Archive for the ‘life’ Category
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
Last week, a New York Times opinion piece, The ‘Busy’ Trap, made the rounds on the Internet. And nearly everyone who shared it (myself included) did so with a sort of perverse pride. “Hah, this is so me. Busted!”
Which is ironic, given the article’s thesis. We’re not busy out of necessity. We’re busy out of hubris – it makes us feel more important when our every waking hour is spent on work or an extracurricular. And while I’d argue that some of the busiest people I know are genuinely busy doing genuinely valuable things, overall the author presents a solid (and damning) case. When prompted, we enjoy lamenting about the insane pace of our lives. In fact, these days we don’t even have to wait to be asked. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, etc, we can now volunteer commentary on how busy and important we are at any hour to an ever-available audience. And often, that audience responds. Instant validation.
I suck at carving out free time for myself. And yes, this admission is half humility, half brag (#humblebrag). But I tell myself that it’s okay, because my current busyness is a conscious, measured choice. Just like I’ll later choose to counterbalance these sleep-deprived years by embracing the opposite extreme. Take a year or two to live on some remote, exotic beach. Write a novel. Meditate and do yoga daily.
But here’s the problem with that plan, as charming as it sounds (aside from the obvious economic challenges). Relaxation isn’t merely the absence of busyness. It’s an art, a skill. It takes as much practice to learn to calibrate to an agenda-less existence as it does to a 16-hour workday.
When I studied abroad in Seville, Spain my junior year of college, I was initially enamored with the slow pace of life and a relative absence of responsibility. Classes were a joke and warranted attendance about a third of the time. My host family only hosted for financial benefit, and didn’t care to see me outside of meals. Every day was the same: some combination of napping, attending a class (or not), tanning alongside the Gaudalquivir river, binging on pirated episodes of 24 (Spanish TV is flat-out awful, sorry), eating too much fried food and drinking too much wine, and hitting the discotecas until sunrise.
But after the novelty of it all subsided, I began to go a little insane. My days had no purpose, no structure. I’d invent random tasks for myself, like reading The Economist – one of the few English-language magazines I could get my hands on – cover to cover each week. I planned and took trips to stay occupied, and probably (okay, definitely) drank way too much. My surroundings were exotic, my days were wide open, and I couldn’t wait to return to my overscheduled, goal-oriented life.
If I had a difficult time making the transition in college, I can only imagine how hard it would be for me now. Back then, I had no iPhone, no Twitter. I’d check my email maybe once or twice a day. Today, I am incessantly, obsessively connected. And by extension, busy. And oh-so important.
I think most of us who’ve fallen into the “busy trap” like to kid ourselves that we could crawl out of it at will. We go on vacation and read in the sun and pat ourselves on the back for only checking email once a day. Busyness is a choice, and we can choose to disconnect. It’s that simple.
Except that it’s not. We measure our self worth by what we do each day, and in what volume. Vacations don’t change that equation, they merely hit pause on the calculation.
I have to imagine that this is why some women who decide to stay at home and raise children have a difficult time with that transition. Or why people who lose their jobs fall into such deep depression. Obvious challenges associated with both those scenarios aside, the entire way we value ourselves (and assume others value us) crumbles.
Is our generation going to be capable of appreciating retirement, or will we be too far gone?
Let’s say I do find a way to make my beachy retreat from the world work. Would I even know how to feel good about myself in those circumstances? Could I survive without structure, ubiquitous connection and constant feedback? Or would I falsely build those into my new life?
It might be worth the agony of an exotic ex-pat adventure to find out. Someday.
The upside to being busy is that it forces you to be very intentional about how you spend your time. And I’m finding that most pursuits worth pursuing fall into one of two categories:
- Things that require significant input and have a predictable, highly desirable outcome.
- Things that require minimal input and have an unlikely, highly desirable outcome.
This is generally how I try to prioritize my time at work. If something doesn’t fit either of these descriptions, there’s a good chance it’s not worth doing. But I think this framework might apply more broadly, beyond the to-do list.
In the first category, we have undertakings that are time and labor intensive, but where the time and labor put in largely determine what you get out. Learning to play the guitar, for instance. Or training for a marathon. Crazy amounts of practice and training required, but every hour will show up in your performance.
The second category is all about pursuits that require very little effort relative to the awesomeness of the potential result. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against you and mostly out of your control. Maybe you’re applying on a whim for your absolute dream job. The work required to put together a solid cover letter is miniscule compared to the transformative impact of actually getting the offer. But you’re likely up against thousands of other (more) qualified candidates. Same dynamic when it comes to asking someone out on a date – a relatively easy (albeit terrifying, IMO) effort, and one that pays dividends if it turns into a legit, lasting connection. But with all the fish in the sea, it’s unlikely you’ll catch your soul mate.
