Did you miss me? I haven’t been posting regularly the past few weeks because I’ve been slowly writing down thoughts that turned into a kind of manifesto. If you’re interested in my navel-gazing, in which I ponder a possible solution to the past six years of angst, do please read on. I don’t expect this to apply to anyone other than myself. But if you’re facing similar challenges, maybe reading my thoughts might help you begin to organize your own. So, here it goes: an essay on the meaning of life.
Recently I took my lunch break at Mission Bay Park. It was 80 degrees and sunny with a strong west wind. As I dipped carrots in hummus, I watched people walking, jogging, tanning, cycling, rollerblading, picnicking, sailing, windsurfing, riding scooters, kiteskiing, stand-up paddleboarding, and jet skiing.
And that’s just at one tiny beach on one tiny cove in this wonderful city.
I swapped my high heels for flip flops and squeezed in a brief 10-minute walk before it was time to drive back to work, where I would spend the rest of that glorious day sitting in a windowless, climate-controlled office in front of dual computer screens.
Really, I shouldn’t complain. With the help of my advantages (family, nation, generation) I’ve worked hard to establish a stable professional career despite this recession. We are taught that by devoting the bulk of our adult lives to career success we will find fulfillment and stability, which enables a happy life.
Maybe many people have found happiness this way, but I’m realizing that for me it’s not the full truth. Instead, days like this make me deeply and physically unhappy that I can’t spend more time on the things that matter — exploring my vibrant city and this amazing world, using my healthy body, enjoying my favorite people… living my life.
If you add up the time it takes to get ready for work, commute to and from the office, and do my job, I spend at least 12 hours a day on my career. Then I try to squeeze exercise, healthy cooking, homemaking, entertainment, relationships, self-improvement, creativity, and reflection into the remaining 4 hours before bedtime. I can usually touch on only two or three of those in any given evening. (And this is with no kids and a pretty average job — I’m no lawyer or doctor or investment banker.)
With this schedule, I can only truly focus on my priorities on weekends. Is that enough?
I’ve been contemplating whether it’s better to “live to work, or work to live.”
In the “live to work” mindset, it’s important to love what you do, create something meaningful, build a career arc with the help of mentors, and work passionately to get great results. Life and work are intertwined in one great, meaningful dance. You identify as a teacher, a designer, an entrepreneur.
The “work to live” mentality, on the other hand, sees work not as an end in itself, but as a necessary means to fund the truly important parts of life. Work may be enjoyable, but it’s not an intrinsic part of your self-worth or identity. You work as a secretary or waiter or groundskeeper, but it’s not who you are. You put in 8-hour shifts to pay the bills and then go home to your real life with your family.
I guess I — and maybe my whole generation — have been raised to “live to work.” Reach high, dream big, follow your passion, achieve great things. But what if I don’t have one overarching passion? What if, despite being educated and capable, I can’t figure out my one great purpose?
Over drinks a few weeks ago, some friends and I were talking about how our balance between work and life seemed off. One asked me what my dream job would be, and as I started to answer, I caught a glimpse of something really important.
I told him that I’ve never had a dream job. I’m interested in many things but passionate about few. I like writing and marketing, but I have trouble staying motivated at those things for 50+ hours each week. I love sewing and baking and hiking and web design and travel and even home maintenance, but I’d never want to do any of those all day, every day.
So I’m starting to see that my life’s passion could be balance. Maybe there isn’t one all-consuming calling for me. Maybe happiness can come from spending equal time on professional work to challenge the mind, outdoor experiences to exercise the body, recreation and relationships to raise the spirit, and self and home to soothe the soul. Maybe it’s time to throw out my rigid model of what a career looks like, and start sculpting a new one.
And maybe I can achieve all this by finally taking the plunge into self-employment as a freelancer. I’ve been flirting with freelancing since 2006. Even though it’s an uncertain livelihood, could it be the key to a more self-directed life?
Honestly, it’s embarrassing to think of abandoning my formal career. There’s an ingrained voice at the back of my brain, whispering that I shouldn’t even be considering the possibility. Why would I intentionally take a less certain and less socially acceptable path? Wouldn’t that make me ungrateful and wasteful of my education and potential?
But then I think about the freedoms it would grant me: Freedom from scheduled office hours, so I could take time outside during the daylight even if it meant working into the night. Freedom from location dependence, so I could work from anywhere in the world while visiting family or exploring new places. Freedom from office annoyances like small talk in the bathroom and food stolen from the fridge. Freedom to combine multiple sources of income into a more diverse workday and career. Freedom to create balance in my life.
I think it’s time to start breaking free.