I read an article the other day in The Atlantic by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen about How to Care Less about Work, an except from their new book, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home.
I read the article with a deep resonance and a sense of guilt, then bookmarked it to read again and didn’t go back to it until I wrote this post.
The article presented the idea that part of the reason we are all burning out during the pandemic is because we are investing our professional lives with too much importance, too much relevance. We are defining ourselves too much by the work that we do that raises the money to support us; and not enough by who we are outside work.
It is something that I came to recognize several years ago, when I left the company I had worked for, for over 30 years. I left by my own decision but I still felt ripped out of my success zone, a zone where I had been comfortable and confident for much of the previous 8 years – and periodically before that, my time there having been an ongoing cycle of love/hate. The final year had been one of discomfort, fear, and loathing and burnout – and, with the company refusing to walk their talk about how people were expected to treat each other, I chose to leave.
And found myself alone.
One of the things that had always kept me there were the people. People who I valued and who, I thought, valued me. I had a lot of work friends. When I left my job, those friends disappeared, neglected to return my calls, my emails – and I realized that, when you leave a system, that system stops having use for you, and you cease to exist.
A big part of me ceased to exist.
I knew I needed help and hired a career coach. For much of the time that I worked with her, I was in mourning for who I wasn’t any more. I couldn’t figure out how to describe my skills and experiences in a way that explained to others what I was capable of, how my work would bring value to their organization.
I couldn’t let go.
One day, I had lunch with a mentor and I confessed that, when my husband and I had returned from a trip overseas and I had to fill out that customs form on the airplane – the form that requires your profession – I had hesitated. For 31 years, I had proudly written Bookseller on that form. Now I couldn’t write that any more. I felt shame because I didn’t know what to write instead.
And I began to weep.
Finally he stopped me and told me that I wouldn’t be able to move on until I cut my old job out of my life. I had to stop reaching out to people I used to work with, stop offering to help other people who had left the company, stop following the company on LinkedIn, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop for my own sanity.
He was right.
When I cut the company out of my life – not to the extreme that he recommended, but mostly – it became easier to see myself independently of them. I worked with a different career coach to learn how to retell my story in a different way, a way that would enable employers to see how hiring me would serve their company. I recast my resume, not to focus on the things that made me feel proud about my former job, but on the things that would get me an interview, an opportunity to tell my new story.
But I still define my success in life by my professional successes. When I feel successful at work, my life is better than when I am challenged at work. When I fail at things at work, I feel that my life is a failure.
This is not healthy.
In the Atlantic article, the authors recommend reconnecting with the things you enjoyed as a child, the things you enjoyed doing because they made you happy, not because you would be rewarded at school for doing them, or because they would look good on your college application, or that would make your family proud. They recommended that, once you identify these things, instead of seeking a job that would allow you to get paid for doing them, that you begin to carve out time in your life to do these things as unpaid hobbies.
Things that you do purely for the joy of doing them.
For me, these things include:
Before I even entered school, I had started writing – usually quirky, somewhat supernatural stories with a humorous twist at the end. Now, when I am in the throes of really strong emotion, I work it out by writing children’s stories. I have completed a huge number of stories that, when I share them with others, people like.
While I believe they are good enough to be published, my writing remains a hobby for me because, to get published would require me to invest time in marketing them, finding a publisher or an agent. That makes it feel more like a job.
I did this for a while when I was younger, with some success, and it’s like job hunting: researching who might want you, writing cover letters, sending off your work, and having it rejected again and again.
That experience takes the joy out of writing for me.
When I was a child, I was always putting on skits for my family. I would marshal my sisters or cousins or friends, we’d come up with a theme, and put on a show – usually involving dancing, singing, and jokes.
In high school, I took up acting. While I loved putting myself into someone else’s character, what I really enjoyed was creating my own characters or creating a skit that told a story: the passive-aggressive couple who soft shoed their way through murdering each other over tea, to the tune of Tea for Two; the school secretary whose personified office equipment rebelled against her for Secretary’s Day; the pantomime character who found herself lured by the gods of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, resisted, and collapsed.
Having discovered the joy of performing, I majored in Drama in college but I couldn’t make myself do the work required to move into the profession of acting. I found a job that didn’t involve performing and used that as an excuse not to pursue acting opportunities at school or looking for acting work.
I went back to performing several years ago, through Toastmasters, where I can get up in front of a room and give a speech, or evaluate someone else’s speech, or lead a meeting, or give short, impromptu answers to random questions. I love it. I love it so much, I’ve toyed with the idea of doing professional speaking.
But I just can’t believe that I would have anything to say that would cause people to want to pay me to speak to them. I’m not anything special. I’m just a person who has a lot of ideas and loves performing. And, again, the idea of doing the work to find gigs, to market myself, would take the joy out of it for me.
