THE LIFE Takes Work

So… this morning I was updating my post subheds using techniques I learned from Jane Friedman’s Magical Marketing Trifecta webinar, and I accidentally updated and published the first draft of my post THE LIFE Takes Work.

I didn’t end up using this draft because I thought it was too much about me and not enough about takeaways for the reader, but since my accidentally clicking “publish” meant it went out to all my email subscribers and RSS subscribers, might as well share it with everybody.

Have fun comparing and contrasting the two versions, and feel free to let me know which one you like better. ❤️

I remember exactly where I was (in my dorm room, in college) when I realized that sending a birthday card was not a single-step task.

First, you needed a birthday card. A blank card could do in a pinch, or a thank-you card with the words “thank you” crossed out and the words “happy birthday” written instead, if you were the kind of person who could pull that off; you could even fold a piece of printer paper in quarters and draw your own card, but you’d still need an envelope to put it in.

Then you needed to write the message.

Then you needed to address the card, which — if you didn’t have the address immediately at hand — could become a step of its own. You might have to dig your address book out of the back of a desk drawer (after searching two other desk drawers first, also, I went to college in the year 2000 when people still used address books). You might have to call your mom to get the address, which meant setting aside an hour for the chat that would come afterwards.

Then you needed to put a stamp on the card. If you were the kind of think-ahead person who bought stamps in books, you might already have one; if not, you’d have to go to the post office or to a place that sold stamps (and although drugstores and grocery stores do occasionally sell stamps, they don’t advertise it; you have to go to the special customer service desk and ask).

Then you needed to find a mailbox. I don’t remember exactly where the mailboxes were in college, but when I lived in Seattle the nearest blue mailbox was a half-mile away (which meant that mailing a letter involved a 20-minute walk; also no, there wasn’t any place to leave letters in my janky dump of an apartment) and the nearest post office was two miles away. (There were a few third-party “Sip and Ship” services that were closer, but there are some things you can only do at a USPS.)

So sending a birthday card, if you were willing to pay extra to buy the card at the post office, and if you had the address close at hand so you could write it on a scrap of paper before you left for the post office, could take a single 40-minute trip. (The extra minutes are for waiting in line at the post office to buy the stamp, or book of stamps if you’re feeling flush.)

But it would more likely be three individual errands: the procuring of the card, the writing and addressing, the stamping and mailing.

I currently have a box of 50 blank cards in assorted designs (though there are probably only 30ish cards left), but I’ve used up my most recent book of stamps. So instead of being able to write the cards and drop them off in the mail slot at my current (non-janky) apartment, I’ll need to block off 30-40 minutes to go to the post office.

I could order stamps online, but when I tried putting them in my cart and checking out, the USPS said I needed to create an account first, and I instinctively noped out of the tab even though I’m sure creating yet another account for yet another retailer would be fine, just fine.

Except it’s supposed to rain all day today, and tomorrow we’re scheduled for 40 mph winds. (I should mention that I don’t own a car; I walk, bike, bus, and take occasional rideshares.)

Which means I might need to order the stamps online after all.

I’m telling you this story because I, like most of the internet I follow, read Anne Helen Petersen’s How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation this weekend — and in my case I didn’t identify with it quite as much as everyone else on the internet seemed to.

Like, I get that something like “mailing a birthday card” is a task that your brain thinks should take five minutes, so you keep putting it off until the next day because it’ll only take five minutes, except when you finally think “I should write that birthday card” you realize you don’t even have a birthday card to write on, and then you think about the amount of steps it requires to get the card and the stamps and the rest of it and it feels overwhelming so you don’t do it.

I get that.

And part of me wants to say “well, if you implement a system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done then you can identify the birthday card task as three discrete errands and schedule them as such, ask me how I know,” but I also know that isn’t what Petersen is really writing about here.

She’s writing about the fact that work and life both take work, and that sometimes the work of work and the work of life are so much work that there isn’t any time left over for the actual life.

I’m not capitalizing work or life in these instances because neither are THE WORK or THE LIFE as defined in last Friday’s post — that is, Petersen’s not writing about the work we’d like to be doing or the life we’d like to be living, she’s writing about the work and life we’re stuck with, partially due to economic crises and late-stage capitalism and the increase in shadow work and smartphones keeping us tethered to our jobs and so on and so forth.

I actually liked Petersen’s post on how she wrote the burnout piece a lot better than the burnout piece itself, btw; it was more personal, and included details like (paraphrased) “maybe the reason why we hate running errands is because they take longer than they used to, thanks to companies cutting staff and forcing us to wait in ever-longer lines, etc. etc. etc.”

But the response to the burnout piece made me want to write about the idea that THE LIFE, and this time I mean the capitalized ideal LIFE you’d like to have, where there’s time to do the work you need to do (capitalized or not) and manage your responsibilities without feeling constantly burned out, takes work to create.

In fact, you could call THE LIFE a creative project of its own.

