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The attention economy causes anxiety at work. Here’s why we should ditch the comparison currency of the corporate world

By October 23, 2021No Comments

You’re not special… and that’s a beautiful thing, says Megan Cassidy


‘We’re all disposable’, my acupuncturist mused, tapping a needle into my left forearm. ‘Every single one of us, no matter how successful or impressive. Jobs come and go. Anything can happen at any time.’ 

I’ve been getting acupuncture for over a year now, but this was the first time I felt the lightness that others often describe, even euphoria. “Your negative thoughts are zombies. They’re useless. Kill the zombies.” 

We were talking about corporate anxiety, and Michelle had just hit on something I’d been trying to put my finger on for weeks. The internal self-critic that so often sabotages good creative work, especially for women, is perhaps fuelled by the false belief that we somehow have to be ‘special’, different from the crowd, stand out performers. 

My friends and I had recently remarked that a lot of our ‘work anxiety’ had dissolved somewhat over the last two years, but we hadn’t been able to quite articulate the reason, beyond the lack of stressful commutes and more duvet days. But as Michelle was talking, it dawned on me that maybe this was it. There’s a strange beauty in being ‘disposable’ or ‘not special’ – a feeling we all reckoned with in the face of Covid, but could now potentially harness as a tool against anxiety at work. 

Maybe being a proud nobody was the perfect antidote to this attention economy that’s driven by apps like Instagram and LinkedIn. Maybe the competitive behaviours that we’ve been taught are key to our success are actually hampering our ability to do great creative work as part of a team.

The obsession with having the best idea in the meeting, getting the ‘credit’ for this or that project; it all fuels chronic negative thoughts, or as Michelle puts it, ‘zombies’ to be eliminated so that we can actually get on with the work. 

While it’s true that ‘hustle culture’ mentality became decidedly unfashionable during the pandemic, a new brand of ‘me-me-me!’ness now prevails. It’s the humble-brag 2.0, thinly veiled self-praise dressed up as inspiration for others to overcome adversity.

A recent viral trend saw LinkedIn users share childhood photos, with a post that began ‘This little girl/boy’ and stretched on for paragraphs listing the various achievements earned over the course of a career, against all the odds, with a twist at the end… ‘This little girl is ME!’ 

What started as probably an earnest attempt to celebrate triumph in the face of adversity morphed into an opportunity to share a cute baby pic and talk about yourself in the third person for 300 words. A quick scroll through your feed and you’ll feel decidedly un-special, under-achieving, and – maybe the worst insult of all in corporate culture – merely ‘competent’. 

Joseph Gordon Levitt gave a fantastic TEDTalk a few years back about how craving attention is actually the enemy of good work. He points out that technology has made ‘attention’ available to more people than ever – whether they have 100 or 1 million followers. He describes how easy it is to get sucked into the temptation to seek attention – but how, as with any addiction, it’s never enough. He posits that paying attention is actually a far more powerful feeling. Achieving deep focus and feeling part of something bigger – that’s when the great work happens. 

It’s something that many of us learned (the hard way) in the early days of the pandemic. Back in March 2020, when the team rallied around for the collective good, when we forgot about the individuals, when C-level staff took solidarity pay cuts and we all became collaborators instead of competitors. Suddenly there was fantastic creative work happening in a joint effort to find solutions to this common problem. Performance reviews became wellness check-ins, ‘how are you coping?’ led to earnest conversations about mental health among colleagues. Trust became the cornerstone of working life. 

With so much uncertainty, there was no question that team members didn’t understand the weight of responsibility. It was shoulder to the wheel but with a sense of community, that ‘being part of something bigger’ that Levitt refers to – arguably the perfect recipe for productive work.

Now as fluorescent tube lights buzz back to life in offices all over the world, we are reacquainted with the zombies of ‘corporate life’ past. Our old office habits feel instantly familiar yet strange – like the dusty coat on the rack that someone never brought home. It’s weird how quickly the same old feelings start to bubble up – that unique brand of office anxiety, subtle stress, that faint competitiveness that manifests itself in obsessing over giving and taking  ‘credit’ for work and ideas, comparing our own progress to our colleagues and feeling bad about ourselves reading other people’s LinkedIn posts. 

In fairness, we have long worked in a culture where comparison is not just a bad habit – it has been the very currency of corporate life. Businesses need us to be competitive to perform – to fight for promotions, to hit our targets and to keep showing up to feed the beast. When we gush over ‘girl bosses’ who broke the glass ceiling against all the odds, the embedded suggestion is that if you’re merely ‘competent’, you’ve failed in some way. 

This was the root of the vague anxiety myself and my friends felt descending again as ‘the great return’ to the office drew nearer. That draining feeling that we needed to prepare to ‘compete’ again, to prove our worth, to bring our A-game. We were no longer in survival mode, and were all of a sudden expected to thrive again. Exhausting.

The frustrating part is that, as with most capitalist constructs, this corporate competition tends to disproportionately impact women and minorities in office environments. It’s a decidedly ‘short-term’ world-view, aimed at quick growth against all odds. When we believe that our value is tied up in getting the ‘credit’ project by project, or proving that our performance makes us irreplaceable, we dismiss the fact that there is long-term value that team-members provide that transcends short-term absences like maternity leave, or bad days, or personal issues. When we see creativity as a means to an end – attention or a promotion – we add a layer of anxiety to the work that holds us back.

We’ve all sat in a great meeting where the creative energy is buzzing and every single person in the room is contributing to a ‘flow’. There’s a shared purpose, the creative juices are flowing, and eventually someone in the room articulates the perfect idea. It doesn’t matter who was ‘the one’ who finally said it. Everyone in the room participated in arriving at that place where the right idea became clear – and that’s the real power of teamwork in company settings. 

The unexpected success of the Netflix show Squid Game is perhaps a sign that we are all craving a monoculture, that there’s a comfort in shared focus and community in the face of an increasingly unpredictable world. For me, holding on to this value system will be key to a smooth transition back to the workplace, and for teamwork that’s better than before. 

‘We’re all disposable’ – it was our biggest fear two years ago, but now there’s an opportunity to make the beast beautiful, to identify and eliminate old unhelpful behaviours, and kill the zombies. But some habits die hard.