Category: Life

Embracing Vulnerability (Especially When You’re Bad At It)

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.” 
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

The past few months have been challenging on the work front, but in an unusual way: most of what has challenged me has been a result of success and advancement more than setback. This is not a bad problem to have! I’m gratified by the opportunities I’m getting, while simultaneously intimidated or by many aspects of them at the same time.

Almost every day week I am confronted with a challenge or issue that I have never faced before. On the one hand, this is extremely good for me and my career as it compels growth. I enjoy the opportunity to shape my work and take ownership of certain issues that I want to improve or contribute to. On the other hand, it’s also been difficult navigating uncharted territory 100% of the time. I fret inordinately about making mistakes and being out of my depth–even if these worries are usually unfounded when I take a step back and look rationally at my situation.

This past month, after a particularly bad and long lasting bout of anxiety in the face of yet more unexpected challenges, I decided to try and do something that is very difficult for me: be more vulnerable.

Opening up. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve been thinking lately on how I’ve confused honesty with vulnerability. Honesty is not difficult for me; I’m notoriously lacking in poker face and tend to operate on a policy of complete transparency. This applies to my professional life as well as my personal. I have neither the skill nor patience for personal politics and would ten times rather attack problems full on than sidle up to them sideways. I also don’t tend to hide my opinions or emotions (even when I wish I could). However, honesty is not vulnerability. The former implies providing something to me, the latter requires receiving, and often also involves an element of risk. I took a few risks this month and tried to communicate more openly with key people about how I’m coping (or not) with certain circumstances and ambitions. In some cases I’ve tried to be humble and ask for help or guidance, in others I’ve pitched new ideas or projects. While I haven’t always gotten the answers I’ve wanted, these conversations have helped reduce uncertainty or confusion.

Being out of my comfort zone. I’ve had to make some tough decisions in areas which were new for me. Whether it’s balancing bigger budgets or running different kinds of projects or dealing with new-to-me people management situations, I’ve had to make judgement calls which have higher stakes. And I’m going to have to manage the consequences of these decisions, both good and bad, and only some of which I can anticipate. Which leads me to….

Learning to be uncomfortable. There is a world of difference between things that are bad for you or toxic, and things that are simply temporarily difficult or unpleasant. After a few years dealing with the genuinely toxic in a few areas of my life, I am still learning to differentiate between the two. Discomfort isn’t fatal–it’s probably a larger part of the human condition than thrilling joy–and learning to navigate periods of discomfort and difficulty is a skill that I need to hone. I am am trying to learn how to be more at peace with my own inexperience and fears–to acknowledge them and deal with them while not allowing them to cripple me. This is very new emotional space for me and not very good at existing in it yet, but I’m trying.

Let’s chat about vulnerability in the comments. What does that look like in your life and how have you leaned into it–or fled from it, as I tend to do?

How Living in London Has Taught Me What I Value

“Some men are born to own; can animate all their possessions. Others cannot; Their owning is not graceful; seems to be a compromise of their character; they seem to steal their own dividends.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

A minimalist I am not; I love “stuff.” I enjoy material objects and the process that goes into finding interesting ones, choosing them, and caring for them, but simultaneously and paradoxically also have a weird sort of detachment to stuff. Growing up in a military family meant that every couple of years, we would uproot and move everything we owned into a new home. When this (frequently) involved shifts between countries and even continents, we would often have to downsize our possessions to meet weight limitations. Going through a few rounds of this has meant that I have had plenty of experience in sorting out the things I value from the things that are just nice to have. This is something I have had cause to examine even more in recent years as I’ve tried to publicly dissect my relationship with consumerism and money.

On a fairly recent post, faithful Friend of the Blog Caitlin commented,

“I have always valued creative freedom and financial security over anything I could buy otherwise. Both come at a cost — i.e. NOT buying a lot of stuff and experiences I would very much enjoy because I had to save money and live frugally.”

Her note triggered a realization for me that I have alluded to before but not fully teased out before: most of the things of value that Jeff and I own, things we have spent our money on and would mourn if lost, could reasonable be hustled out the door at very short notice. Or as I put it in a reply,

“Reading your follow up made me consider again how few “big” items Jeff and I own. If we needed to, we could throw almost everything we own of value into suitcases and just GO. The major casualties would be a couple of pieces of furniture which would cause a pang, but we don’t have a whole household that we’d lose in an emergency or disaster. I think our purchasing history reflects the idea that what we really value at this season in our lives is mobility.”

