: ideologies and narratives that present a biased understanding of the world as the truth.

While I, as a white woman, have not even tasted of the trauma, violence, and cultural erasure that indigenous peoples have, I think it is important for us to understand the memory of colonization that ripples through each of our lives, and how it has contributed to our notion of what is and isn’t valuable and therefore, productive.

Our notions of productivity are in part a consequence of the homogenization of values that colonization brought. 

In the same way that colonial power came at the expense of indigenous lands, resources, lives, and self-determination—so too has capitalist/imperialist/industrial power come at the expense of our own value creation. We live inside of the illusion of self-determination, while working tirelessly to live up to a standard we did not choose, keeping alive a system we did not invent.

Before we had a chance to decide for ourselves what is valuable, the capitalist notion of “profit first” planted itself in the fertile soil of our hearts and minds. Diversity of values has been extinguished and replaced with value imposition: we should live a life of hard labor in the service of profit and recognition.

As poet Phil Rockstroh says, “in our late-stage capitalism, every inch of humanity has been exploited and maximized for profit, creating ‘colonized’ minds and emotions.”

In his essay, “Decolonizing the mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature,” Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o writes, 

“the real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.

For colonialism, this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature, and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language and ‘culture’ of the coloniser. The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.” 

This mental contamination of self-hatred feels familiar to us. It shows itself as the feeling of not doing enough, not being good enough, not being productive enough, or not having enough money or success.

It is very different from the practical fear of not having a place to live or food to eat. It is the additional emotional burden of feeling like you have failed to live up to the invisible standard of being a worthy member of society.

We rarely feel this particular ping of unworthiness when we haven’t been creative enough, haven’t been connecting to nature enough, haven’t been generous or community-oriented enough—although all of these are values that we might have chosen to prioritize were we truly free to do so.

This is because we have become our own colonizers.

We do not need to be told over and over again to be productive because we have so internalized our society’s imposed meaning of what is valuable that we now act as our own slave drivers, ensuring that we serve as a productive part of the capitalist machinery—or feel guilty, ashamed, and ostracized.

And capitalism, patriarchy, and colonial efforts thrive as a result of our self-chastisement. As Swift writes, “the system feeds on the very dissatisfaction and predictability it has manufactured.”

It is important for us to begin recognizing that our notions of productivity are not our own. They are the by-product of colonialist, capitalist, industrialist, and patriarchal ideologies pretending to be in our own interest, but really being in the interest of those who benefit from them.

As without, so within. Our colonization has been internalized. Now, the very beliefs that have been planted in our minds are colonizing our own hearts, our own desires, our own true freedom of choice.

It is time to start unearthing our beliefs about what productivity is. Time to start holding those beliefs up to the light, and identifying who exactly benefits from them.

I am not arguing that our collective agreement about productivity is necessarily wrong—I am only arguing that most of us have not chosen it for ourselves, because we have suffered through a cultural erasure of options.

Doing is not inherently better than being.

Succeeding as an individual is not inherently better than succeeding as a collective. Working long hours is not inherently better than having ample time for play. 

I agree wholeheartedly with Swift’s sentiment that, “what we need is to take strength from the spirit of our many ancestors and look for real diversity—not as a consumer choice but as an insistence on living and valuing differently.”

We have gone too long imposing moralistic judgments on what is and isn’t productive, resulting in unwarranted levels of stress, dissatisfaction, insecurity, and loneliness.

There is no objective standard of productivity. Something is only productive when it is producing results in alignment with what you care about.

It is time that we remind ourselves of our power to choose what is valuable to us and to stop living our lives as a reactive response to someone else’s notion of productivity.

Here is my challenge to you: take out a piece of paper, write down every belief that you have about what is and isn’t productive, and then burn it.

While you watch it burn, feel yourself loosening the inner grip of these un-chosen collective agreements. Feel yourself energetically cutting the cord between you and those notions of productivity and worthiness into which you were born.

And when you feel free from those notions, begin to write your own definition of productivity. Start by identifying the ways of being that are most important to you, such as: being silly, being loving, being playful, being grateful, being of service, being devoted.

And from these core desired ways of being, begin to ascribe value to your own commitments—that which you deem a worthy use of your time.

And then give yourself full scale permission to live by that.

-Brandilyn Tebo

Kris van Genderen