You Can Take a Nap, I Promise

Screenwriter Nakia Stephens reflects on how she’s learning to release the shackles of productivity by leaning into purpose.

Deep self-evaluation and reflection has become a more consistent hobby during this perpetual plot twist we call 2020. With just one scroll on social media, we’ll find a plethora of humans across the nation using their newfound time to do interesting things, from finally perfecting their guacamole recipe to reinventing their entire external identities.

Then, there’s me – a screenwriter, a filmmaker, a serial executor, someone who is used to dreaming and then doing – suddenly stuck, idle. I tried to keep myself busy; I wrote poetry, I painted, I taught myself ASL and I even bought some new skates. But something was eating away at my soul.

It was guilt.

I felt guilty for doing things that gave me personal joy but not professional results. Shouldn’t I be writing another script? Shouldn’t I really be filming my latest short? It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea of “free time.” But after loads of journaling and a few deep dives into some pretty scholarly Twitter threads, I’d finally been able to recognize (and admit) that I attached a lot of my self-worth to how productive I was.

Nakia Stephens, hard at work.

How did I get here?

I scanned my memory to see if I could pinpoint the exact moment of equating the two. At first, I drew a blank but eventually I remembered this phrase: “As opposed to what?”

Aha! I got it. I remember now.

“As opposed to what?” is the response I received from my father when I joyfully approached him with my perfect report card. I had worked harder than everyone in my 6th grade class. I was my teacher’s favorite. I always submitted my homework on time, I went above and beyond on class projects, I even volunteered after school, to seal the deal. You would think straight As would make any parent proud, but my father stared blankly at me.

“As opposed to what?” he repeated again, but slower. I guess he wanted me to truly grasp his words. My once bright eyes and big metal smile faded into a pool of confusion. I didn’t know if the question was rhetorical or not, because he just stared at me, eyebrows high, waiting for me to speak. I hesitated a bit because I wasn’t quite sure what the word “opposed” meant, but I was pretty good at using context clues so I figured my best response would be, “As opposed to failing and getting bad grades?” He quickly rebutted, “Was failure an option?” I kept a poker face as I internally analyzed why the hell I was getting a lecture.

Nakia Stephens in 4th grade, with her trophy collection.

I had straight As, for crying out loud! Why was he asking me this? What kind of philosophical bullshit was he trying to prove? Just increase my allowance and tell me I did a good job – is that so hard? I snapped out of my own thoughts and simply said, “No.”

My mother arrived at my father’s house shortly after that awkward showdown. I got in the car with an unusual stillness and I remember my mother asking me, “What’s wrong?” I handed her my report card. “Nothing. I got all As.”

She, of course, was elated.

My unimpressed father was a stark contrast to my mother, a woman who praised everything. Glitter-infested finger painting? She’d plaster it on the fridge like a goddamned Basquiat. A short poem about my melodramatic 6th-grade love life? Suddenly, I was Maya Angelou.

But that whole car ride I kept replaying that question in my head: “As opposed to what?”

Though his approach lacked eloquence and tact, I took my father’s words as a lesson in pursuing excellence for the sake of excellence and not just to be rewarded. Yet, on the other side of the coin, his unimpressed sentiment coupled with my mother’s overzealous applause, was also the start of my dissatisfaction with achievement and my indifference towards praise. Yes, I had an early standard for excellence, but I had no metric system in which to measure “good enough,” thus nothing ever seemed to be. So I worked harder and harder.

Nakia Stephens (second right) on set.

More scripts, more films, more interviews, more, more, more.

But now, almost two decades and a pandemic later, I am forced to stop and breathe. I am now able to reflect and accept that though being productive can be empowering, my internal sense of self-worth is far more important than checking off items on my never-ending to-do list.

I can finally affirm that I am valuable and worthy, whether I’m being productive or not. I am learning to release the shackles of productivity by leaning more into my purpose.

Purpose has no deadline. Purpose is our North Star, it is the direct connection to our Why. Whether we choose to work tirelessly on a project or take a break to paint in the park, our Why should remain the same.

In all transparency, I still do get a sparkly feeling when I’m able to work hard at something, but the difference is, I now understand that living a happy, harmonious life where I can work as hard as I play is honestly the cheat code to success.

So yes, continue to optimize your time to complete your goals and by all means keep manifesting that vision board, but if you’re tired … you can take a nap, I promise.

Nakia Stephens is an award-winning screenwriter and independent filmmaker who is devoted to telling authentic and purposeful stories that disrupt outdated and ill-informed narratives, all while naturally amplifying the voices of marginalized groups, especially Black women and girls. Nakia has had more than 20 of her screenplays produced to screen including her most notable projects, Suga Water, Cream x Coffee, Noise and Novella. She has garnered partnerships with major media outlets such as Revolt TV, Black&Sexy TV, and BET, and most recently inked a development deal with Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s cable network, aspireTV, as well serving as an early development partner with Stranger Things star Priah Ferguson’s new media collective, Bold Honey, Inc. Nakia is currently based in Los Angeles, where she can be found binge-watching her favorite shows, building community with local creatives and developing fresh new narratives with her screenwriting label, Damn Write Originals.