Work Life Balance is Made Up

I have a feeling the term “work life balance” is a made up lie.

The term, mind you.

Not because I can’t seem to find that elusive “work life balance” and am angry about it (and am envious of all the people out there who “have it together”). It’s because, just like the “Can Women Have It All?” so-called “debate,” “work life balance” is a made-up concept aimed at shaming us all.

Why do I think this? It’s all to do with how we measure work and life. Whether we measure quantity or quality, we’re comparing unequal terms.

First, the phrase “work life balance” implies that there is a certain quantity of “work” and a certain quantity of “life” that, when placed on a cosmic set of judge’s scales, can make the scales even out.

This is absolutely not true.

Work is something you do with your life. Play is something you do with your life. So is…

  • Raising a family
  • Going to school
  • Painting watercolors
  • Brewing beer
  • Walking down the street
  • Buying groceries
  • Arguing with your spouse
  • Looking at flowers
  • Crying, singing, laughing, hugging, venting, sleeping, wailing, cooking…

There are many things you do with your “life” and “work” is but one of them. So why not “work play balance” or “work family balance” or “work leisure balance”? Because they don’t sound as catchy and fraught with existential meaning as “work life balance.”

Second, we often argue that the phrase “work life balance” is more about the quality of one’s life. Again, not true. I’ve never seen these cosmic judges scales, but I’m pretty sure they do not measure the quality of your work output and compare it to the quality of your… life (?) output.

The comparisons are misleading jargon. And we should buck them entirely.

Don’t strive for “work life balance.” Strive instead to make your whole life–work and all–rich and lovely.

When I Grow Up

Y’all, I’m a grown woman. I’m 30 years old. I have a great job at an even greater company. I have two college degrees.

And I have no idea what I want to do with my life.

I think that’s ok, don’t you? Part of the exercise of writing this little blog is to give myself practice in being ok with uncertainty, after all.

Writing anything and putting it on the internet is an act in uncertainty. Who knows what anyone’s going to think of it, much less what anyone’s going to think of you for writing it. Yet I need the compulsion to write anyway.

If anything, my recent dearth of posts was me being distinctly uncomfortable with uncertainty… for a while.

Because it’s good to think about things, write a little bit about them, and put it out there for the universe to see. Especially when you’re unsure.20140730-175730-64650739.jpg

It’s a good thing to live a little bit, experience the joy and pain that life has to offer, and not always feel the pressure for it to be a meaningful step on your life’s journey to X. It’s a perfectly wonderful thing to go to work, enjoy your cats, take your time making some tea, put away dishes that your husband washed, and then have a nice beer on the weekends. Or while finishing up work.

It’s a wonderful thing to do what you can to get real meaning out of life rather than worry about whether or not your five-year-plan is on track.

And you know what? If you know what you want to be “when you grow up,” I think that’s just lovely. So long as whatever it is makes you happy, secure, and gives you enough time to go make some tea (or enjoy a beer), I’m glad.



Vacation Mind

We went on vacation this past week. Mostly isolated, on a beach, letting ourselves become bored and letting ourselves sit on the sand and play in the water. It was lovely.

Lots of time reading and reflecting and letting my mind wander. In my “normal” life, I can’t let my mind just wander; thoughts have to have a purpose in “normal” life. But not on vacation. On vacation, you don’t read things or think things because you have to–you read things and think about things because you want to.

Now that we’re back home, there’s still that vacation veneer on things… a sense of refreshment and possibility. A sense that life isn’t about the burdens of arbitrary obligation, but an extension of desire.

We’re just now getting back into “normal” life here at home, but I’m resisting that urge to do things because I have to–I’m trying to keep that sense of perfect wanting. Laundry, making the bed, surely–but not because I have to. Grocery shopping–because it’s what I want to do.

It feels like beginning again. Which, if you’re like me, you do all the time.

I begin again so often I begin again.
– Gertrude Stein

We want new beginnings so much because they don’t truly exist–not really. In each new moment, we bring the experiences and baggage of our past with us. We wish that being a different person is somehow possible–new habits, new desires, a new sense of purpose.

But we’re still the same person. We’ve not truly begun again. We’re still mid-stream in our lives. We’re still trying our hardest to live a good life, do good work, and be nice, because maybe yesterday we weren’t as good or nice as we could have been.

