Life, liberty and the pursuit of productivity

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I love earrings. Dangle, hoop, post, stud, drop, chandelier, teardrop, huggie, leverback … all of them.

Meticulously matched with my outfits of every color, earrings are my perfect elemental garnish, mood uplifter and instrument of self-expression. There’s nothing I love more than adding an extra pop of personality to top off a thoughtfully arranged, vibrant (often business casual) ensemble that I feel most comfortable and confident to code in at work.

Despite this fact I have known to be true for myself, I’ve been questioned an inappropriate amount.

“Why are you so overdressed for work … aren’t you in tech?”

“Are you wearing long earrings because you have a party to go to after?”

“Doesn’t handpicking all of this waste a lot of time … isn’t it unproductive?”

These targeted, verbatim questions that I’ve received all come from men in tech, who seem more distressed by my fashion as an apparent underminer of efficiency rather than their unearned, conferred male advantage — one that enables them to wear the same T-shirt, hoodie and jeans every single day at the office with no … unsolicited feedback. When I abandon my style for similar monotone T-shirts and jeans with no makeup or jewelry, I’m met with slightly different comments: “You look so tired. You should get some rest.” The takeaway is simple: The codification of tech wear, all in the pursuit of productivity, doesn’t extend its benefits to women.

Because in the apparently “meritocratic” tech industry, where fetishizing productivity and fear of “decision fatigue” motivate austerity, operating outside the norm and caring about something as vain as attire induces suspicion that you must lack engineering talent or time management skills. I mean, if Mark Zuckerberg makes billions in a hoodie and Adidas slides, and if Steve Jobs revolutionized the way humans interact with technology in the same black mock neck for years, they must have been onto something, right?

Even more concerning is the paradox of prioritization in tech, which debases normal human needs like food intake. Healthy, regularly consumed meals are eagerly exchanged with bottles of Soylent, a liquid facade of nutrition, and extended periods of fasting are reframed as quests for intellectual clarity and improved efficiency. The unfortunate reality, though, is while the Twitter CEO’s weekly Friday through Sunday starvation is celebrated as an impressive act of self-restraint, reduced calorie intakes are immediately labeled as eating disorders for women. 

In response to the high-pressure nature of the startup ecosystem, individuals are treating their own bodies like computers. They’re programming their minds for optimal performance through excessive dieting, meal alternatives, “smart” drugs like Adderall and narcolepsy meds, legal nootropics and microdosages of psychedelics.

Technology seems to be the only solution for every problem, to the point where often the only discussion about mental health in tech workplaces is a tangential disclaimer that all employees get a free subscription to Headspace! The gamification of well-being, how fun! Eating is a time sink, but do go ahead and play pingpong for hours every day! Spend hours downloading and deleting the hottest new productivity apps, because obviously that’s the reason you’re not working as fast as you can! Do what you need to heighten your cognitive abilities! Do what you need, in the pursuit of productivity.

Soylent or salad or samosa, how you slake your hunger and feed your body is at your discretion. And perhaps you do sincerely believe that more good than harm comes with the free access to mental health tech and/or coping drugs. But what I find utterly unacceptable is this toxic biohacking-for-productivity culture and overindulgence in self-improvement rhetoric that fixates the significance of an individual over the collective. This idea — that proliferating output requires finely tuning yourself to be more productive — is self-centered and naive.

In believing ourselves to be individual agents on predetermined missions, we forget change is a product of deliberate, incremental action. We forget the unseen hundreds, if not thousands, of people that have enabled us to be where we are today. And if we’re like Elon Musk, we forget the workers that are literally collapsing on the floors of Tesla plants from being overworked to accomplish the company’s bigger and bolder productivity goals — all determined by a single white male in tech.

The Silicon Valley (read: all-boys enclave) holds dear a creed: The unimaginable possibilities of technology only become reality by aggressively hustling, moving faster and breaking more things. This idealistic mentality conjures up a discriminatory environment where the only type of individual that can thrive is one without children, health issues and other life commitments. And in such an environment, women, parents, older adults and the disabled aren’t ranked as top contenders.

It’s time to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are lone heroes. It’s time to stop drawing discriminatory lines between work that is productive and work that is peripheral. It’s time to take care of ourselves, and recognize how gendered our perceptions are of what problems deserve to be solved and what deserving solvers look like.

And it’s time my earrings are shown some damn respect.

Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].