One of the things I want to do in this space is share with you what I’m reading and learning. This will be a deeper dive into the books, conversations and think pieces that resonate deep within me on a given week, which you might find interesting. #FollowFriday (#FF) seems like a natural opportunity to do just that. So, here’s a sampling of the things that have been on my mind this week.
For those of you who don’t know my husband, let me share with you one of my favorite traits about him: he absolutely loves Tim Ferriss. If I find myself frustrated about a health issue, he’ll say, “Tim Ferriss says…” If I have a technical question about launching the podcast, he’ll send me a list of Tim Ferriss recommendations. If I want to become a better interviewer, he’ll tell me about Tim Ferriss’ method. On and on and on. And I love this about him! Recently he sent me something of Tim Ferriss’ that I think is nothing short of life-changing, though: an email and embedded video about what Ferriss calls ‘fear setting.’ The tag line of his TED talk that you must watch right this minute explains it best – Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals.” The video dives into this concept more in-depth, but the gist is this: your fears carry tremendous weight not because you don’t think about them enough but because you don’t think about them in the right way. And that right way = fleshing out what you’re afraid of; deciding whether it has any merit; determining what you could do on the front- and back-end to prevent and combat those potential outcomes; and measuring how much you stand to lose if you choose NOT to do what you’re scared to do. (There's always a cost to inaction, and we rarely calculate it.) It’s an unexpectedly effective way to take the power away from your fears. Nick and I talked through the multi-step process together when I couldn’t get past my fear of embarking on a creative career. I'm so glad we did.
At a later date I’ll be rereading and sharing much of what I learned from Krista Tippett’s amazing book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, but for now I want to share part of what I recently gleaned from its last section, on hope. I’ve been devoid of hope this week, thanks to more health setbacks, and her words have soothed my fear that things will never get better. Here’s a relevant quote:
“Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open-eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.” [emphasis mine]
Not sure I have very much to add to that, so I’ll simply say, “Amen.”
In the August edition of O, The Oprah Magazine, contributors discuss how to navigate life when someone or something no longer serves them well. “Life’s too short to lug around fears and failures, doubts and disappointments, regrets and assumptions,” the section starts. “If you’re tired of clinging to what hurts you or holds you back, follow the lead of the women on the pages to come—each of whom managed to cast off her burdens and bugaboos and start living free.”
The image that accompanies this text is of a woman sitting in a chair on the beach, closing her eyes while seagulls soar around her. If that’s what freedom looks like, I want to be free! But the topics the women cover in those subsequent pages are heavy. H-E-A-V-Y. I started reading earlier this week and can only read one at a time. They’re daunting. But let me share with you the first one, which I enjoyed, a piece by Robin Romm. She’s discussing the loss of her mother, and her father’s blatant and lifelong disregard for her mother’s home, décor and furnishings. “[H]is priorities didn’t shift once he lived alone. The heater broke, so he simply donned woolens. Bills and medical journals, piled by the phone, eventually cascaded to the floor to be trod upon by his two large dogs. The dogs joined the cat in soiling the [lush Turkish carpet] rugs, which became pricey pee pads until they were put in the basement, leaving scratched floors naked under burned-out bulbs. When I visited, searing anger blew through me. My mother’s house!”
For years she tried to change him. She cleaned up every time she was there, full of anger and resentment, constantly trying to have a conversation with him about how disrespectful he’d been to her mother’s things and, more importantly, her memory. “Mess, rage, clean, mess, rage,” she explains. But it never worked. As soon as she cleaned, he immediately damaged and dirtied the house again.
Then one day, she decided fought the urge to clean or rage. She simply watched. “Why did I care [if the house was clean]? He was living as he wished. Policing the mess brought me no pleasure, and it wasn’t my job. My mother loved her house. My father loved wildness – glacial ice and sunsets, snowshoeing. But he’d also loved my mother, and now, I realized, he couldn’t bring himself to buy new furniture or replace fixtures.” This profound understanding – that her father lost his beloved wife the same day she lost her beloved mother – helped her find her way forward and let him find his.
