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heartless sundays

23 May

“Reality got her. You work your ass off for months; bite your nails, for what? Heinz, baked, beans.”  – Mad Men

Sunday afternoon is one of the most depressing times in my life. Without fail, the looming sunset after a structured workweek and unstructured weekend feels so much heavier than any other.

Something’s going on at a subconcious level. A little nagging pebble is telling me that this upcoming week is not mine. It will be busy, and it will all be on me, but it’s not for me: it’s for my resume, my pockets, my employer, and its mission.

I love work. I whole-heartedly believe that a person at work is embarking on their own holistic fulfillment. My parents taught me that the two things that make up your character are your approach to work and your willingness to eat onions. I hate onions, but they keep pressing the issue.

I love my job. It requires thoughtful effort, the people are smart and kind, and the mission is full of high-meaning purpose. Yet I feel anxiety. This is what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance.”’

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton follows the workday of a career counselor. This is not the same person we all ignored in High School (sorry, Mr. Joyner), but someone who dedicates himself to helping adults re-find their way. The majority of his clients are older, going through a mid-life crisis, and willing to ditch their lucrative career. Maybe ditch it for Broadway, or for an apprenticeship as a woodworker, or to stay home with the kids.

In the end, de Botton is disappointed with what career counseling can offer us. Our species has worked for so long, in such differently skilled yet commonly themed jobs, with such an awesome data set of experience and evidence, yet  all we can tell a High School senior is that he has the organizational skills to succeed in an administrative post in the financial industry.

But de Botton realizes something even more disheartening: as a species, we’ve been fooling ourselves.

“I left Symon’s [career counselor] company aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us life particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemn us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”

de Botton’s conclusion is a gentler way of repeating the advice I have gotten from people when I tell them my zanier ideas and dreams.

“That’s nice, but just find a good job.”

“First work on getting a steady paycheck, then start thinking about this as a hobby.”

“That’s not how life works, honey.”

These are technically true. Doing something new and boisterous is full of uncertainty, and that uncertainty won’t go away until I succeed (if!).

I’ve listened to this advice my entire life. I went to the college with the best track record I could find. I didn’t change majors because I heard that was frowned upon. I desperately sought a job (any job) after college to showcase how viable of an adult I could be in ‘real-world’ society. I chose safe paths, known paths, for places I had already heard were worthwhile. And everything has turned out fine.

I wish I would’ve chased more rabbit holes–they’re so fun and you always get a good story out of them!

Our generation of parents who bought into the idea that you should center your parenting around boosting your kid’s self-esteem and sense of individual self, certainly didn’t sincerely drink the Kool-Aid. It’s sort of like they gave us standing ovations while we were thespians-in-training, but once the actual play was about to start they told us: “you know what, just read your lines and try not to break the set or bump into other people, ok?”

Now that’s cognitive dissonance. Who and what should I listen to?


The career counselor de Botton followed had in his bathroom (he runs his business inside his home) an Abraham Maslow quote:

“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”

There’s a question: what do we all want? I thought about this question this past Sunday as the blues dripped down.

Here’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This pyramid encapsulates what we, the human species, need in order to survive. The bottom is pretty self-explanatory, but as you climb the pyramid you start dealing with more nebulous items like “morality” and “achievement.”

What do want? ‘Money’ is certainly not a want; it’s a need, and a pretty boring one at that. Once I make enough money to stop thinking about money I want to stop thinking about money. As long as I have enough to obtain shelter, cloth, and food for myself and my loved ones, I am good. So yes, the bottom two slices are needs.

Do I want my own community: a family, a core group of confidants and friends? No doubt, but this still does not feel like a want. I know I need an authentic social group that gets my jokes and doesn’t mind my accidental farts. Otherwise, I would have to deal with all of that all by myself, and that’s how people go crazy. Yep, definitely a need. That takes care of the middle slice, which=need.

I am starting to realize that the top two triangle slices may be where my anxiety comes from. I’ve been blessed with a lifestyle that has secured most of my needs, physical and social…but what about the soulful? What about my “Esteem” and “Self-Actualization”? I can manage to do without those, but like love, it would be a miserable excuse of a life if I did. I want to achieve Spontaneity on a regular basis, just like I want to eat something delicious right now. But how do I know I’ve obtained that; how can I measure my progress in making those cloudy but important terms come to life?

It’s easy to know what I need to eat and own to survive. I just have to think about it. But everything else can’t be figured with purely mental lifting. It requires heart.

I know what music I love and what morality I raise my arms to, and this sort of gut logic doesn’t come from any mental analysis, but from how my heart beats. Does it beat to a quiet evening listening to Bach, or to an outing with friends in the woods drinking IPAs? Our mind schedules our workweek, our heart schedules our weekend.

No offense, brain, but you get too much floor time.

In things that matter the most to my soul, things that are hard to keep accounting on, the heart needs to be heard much more. Deciding what will make me into a more Confident and Spontaneous being is not something I can find on a grocery list or on my resume. It requires a deeper compass. It requires me to stop thinking in terms of cost/benefit, and just follow the rules of love, which really are the rules of the heart: chase what makes me tingle, gasp, and smirk.

