Don’t let work get you in a racket.

I have nothing but the utmost compassion and respect for Naomi Osaka in light of the recent press regarding her decision to prioritize her mental health before the demands of the various sport and media industry machines. At 23, she had the wisdom to understand that the love and dedication given to one’s craft is not always reciprocal.

Her brave rejection of toxic productivity and “hustle culture” took me back to one of the highest points of my career and also my lowest.

naomi osaka

“Paying my dues”

Years ago, I had made my way from Michigan to California and started bottom rung at a company that allowed me proximity to my dream of working in music & design. In my naiveté, my salary seemed fine by Michigan standards but I would quickly learn that this California company acquired my services at a significant bargain.

I took the lump, but I thought I could prove my true value if I just worked hard enough. It was my dream job after all. I helped improve team efficiency, managed the entire historical artwork and photography archive, and even stepped up to take on extra design support.

Awards & Accolades

Within 2 years I had designed and developed a number of successful product lines that helped increase company revenue by millions. I became the youngest Director at the company. (The job I was already doing for over a year before I received the title or a raise.)

Although our team was small, the hours were long and the work volume very large. Responsible for serving over 100 entertainment properties, I loved the challenge of the work and I was happy to be in the trenches with my dedicated team. Yet, there was still enormous pressure due to the high profile of the clients and the financial expectations of the company.

In the years that followed, I would be named “Employee of the Year.” and the now somewhat ominous title of “Hardest Working Employee.”

concert merchandise
Serving over 125 superstars, artists, celebrities, and entertainment properties as Director of Creative.

From Dream Job to Worst Nightmare

The stream of projects was unending, and with each one, my dominant hand and arm became more painful as I worked. Afraid of being labeled “difficult” or incompetent, I pushed through the pain. Gradually, I had less and less control over my hand and fingers until I had no coordination left and the hand had completely curled inward, where it would remain for the next 3 years.

Stuck. Useless.

My direct boss was as supportive as he could be, but once I filed a worker’s compensation claim, HR took over and the 2nd half of the nightmare began. They barely tolerated my time off for doctor appointments and subtly blamed me for the situation with condescending barbs like;

“Why didn’t you just stop before it got so bad?”

“Can’t you just use your other hand?”

and my all-time favorite,

“You should act more like a smoker…”

I was stunned in disbelief. Here I am, “Employee of the Year” asking for a little help, and somehow, I’m the problem?

The glaring double standards and leniency given to others at the company regarding performance were equally frustrating. However, our team was always expected to deliver at 120% without fail.

It was made very clear that we were tolerated for our productivity because as visual artists, we did not bring any name recognition or sexy street cred that was so highly craved in the upper-crust Beverly Hills music scene.

Employee of the Year to Erasure

Later, as rumors circulated that the company was preparing to be acquired, layoffs loomed. Within weeks, a number of us received our walking papers, and off I went. Left to figure out how I was going to manage basic daily functions and earn a living without the use of my hand and the skills I’d spent decades developing.

Then, to add insult to literal injury, I would learn that the CEO’s wife publicly took credit for the work that my boss and I had carried out during those years. I had no idea she was even officially part of the staff. She was virtually non-existent in our day-to-day work but present for most celebrity meetings. I probably saw or spoke to her less than 10 times in 4 years.

After all was said and done, this was a job that I worked hard at. I served my company and clients exceptionally well. You might even say I gave my right arm for them. Then, they tried to completely erase me from my own accomplishments.

Denied and Delayed: The Harsh Reality of Workers’ Comp

The worker’s comp experience wasn’t any better. With the insurance system inherently biased in favor of employers and former Governor Schwarzenegger passing restrictive legislation that stripped away critical benefits for injured workers, I was treated more like a criminal than a human being.

Since my injury affected only an isolated part of my body, my disability rating was extremely low, even though that same body part was responsible for generating all of my income. That rating left me with little to no options for treatment or financial relief. It wasn’t until many years and thousands of my own dollars later, that I was even able to get a proper medical diagnosis for what happened to me.

The hurt from my erasure, coupled with the callous indifference from both HR and the insurance company on top of the daunting task of building a whole new life and career path was utterly devastating. For so long, my identity, as well as my livelihood, had been defined by this one particular talent. I felt completely diminished as a person.

Neurological Disorder
It took over a decade to find knowledgable specialists to confirm the diagnosis of focal dystonia, a task-specific neurological movement disorder involving repetitive, highly practiced movements.

The Need for More Compassionate and Equitable Work Culture

Decades of stagnant wages have made it necessary for an entire generation of college graduates and other young workers to navigate the rough waters of unpredictable gig work and over-saturated entrepreneur spaces believing that if they don’t sleep, work a little harder, and give just a little bit more – they’ll stand out and be rewarded in the end.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no amount of hustle, grit, or even talent that can overcome the absence of another’s integrity.

I loved my work and gave it my all, but it did not love me back. 

The “hustle and grind culture” that has permeated work lives is an exploitive and toxic fantasy. I’ve often heard it said that “the 1% are simply willing to do what the 99% won’t,” somehow implying that they just work harder than the rest of us, when the reality is far more bleak than that. This fallacy is both physically and mentally harmful. I lived it, and it nearly broke my spirit and ended my career.

Lessons Learned

Since that difficult time, I’ve rebuilt my life in more ways than one. I’ve spent years retraining my body, my brain, and my whole artistic process. My hand will never work the way it once did, but my journey continues. My definition of a “dream job” no longer depletes me.

The scars from the trauma of that experience are still healing, but if you’re struggling with the impacts of grinding or toxic productivity culture, here are a few things I’ve learned:

Reevaluate your definition of success

  • Don’t give up on your dreams, but you may want to check in with your personal values to make sure you’re truly on the right path. Know that sometimes opportunities unfold differently than you might expect.
  • No amount of money is more important than your mental and physical well-being. At the end of the day, how can you enjoy your success if there’s nothing left of you but an empty husk?

Know your value and set sound boundaries for yourself

  • Schedule meaningful breaks and limit office hours in your calendar. Then honor those boundaries.
  • Never, ever, ignore your body when it tells you it’s had enough.

Unplug and rest

  • Both your body and your mind need time to recharge, prioritize time for this.
  • Try to do something pleasant unrelated to your work so that you feel rejuvenated and can bring back new experiences and creativity to your tool kit.

While my story and physical condition may be unique, I know that this type of treatment in some workplaces is not. I know it is not always easy or even possible to walk away from a harmful situation when there are bills to pay. Unfortunately, it is that fear and scarcity that allow this toxicity to thrive.

My hope in sharing my story is to let you know that the struggle is real and you are not alone. I want to affirm that your personal fulfillment and value are not tied to how many hours you work, how many widgets you produce, or how many transgressions you’re willing to tolerate. We must soundly reject this ideology in numbers. Starve it out of our society as well as from human hearts so that it is unable to inflict any more harm.

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