For several years, at least once a week, one of us turns to the other with a casual suggestion to “retire this year” or “take a long vacation.” The problem with these comments–between two late twenty something career oriented spouses–is that we rarely take ourselves seriously at such thoughts. They are more or less encouraging words that help us get through each week as we run the rat race with so many others. The last year and a half, however, has marked a time when we’ve really taken every opportunity to attempt to balance our work life and our out-of-work life. Here, we share our experience as to how we’ve progressed from living for our work, to just working for a living.
I’ve been working since I was 14. And that doesn’t count babysitting in grade school. Yes, in my family of a zillion kids, not working was not an option. We were expected to pay for our school clothes once we moved onto our non-uniform requiring high school. We needed to contribute to the cost of our books. And God forbid we ask our parents for a little cash to see a movie with friends.
I will never complain about the work ethic my parents instilled in me. I loved the benefits of working, flying solo financially and, to be honest, became pretty intent on hoarding as much money as I possibly could at all times. By the time I hit college, I actually worked three jobs throughout and felt extremely proud that I only asked my parents for a little bank account padding twice (well, that was on top of them paying for a hefty chunk of my tuition, but you get the point).
But now I know better. You see, I never realized how unnecessarily necessary working is. Sure, I was able to buy a house, throw a ridiculously expensive wedding, and take a few nice vacations. Then I was offered a position with a company in Salt Lake. And naturally loving work, I found the offer compelling enough to move. But not really just move. I left everything I knew on the West Coast, including my new husband of four months who needed to finish his last year of law school before he joined me. Then I bought another house, bought a new car, and took a few more nice vacations.
After all this, the company I moved to Salt Lake for went to sh@*. And in the boldest move of my life, in the middle of a recession, I quit.
For eight months, I figured things out. And I can honestly say that not working was the best therapy I’ve ever had. And no, I was not lazy. In fact, I pretty much re-landscaped our entire yard with my tiny, boney bare hands. I started volunteering at the Alzheimer’s Association. I went to Mexico. I learned Photoshop inside and out. I baked bread from scratch almost every day. I painted. I read at the park down the street often. And I started my own consulting company so I could dabble in the corporate world whenever I felt the need. But I answered to no one. I really owned every part of my day for once.
And did I miss having an income? Of course, for a while. For so long, I was defining myself by whatever job title I had and the paycheck that came with it (yes, even when I worked the front desk at the library part time in college). But with encouragement from my husband and a new found love of making every dollar go further (read “killer deal finder”), I slowly weaned myself off the mindset that money was what got me everything I wanted. Because it didn’t. And I was frivolous with it and took advantage of what I earned in the daily grind.
As I took up old hobbies, found new ones, and really focused on what I wanted my life to look like, I finally understood what I had heard many times before but never believed: a job is a means to an end. Why make yourself believe that you have to manage the weight of the world on your shoulders at the office? Why cut Christmas vacation short just to get back to work? Why buy two houses when some people in the world don’t even have one? Or if we do make those decisions, are we doing anything to make sure we’re taking care of other peoples’ wants and needs as much as we’re taking care of our own?
Now would I ever say that I wasted the 15 plus years of my life by working? No. Do I think people should just give up on their jobs? No. But what we should all do from time to time is take a break. A long break. Treat yourself to some time by yourself without the distraction of work stress. And use that time to really evaluate if where you are is where you intended to be. What are you working toward? And where is it going to leave you 5 years, 10 years, 50 years from now?
I ended up taking a new full time job 4 months ago. And there have been days that are less than fun. But after 8 months off, with ample time to evaluate how I would react to such days, I now shrug them off. There are days I actually leave my laptop at work without a second thought. Then I go home to my husband and throw together a meal I dreamed up during my “stay at home wife” days, toss back a few glasses of wine, and get a good nights sleeping knowing that the next day means more than just what I’m doing between 8 am and 6 pm.
A wise man once told me, “The difficulty with working and having a family is that after the workday is over, nothing you have done all day matters. You have to start all over again.” I always found this sentiment to be striking and disappointing. Striking because that’s a difficult idea to grasp. You can work an entire day—8, 9, 10 hours—and the second you step back into your home, the work you just put in doesn’t matter. Your wife, husband, kids or whomever, have just put in their own long days and they need you to invest in the moment at hand. It’s not that they don’t care about the effort, or the success, or the struggles you had all day. It’s that regardless of whatever happened earlier in the day, they need you to put further energy into the life you currently have before you. That’s striking.
I also found this sentiment disappointing, because of, well, exactly what I just said. No matter what effort, success, or struggle you just went through, a new task is before you. This seems to be unfair, doesn’t it? What you have done earlier in the day should matter. What you have done earlier in life should matter. You may have noticed, however, that I used the past tense; as in, “I found this sentiment disappointing.” The thing is, I don’t find this disappointing at all anymore. In fact, I don’t even find it unfair. Why should what we have done in the past matter at all? To me, it seems, someone who rests their case on what they have done in the past is someone who has given up on the present and has no hope for the future. So why should what you’ve done recently count for what you’re doing now?
This is a slightly shocking concept and I realize that. In our society we offer awards for lifetime achievements, bodies of performance and compilations of work. We continually want a pass or a mulligan because of work previously performed. But, if you think about it, the people that receive lifetime accolades are the people that have never been completely satisfied with the last thing they have done. They are always striving for more and they know they have more to offer. And that seems to be the way it should be. This isn’t to say that these types of people don’t enjoy the process. Or that they don’t appreciate the journey. It simply means that they find no room for complacency. While this concept may be slightly startling, it certainly is not one that is new. Cicero has a famous quote in which he says, “We should not be so taken up in the search for truth, as to neglect the needful duties of active life; for it is only action that gives a true value and commendation to virtue.” In short, if I can be so bold, a man is only as virtuous as that which he exudes at any given moment. Past acts mean nothing for present virtue. Past acts certainly form our character, but you’re only as good as this moment. There is no room for complacency.
On second thought, however, this concept may not be as shocking as I thought. For don’t we currently reside in a what have you done for me lately world? Maybe more people than I thought agree with the concept that you’re only as good as what you’re currently doing. And this is all well and good, at least when you are considering and measuring yourself. However, there are others in your life that have just worked a hard day. And that should count for something. Yes, I realize the paradox in this statement, but follow me for a moment. If you desire that others recognize all the persistence and energy you previously exuded, isn’t it then likely that others may desire the same recognition? Wouldn’t it seem probable that the people you know and love would like to be appreciated for not only what they’re doing, but what they have done as well?
Now this is where I believe it all comes full circle. I am urging (myself included) that we don’t rely on the successes and efforts of the past, but continue to move forward in the present. At the end of each day, each week, each year, revel for a moment, but continue diligently. This, in essence, is what I believe it means to live life well. To live excellently. Because the moment you stop moving forward is the moment you fall back. At the same time, however, I believe we should constantly praise and encourage others on efforts manifested, on past triumphs. Because the moment we stop doing so, is the moment they fall back. I realize that this is not an easy concept. I realize that at the end of a long, hard workday, when energy and patience are low, the last thing you want is to ignore your own deserved praise and exult others. But imagine if this is how we constantly lived. Would there be any doubt in your mind how abounding your relationships could be? Just the possibilities make me believe it’s worth the effort. If not for me, for my friends. My family. My wife. Wouldn’t they do the same? Wouldn’t I want them to?