I rediscovered composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites this past fall during a period with lots of work and little motivation. I needed something to focus my mind on the tasks at hand. So, I turned to Bach to aid my quest for concentration. It ultimately worked, and soon his cello suites became a powerful study tool, allowing me to spend hours on work that seemed insurmountable before.

Viewing Bach as a study tool, not as sublime art, is a product of a culture that encourages us to spend much of our time in what I call Haze. Haze is marked by semi-consciousness usually for the purpose of work. It is the cousin of Flow (or being in “the zone”), a mental state characterized by clear, prolonged attention to a task. Flow arises naturally, usually when you are doing something challenging and rewarding. Haze is artificial and forced. And it’s the default mental state of our generation.

Our days are spent with earbuds in, never fully listening, but always with a companion muffling any thoughts we may have. Our social media addiction serves the same purpose. Scrolling, liking, refreshing, never just sitting and thinking. Work is mind-numbingly long, fueled by tools ranging from Bach to Adderall to the glorification of the “rise and grind” mentality.

We know we’re missing out on something. That’s why we practice 20 minutes of mindfulness every day — a window of clarity. But even that is labeled as “self-care,” an opportunity to “recharge” for the work ahead.

How did we get here?

As Anne Petersen explains in “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” millennials (defined here as mostly white, largely middle class) were raised to expect that overachievement would lead to the good life. But that promise has not been kept. No longer is a college education the ticket to a stable job, and no longer is a stable job enough. That stable job also needs to be “cool” and something you’re passionate about. So, we optimize, constantly angling for The Job, racking up resumé stuffers as we go.

This culture is self-reinforcing — as more people adopt it, others are forced to adopt in order to compete, and soon we’re stuck in place, but working harder than ever before. Companies are the main beneficiaries of this race to nowhere, reaping profits from a talent pool that does more and demands less.

To cope, we tell ourselves we love work, and that our work is meaningful. Companies have caught on, rebranding themselves with slogans that are versions of “making the world a better place.” Dropbox, a company that lets you upload files, says its purpose is to “unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working.” WeWork locations are monuments to hustle culture. Water coolers are branded with statements like “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you are done,” and neon signs urge you to “Do what you love” and “Hustle harder.”

It’s no coincidence that Haze is a contemporary affliction. In the age of Silicon Valley, there are no clear lines between work and play. Email and Slack ensure employees are always accessible, while technologies once reserved for social interactions are increasingly being used to create a personal brand. We show off our fun side on Snapchat, document our travels and interests on Instagram, get political on Twitter and perfect the humble brag on LinkedIn. Maintaining this brand takes time and energy, ensuring we are constantly performing, never simply doing.

This is a culture where as Anne Petersen puts it, “Everything that’s good is bad, everything that’s bad is good.” Everything that should feel good, like not working, feels bad, while everything that should feel bad, like working all the time, feels good.

So hobbies have become hustles. Pursuing something you merely enjoy has become pointless, even selfish. We should pursue what we’re good at, monetizing it or using it to help someone else. What leisure time we do have is dedicated to screens, because they are low commitment and Haze inducing.

Becoming aware of all this is comforting. It helps to explain some of my habits, making them not inevitable or intrinsic, but simply products of a common, but not inescapable environment. We can choose a different path. A path where Bach is art to be cherished, not a tool to be wielded. A path where self-reflection and Flow are the rule – not the exception. This reminds me of a quote from Mitch Albom’s memoir “Tuesdays with Morrie.” Albom’s beloved Professor Morrie advises that “you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own.”

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci can be reached at chandrn@umich.edu.

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