“I still pitch expired food. I still haul bags to Goodwill. But when one of the big, muddy dogs – reeking of dead deer – lumbers over to me on the sofa, I no longer push him furiously away, thinking only of my mother. More than a decade after her death, it’s my father’s house now. He gets to fill it with his version of life. And this is it.”
Don’t live your life in unfounded fear. Have hope! Let go of the things that do not serve you well, as well as the desire to control. Just be. Savor today for what it is. Stay in the moment. That's where peace, love and joy live.
In the spirit of Anne Lamott, I have another confession to make: I started this blog at precisely the wrong time. You might have read my posts and thought this was a smooth rollout followed by a period of silence and disinterest, but that’s not what actually happened, and I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. My mission today is to set the record straight. Yes, I started this blog on a date that meant something to me, at a time when I desperately needed distraction, and as soon as I finally found the courage to go ahead and do it already. Those things are true. Here’s what I concealed from you: I also launched this blog while I had a massive infection in my head.
See? Precisely the wrong time. I might even get points for precision!
Let me explain. In the last 19 days, I’ve been to the endodontist once, to the dentist twice, to the surgeon three times for a total of 2 hours and to two different emergency rooms on three separate occasions for a total of 9 hours and 15 minutes. I’ve had one surgery, 11 IVs, more types of x-rays than seems reasonable and the pleasure of puking both en route to and inside my dentist’s office. I’ve taken 12 prescription medications, and more than a handful of OTC ones. I’ve made numerous appointments, and canceled a dozen more. (Turns out the back injury I sustained in March cannot be further treated until the infection has healed. Doctors distinguish between acute and chronic pain in ways I didn’t previously understand.) I’ve made friends with nurses! I’ve eaten only soft foods, accepted that my digestive system will hate me for weeks on end thanks to constant antibiotics, and tried to find the humor in the fact that Aunt Flo came to visit the very hour I was given my first general anesthetic.
Here’s the thing, though: I’m fine. For real. It’s been a frustrating, annoying and uncomfortable 19 days, but I am not afflicted with something serious. It’s treatable. Relatively mild. And though it was preceded by a back injury that required multiple rounds of painful treatments and initiated a month-long drug eruption rash due to an allergic reaction, I’m fine. I’ll require another surgical procedure, some more follow-up treatment, intense physical therapy and continued medication, but I promise you I’m okay. My medium- and long-term prognoses are good.
I share these experiences against Liz Gilbert’s advice to write about wounds only after they heal because I want you to know the full “truth of who [I am].” I’m still on a personal and professional journey to create a creative career I can believe in, as my first few blog posts indicated, but I can’t focus exclusively on those endeavors right now. You know why? Becuase I can’t control people or circumstances. I understand and accept that now, without hesitation. Sometimes you injure your back and spend six months recovering from it. I’m not even the only person I know who’s had that experience. Sometimes you get a freak infection in your head while on vacation. Sometimes that infection spreads. Sometimes you have to have surgery, even when you don’t want to and are scared. This is an everyday, rather normal experience. And sometimes when you try new foods, you taste one you don’t like. The same is true of life. I don’t really want to experience this again, but I’ve gleaned every lesson I can from it.
Here’s an even greater truth: you are responsible for finding your own happiness, no matter your immediate circumstances. You still have to find moments of joy amidst the chaos or pain. You still have to find out who you are. Well, you don’t have to find moments of joy, but you can. You’re responsible for them. And you don’t have to figure out who you are, but you might as well. The alternative is wallowing in your own horse shit.*
Yesterday, I ran into our neighbor, J. His wife, H, is younger than I, and last month was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. For years he’s been going to law school at night while working as a patent agent, and he takes the dreaded bar exam today. He’s the definition of exhausted. And while he could bemoan his circumstances – because he worked so hard, recently graduated and got offered a good job, only to find out that his wife has cancer, he doesn’t. Conversations with him are decidedly optimistic and upbeat. They’re infectious. Even more shockingly, so are conversations with H. Her daughter turned 1 the same month she found out her life has been threatened, but she still finds joy in her day-to-day experiences and willingly does what she needs to, to overcome her sickness.