When we moved to London, we did so with two suitcases a piece. While difficult, it was doable. If we ever leave London, I’d hope to take quite a bit more than that with us, but if I needed to flee with only basic luggage, I suspect I could. Mobility. I’m not sure if that reflects an inner, enviable flexibility in the face of possible adversity, or a deeper need to be able to run away from present circumstances if necessary (possibly both?) but whatever it is, I have clearly chosen to build key aspects of our life around it as a concept.

Living in London for over five years has given me many chances to evaluate what else I value in this season.

Being in the thick of things. London is a tough town but I still get a thrill living in a place where so much happens. I enjoy watching the news and knowing some of it is taking place just up the river. I like watching films and TV shows and being able to identify specific familiar locations, sometimes down to the very neighborhood and streets they were shot on. I love living in a region where interesting art is being created and important cultural discussions are being argued. It’s not always comfortable, but it is never boring.

Ease of cultural access. Whether it’s food, entertainment, easy travel to most of Europe, Africa, and the Near East, or just street culture, London is a smorgasbord. Having lived (and not thrived) in monocultures before, I have a hard time envisioning ever living in one again. Multiculture is inherently more complex and difficult to navigate at times, but I find it enriching and rewarding.

Possibility and the ability to change my mind. Whether it’s been in matters of community or career, living in circumstances that have allowed me to pick a new direction is incredibly valuable to me. I have lived in locations and circumstances that were stultifying; while London might stress me out, it has never bored me or restricted my choices. I recognize what a privilege this is and I’m grateful for it every day.

Memories and experiences. Most of the things that would make it into an emergency suitcase are small items with some kind of emotional value: a teddy bear that has been with me literally since the day I was born, my wedding jewelry, my passport.

Reading over this list, I am struck by how much of this feels transient in some way–which is odd because we have no plans to move at any point in the foreseeable future. We have invested a lot to live where we do and are working through the process of making this a permanent home. And yet, whether it’s change or excitement or (again) mobility, what London seems to offer that I value most is options. Living and working here has not always been easy, in fact it’s often been exhausting and bloody difficult, like a choose-your-own-adventure book with very grown up and terrifying stakes.

London has never offered me much safety or assurance, it has never guaranteed me security or stability. But living here has taught me that those are not always my highest priorities. Living here has taught me that disappointment, and even occasional existential despair, is survivable. It’s taught me whose good opinions I truly care about, and whose can go hang. It’s taught me how to esteem my money and my own work. Living here has honed and focused more professional and personal priorities than I can count. It’s taught me a lot about what I truly value and helped to teach me to align my life accordingly, and that is truly priceless.

 

What’s Your Burnout Flavor?

“I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them. And it’s taken me years to understand the true ramifications of that mindset.”
– Anne Helen Peterson 

Yes, I’m still thinking about that piece on millennial burnout from a couple of links posts ago, and the many, many think pieces I’ve read following up on it or responding to it since.

Ironic, I know, since I just wrote a post myself not too long ago about deciding that the hustle was still worth the amount of effort it takes. I still believe it is. But it took a conversation on the (fabulous) NPR podcast It’s Been a Minute to really articulate the feeling of burnout that I seem to personally experience. The author Anne Helen Peterson sat down with host Sam Sanders to talk about her own misconceptions of what burnout actually is, as opposed to how we tend to think about it. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey–or more specifically it’s a treadmill run where you don’t actually get anywhere.

“You reach the point of collapse…and then you keep going.”

I appreciate that this is not unique to my generation, but I am a firm believer that every generation has a unique combination of circumstances and variables that make them culturally distinct enough to trace broad trends. Peterson doesn’t make any points I haven’t thought of or written about before, but she articulated the mental load of some of the circumstances of millennial:

  • Graduating in a recession, with fewer entry level jobs available, and fewer jobs overall which will set us up for what have become the traditional routes to retirement
  • Lots of us are getting more stability ten years on…meaning we’re getting to traditional adulthood phases of lives and careers a decade later than most of us anticipated
  • The change of digital pace. My freshman year, Facebook was brand new and now it’s destroying Western democracy (or so it feels)
  • The way we self perpetuate burnout circumstances by not enforcing boundaries or insisting that others in our communities enforce their own boundaries either (answering emails late at night, women doing the “second shift” without thinking about it, always been online and accessible, etc.)
  • The feeling that if we aren’t being successful–making enough money, out of debt, in a fulfilling job, generally living our bliss–that the fault is someone ours and ours alone. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in hard work, but I also know that there are things such as systemic realities that can significantly affect how much pay off you see, no matter how hard the work.

“Burnout is of a substantively different category than “exhaustion,” although it’s related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.”