I started riding as a baby, on my grandfather’s farm, in front of my mom on the saddle or in a carrier on my dad’s back as he rode my grandfather’s walking horse. Later my grandfather bought us ponies – yes, someone gave me a pony as a little girl – and we rode every day during the summer vacations and holidays that we visited him.
As I grew older, I took riding lessons locally and eventually had my own horse for a year or so. Then, due to a number of circumstances that I won’t go into here, my mother started riding Nugget more than I did, and I moved on. But I keep an eye out for opportunities to ride again – and once even did. (And spent long hours afterwards wishing for a hot tub and regretting that my horse-riding muscles were no longer in shape.)
Riding, for me, was something I was good at individually and as part of a pair with the horse. It happened outdoors in a beautiful setting. You didn’t have to get a team of people together to do it – one of the reasons I never took up D&D: I could never get anyone to play with me. A team’s success didn’t depend on me: if I made a mistake, no one was going to get mad at me. No one was going to cut me from the riding team. And there was something about the grace of riding, of aligning your movement with that of the horse, of influencing the horse without speaking, that took me out of myself.
The exercise I lean towards as an adult share some similarities: yoga (which I haven’t done in the last two years); tai-chi (which I was using to cheat on yoga when the pandemic hit); walking. Tai-chi and yoga shared a companionship aspect with riding. I often motivated myself to get up and go to a 6 a.m. class by imagining myself greeting and chatting with the teacher or with the other students that I knew. Classes that dissatisfied me were the ones where the teacher didn’t seem interested in us as students – not providing corrections or adjustments – or where the class was full of groupon-holders who were just in for the day.
So, as I start to increase my exercise levels, I will look for a local walking club, people I can form companionship with so that I am incentivized to get off my butt and get walking again.
One of the things I love doing is learning about different things then putting them together in novel ways. When I was in college, I took an African Art course and an Old Testament course at the same time. I put together the idea of the idols that Abraham abandoned and the gods in African Art and wrote a footnoted paper tying the two together, more for fun than anything else.
And it worked.
I still do this – finding interesting facts and ideas and using them to reframe other, unrelated, facts and ideas. In fact, when I asked one of my work friends who has known me a long time, for suggestions about what my strengths are, he called out that differentiator.
I use this skill in the video games that I play, which I often describe as getting dropped into an unfamiliar environment without any rulebook, solving puzzles, persuading angry ghosts to give you things, discovering clues, and finally figuring out what the heck you need to do to solve the game.
I use this a lot at work. Sometimes life seems like this in general: one big puzzle that I am convinced I can solve if I can just find that secret key! (I know, this isn’t right, but on bad days, it keeps me going.)
Reading to Children
When my nieces and nephews were young, I loved reading to them. I love picture books and reading aloud, encouraging them to take pleasure in the rhythm of the words, the sound of the voices, the ideas and images that the author introduced, brought me joy.
And they outgrew it. They stopped liking to be read to.
So I volunteered to read to first graders down under the Manhattan Bridge. And I loved it.
If I had lived in London during the Blitz, I would have been the lady in the corner of the underground with the lantern and a pile of picture books, reading aloud to a sea of children, distracting them from the fear and the worry that they felt, giving their parents a little alone time to deal with their own fears.
My volunteer reading ended last year, one more victim of the pandemic. Last year I toyed with the idea of recording myself reading The Hobbit aloud and posting it on You-Tube or something. But then I worried about the copyright laws and got all in my head and went nowhere with it. Instead, for an online talent show at work, I animated one of my children’s stories and recorded myself reading it. That was fun but I used powerpoint, which it’s not really designed for and, if I was going to do more, I’d want to use an animation program, and I’m not sure I want to put that much effort into a hobby…
When it’s safe again, I plan to resume reading to children. I may have to find a new non-profit to do it with, but there are several around.
Aside from That
I’ve toyed with other possible hobbies – the idea of drumming appeals to me, I think because of the noise. I used to sing and I looked into that a few years ago and found that, unless you belong to a church or take up karaoke (which is more about performing for others than anything else), it’s hard to find a place to sing recreationally in NYC. I did take a singing class – and hated it.
The authors say that you may need to force yourself to reconnect with your hobbies at first. You have to plan to spend time on them, overcome your reluctance to try, to fail. Overcome the temptation to tell yourself that you could turn your hobby into a profession or try to win prizes for it, or gain any other kind of recognition. And make it something you do on your own, at least, at first – don’t try to make it a thing with your sigoth or your family; start your journey alone and if they join you later, that’s nice but not required.
The goal is to just spend time doing something you love, something that brings you joy – and not strive for success or external rewards for doing it.