I don’t want to send the message here that there’s meaning in suffering. Sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes experiences are just random. And no one’s pain needs to be diminished by the severity of someone else’s. But the fact that someone, somewhere is going through worse than we are should give us hope and perspective. We can get through this! This is what life has given me recently. I wake up each day determined to make progress (right now that mostly means I should rest), then wake up tomorrow and resolve to do it all again. That’s what life is. In between I try to pause and cultivate gratitude by identifying reasons to love life and celebrate my experiences. This makes life richer, and is where we have choices. Yesterday I gave thanks because I have a husband to hold my hand when I’m scared, who loves staying in and watching Game of Thrones. I give thanks for him all day, every day, really, because he is nothing short of incredible. But I’m grateful for family members who offer comforting words, too, and for friends who demonstrate their love by sending gifts and performing other acts of kindness. They make clear that life is a beautiful and shared experience.
The truth of who I am is a mix of all of this: long-term dreams and ambitions; responses to physical maladies; pleasant experiences; being a family member and friend. That’s how I can excitedly launch a blog on a Friday and cry before my first surgery three days later. I don’t want to use this space to complain, but I don’t want to pretend only good things happen, either. I want to handle tough times with as much grace as I can, and authentically share my thoughts when doing so makes sense. It’s a tough needle to thread. Choosing to be creatively vulnerable is hard, and feeling physically vulnerable makes that choice harder. But I’m committed to finding my voice while finding my way, and this is part of that commitment.
Thank you for supporting me, being patient with me and letting me share my journey. You’re reason to celebrate, too.
* I'd like to consider myself a "family-friendly" blog, but every now and then a written curse word carries a physical weight that I want to convey. If you're feeling sorry for yourself, as I have a gazillion times, you're not just stewing in dog crap. The pile is bigger, messier, grosser. It takes longer to wash off. That's the image I want to evoke here. Thank you!`
Last night my husband and I had dinner with a relative of his, a wonderful young woman I’ll call E. She’s everything I wish I’d been at 25: smart, funny, generous, earnest yet carefree. She lived abroad for most of her childhood, though she now works stateside, having carved out a niche for herself on an important yet undervalued issue. She’s immensely open, having traveled to exotic and interesting locales across the world, but she shares stories of fascinating everyday experiences as well. She reveals very little of the awkwardness I felt at that age, and almost none of the desperation and rage. She is elusive, embodying numerous sets of contradictions, such that I can’t quite put my finger on them. I admire her immensely, and at a decade older than she is, I’m nowhere near as comfortable in my own skin.
At one point during dinner, she was discussing recent career problems and where she was at 15 versus where she is at 25. At 15, she said, she had a very clear picture of who she wanted to be at 25. At 25, she has no idea where she wants to be at 35. She has absolutely no clue what her 10-year-plan is. This is normal, I think, and I told her that. But I also said I’ve experienced that feeling more in the last year than in the 20 years prior.
“I don’t feel lost, exactly,” I shared. “But for the first time in my life I do feel untethered.”
I didn’t mean this in a bad way: I am more open than ever to what the universe holds in store, less confined to what is probable and even less interested in traditional ideas. I live life as best as I can every day now, then get up tomorrow and do it again. I’m not that concerned about what might happen next week or next year.
“I see you being a powerful boss lady,” she responded. “Like Meryl Streep’s character in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, except nicer.”
She meant this as a compliment, and I took it as one. There was a time when I envisioned that, too. In fact, I have vivid memories of a gorgeous spring morning in 2013, when I walked out of my tiny but picturesque 1850’s townhouse in Old Town Alexandria, got into my adorable little Mercedes and drove to Union Station, en route to NYC. I took the Acela, where I sometimes sat near famous chefs, journalists and politicians, then checked in early at the Pierre. I sat at the bottom of the investment firm totem pole, but calculated that proximity to VIPs and power wasn’t nothing. I wore an expensive black Elie Tahari dress, leopard calf hair kate spade heels and red lipstick, and I straightened my hair – but I was underdressed and self-conscious each and every trip like this, because fashion in NYC is simultaneously intimidating and effortless. I read glossy magazines while on the train, checked email while in my Uber Black and commuted to work by crossing 5th Avenue. I ordered room service. All that I needed was more money and recognition. Then I’d be the best version of me – the version played by Meryl Streep in the movies.
