Giving Up The Struggle

You might have wondered how I feel to have all this “time off” while launching Reschool Yourself, given that I’m used to such a packed schedule. Since I left my full-time job in June, my planner has been almost appointment-free. I don’t need to be anywhere, though I keep my commitments to spend time at school. I could be using my afternoons, evenings, and weekends to catch up on all that I’ve missed during my workaholic Spark years. I could be investing it in getting healthy, balanced, and informed, as I’d hoped when I first conceived of the project.

I could be, but I haven’t been. I’ve actually used much of my time like this:

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Monday-Friday

7:20 a.m. Wake up exhausted, make coffee, and get ready.

8:30 a.m. Power walk three blocks and arrive late for elementary school.

8:30 a.m. -1:00 p.m. Do what the kids do, in class and on the playground.

1:30 p.m. – 6 p.m. Work part-time in the office of my dad’s auto repair shop.

6:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. Jog and eat dinner, or tutor.

9 p.m. – 2 a.m. Work on website, talk to Darren, and write. Get mad at myself for staying up too late again.

Saturday & Sunday

Wake up to alarm, feeling anxious and already behind. Make a long To-Do list.

Work all day on blogging, publishing research, website development, or a project proposal that I haven’t finished. Feel like time is running short. Go to bed feeling unaccomplished for having crossed off just a few items from the list.

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As you can see, I’ve created a workaholic schedule for myself. I’m my own worst boss, with To-Do lists a mile long that I can never complete, and constant disappointment when I don’t complete them. I haven’t been taking care of myself, sleeping little and overeating (hitting the chocolate hard). I’m not being paid for blogging and haven’t been making enough money from part-time work to cover my expenses, even though I’m living with my parents. That in itself has been an adjustment — coming home after 10 years of living on my own, and not having a social circle in Sonoma. On top of that, I’ve been dredging up some painful school memories and regret for the choices I’ve made over the last 23 years. You can imagine all why this would add up to a tumultuous time for me. I was so angst-ridden that when Darren was in town for ten days recently, I spent much of the time freaking out and struggling to work instead of enjoying his company. I seemed to meet a daily quota of gypsy tears that week.

This past Sunday was the worst of it. I cried to three different friends on the phone about how I’d hoped that this project would help me find happiness, but I was back to my old masochistic ways. I’d get the same outcome with less effort if I just put on a hairshirt and flogged myself with reeds.

My friend Katie, who was my best friend and support throughout my rocky teen years, wrote me an email that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. These are excerpts:

I’ve thought a lot about what you said the last time I saw you — that you wish you could be happy working at a cafe.  I used to wish the same thing when I was entrenched in the pain of striving to be great.  The desire beneath that, as I’m sure you know, is the desire to just be able to be happy with “good enough.”

She continued with two points:

One: There are a lot more options between working at a cafe and becoming a best-selling author and completely overhauling the U.S. education system.  It doesn’t have to be so extreme.

Two: You and I both know it, but it deserves saying again.  One will never defeat the beasts of perfectionism and ambition through achievements.

Katie’s advice made me see that Reschool Yourself — like Spark, and Public Allies, and my schooling as a whole — had become focused on achieving as highly as I could. It had become about doing things to the absolute best of my ability — and thinking of it as “work.”

One major realization that I’ve had from this project is that in school, I came to see stress and self-sacrifice as necessary ingredients to success. I saw a clear demarcation between school and fun. When I graduated from school, I transferred this attitude to work, with work and play generally being separate. It’s still a foreign concept to me that people could think of their jobs as fun. Fun, to me, is what you have after you’ve earned it by working a long, hard day. And since my blogging wasn’t “real,” (a.k.a. “paid”) work, I never earned the privilege to have fun and felt guilty having any.

Sunday was my breaking point, the point where I finally said, “Enough already.” Enough finding reasons to be angry with myself, enough regretting the past, enough depriving myself of good health and fun because I don’t think I deserve it. Enough creating prisons of my own making with unreal expectations for myself, and enough being stuck on the ways I’ve operated in the past. As my friend Carol says, “You can only move forward.” And I finally decided to do just that.

This week I experimented with not striving for anything, or struggling against anything. I didn’t strive to build a readership for the blog or craft a knockout proposal. I didn’t struggle against time from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed. And paradoxically, I felt that I had so much more time than when I constantly had an eye on the clock. I made only a brief To-Do list, and I ended up accomplishing more than on days where I made lists of dozens of items.

Giving up the struggle and ending up with the desired outcome reminds me of the martial art aikido, where instead of resisting your opponent, you blend your movement with hers. Relaxed in mind and body in even a potentially stressful circumstance, you sense the oncoming flow of energy and move with it instead of against it.

I can’t say that I’ve completely escaped the achievement trap after just a few days, but I’ve reevaluated the way I’ve been going about Reschool Yourself. I’ve followed Katie’s advice about finding a balance between extremes, and letting things unfold as they may. Today I felt more excited and optimistic about my future than I have in months, and I’ll share details about that in upcoming posts. Suffice to say for now, I’ve discovered that truly going with the flow is more productive than striving to control its direction.

Comments (3)

  1. Ide

    Good job investigating the “achievement trap.” This project sounds like it has the potential to be really stressful and, from one Type A to another, I’ve found that when I’m dealing with things like this the sooner I get that under control, the better.
    I have found that taking a walk first thing in the morning and then again in the evening really clears my mind. Job hunting has been really stressful (“OHMYGODWHYDOESN’TANYONE WAAANNNT MEEEE?!), but those walks really help me refocus my energy from negative to positive. Because even going to the gym carries an objective for me, it’s nice to have one activity each day that’s relatively directionless. After I think things through, I always come to the same conclusion: Everything works out eventually, regardless of whether you can force it to heed your timeline.

    Relaxation is something I’ve been working on since college because I realized that this is not the kind of friend, the kind of partner or the kind of parent I want to be. I need to learn to go with the flow now so I can enjoy all the things that really matter when they come along; the things that truly are the most important. And none of them pay a salary.

    Reply
  2. Melia

    It’s interesting that you’ve started taking walks. Since reading the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, I’ve thought about the European tendency to exercise in street clothes, without needing to break a sweat, and the American obsession with the gym. I’m a jogger, like many Type A folks, and don’t feel like I’m really using my muscles unless I push myself. But I think that walking might actually be better for the body — not so much wear and tear, and good for clearing the mind, as you say.

    I’ve gotten used to taking walks with Gill and Darren, and I find that it lets me take in the little things. The other night Darren and I heard strange sounds while walking out in the country roads and stopped to listen. It turned out to be a snoring pig! If I’d been jogging, I wouldn’t have even noticed.

    Regarding letting achievement spiral out of control, I’ve been thinking on the same terms, “that this is not the friend, the kind of partner or the kind of parent I want to be.” Before I have kids, I want to make sure that I’m not too busy and stressed to listen to a knock-knock joke or play catch at the spur of the moment. Right now I want to be the kind of daughter, friend, and partner who can sit and sip a beer and watch the sun set instead of declining because I have too much to do. What else is life about?

    Reply
  3. Mr. Hsu

    How did we get to the point where enjoying life’s simple treasures fell to number 15798706 on the list of things to do?? Striving for perfection should be at least 3 or 4 spots below enjoying life.

    I struggle with the relativity of my life daily. Understanding that my “perfect” may not even be somebody else’s good enough, and conversely that my “good enough” may far outweigh somebody else’s perfect. It’s all relative, and there is no right or wrong. Best to just enjoy the ride, all of us and our ultimate imperfections.

    Reply

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