Just because “new beginnings” aren’t real doesn’t mean we shouldn’t yearn for them.

It’s good to have that “beginning again” feeling, even if it’s not truly a “new beginning.” To come back from a moment spent away from the stress of arbitrary obligation, when you feel like anything is possible–even those things that, just a week ago, seemed like unfair burdens. What was overwhelming just a short time ago is now an adventure. That’s special.

You’re not a new person. Just the same person with a calmer, more forgiving perspective.

Kid, Be Nice to Yourself

I keep a small picture of myself and my sister when we were children on my desk.

In the picture I’m holding her hand and wiggling, acting up and sticking my butt closer to her and making a funny face. She’s giggling hysterically but trying to stay still. She’s holding my hand and grinning. We’ve both forgotten that our mother is holding a camera to take our picture. We must be four and two years old, just being sisters and making each other happy in front of the apple tree in the back yard.

I keep this picture on my desk because, when I’m feeling pressure of a stressful day and I’m tempted to judge myself for not getting more work done, for not meeting a deadline, or for not getting something quite right, I like to look at that picture and think, “would you like it if someone were as mean to that little girl as you are to yourself?”

Pay attention:
No one is out there judging you the way you think they are. Most people are stuck worrying about themselves so much that when they bother to look up, they’re pretty impressed by you.

So ease up on the judgment a bit. Be impressed, too–both with what you’re actually doing and with the world around you. You don’t have to be so mean. Because you’re still a little kid somewhere, holding hands with your sister and giggling. And so is everyone else.

Losing Sight of the Specific: Lessons from Customer Service

It’s no secret that I work in customer service. I love it, actually. There’s nothing more fulfilling than helping someone else, especially when you are able to turn their terrible day into something not quite so bad. It’s powerful work, but it’s also a source for intense humility. You are at someone else’s service. You could get it wrong. And it takes a lot out of you.

Think about any bad experience you’ve had with customer service. Likely, it was bad because it felt like the person you were talking to wasn’t really interested in helping you–you were just one more caller asking for help. One more question, a faceless inquiry.

I won’t lie. It’s difficult to remain positive when you’re at someone else’s service all day. You face the limits of your own knowledge and patience. You’re not always treated like a real person–just a means to an end. It’s so easy to lose your sense of perspective and to let little things annoy you when you’ve become just another faceless helper. It’s easy to get caught up in your own agenda: to be liked, to be respected, to be right.

My theory is this: when we lose our ability to think in specific terms, we lose our compassion.

I live in a world where I need examples every day. Something went wrong in the software I support, and I need to see the place it happened, the circumstances in which it happened. I need to investigate specifics and reproduce errors. As a result, every case that comes my way is about something specific. Even when I’m asked about a general concept, it’s never really about something general; it’s always about how the general applies within a certain context.

This isn’t true just for the tasks I perform, it’s also true for how I go about my work.

Though I can think about what it feels like to be frustrated generally, I don’t know what frustration really feels like–and how it changes me–until I am frustrated. I don’t know what it means to be angry, not really, at least. I only know what it means to be angry at someone in particular. I don’t know what it means to love in a general sense, either. But I do know what it means to love someone specifically.

In the world of customer service, I strive never to lose sight of the fact that I’m speaking to someone who is their own person. I’m not talking to “a customer,” I’m talking to a particular individual. Just like I am not “just a customer service rep,” but a particular person. When I lose sight of the fact that I’m talking to a specific someone–with their own strengths, loves, and fears–that’s when I start to lose my patience and push my own agenda.

I’m someone who has decided to spend her working days helping people. But I also hope I can help people remember that the world isn’t filled with general concepts. It’s filled with specificity.

Every day I need to engage the particular, to love the specificity around me, and to try to help others do the same.

Information Overload

Binge-writing has become the unfortunate norm for me. I have periods of immense productivity–writing and editing up to ten blog posts in one evening. Thankfully, I can schedule them and not assault you with ten posts in one night. And this is a good thing, since it could be another two or three months before I feel like writing again. I’ve often wondered what drives this binge-writing.