I can’t think of that now without stifling a laugh. This morning I woke up in the heart of the suburbs, where my husband and I live, in a nondescript little house that isn’t so little, on a plot of historical land. I actually woke up later than usual today, since I’m still recovering from surgery, and made myself a cup of coffee. I grabbed the “tools” of my trade – three books, a journal, calendar and computer – and put them in my office, then took our dog outside while wearing pink-and-white heart pajama pants. I looked at my 2012 Honda, then at my husband’s 2013 Harley and finally at the flower bed overgrown with weeds. The sun was shining, and the humidity was already suffocating, but I stood there for a minute and took it all in. Then I walked in the house, set the alarm and went to work.
“What happened?!?” I wondered.
I know the answers, and I’ve memorized every twist and turn: leaving the investment world, trying on another job for size, meeting my husband, growing disillusioned with the idea of more money + power and eventually deciding to pursue a creative career. But even knowing how I got here, it’s hard to remember where I’ve been. I feel like a totally different person. What E was telling me was that that she still saw me as a person with a strong personality and commanding presence, with a bright future ahead. She wanted me to believe in myself, to feel empowered, and I adored her for this.
“I understand how you can see that,” I responded. “The woman with the big heart and grand ambitions. But I spend 95% of my time alone now. I work here, by myself. I write, for myself. I interview women whose lives I find interesting. I take on new creative pursuits. I fold clothes and clean the house. I like my life now, and I’m excited about whatever the future holds in store.”
Do I hope that one day I’ll be asked to speak on a panel of women who write honestly and openly about their personal and professional lives? Yes, I do. Do I wish I could travel the world interviewing amazing women, learning from them and telling their stories, too? Yes, I do. Do I hope that my writing will get better and better over the years, so that one day people might pay me to read what I write? Yes – yes, I do. I have ambitions, but I came up with them after tens of months of introspection. I didn’t borrow someone else’s.
This is the hardest thing, I think, for women: to dream our own dreams and chart our own destiny. So much of life is out of our control, but a lot of it isn’t. And in those moments, we get to decide who we want to be, what we want to stand for, what we want to do. I decided that my life’s pursuit should be the pursuit of wisdom, not ambition. I’m fascinated by the knowledge of the grandmother baking a pie in the kitchen, and far less interested in the professional prowess of the badass broad in the boardroom. Maybe the opposite is true for you, and that’s okay – as long as the person who’s told you that you can have it all is you. There’s space for all of our ambitions, and my particular brand of ambition suggests that I could learn a lot from each of you.
Speaking of women who can teach me a thing or two, a few months ago Jia Tolentino wrote an article for the New Yorker that I still think about, entitled, “The Infantilizing Ways We Talk About Women’s Ambitions.” It’s a brilliant recap of cultural messages related to and relayed by ambitious women (e.g., Tory Burch, Ivanka Trump, Sheryl Sandberg), as well as the pushback against those messages. I encourage you to read it. Her discussion of Elisa Albert’s piece on the subject is by far my favorite:
“‘Our contexts are not the same, our struggles are not the same, and so our rebellions and complacencies and conformities and compromises cannot be compared.’ To Albert, ambition is a quality that arises organically from both vanity and a genuine wish to do good work; it’s also something she regards as alien and horrific. ‘So you got what you wanted and now you want something else,’ she writes. ‘You probably worked really hard; I salute you. . . . But if you have ever spent any time around seriously ambitious people, you know that they are very often some of the unhappiest crazies alive, forever rooting around for more, having a hard time breathing and eating and sleeping, forever trying to cover some hysterical imagined nakedness.’”
I hope that isn’t you. I hope you sleep well, breathe deeply and know that you’re not naked. I hope you wear your ambition like the best women do: as an invisible cloak of honor, weightless and regal. I sleep just fine and breathe deeper than ever, in case you wondered. I also wear my ambition like pink-and-white heart pajamas pants.