This, I realized reading the piece, is how I experience burnout. I have lived in the space for a long time–not in all aspects of my life, but enough to make an impact. Whether it was struggling in a toxic job, working the hours necessary to make it as a full-time freelancer, or just the slog of budgeting aggressively to pay down debt, there have been points where I have felt like all I wanted to do was sleep for a year. But of course, that is not an option. For any of us! Life goes on, whether or not you have the energy to deal with it.

In my case, it’s a privilege problem in some ways, to be sure. My struggles are not the same as a woman in poverty, a single provider, in an abusive household, or any of the thousands of other circumstances much tougher women survive every single day. There are class elements of this, gender elements of this, privilege elements and racial elements. There is no such thing as a universal experience. But the sheer amount of statistical evidence that this feeling of burnout is a genuine phenomenon and a widespread thing are frankly too much to ignore.

“Errand paralysis.”

The description of errand paralysis really struck me because it was the individual symptom I fall prey to most easily.

You know that feeling you get when you look at your list of To Dos and honestly are unable to make yourself do even small tasks that should not overwhelm you, but do? I feel like I live in this mental space.

Peterson herself exclaims, “That term sounds ridiculous; that’s such a bourgeois problem…but I think that everyone has a to do list in their head, right, in their head, written out–whatever. And there’s a bottom half of that to do list–and everyone’s is different–but what happens is that that bottom half keeps not getting done and it weighs on you in a way that you internalize.”

I have found myself putting off incredibly basic chores that do not, on the surface, phase me in the slightest but that in the moment feel insurmountably hard. I have also been incredibly harsh on myself for this inability to get small tasks done. It’s a hamster wheel of anxiety and it has absolutely contributed to the darker periods of my overall mental state.

When the treadmill keeps going but the dopamine runs out.”

I also shared this previously, but the description above from Hank Green on burnout also resonated. As I said, the beautiful and difficult trouble with life is that it goes on. It doesn’t stop. And while I believe firmly that hard work is a component of success, I and others in my generation sometimes struggle to explain this general, pervasive feeling of demoralization. I believe this is why irony is our generational language in comedy, trolling is an unfortunate generational pastime, and we invented the shrug emoji. As the Peterson article delves into, we’re working hard: there is an abundance of evidence to back this up. But it feels (or is) for diminishing returns when compared to our parents or grandparents. The treadmill keeps going.

I don’t have any solutions to this, and obviously I’m still working out the reality of stress, money, ambition, career, and opportunity in my own life. But having this expanded framework of burnout has helped put a lot of past experience into perspective for me in a new way. I can now see when I was operating with nothing but fumes in the tank and what the long term toll of that was on my body and brain. I can see how choosing different habits, lifestyle options, or priorities has helped actually put some gas back into that depleted tank. I’m no longer burned out as I once was, but I know that the possibility is much closer than I would wish and one or two bad turns could put me back there again.

Have you burned out? How did it look and feel to you personally? What, if anything, has helped or are you still on the treadmill? 

The Upside of a Ceiling Collapse

“Any fool can write a book and most of them are doing it; but it takes brains to build a house.”
– Charles Fletcher Lummis

As some of you may recall, we dealt with a series of leaks in our building over the summer which, since we are on the ground floor, our apartment took the brunt of. A steady stream of water flowed through our walls and ceilings until finally about a quarter of our bedroom ceiling came down on us (literally) and our master bathroom was damaged so badly that we had to turn the majority of the electricity off in the room to safely access the area. It’s been really frustrating to deal with several months of insurance people, repair work plans which couldn’t start until the new year, and just generally feeling like our living space was compromised and could get worse at any minute.

Thankfully the repairs have started, though it’s not all rosy. We’re sleeping in our living room (again), while our master bedroom is effectively gutted and rebuilt. We’re using our second bathroom (and thanking our lucky stars that we have one), but the showerhead in it just broke for the second time. There is some kind of water damage in every single room of the house so we are having to do repairs in a rotation so that we retain some kind of functional living space. I’m eyeing some of the repairs in the ceiling already because I’m worried the drip has started up again and my paranoia is in full swing. Basically everything is just harder than it needs to be right now.

But a few good things are coming out of this process!

We’ve built a relationship with our landlord instead of relying on the management firm to handle issues. We’ve also tried to demonstrate that we are conscientious tenants who are able to help manage a less than ideal scenario. We will have to decide whether to renew our lease this year or move again, and having a good relationship with our landlord is a definite reason to consider staying put–which would also be a much less stressful proposition!

We negotiated. Because we have lost the ability to live in whole rooms of our apartment for weeks at a time over the past few months, we were able to negotiate on temporary rent reduction, which has enabled us to make larger payments towards debt.