One factor that I’ve considered a lot lately is my introversion. In her fantastic book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain relates research that suggests a person’s quality of introversion or extroversion is directly realted to a person’s sensitivity to stimuli. Specifically, introverts are highly-reactive to stimuli, and therefore require less of it in order to be satisfied. Extroverts, on the other hand, are low-reactive to stimuli, and therefore require more of it.

Perhaps, then, my binge-writing is brought on by my reaction to stimuli. I’m not a big fan of much social media (I do it because I have to), and I can only stand so much blog-reading before I become agitated and cross-eyed from too many opinions. There are just too many things to potentially write about that I can’t narrow it down; too many other opinions to take into consideration; and then there are too many bloggers out there with pieces on things I consider to be almost useless that I no longer consider my own thoughts worth sharing.

Information overload.

Couple this high sensitivity (read: propensity to become easily overloaded with information) with a lack of writing discipline (no matter how much I say I want to write, I still have yet to cultivate a sincere daily or even weekly practice), and there you have it: I have the desire to write more often but feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of other factors.

So when do I get any fair amount of writing done?

Usually, my highly-productive times of writing are when I am otherwise detained from my usual activities. I’m home sick (this very blog post is a product of illness induced, home-bound isolation), or my evening plans were cancelled; my boyfriend is out of the house for the evening, or he’s working on a solitary project in the other rooms of the house. Occasionally, I am able to write here on Sunday afternoons… but lately this time has been taken up by letter-writing, sewing, or meals with family.

I am left with my own age-old quandary: to find the will and determination to form a writing habit. I have just enough of an extrovert in me to flit around from task to task without settling down to one in particular for long periods of time, and just enough of an introvert to become easily over-stimulated by the swirling world around me.

What about you? Are you introverted or extroverted? Are you excited or overwhelmed by loads of opinions and information? Does this personality trait have any effect on your writing, or your ability to cultivate habits?

The Flip-Side of Gratitude

If you’re anything like me, your desk becomes a wild pile of papers and other sundry items rather quickly. Categorizing things into this or that pile isn’t much of a priority (surprisingly, considering there are only so many piles things can go into). Periodically, I take on the challenge of sorting through this pile of madness, and, like usual, I’m pleasantly surprised at the result.

Among my piles of paid bills, solicitation requests and other house-keeping updates, I had amassed quite a few thank you cards.

I’m a big fan of writing thank you notes. Like most things I’m a fan of, however, it’s often that my enthusiasm for writing thank you notes doesn’t get played out. I can’t tell you how many kind birthday presents or christmas gifts went sadly un-thanked in my life. But that’s another story for another post.

I’m a big fan of writing thank you notes in part because I’m such a fan of receiving them. Gratitude, the act of feeling thanks for an unmerited action, is just as pleasurable a thing to express as it is to receive that expression. You’ve poured your heart into doing something, and though the act of doing that something is itself fulfilling (otherwise, really, why do it?), it’s also immensely gratifying to hear someone say “thank you” for that hard work and heart. Even more, it’s astounding to hear “thanks” for something that you didn’t really pour your heart into–for just being who you are, or for saying a comment that might not have been pre-meditated, but because it was spur-of-the-moment, was that much more lovely.

When I cleaned up my desk recently, it was rather overwhelming to see the thank you cards that folks had written to me. Thanks for being a good friend, for visiting someone in the hospital, for making a stole for someone’s ordination, for sharing a good idea, or for having the time to look over someone’s writing.

I understand that a big part of what society expects out of charitable people is that they not spend a lot of time drawing attention to their charity. With the exception of hospitals and institutes being named after the keystone donor, we’re mostly a culture that asks folks to downplay their giving sides.

Well, forgive me for taking pride in acting like a good human being every once in a while.

The flip side of being grateful is that you learn to accept others’ thanks graciously as well. Instead of saying “oh, it was nothing!” and brushing off someone’s thanks, it’s enough to say “it was my pleasure.” Because for most of the kind things that we do, it really is a pleasure to act generously and thoughtfully, to be kindness for each other.

If you’re anything like me, though, you forget that you can act like such a good person. You forget that other folks appreciate you for your kindness and notice when you are thoughtful, talented, and considerate.

So I pinned all of those thank you notes to my cork board. To look at and be reminded.