A few years after I finished grad school, I told someone who knows me rather well that I was disappointed in the beginning trajectory of my career. I didn’t mean that I wasn’t making enough money or doing the type of work that I imagined; those frustrations are standard fare for twenty-somethings. It’s shockingly normal to work hard for years on end and still fear you might never achieve what you set out to achieve. But I wasn’t complaining that my hard work had gotten me nowhere. Instead, I was concerned that, without realizing it, I’d moved quite rapidly – in the opposite direction.
Years earlier, the Director of my Masters in Public & International Affairs program had cautioned all of his students about this: “Each of you writes a stirring story to get into grad school, about how you want to make the world a better place. Then you come here, work hard and write your thesis. But three years after you graduate, you’ll all have sold out to big consulting companies.” At the time I remember thinking, “He’s crazy! That will never happen to me!” But he wasn’t crazy. It had happened. Actually, maybe what had happened was worse. Because by the time I was three years out of grad school, I was working for a huge global investment firm, not a consulting company. (Consulting companies look altruistic by comparison.) I was working on corporate philanthropy and volunteerism issues, sure, but not 100% of the time. I definitely hadn’t made the world a better place since I’d started.
“Well, what did you think you were going to do after you got out of grad school?” my associate asked.
I must have looked dumbfounded.
“Let me put it this way: what was your dream job when you got out of grad school? You pursued this career because you wanted to create world peace. How were you going to accomplish that? Were you going to go into politics?”
I laughed. “Politics is so selfish and craven that it will never be able to solve the world peace problem.”
“Okay, did you want to work in the government – maybe at the State Department?” She wasn’t giving up on this.
“No, definitely not. Career civil servants end up working on one tiny piece of an international problem. World peace will never happen if we depend on a bureaucratic system.”
“So, you thought you’d be working for a nonprofit?” This question hurt more than the rest.
“Maybe,” I hesitated. “Initially that was my plan. But I didn’t have the personality for it, or an advisor who said, ‘This theoretical idea you have isn’t going to jibe with your reality. You’re far too obsessed with efficiency and effectiveness to work at a nonprofit. They don’t work like that. They hobble along doing the best they can, with few resources and tons of demands. If you work at a nonprofit you’ll either burn out or throw up your hands in exasperation, because you’re too impatient.’”
Now, if you know me at all – if you are even a passing acquaintance, you probably already know that I’m still obsessed with the idealistic politics of “The West Wing,” though it hasn't been on the air in over a decade. You probably also know that I think government plays an unbelievably important role in solving almost every problem the world faces, and that I have a deep and abiding respect for the thankless work of nonprofits. What I was conveying in this years-old conversation wasn’t disrespect; it was the realization that none of those career paths were right for me. I’m not capable of seeking approval from the masses or making empty promises, so politics was never going to fit. Neither was the glacial pace of government. And the one career path I’d thought ideologically fitting turned out not to be a good choice for other reasons.
In other words, I’d ended up working for an investment firm not because I’d sold out, but because they’d offered me a job when I didn’t have one, and hadn’t been able to identify other options. I had no professional goals anymore; just student loans. I was treading water. That’s when that professor’s comments started to seem judgmental and wrongheaded. Maybe I hadn't been the only MPIA student whose goals had been unattainable, for whom grad school had failed to prepare for this realization?
“Again, what was your dream?” Goals meant nothing to her. She wanted to resurrect the version of me that dreamed, who wrote that original admissions essay. “Was it for everyone in sub-Saharan Africa* to sit in a giant circle and sing Kumbaya?”
She meant it to be comical, but it resonated deep within me.
“That would be awesome!” I shouted. “Is that an option?!?”
She wasn’t expecting that response from me, obviously. And I know just how ridiculous and unrealistic that sounds, especially in 2017. But yes, that had been my life’s ambition: for everyone around the world, really, to sit in a giant circle, sing songs that bind us together and meditate on peace. For each of us to see that we aren’t so different from one another. That war isn’t our only option. That we can love each other and honor our shared humanity, instead of working to defeat each other. This idea seemed very Nelson Mandela to me. It was reminiscent of the nonviolence of Gandhi. And if Martin Luther King, Jr. had lived to see the mind-blowing tragedies in Rwanda and the DRC, he, too, might have wanted to sit in a giant circle and sing.
