I've been following your column for about a year, and even though I can't always relate to the exact situations of the letter-writers, there are always wonderful gems of wisdom to be gleaned from your responses.
I was inspired to write by a recent essay that appeared on Salon by a "reluctant loafer."
I have never been a very ambitious person, though I am a hard worker. When I was young, I shirked major responsibility -- it terrified me, and my follow-through was never too hot. I was a decent student, just not president of any clubs. As I got older, opportunities did come up that put me in middle-management positions, which I fared pretty well at due to a strong work ethic and a fair / sound mind. But I never wanted to be THE person in charge. That level of responsibility seemed scary, and I never felt comfortable being the ultimate shot-caller.
So I'm a solid middle-manager but still not the most ambitious person or a busy-body. Like the essay-writer, I love doing nothing when I don't have to. My friends think it's odd that I'd rather stay home and relax on a weekend than go live it up. I have my share of fun times, but when I am not obligated to something, I'd rather just "chill" -- read a book, listen to music, go for a walk or organize files.
My question has to do with where I've come the last few years and where I need to go. In the past, I've been comfortable in the middle -- positions that put me in a somewhat advisory role yet allow me to have the quiet and calm life I so crave (and need) out of the office. A few years ago, I accepted a higher-level position at a vibrant nonprofit. Although I am not the ultimate boss, I am only one step below and bear a great deal of the responsibility. The nature of the business we do requires me to be on call 24 hours a day, and there are over 200 volunteers to oversee. No small feat.
This job has opened up an incredible amount of opportunity. I have learned a great deal and made connections both professionally and personally that will stay with me for a long time. The first two years nearly killed me, though, adjusting to the level of stress and dramatic change in lifestyle. It's demanding and very draining. While I do have some strengths, going on four years I still find myself struggling with certain aspects. I have to wonder -- am I still learning, or is this "just me"? I'm 32, I'm not sure what parts are still, well ... malleable.
Since Day One, I had no idea if I'd make it even one year. Going into my fourth, things have become a bit more manageable. I don't lose sleep at night feeling overwhelmed, but that is how the first two to three years went. Last year I got really run down and ended up sick from mononucleosis, which forced me to take a month off. That break brought amazing clarity, and I made concerted efforts after that to take care of myself. Things calmed down somewhat after that. The lingering sickness allowed me to take time off if I felt too exhausted, and some of my workload was spread out. That was temporary, though.
I recently had some scheduled time off, and the old feelings are starting to creep up again. We have a major project coming up in the next year, and it's starting to scare me. I don't want to be someone who runs away from life's challenges, but I also don't want to be someone who is in over their head, making themselves sick all the time trying to keep up. Healthy challenges are one thing, but not being qualified or "cut out" for something is another. I just got back from the aforementioned time off, and I still feel pretty sapped energy-wise. This affects my motivation and productivity, which makes me feel even worse.
I do have other plans for "down the road." I'm only 32, and while I'm not in a big rush, I am thinking about the next three, five, 10 years. There is a part of me that would love to do what I do now long-term if I could once and for all ADJUST. But if it hasn't happened yet, will it ever? I get into good stretches but always seem to fall back into the bad ones. I am torn, because it's a great gig that revolves around something I am passionate about.
I'm writing to try and gauge my own feelings with what's reasonable or normal. I am grateful to have this job, especially in this economy, but I would never stay somewhere just for the security -- I don't have a family to take care of, so I have some options still. I was in talk therapy the past year, which I started because of work-related stress. While I did work through a lot, my therapist never advised me directly. Right now I just want some straightforward feedback. I've spent three years trying to figure it out on my own, and I'm still not sure. I thought my attitude and self-confidence needed adjustment, but maybe it's just who I am.
Happier Taking Direction
Dear Happier Taking Direction,
You're being taken advantage of by the nicest of people. You have to say no.
The people you work with are not thinking of you. They are thinking of themselves. They will work you as hard as they can. They will not stop until you drop from exhaustion. When you drop from exhaustion, they will find somebody else. So it is up to you to manage yourself. It is up to you to say no.
