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Your work is not your life | Just Reflections - Issue #4
This one is going to be quite special and hard for me. Those who know me know how much of a productivity junkie I am. I enjoy working. I find it hard to just chill.
I've been on vacation for the past two weeks and instead of planning a trip or anything like that, I spent the two weeks mostly at home, just chilling. I didn't learn any new tech; I didn't look at any code; I didn't work on a side project, nothing. In between reading random things on the internet and writing this newsletter, I was a complete slouch. I haven't done this in a very long time and I learned some things from this experience. And as usual, I read some related things as well. Let's talk about it. First, some context.
There's more to life than work
I feel like I am in the world to make the biggest impact I can and I measure a lot of things by the amount of work I do. So efficiency in this is really important to me.
I struggle to keep myself from checking my emails or keeping track of what the progress of work is, even when I am on holiday. I work on average 16 hours a day and I relish feedback about hard I work and how I am able to instantly make myself available when something needs me or when a team member needs help. In fact, for most of 2019 and 2020, I worked 2 jobs across two time zones so I had my work chat and emails set up to sync across all my devices, including personal ones, so that I'm constantly available to both my South African Standard Time (SAST) and my Eastern Standard Time (EST) colleagues. When I have free time, my struggle is usually in deciding whether I should keep researching the challenge I faced during formal work, watch a coding tutorial or work on my latest side project.
As a result, my career has progressed really fast, especially for someone with no formal training in software engineering, and I've achieved some impressive things. Unfortunately, there are many people in my field who work harder than me, produce more than me and whose careers have progressed much further and faster than mine. And many of them also don't have formal training in software engineering. Which, according to Anne Helen Peterson — one of the foremost writers about burnout among millennials — defines burnout well.
"Burnout is the condition of working with such vigilance and for so long but somehow never getting to a feeling of stability and never feeling any form of catharsis."
I've always thought that this is probably a little unhealthy, and it's not something I can keep up my whole life. In my mind, I'm making the most of my years of youthful vigour so that I don't have to work as hard when I'm older.
Living like this has been easy because I really enjoy the work I do and as the mantra goes, "do what you love and you'll never work another day in your life". Apparently, this is quite detrimental. Anne Helen Petersen in the book "Can't Even - How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation" shares this insight.
“The rhetoric of ‘do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life’ is a burnout trap. By cloaking the labor in the language of ‘passion’, we’re prevented from thinking of what we do as it is: a job, not the entirety of our lives.”
Because I love what I do, I've failed to think of work as work and it's taken away from the rest of my life. The month preceding my vacation; I was feeling really worn out. I was struggling to stay focused or motivated. I was zoning out and dosing off in the middle of the day. I would sit through meetings and hardly hear anything. While I still loved my work, I felt pretty spent. It doesn't help that the goal of all this is increasingly elusive as Thomas Frank points out:
"It's very easy to start to peg your sense of self worth and satisfaction to some kind of external metric. Be it money or likes or followers or whatever it is and you don't just want to see this metric going up, you want to see that change happen faster and faster over time. I call this, 'the acceleration addiction.' Over time, the same increases don't feel as meaningful as they used to because our brains lack the ability to disregard our point of reference."
I'm able to freely, and publicly, share these things because during my lazy break I've really taken time to think about the meaning of my life. I don't want this to be a dragged out analysis of my bad habits, so let's look at the lessons I've learnt in my bid to live better.
What will be the measure of your life?
Nobody on their deathbed ever says, "I wish I had spent more time working." Reflecting on this, this question that Anne Helen Petersen asks in a talk she gave at the 12th Annual Adobe 99U Conference has stuck in my mind, "If you take away what I do, what's left?".
"For many of us, the end of a career is the end of a conceptualisation of self. Because for many of us, bourgeois millennials in particular, our careers have been deeply intertwined with our understandings of self. We've worked so much and we've worked for so long to get even a tenuous hold in our industries. If you take away what I do, what's left? Sure we're still partners and mothers, friends and members of the community but we've spent so long concentrating our efforts on work that the prospect of losing it feels like an existential crisis."