It’s clear to me now, 7+ years after grad school, that I was never like most of my fellow MPIA students. I was moved by the stories that came out of places like Rwanda and the DRC**, not by the politics or policies. I felt called to change people’s minds and hearts, even if not through singing. To tell the stories of these tragedies, and thereby drive home their needlessness and horror. To redeem humanity.
If I’d had a practical academic advisor – someone who knew me well and, therefore knew what drove me – he/she might have said, “Hey, Mindi. Have you considered writing? Because that might be a better fit for you. If you want to go to grad school, why not focus on storytelling? If you master that and find you still have a heart for overlooked populations in Africa and around the world, you can tell the stories of their communities and convince others that they are worthy of international attention. That’s how you can make a difference: by doing what speaks to you. If you get your Masters in Public & International Affairs, on the other hand, you’ll always feel like you took the wrong path. And you’ll still have to pay $60k in student loan bills. So, yeah, try writing. It might be a good fit.”
In the last 4 years, I’ve become my own advisor: I know myself well enough to know what works and what doesn’t, what does and doesn’t motivate me. I know that what interests me isn’t fighting against war; it’s cultivating peace. It has absolutely nothing to do with DC. I could have skipped grad school and started my career anywhere, because opening people’s eyes can be done anywhere, everywhere, constantly. You don’t even need a writing degree. You just need an outlet, and a focus. Then you start singing.
* Yes, I realize the phrase “sub-Saharan Africa” is a condescending, paternalistic and racist geopolitical structure that helps those who don’t live there dismiss massive populations of people as backwards, living in an environmental wasteland and undeserving of attention. And, to be clear, she wasn’t the first person to use this term in our conversation; I was. I regret it.
** I highly recommend watching “Hotel Rwanda” (starring Don Cheadle) as an induction into this storytelling genre, then following it up by reading Philip Gourevitch’s excellent “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.”
I have a confession to make: I'm a tiny bit obsessed with Roger Federer. For those of you who aren't familiar with tennis (or sports in general), Federer is the greatest male tennis player of all time, and arguably one of the greatest athletes ever. He's won 19 grand slams, an all-time record, and this weekend won the Wimbledon title for the 8th time. (This is also a record.) He's won 93 career titles overall, 81.81% of his matches and collected prize money worth well over $107m. He's been ranked in the top 10 for the majority of his career, and at #1 for an astonishing 302 weeks. The man is an amazing tennis player.
I could go on and on and on about other stats and records, but I think you get the gist. His talent is unbelievable -- I mean, literally hard to fathom, and there are about a hundred ways to prove this. What's more, he's achieved a level of success that most people my age would kill for, but he's the oldest player in the top five not by months, but by years.
Roger Federer can't be reduced to numbers, though, as David Foster Wallace noted in his incredible longform piece* entitled, "Federer as Religious Experience." DFW comments on Federer's "old-school stoicism and mental toughness and good sportsmanship and evident overall decency and thoughtfulness and charitable largess," but doesn't concern himself with it. What he really wants you to know is that if you had watched Federer play live "on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight," you would have had "what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describe[d] as a 'bloody near-religious experience.'" Federer's level of play is so awe-inspiring that it defies explanation, seems miraculous and, like art, is a beauty that gives you a glimpse of the divine.
But this isn't why I'm obsessed with him. I tend to prefer the underdog. I can't stop thinking about Federer today for two reasons. First, until January he'd spent the last 5 years being the underdog. People wondered if the man they'd deemed "the greatest tennis player of all time" could once find his way back to the front of the pack again. He did. He fought his way back to relevance in the Australian Open, then won Wimbledon, and thereby showed the world great things lie ahead.
Does it surprise you to learn, then, that he lives a quiet life and, even with all that money, still calls to reserve space at the public courts in his tiny Swiss town?** It surprises me, for sure. That's the second reason I can't stop thinking about him. I not only lack his talent; I lack his modesty as well. How is it possible that you can be humanity's best example of something and not exude even a little bit of condescension? I'll never know the answer to this.
Here's what I do know: we learn from our experiences and by studying the wisdom of others, but we also learn by imitating greatness. For today, I want to learn from Federer's. Success doesn't have to mean superiority -- it can mean grace, poise, generosity, wisdom and humility instead. You just can't think too highly of yourself. Roger Federer sure doesn't.
