‘Breaking free of hustle culture’

Changing careers during the pandemic

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

I lost my job 13 months ago. Three days later, I packed up my desk, walked out of my office for the last time and went into self-isolation. 

Initially, my layoff had nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. I knew cuts were coming, and my department was the first to go. But I was left jobless in an increasingly volatile economy. It was almost impossible to find a new, comparable position in corporate marketing. 

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I have family members who were able to help me make rent and afford groceries when I didn’t qualify for government assistance – and then again when the funds I eventually received weren’t enough. 

In the first months of the pandemic, I revelled in my “free” time. I could finally read the books on my shelf, exercise, cook and get my apartment in order. I picked up freelance clients when possible, but I constantly felt pressure to do more – not only so I could pay my bills on time, but because “getting things done” seemed to be expected of me. 

“One consequence of COVID-19 is that we are all now being urged to hustle harder than ever,” Kiran Misra wrote in a Guardian article last year. “Isaac Newton discovered gravity and invented calculus while in quarantine, we are told. Shakespeare allegedly wrote King Lear on lockdown.” 

I remember scrolling through memes about historical productivity in plague times – feeling both encouraged and annoyed when they interrupted my news feeds. These pithy claims glossed over just how difficult it was for me and many other people to simply exist.

After all, “it’s tough to be productive at the best of times, let alone when we’re in a global crisis,” Chris Bailey, a productivity consultant, told The New York Times. “The idea that we have so much time available during the day now is fantastic, but these days, it’s the opposite of a luxury.”

Eventually, like another professional interviewed by the Times, I realized I was “putting stress on myself during a time that’s already stressful.”

So I took a step back. “Acknowledging that we are all living in an impossible era with little, if any, extra free time is an important first step in breaking free of hustle culture, especially if you can laugh at the absurdity of it all,” Misra wrote in that same Guardian piece. 

Despite what many well-meaning social-media influencers might want me to believe, the pandemic was never a “blessing in disguise.” Saying so is repugnant, especially considering that thousands of Canadians have died from the disease. 

But here’s what I will say: this crisis has helped me realize what I truly value. The kind of corporate job I had and the freelancing work I picked up never truly excited me. And when I was offered a job as an educational assistant two months ago, something clicked. 

When spring breaks ends, I’ll go back to school. And sometime in the future, I’ll go back to school again. This time, I’ll study to become a teacher. I don’t know all the logistics yet, but I’m trying not to stress too much yet. After all, I’m already living through a pandemic. 

Danielle Doiron is a writer, editor and marketer who splits her time between Winnipeg and Philadelphia. She’s spending the pandemic reading, practising yoga and cursing out the governments in both cities she calls home.

Published in Volume 75, Number 24 of The Uniter (May 1, 2021)

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