While losing your job is indeed a big problem, if you find that the prospect of it threatens your very sense of self, then it's probably time to take stock of your life.
Our careers have become the core of our lives, with everything else relegated to just supporting activities. Working with intensity isn't necessarily a problem, it's the way we think of ourselves and others as productivity robots and how we normalise instability. We've idolised being busy to the extent where it's now a legitimate excuse we give for failing to spend time with friends and family. If you find that you're always busy, consider these words by Sara Cameron.
"Balance takes work, it's easier to be busy. ... and it's an easy way to avoid uncomfortable feelings ... like loneliness, grief, sadness, anger. So if you identify as being crazy busy, what might you be avoiding?"
Bronnie Ware in the book "The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing" talks about how she watched over 2000 people pass away. In it, she summarizes their biggest regrets in their death.
Spend more time with loved ones
Courage to express feelings
Live a life true to self
Hadn't worked so hard
Let myself be happier
I don't want to look back on my life and realise that I have neglected my wife. That I've failed to make time for my parents and to cherish the moments I still have with them. That my friendships are just husks of their former glory.
On my great goal of wanting to make a difference Buddhist monk Master Hsing-Yun has this to say,
"'Changing the world' is too presumptuous. Perhaps just a cloak of magnanimity for your vanity. Care for others from your heart and lead your life by giving unconditional love."
The surest way to make a difference and truly change the world is to be there for those who need us now and to love our neighbour.
At your most vulnerable moments, your work will do very little for you. It's your friends and family who will be there. Give them the attention that you should while you still can.
Be fully present!
I've obsessed a little about finding lessons in the Disney Pixar film Soul (seriously, watch it!). Let's look at some of them.
Your life comprises more than your passion, don't chase your passion so intently that you don't live life.
In the film, the lead character Joe thinks that after performing with the jazz quartet — a dream he's had his whole life — he will finally start living. But as he learns later on in the film, he was already living. As one character says:
"I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, 'I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.' 'The ocean?' says the older fish, 'that’s what you’re in right now'. 'This?' says the younger fish, 'this is water. What I want is the ocean'."
It reminds us that life is not just about chasing the big goals, but being fully present in each moment and enjoying where we are. Slow down and enjoy the little things you walk past every day. Breath in the air, let the rain hit your skin, laugh with friends, and take in the view. Those brilliant and vibrant parts of life are just as worthy of celebration as accomplishing our big goals.
This is also a reminder to celebrate the big things as well. Sure, you're not where you want to be and maybe your peers are far ahead. But you're also far ahead of where you used to be. Sometimes we don’t realize the greatness that surrounds us because we’re so caught up in trying to reach a destination. We don’t appreciate the joy in the journey and the greatness of where we already are. As my favourite fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson puts it,
"Life before death, strength before weakness, journey before destination."
The film also introduces us to people called "lost souls". These are people who were trapped in their monotonous jobs or had become overly obsessed with something. As Moonwind — one character — puts it, "Some people can’t let go of their anxieties and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life." The lesson here is about keeping tabs on where we are investing our time and making sure we don’t let it disconnect us from every other part of our lives.
We need to redefine what a life well-lived looks like. Sure, if you stop for every moment, it will slow you down. You likely won't be a perfect cook, CEO and child carer. If you perfect one, others will probably suffer. If you aim to do all well, you likely won't be the best at any one but that's okay too.
Okay, this is getting too long. Let me end by saying I still enjoy my work and I look forward to getting back to it as my holiday is ending. However, I'll also be taking a first step towards rebalancing my life, which is that when I work, I will work intensely, quickly and more efficiently. But when I leave it, I will truly leave it and bring the same intensity to the rest of my life and be a rockstar husband, son, brother and friend. What will you do to live your life more fully? Hit reply and let me know.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.