*Every piece DFW wrote was a longform piece. This endnote of sorts is a tribute to him.
**Go read Rosecrans Baldwin's in-depth article about Federer here.
The first two days I was home alone, no job to go to, drove me as close to the edge as I’ve ever been. Until then, I’d purposely crafted an existence that involved no nothingness. I couldn’t bear to be alone and have nowhere to be, nothing to do, so I never sat idle. During the week I worked 60 hours, commuted another 10 and watched TV for an hour before bed. Saturdays were reserved for errands; Sundays were dedicated days to see friends. I traveled 50 - 75% of the time, too, so this helped. And I accumulated TV shows like a genuine collector: with fervor; favoring the old over the new; as a borderline obsessive.
Please imagine for a second what I was able to contribute to conversations on Sundays with non-work friends. I complained that I had too much work to do. I went into detail about drama at the office. I talked about my travel woes, and rambled on and on about the television shows I watched that my friends should have watched until I bored them to tears. Of course, no one was making me work too much. I’d chosen to do that, and I'm sure my friends suspected this. They never said anything beyond, “Ugh, that’s the worst.” No one cares about office drama, either – sometimes even the people who work there. Travel woes yield even less social conversation, because everyone who's ever traveled has missed a flight, no one likes it, and the obvious retort to “Our plane sat on the runway for three hours!” is “But you’re here now…” Oh, and the most obnoxious friend anyone has is the know-it-all with superior taste in television.
So, yes, I’d been a stressed out and insufferable bore for years. I’m surprised I still have friends who knew me during that time period. I was addicted to busyness. My spirit was toxic. I pretended I was normal by showing I participated in the same cultural phenomena they did, but everyone saw through this. We all knew I was lonely and scared; we just silently agreed that they would never ask about it, and I would never admit it. It stayed that way until my brother called me one Saturday evening and I could no longer ignore my how pathetic I'd gotten. The conversation went like this:
Me: Hey, what’s up?
Frank: Nothing much, just on my way back from [something I can’t remember]. What’s up with you?
Me: Well, I just finished dinner and am doing a puzzle.
Frank [incredulously]: It’s 6PM on a Saturday night! Did you move into a nursing home and not tell me about it?!?
That's why, in April 2015, my busy yet boring lifestyle began to change. I started to question whether I’d ever get ahead in my organization and, more importantly, whether I wanted my job to be my defining characteristic. I doubted whether my particular work friends were friends at all. I was lonely and miserable. I wanted more for my future. I was tired of doing puzzles on Saturday nights, alone. So, I started dating again. The first 5 months were awful, and I cried more tears of frustration than I have before or since. But at least those 5 months were different. My many bad dates turned out to be conversation topics my friends took genuine interest in. This little bit of progress gave me the courage to start really using my vacation time and otherwise taking responsibility for my own happiness. The people who love me recognized this change and welcomed it.
Then I met my husband in September 2015, and he rocked my world. I no longer felt like I had to tough out a bad work situation, because he loved me, not my job, and had seen me at my worst. Becoming even busier and more important wasn’t going to impress him, and I wasn't sure they'd make me feel happy and fulfilled, either. Quitting would require courage -- what would I do with my life? what skills do I have? did I have what it takes to step out of a traditional career? how should I use my limited talents and spend my next 30 years? I didn't have the answers, and was terrified to learn them. I much preferred the busyness addiction.