Looking back at every decision I’ve made based on a gut feel, they’ve all felt completely right. Every time I’ve decided to listen to that very hard to articulate but very easy to understand sudden soulful clarity, I’ve moved forward with no regret. It makes sense, because my heart is not separate from my body, and it gets the same information as my brain does, but it follows a different process. It knows and feels, and then decides without hesitation.

My Sunday blues may just be that: my heart trying really hard to be heard, telling me to risk more, experience more, be more, hesitate less. It’s telling me that if I follow what I know is right, I don’t need to think as much. It’s telling me that when I feel anxious, it’s because even though my needs are met, I still haven’t fully chased what I want, and deep down I know that. In order to climb past the base needs and into richer climate–where needs are rooted deeper and need a more principled organ–I need to change the decision-making mix I’ve relied on for everything else. Time to give smirks and gasps a bit more weight. I need to quit being heartless.


beaten, bloody, & alive

12 Jul

It really makes no sense. No matter which way I look at it, I know I shouldn’t feel tired: I didn’t do shit today. My day began per usual, I got out at 5 (maybe a minute or two after, of course), and my workload could’ve been taken care of by a can of tuna. To be quite frank, I probably spent more time on Facebook, NY Times, and Digg than responding to my work email. That’s because there was NO real work to be done. I was  just warming the seat cushion.


Yet I feel exhausted. My eyes are itchy, my head throbs, and I am a carbo-load away from snoozing on top of my keyboard. The commute home is worse, because I’m not only just “tired,” but anxious. I am playing back my day and feel depressed at how little I did. !?!?!


This has happened to me a little or a lot, depending on what job I had at the time. It was an almost daily occurrence at one particular job, where reading journals online was not enough to fill my days–I ended up writing a short story over the course of one particularly void month. It wasn’t that my genius–ha!–was not being used; it was that I, as a person, was not being used. I was a filler, and I knew it!


Awhile back I took on an extra responsibility. I became a core member of a local political campaign. This was unpaid and in addition to my paid full time job. Some days I would work at my 8-5, then go to a baptist church to staff a campaign booth for 2 hours, then listen to the candidate’s debate performance, and then spend another 2 hours giving him feedback and developing strategy over some beers and fries. I would be working an additional 20 hours a week just on this, for nothing more than a belief in the person I was supporting. I would go home, around midnight, bleary-eyed and truly tired. Before passing out I’d often think, “This feels great.”


The work we all do, day in and day out, is a part of our genetic makeup. It turns us into lethargic nowhere men, or catapult us to an invigorated life. The quality of work that we do is so important to our well-being that that the negative impact of working 20 hours at a soul-killing job would be greater than working 60 hours at an engaging one. We take this for granted, and think that this is as good as it gets. But we’ve all had  a time when we get home, tired and drained, and before succumbing to Morpheus we get a little giddy. Then there’s time where we don’t: we feel restless, frustrated, but drained in the worst way…and we remember tomorrow will be just the same. There’s no way that does not break your body and spirit.

make value

26 May

Will it push the ball forward? Are you making work, or making progress? Pick your cliche, but the gist of our professional–and even personal–existence is value. Introducing, creating, and delivering it.


This isn’t a motto just for work. Our lives are all tied up in value production and destruction. Being a good father brings value to your child’s life; plugging away at work, doing the routine minimum, and feeling our soul shrink a little bit each day destroys value.


We are happier when we are creating something enduring, for ourselves or others. We have been built to build: tables, relationships, organizations, ideas.


Create value today and tomorrow. Our value does not go away when we do. It becomes our legacy.



Regrets and the Power to Overcome

24 Mar

In a Well blog post on NYT, the issue of regret is brought up. A study asked people from various races, ages, and background what they regretted the most. Some findings were surprising (the no. 1 regret overall was a lost romantic opportunity), and some fit into traditional roles and expectations (the ratio for women regretting a lost love was greater than the ratio for men; men were more likely to have regrets revolving around careers and money than women).


What was most interesting to me, however, was how regret can be seen as a good emotion. Regretting something, researchers argue, helps you grow: you feel it, you drop it, you improve.


This reminded me of an article I read in The Atlantic last year, about a longitudinal study conducted by Harvard University. The study has chronicled the lives of many Harvard graduates since the 1940’s (one of them being President John F. Kennedy), and tried to find out what makes people happy. Every person in the study has been referred to by case number, to ensure anonymity, and has been checked up on a regular basis for decades. The study (and the article) is fascinating, so I recommend you make the time to read it.


One of the key takeways from the study is on how we cope, and what that means to our longterm well-being. Most of the people in this study are talented people (Harvard IS Harvard, after all), some of them could even be considered geniuses…but as the study shows, many of these fall short of exercising their full potential. The study also chronicles their lives during a time of duress. Affected by the setbacks, some become drunks, other drifters, and some even develop mental illnesses. Continue reading

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