If you are anything like me, then you probably attach personal value to your efforts or performance at school or work. School comes with a built-in form of judgement: grades. When you receive a grade, you immediately know whether you have failed everyone in your life or are still worthy of love.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point. Jobs are typically more straightforward. If you show up and do not get fired, you get paid, and of course there are always supervisors to keep happy. Unfortunately, school ends and jobs usually do too.
From the point we enter grade school up until we graduate high school or university, our days are on a grading scale. Our performances are consistently judged and structured around classes, tests and examinations.
Then suddenly, when you graduate or drop out, you are left without that structure and told to do something with your life. When you are out of school or unemployed, or both — like I have been over the past while — you have to find your own way to decide what makes or breaks your day.
First, I should say outright that we should not attach so much value to grades or work that a good day relies on a good performance.
I am sure numerous students connect their self-worth to their academic success, just as I did. But studies have shown that this is harmful. A 2002 study found that students who connected self-esteem to academic success did not on average have higher grades but did on average have higher levels of stress.
A 2023 survey in Ontario found that a majority of surveyed college students reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, even though only around a third had formal diagnoses of mental health disorders. I think fixating on grades, performance and perceived value can serve to worsen the mental health that many already struggle with.
With that being said, let’s explore how to find value in your day, or at least how I try to find value. I approach this topic as a recent graduate who has spent a fair amount of time unemployed. Without grades or classes, or even work, one has to evaluate their own time.
While I might have ended a summer evening with unanswered job applications and a dry email inbox, I would reflect on the time spent in the garden with my mom or watching a documentary with positivity.
Society puts much value on creating value in the workplace or being successful in school. But the reality is that most of the really worthwhile personal time is outside of work or school.
For me this worthwhile time was spent with friends and family, watching movies I have never seen before like High School Musical and Die Hard, or learning something new. I am once again employed and see the fruits of my labour from the dozens of applications I sent out, but first I disconnected from something I deeply tied my sense of value to.
School provides you with a strict structure that begins with a high degree of control in the early years, and relaxes a little as you gain control over structuring university life. However, in both stages of life you have a good majority of your time dedicated to a highly goal-oriented system that grades and rates you.
Once this system leaves your life, you are left stranded. But this is also a blessing, as it lets you realize what is truly important or valuable outside of your grade point average.
In terms of work, the more time you spend working, the more money you have, but on the flip side, you also lose out on critical human pursuits. We need money to survive. I understand that perfectly, do not get me wrong. But do not view periods of unemployment or free time as periods of failure or wasted time.
Karl Marx likely said it best: “The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the pub, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint” — or in other words, have fun — “the less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have.”
I am incredibly lucky that I am paid at the Manitoban to create pieces of writing, some of which are even good pieces of writing. But the fact of the matter is that this is the only job I have ever had in which I actually created works of artistic or personal value.
A job is typically just a job. Jobs don’t exist to challenge you artistically or creatively, they exist to make someone else money, with a piece of that money on the side for you.
We have to learn to find value in our day to day lives outside of school or work. While I cannot tell you what that value is, I know that your day’s value, and as an extension your personal value, is greater than your grade or paycheque.