It’s compelled a few good habits and shake ups. There is nothing like the reality of impending building works which will compress your living space to make you seriously evaluate your wants and needs! Jeff went through his closet and got rid of damaged and stained items that he had already replaced with better pieces. We both also identified a bag of items to donate to a trusted charity, and prioritized a few items that needed dry cleaning or a tailor. The journey towards less but better continues!

We also became a lot better at forgoing big weekend cleaning sessions (impossible due to the amount of dust in the air and closed of rooms) in favor of smaller and more regular tidy ups.

We’re styling. Our apartment was painted three mismatched colors in different rooms, none of which correspond with one another, before we moved in. We’re talking lavender, gray, and seafoam green walls. While the height of privilege problems, because we didn’t have exact paint reference to repaint damaged walls in the same hues, I got the landlord’s permission to do a nice neutral gray throughout the whole apartment. Well, except the second bedroom/storage closet. That’s staying seafoam green. Alas.

We evaluated. Going back the issue of whether or not we will have to move, we’ve had a chance to review our budgets and consider what our life would really be like if we chose to live in a smaller space or in a different location. Could we find the same square footage and amenities for a better price? What is our physical set up really worth to us? We love our neighborhood, but do we want to live here another three years? We don’t have all the answers to these questions, but it’s valuable to be thinking of this now rather than when we’re up against the wire. The last time we moved it was with very little warning and it’s an experience I’d strongly prefer not to repeat!

We’re still in the middle of this work and there is still plenty of time for stuff to go wrong. Meanwhile, we’re stressed and cramped and trying to recapture the romance of childhood when camping in the living room was a treat and not a project. But if we get some of these upsides in exchange, that will make it worthwhile.

Four Burners

“It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature. Let any obstructing cause, no matter what, be removed in any way, even by death, and we fly back to first principles of hope and enjoyment.” 
― Bram Stoker, Dracula

Pull up a chair, kittens, and let’s chat about how you prioritize your time and emotional resources. This has been on my mind lately as I’ve taken on new work, observed friends go through highs and low, cheered triumphs, and commiserated during setbacks.

Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton had a discussion on their podcast, The High Low, which touched on the notion of “having it all,” as being antiquated or inadequate to the various tradeoffs women (and indeed everyone) make in navigating modern life. A part of the conversation stuck with me in which they referenced a piece by author David Sedaris which, paraphrased, goes along the lines of: “A person has four hobs: work, family, friends, and health, and you can only have two or three of them going at any one point before things start boiling over.” It’s called the Four Burners theory and I have not been able to stop thinking about it for days now.

I think it’s made such an impression on me because it strikes me as generally accurate, but it also was a handy way to summarize a lot of my own thinking and struggles. In fact, looking back over recent years, I can see exactly which hobs I’ve had cooking and at what heat levels. I can tell when I’ve tried to have too many going at once and I can also tell which ones I’ve switched off.

I’ve called 2018 my Year of Health because I’ve made dedicated time and space in it to improve my wellbeing. It’s been a roaring success in many ways, which I’m sure I’ll get to writing about as 2019 looms, but I have switched off other areas of my life to provide the time and attention that I needed to get healthier. Some aspects of my friends and family relationships have changed as a result–I am less social than I used to be and treasure a smaller number of close friendships more rather than trying to constantly make new ones.

My work burner has been on full throttle for a couple of years now…because it’s had to be. London is not a place in which you have the luxury of getting complacent and as I’ve made certain choices around freelancing and contracting, I have had to stay hustling. Other passion projects have taken a back seat as I’ve needed to establish and reestablish myself over and over again, other priorities have had to give way in order for my work (and bill-paying) ambitions to be realized. I’ve had some amazing jobs and opportunities as a result…but might I have done something different? Or would I have needed to focus on my health the way I have if a few toxic scenarios hadn’t bled from my work life into my personal and wreaked havoc with my wellbeing?

The trouble with this metaphor is that I think it’s fundamentally correct–at least for me–in that it honestly deals with humans beings as somewhat limited creatures. I want to turn other burners on, but know I might have to switch others off first. Which do you pick?

I don’t have the answers, but I am thinking about this a lot at the moment.

Which burners do you have “on” at the moment? Which have you switched off, recently or in the past, and why?

Weekend Adulting

“Cleanliness is not next to godliness. It isn’t even in the same neighborhood. No one has ever gotten a religious experience out of removing burned-on cheese from the grill of the toaster oven.” 
― Erma Bombeck

A question for you kittens, inspired by a workplace conversation this week where most of my colleagues were swapping previews of exciting weekend plans and the most exciting thing I could say I was doing was cleaning more plaster out of my carpet. Are weekends deliberately fun for you, or more purposefully productive?

