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What Chronic Illness Taught Me About the Idea of Hard Work


Our vocabulary is filled with words such as “productivity,” “hard work” and “perfectionism,” but what happens when our bodies are unable to keep up?

I am a perfectionist. I know being a perfectionist is slowing me down at work and at home. When I started university at the age of 19, my lecturers tried to change my attitude; they told me it was not about perfectionism but about hard work.

I stopped microscopically examining each step of my assignments at uni and tasks in my internship. Instead, I spent nights finishing my assignments and put in long unpaid hours at my internship. My friends and I were competing against each other to reach the most hours spent at night writing essays, and I was proud that I spent as much time at work as my colleagues.

The company that recruited me as an intern was responsible for the planning and execution of a major event each year. Once we got onsite a few weeks before the event, everyone spent the evenings working and I did not question the expectation to sit at a desk until 9 or 10 p.m. I got good grades at uni and positive feedback at work, so I was convinced productivity was based on the hours spent on tasks, and that one could only be successful when spending an extraordinary amount of time at work.

Then I got sick and my idea of achieving success through hard work scattered. Putting in long nights to finish assignments at university was not an option any longer as I spent most of my days and nights in bed.

I was lucky to be able to change my timetable and to live close enough to campus to go back home and rest in between lectures. Once I graduated, I was allowed to start my days later at work to give my body time to get me out of the house. I have never put in overtime unless I have no alternative, and I enjoy those days when my brain seems to be on track to get work done.

I am fortunate enough to have seen positive changes in my body’s abilities since my diagnosis. But the last six years have shown me that our perception of production and hard work is wrong. I believe we should be valued regardless of our level of productiveness, and we should be taught that long hours and persistence do not equate to success.

Now instead of pushing myself beyond the breaking point, I focus on my level of emotional resilience each day and how good I am at blocking out time for certain tasks at work. I use timesheets and a notebook to keep track of my progress. At the end of the day, I am still a little perfectionist — but I know my body’s limits.

Getty image by V_Sot.