***

The first time I thought seriously about the life I wanted, and what I needed to do to create that life, was after grad school. I finished undergrad in 2004, moved to Minneapolis for an internship that fell through, and became a telemarketer. When I couldn’t stand telemarketing anymore I started temping at an insurance agency, which paid $13 an hour instead of $9 but was a much worse job; my two major tasks were stuffing envelopes in a silent, windowless room and, four times a day, pushing a heavy cart of copy paper around the office to refill the copy machines. This was before earbuds were a thing, so I kept my brain busy by reciting poems and song lyrics and chunks of text from my favorite books in my head, and decided — whether accurately or not — that the only way out of this type of work was to go back to school.

Like Petersen, I went into grad school with the idea that I would become an academic; I graduated knowing that it was unlikely I would ever become one (or at least not the tenure-track kind), and so I asked one of my professors what kind of job I could get, with my skills, that paid $50,000 a year.

He told me to become an executive assistant.

This is all the uninteresting part of the story, except maybe the part where I committed myself to earning at least $50,000 a year. That was the first step in my decision to create my own life, and maybe it was the most important one (money plays such a huge role in both THE WORK and THE LIFE, after all), but as soon as I got that $50K+ admin job (after a move to Washington DC, a stint on my sister’s air mattress, and a temp job as a receptionist) I took two more steps towards building THE LIFE I wanted:

  1. I told myself I would only rent an apartment that was two miles away from where I worked, so I could walk to work and back every day. This was because a few years prior I had done some housesitting for a professor who lived two miles away from campus, and that morning/evening walk made me happier than just about anything.
  2. I also told myself I wanted to be near an Ashtanga yoga studio, because I had studied yoga off-and-on in the past but now I wanted to start studying seriously.*

At this point I need to acknowledge just how much luck was involved here.** It was August 2007, so we had recovered (mostly) from the dot-com crisis and had yet to fall into the Great Recession. I would not have gotten a starting salary of over $50K if I had been hired six months later. Without that salary, I would probably not have gotten my apartment, though I might have been able to find another one within the desired two-mile radius. There’s a lot that went right for reasons out of my control.

Still, I went into this next phase of my life with deliberate intention, which I’d never really done before. I knew the work I was doing as an executive assistant wasn’t THE WORK I wanted to do with my life. But I had a few key components of THE LIFE I wanted to live, including THE MONEY, all of which probably prevented the burnout that might have come otherwise.

***

Since then, I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to get closer to THE WORK I want to do, THE LIFE I want to live, and THE MONEY I need to fund it all. I’ve made a lot of specific, active choices in the process, some of which led me closer to what I wanted and some of which turned out to be not what I wanted at all.

One of those choices was to get really into time management (in the Getting Things Done sense), which is why I have a box of 50 blank cards at my desk and a list of tasks I need to complete, by day, scheduled a month in advance. Homemaking takes work too, after all.***

Other choices involved — well, I think I’ll save some of those choices for later this week, because this is long enough (and because I want you to have a reason to come back tomorrow, mwah ha ha).

I will note that choosing what you want your life to be like includes some very difficult decisions; in the past year I made the choice to move closer to my parents, for example, which has given me the chance to know my parents better and take advantage of living in an affordable, artsy, bike-friendly Midwestern city, but which also separated me from several close friends, tied me to a particular location, and set up the shape of what my life might look like in the future (a larger caretaking component, probably). I also recently made a choice to take on a creative project that did in fact lead me very close to burnout, and when I realized what that choice had done to my life I had to finish my commitment to the project and then accept that I could no longer take on projects like that; I had too many responsibilities and long-term goals and physical needs for sleep and etc. that took priority.

Plus — and I figure you’re going to put this together on your own at some point, so I might as well make it super-clear — I have chosen and embraced spinsterhood, which gives me certain freedoms (such as the freedom to relocate to an affordable Midwestern city without considering how it might affect a partner or children).

But I’m not telling you all of this because I think your life should be like mine. I’m telling you this because I think making choices about THE LIFE you want takes work, and it’s really easy to find yourself in the life you have instead, and it’s that disparity, as much as the birthday cards and the post office and the rest of it, that causes burnout.

Also money, because money is always involved.

Also there’s a question of whether there’s always a choice you can make, in the “even if your life is nothing like THE LIFE you want, you can still recite poetry in your head at your terrible job and by doing so keep a bit of your own soul” sense, and I will note that during that particular job I did feel relatively soulless, and maybe the only reason I’m writing this now is because I got lucky.****

But more on this tomorrow. ❤️

*I did find a studio, and I’ve kept up my Ashtanga practice ever since.

**Privilege was also involved, of course. In 2007 I was both privileged and ordinary, in the sense that I had advantages that many people didn’t but people with my advantages were a dime a dozen.

***I was once on this panel where someone asked me how I found the time to do all of the creative work I get done, and I explained that I went at it the other way around — I set aside the time to do all of the life-stuff that needs doing (including rest/recharge time) so I could give the rest of the time to my creative work. It was at the point where I said “and the dishes take 20 minutes every night, so subtract 20 minutes for that…” that the audience started laughing.

****And privileged.

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