I ask because here is a  by no means comprehensive list of all the terribly grown up matters I saw to this weekend:

Cleaned makeup brushes, because those things get disgusting really quickly.

Handwashed jumpers and knits.

Dry cleaned Jeff’s suits and some clothing that was smothered in plaster when part of our bedroom ceiling came down on them…wince.

Did several loads of laundry.

Changed bedding.

Watered the plants.

Cleaned the kitchen. Four times, because it’s a thankless, joyless, Sisysphean task…

Caught up on reading and podcasts.

Put away some warm weather clothing, unpacked some cooler weather clothing, reorganized and color-coded my knitwear and designated a bunch of stuff for the To Be Donated pile. Possibly the most on-brand activity I could have done, to be honest.

Replaced athletic shoes and underwear (both within the limits of my No Buy spending freeze).

Cooked.

Went to the gym.

Most of my life admin takes place on the weekends, whether that’s arranging holiday travel plans, cleaning our apartment after a week of neglect, or grocery shopping. Absolutely I do fun stuff as well, but as I’ve gotten older most of my fun activities have actually shifted to weekday evenings–drinks with friends, dinner dates with Jeff, and long calls with my girls in the States–while the weekends have slowly morphed into a mix of much valued quiet time and unexciting but necessary chores to keep me steady and stable.

I have friends who are amazing at keeping their life admin constantly updated in the background so that their weekends can be devoted to fun (if not outright hedonism). Others are more like me and prefer to do chores in dedicated batches.

So which are you, and why?

Bank Holiday Thoughts: Long Term Goals

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.” 
― Gloria Steinem

Gather round, ducklings, for a rambling post of a topic that’s been on my mind lately and that I did some thinking about as I sat in the (rare!) British sun for hours this past weekend.

Scene of the crime.

For someone who is a Grade A organizer and planner, I’ve come to the realization that thinking in terms of long term goals is not something I have ever been very good at. I can project about 3 years out at a max but beyond that is difficult for me to conceptualize.

I’m pretty sure this has to do with being a military brat who never lived anywhere longer than 3 years until I went to university. Growing up, my life was routinely segmented off by frequent moving dates and it’s only in my 30s that I’m understanding how this may affect my worldview. In some ways, it’s deeply positive! Barring personal or natural disaster, you can survive anything for a set period of time with an end date so I think I developed a robust ability to endure less then ideal circumstances and have a genuine attitude of “this too shall pass” to most challenges.

On the other hand, things like 5-10 year plans have never really played a starring role because they have never been or felt relevant to my circumstances. If I was eventually going to be in another school, another state, or on another continent, it never seemed like a good idea to conceptualize things that required any kind of permanence. Again, in my early 30s, I’m only really starting to understand some of the connectivity of this to my life choices. And also again, in a lot of ways this is positive! It’s allowed me and my partner to dream big and take chances that we might not have had we organized our lives in more “traditional” ways, at least according to how we grew up. But it’s also meant that I’ve made a lot of non-strategic choices over the years, some of which have had long lasting ripple effects. Frankly there have been whole months and years that I felt like I was “winging it” as an adult. I still do!

But I’m feeling myself go through a mentality switch these days where I’m starting to be able to conceptualize a future a few years down the road. I’m doing work I enjoy and can see myself doing for a long time, Jeff is in a good (if still busy) place with his career as well. Knock on wood, but it feels as though we are slowly moving out of the “hustle and grind” phase of our work lives into the “work smart” phase where we will (hopefully) begin to build our savings and make the big decisions adults make around where to make a permanent home, what that home looks like, and who we want in it.

I’m still pretty present-focused in that I’m starting to feel like a lot of hard work is paying off. We live in one of the most amazing cities on earth, we’ve put the time and energy into our careers and it’s starting to pay off, our marriage remains strong, we’re healthy–all pretty damn good things. Let’s be honest, it’s taken a decade to get to this point and we’re still not as insulated from shock as I’d like to be….but we’re getting there.

And so, slowly, things in the more distant future are starting to come into focus. We spent some of the bank holiday weekend planning out the rest of the year in terms of work and budgets, and even did some planning for holidays. We’ve learned how important those are to us over the past two years and how grateful we are to live somewhere and in a culture that encourages us to take them rather than making us feel guilty for doing so. We picked some mutual goals to work towards, and I’ve got my own weird and fun projects going on in the background to keep me entertained and grounded. I’m looking forward. And at the moment, things feel good.

Anyone else gone through this particular transition? Any wisdom to share?