You’re probably thinking: well, duh. There’s really nothing particularly mind-blowing about either of these classifications. I agree. What’s powerful – at least in my (potentially crazy) mind – is their combination. When we’re taking on massive projects, we go into heads-down mode, tuning out any unrelated distractions. When we’re feeling desperate or adventurous, we tend to get lazy and just throw spaghetti against the wall and pray that something sticks.
In the first case, success is best achieved by laser focus. You probably shouldn’t try to organize a wedding, learn to speak Italian, and remodel a home all in tandem. Volume is your enemy. But in the second case, volume is your friend. You’re effectively playing a numbers game. The more bets you place, the more likely that one of them will pay off. And focus can be limiting – in fact, you probably want to diversify. Experiment.
And because of these very different mentalities, it’s pretty difficult (and not at all intuitive) to consistently and simultaneously pursue efforts that fall into both categories. But if you can force yourself to do it, I think it’s an interesting way to work, and an interesting way to live.
Take on the massive, super important projects, and execute the hell out of them. These hard-earned accomplishments are what will make you successful and fulfilled.
But also carve out some time – you really don’t need much – to place easy bets on the long shots. Even if unsuccessful, these attempts will keep you hopeful and alert to new opportunities. And if one pans out, it can take your life in an entirely new and unexpected direction.
Which probably means I should blog more. Ya know, just in case the Julie and Julia lightning decides to strike twice and someone wants to give me a book deal.
Confession: I actually like working on the weekends. I can get ahead of the upcoming week, free myself up for any unanticipated Monday developments (the Internet is a crazy place, after all), and better coax my ADD-brain into tackling longer form projects.
But every weekend, I do the same. Damn. Thing.
I promise myself that this time I won’t save everything for Sunday evening, which invariably means I’m up crazy late. Instead, I’ll spread the work out. Get up early on Saturday, perhaps, and check a few to-do boxes over a latte. But without fail, I always end up procrastinating until Sunday night.
Which totally sucks. Not only do I feel shitty about not meeting my goal, but I’ve also sabotaged the rest of my non-working weekend with guilt.
This time around, I tried something new. I accepted that I wouldn’t get to my work until the very end of our glorious three-day weekend (so in this case, a Monday), and I gave myself a free pass to just enjoy myself until then.
And it was AWESOME.
Ask any habitual procrastinator, and they’ll tell you their biggest source of anxiety isn’t the adrenaline-fueled eleventh hour (that’s actually kinda fun). Rather, what plagues us are hours one through ten, when we know we should be working, but almost certainly won’t, if prior data is any indication. Sure, we all have highly developed powers of compartmentalization, but we still spend time feeling guilty about just how highly developed these powers are.
So new goal: when I already know I’m going to put off doing something, I’m just going to roll with it. This mentality goes beyond near-term, definitive deadlines. Want to join CrossFit but know you won’t have time until the Spring? Enjoy your curves while you still have em. Or, on a more serious note: to all my friends who love what they do for a living, but feel the pressure to get a “real,” better paying job; or dig the single life, but worry they should be settling down – give yourself a free pass. Pick an age, any age, and go ahead and postpone tackling that responsible, adult milestone until then.
Because if you’re not ready, you’re not going to do it anyway, silly. So you may as well have fun in the interim.
A friend emailed me on Saturday. But my parents are in town and I’ve been busy with Christmassy activities, so I didn’t have time to respond. A few hours ago, I learned that he passed away yesterday.
I’m having a really hard time processing this news. And since I can’t seem to wrap my mind around the larger reality of his death, I keep fixating on that email. If I hit “reply” now, my response won’t go anywhere, or mean anything. Only 24 hours ago, someone was there to receive it. Now there’s no one. I might email him back, anyway.
I know shitty things happen all the time to people of all ages all over the world. But people my age shouldn’t be dying.
My great uncle passed away recently. I wish I could say I knew him better, but by all accounts he was an amazing, loving and well-loved man. From an outside view, his life can be described in lengthy, sweeping chapters. Born and raised in Suffield, Connecticut, one of three brothers. Went to college at Yale. Returned to Suffield, where he took over the family business and started a family of his own. He ran the family business until retirement, and won awards for his unprecedented Rotary Club meeting attendance streak, something that gave him great pride.
One job, one hometown. 91 years.
That’s a way of living that I find hard to relate to. I belong to a generation with ADD in its DNA. We plow through jobs, cities and dates like they’re going out of style. We have twenty tabs open in our browsers, and dozens of apps on our iPhones. We scour Yelp for new and untried restaurants, because why be a regular when you can be a pioneer? Whether with a newly-hatched tweet or a fresh Foursquare check-in, we’re incessantly self-iterating.
OkCupid profiles include a section titled, “I’m really good at…” Most entries are obvious attempts to appeal to potential mates: cooking, playing guitar, making you smile (barf). But the other week, I received a message from someone who listed “uncertainty.” And I thought:
1) Props. That’s refreshingly original.
2) Me too.