You don't have to say no by saying no. You can say no by saying that conditions are not right at the present time for such an initiative. You can say that the person who needs to get back to you to OK such an initiative has not gotten back to you yet because she is in Australia.
You are not surrounded by people whose primary thought when they wake up in the morning is how can they make sure you are happy and comfortable. Their thought is how can they get the most out of you so they have to do less themselves. It's not that they're evil. We're all under the same strain. We're organized around the idea of always getting more. So your responsibilities will expand as long as you keep saying yes, and so you need a fundamental shift in your thinking that admits the existence of an adversarial relationship at work. You are working in a supposedly enlightened place, but you have no union. Without a union and workplace rules, you are at the mercy of whatever your boss wants. It is doubly hard to combat this when you are working for a cause you believe in.
But here's the other thing. I'm going to sound angry and crazy when I say it, but whatever. OK, I'll just say it: We have a system that keeps workers in fear.
It's not you. It's the system we've allowed to come into being, and I dare say it's come into being because the people it benefits are powerful enough and clever enough to keep it going, and the people it hurts are well-meaning but frightened and lack the foresight and the practical organizational strength to stop it.
We do not live in a good society. That's another thing.
This is not a society dedicated to the care of others and the pursuit of wisdom. Wouldn't that be an amazing society? But that's not the one we have.
You live in a world that tricks you into believing that if you do what it says you will be happy. You won't. You won't be happier if you get the top spot. You won't be happier if you answer every call.
You say you work for a cause you believe in. You might be happier if you work more directly for your cause. I'm not sure what cause that is, but if it's, say, to create safer conditions for fishermen, you might be happier if you were actually fishing. Or if it's to keep the environment pristine, you might be happier if you were actually in that environment keeping it pristine. Or if it is an organization dedicated to helping people, you might be happier if you were actually helping those people yourself. That's one thing that happens with organizations, is that they alienate us from the ennobling activities they are formed to promote.
So there's that.
And this other thing is about being a person in an adversary relationship to the large economic and social forces that affect you. I grew up in a time when this was clearer. But it is still clear today.
Nothing has changed structurally; we are still a hateful, war-waging culture that denigrates women, celebrates killing, despoils the planet, plunders the resources of less powerful people, keeps a permanent underclass in virtual economic slavery and wages imperialist wars abroad. We're still the same country we were when I was growing up in the 1960s.
We just have better games.
That's it in a nutshell. The "military-industrial complex" Dwight Eisenhower warned us about had a public-relations disaster in the 1960s, when it failed to adequately sell its project to America's youth. Since then, it has learned.
The other day I was walking along wondering about the differences between people in their 20s and 30s today and during the 1960s and 1970s, marveling at the happy, well-adjusted faces I meet in the cafes and clothing stores, and wondering why my anguish and panic at our global state does not dent their cheerfulness, and also thinking about my largely unsupervised youth, unhygienic and renegade, and it occurred to me to see that today's parenting regime seems to have coalesced around the project of keeping youth constantly socialized and trained and busy so that they cannot sit around and wonder what's wrong. Because wondering what's wrong leads to troubling conclusions.
We have responded to the problem of existential anxiety not by confronting it with existential philosophy but by creating an ever-larger and more sophisticated web of 24-hour distraction and socialization training, so that young people are prevented from attaining the socially analytical skills that might lead them to see how they're being fooled. If they saw how they are being fooled they might disrupt the functioning of this system. They might go on strike. They might bring the whole thing crashing down.
Keith Olbermann the other day suggested we take to the streets. What happened? Nothing.
We don't know how to take to the streets. Besides, it looks just awful on television.
So you can go ahead and do your job, but just be aware that you are being conned. You are living in a dishonest and rapacious culture, and you are doing the best you can to make it work for you. Even those of us working for causes we believe in are working in a basically anarchic, amoral system, without the benefit of unions or workplace protections and in an economic system that has no moral foundation.
That's what we do. That's who we are. And that weird anxiety you feel from time to time, that's not a problem. That's just the truth seeping in.
You're OK. It's the world that's messed up.
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