The funny thing about being vulnerable, though, is that it's contagious. Once you allow yourself to be vulnerable in one area, you want to apply it to other realms. Letting down the draw bridge to my heart, dropping my weapons and letting my husband make a home there made me crave professional fulfillment. Busyness wouldn't work for me anymore. I'm not sure it ever did. As Brene Brown says, “Exhaustion is not a status symbol.” If I’d been in touch with what I needed years before, I might have read an interesting and relevant interview she did with Lillian Cunningham for the New York Times in 2012. Here are some snippets (my comments are embedded):
Before I could find that peace and happiness, I had much left to learn. Because quitting my job in July 2016 didn't make me instantaneously happy; it rattled me to my core. That's why the first two days I had no boss, no To Do list and no conference call to dial into, I panicked. Yes, I had a business to run and a wedding to plan, but I didn’t have many clients, and there wasn’t enough to do for the wedding to help me numb out. I felt like a 1950’s housewife, whose husband made all the money and left her home to clean the house. That wasn’t the reality, of course. Nick had told me to pursue my dreams, whether that meant coming up with a marketing strategy to target wedding planning clients, writing full-time or launching a podcast. He encouraged me to view the nothingness before me as freeing. He didn’t expect me to clean the house; he expected me to find a sense of purpose. But I was like a 1950’s housewife: I didn’t know what my dreams were. I'd never been asked, and never explored my interests or emotional depths. I didn’t know how. And I had a feeling a lot of painful processing needed to happen before I could figure it out.
So, I did what any busyness addict would do for those two days: I pretended I had a boss who needed my help; I created an imaginary To Do list; and, I ran unnecessary errands.
See? Older. Wiser. Still a work in progress.
Let’s start here: today is the first anniversary of the day I stopped working for someone else. I’m tempted to tell you that this was the best decision I ever made, but that's not true – I said an enthusiastic ‘yes’ when my husband popped the question. So, let’s say this is the second-best decision I ever made. The runner-up, if you will. Such a big deal that I chose to launch this blog on this date, and now am sharing my rationale.
Where I worked and what I did are unimportant. What is important is that the job was stressful, unfulfilling and unsustainable. I didn't like what I did, and didn't respect some of the people I worked with. My body kept breaking down, as if to say, "you can no longer afford to tolerate the inefficiency and arrogance you encounter on a daily basis," and my soul was so disfigured I didn't recognize myself. One day I caught a glimpse of my future, realized that sticking around wasn’t an option and immediately turned in my resignation. I’ve never regretted it, even for a second.
But people quit their stressful, unfulfilling and unsustainable jobs every day. That's not really remarkable. Neither is this: I chose not to look for another gig. To start off with, I couldn’t identify any jobs I was interested in, and didn't have the stamina to look harder. I had one job interview during this time period and, even though I train others to handle job interviews well, I bombed it. (I couldn’t think of certain words, and was rendered incapable of stringing together complete sentences. Why would they have hired me to work in communications?!?) That was the moment I decided to start my own business, though that isn't noteworthy, either. Here’s what is: I decided to give up and pursue an entirely different career.
It's an odd professional trajectory, for sure. It’s like I ripped up everything I worked so hard for and started all over again. It's madness! I'd worked so hard. But it wasn’t just that the job was stressful, unfulfilling and unsustainable; the career was, too. I'd tried to ignore that voice in my head for years – partly because I’m annoyingly stubborn; partly because I went to grad school to pursue this, and have the student loans bills to prove it – but this time it reached a fever pitch. I could no longer deny that I'd been miserable and toiling in the wrong profession for a decade. Paradoxically, jumping from job to job in pursuit of respite had left me exhausted, and trying to force success had made me angry and defensive. Settling meant becoming a sucker for dead-end opportunities again and again. Demanding that my ideas be respected was fruitless. I was no closer to happiness than when I started, and this seemed like my one chance to do something different.
New beginnings are magical. They're scary, too. But after a year of searching (e.g., reading and listening to the wisdom of others), I've made more progress than I ever could have imagined. I'm calmer and more loving. I'm funnier! I even move slower. And I no longer believe that the happiness equation = ever harder work for decades on end + more money + external validation in the form of promotions. In fact, I think I believe the opposite. I work a fraction of my old hours; I make much less than a fraction of what I once did; I still get very little recognition. Who cares? I spend my days reading, writing and launching a podcast (and, when I have time, cleaning the house and counseling family and friends). I spend less money on material things because I know I don't need them. There is no hole I'm trying to fill. And while I cherish the love and support of my husband, family and friends, I require it less than ever. I'm more secure in myself now.
That's isn't the whole of the story, of course. It's just a sliver. But there's so much truth there. And being older and wiser doesn't mean I have nothing left to learn. I'm still a work in progress. The difference is that now I'm also a writer.