In fact, uncertainty is perhaps the thing that I’m best at. I wish I could chalk it all up to nature, but nurture deserves some credit. The four years I’ve now lived in San Francisco are the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. Growing up, it seemed like each time we’d finally finished remodeling (the price of having an interior designer mother and power tool-savvy father), it was time to pack up and move again. We lived in some pretty cool spots: an avocado ranch in San Diego, a desert retreat in Tucson, a teeny tiny bungalow in Laguna Beach, an old farm house outside of Philadelphia, and many more. Moving so often, you have a lot of opportunities for reinvention. My less subtle example: alternating between Ashley (my first name) and Madeline (middle) with each move throughout elementary school.
As an “adult” my zig-zagging continues. I veered off the law school track at the eleventh hour, stumbled into technology PR, and now work for a startup. I’ve held two jobs in four years, which is relatively steady for a Millennial. (Pats self on back.)
I love my job, but I don’t plan on doing it through retirement (is that even an option??), nor do I plan on finding a clone for my next gig. I totally dig San Francisco, but how can I commit to living here forever when there are dozens of amazing cities I want – need – to experience first hand. I don’t even know how I’d segment my life if not by moves.
I like this about myself. I feel adaptable, flexible, adventurous. But I’d be pretty naive if I didn’t acknowledge the downsides.
What if I feel compelled to always change for the sake of change, without improvement? This is fairly harmless when it comes to hairstyles or go-to brunch spots. But it’s not okay when it comes to relationships, and it’s not smart when it comes to jobs.
What if life gives me exactly what I want…and then I’m bored with it?
This hasn’t happened yet. I’m ridiculously happy, and far from bored. But I start to worry when I look at a consistent, fulfilled life like my great uncle’s, and can’t even imagine how I’d go about living it. There’s something so enviable about deriving pleasure from predictability. And something a little worrisome about craving uncertainty.
Maybe I read Oh the Places You’ll Go one too many times as a child. Or maybe this is just a symptom of being in my twenties, watching people my age begin to put down roots, and wanting to do the exact opposite.
Watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory the other day, I realized: this is not a tale for children.
Sure, there’s a chocolate waterfall, and tiny men singing silly songs. But as a kid, I just nodded along while reading the book or watching the movie. All its lessons made perfect sense: well duh if you’re a total brat – aka a “bad egg” – you’ll be sent down the garbage shoot to the incinerator. (And let’s be clear – as much as I love Johnny Depp’s chiseled cheekbones and Tim Burton’s dark creativity, Gene Wilder will always be the true Wonka in my eyes.)
But this resonance fades as we get older, and more cynical, and more…normal (ew). To the point where when re-watching the movie, you can only assume its makers were high out of their minds. Which is why this is really a story for adults…adults who need to be reminded that the world is as magical as you imagine it to be. Adults that have forgotten that there is indeed a difference between good and bad.
I’ve decided that Wonka is my new personal hero. (I hope to god I someday have to answer this question in a job interview. Cue awkward pause.) And it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s the mouthpiece for some of the greatest quotes of all time.
A brief sampling of my favorite Wonka wisdom:
Don’t try to tame life’s uncertainties; celebrate them. Or in Wonka’s words, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”
Never stop believing that perfection is, indeed, possible. And don’t apologize for success. “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted. He lived happily ever after.”
Some people just suck. If they want to turn themselves into giant blueberries, or miniaturize themselves during TV travel, just keep moving right along. The oompa-loompas can deal. After all, there is “so much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.”
Other Wonka gems:
- “Oh, you should never ever doubt what nobody is sure about.”
- “The snozzberries taste like snozzberries.”
- “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” (Word.)
- “Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple”
And lastly, because I’m naturally (and nerdily) predisposed to drawing technology parallels, I really can’t think of a better guru for entrepreneurs – especially those already belonging to the School of Jobs. Think Apple’s product secrecy is absurdly locked down? Wonka’s distrust of humans drove him all the way to Loompaland to recruit a tribe of hard working Oompa-Loompas (altruistically saving them from the Whangdoodles and Vermicioius Knids in the process). Had Jobs had access to an engineering and design-inclined equivalent, I’m sure he’d have happily housed them in the Infinite Loop. And if you believe paranoia to be a virtue, how about charging Slugsworth, one of his own, to pose as an outside bidder for the coveted Everlasting Gobstopper?
And when it comes to creativity, no marketing campaign will ever match the sweet success of the five Golden Tickets, which drove massive brand awareness among target consumers (overly indulgent parents with $$) and consumers (sweet-toothed children), ravenous media coverage, and flat-out gluttonous Wonka Bar sales. Wonka didn’t just create products people love; he created magical experiences along with them (hello, chocolate waterfall). No brand has ever been more imbued with “pure imagination” and creativity. And he is the undisputed master of inventing entirely new product categories – sure, phones and tablets are pretty cool, but what about travel by TV, or gravity defying soda? I’d wager the Oompa-Loompas were witness to a fair amount of reality distortion at the Factory.
And lest you think I’m totally loopy by this point, just remember: “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”