An Experiment in Not Caring

I haven’t posted in a while because work has been insanely stressful. Upon much reflection, I am convinced that for many of us with outsized work expectations, the problem is giving too much of a shit.

I’ve always struggled with two sides of myself – the side that is obsessed with conventional professional success and the side that thinks it’s all meaningless, so we might as well live how we want. For the past 16 (!?!) or so years, the first side has always won out. I have earned the prestigious degrees, won the prestigious jobs, joined the prestigious organizations, networked (or tried to – never got very good at this) with the prestigious people.

All it has brought me is an ever more prestigious misery.

The other night, as I lay in bed contemplating either running away or just finally ending it all, I had an epiphany. If all of this prestige hunting hasn’t brought me happiness, then perhaps it’s time to stop. Perhaps it’s time to finally let the other side of me take the wheel and see what she can do.

So, I’ve decided to begin the slow, painful process of learning not to care about stupid, meaningless shit anymore. And since the main source of stupid, meaningless shit for me is work, my first step is to stop caring about my job.

Beginning a few days ago, I’ve started pulling back from everything that isn’t 100% essential to being an “adequate” (read: Not stellar, but not shitty) employee. I canceled an appointment when I was sick and skipped a meeting that I knew was pointless. Those might seem like small things to many people, but for me, they are huge.

Even bigger, I’m slowly extracting myself from extra professional obligations that I took on but that are not necessary for my career. I’m dropping a book contract that I no longer want (I did not receive an advance, as is the norm for many academic publishers, so there are no damages to worry about). I’m quitting a position in a professional organization that takes up countless hours and gets me little more than a line on my CV.

Most importantly, I’m extracting myself from some major work drama that has literally been causing me to lose sleep. I have found that my position is unpopular and requires endless politicking to advocate for. Well, fuck it. If the majority of my colleagues want to go another direction, then who am I too keep fighting? Let them do what they want. Yes, I still think my position is the better, more ethical one. And I’m disheartened to see my best colleagues allowing themselves to be led by my worst. But they are all adults, and it’s not my business to keep pushing my agenda if no one wants it. So, let them have theirs. My new agenda is to sleep at night.

In the end, this is not my life. It’s just what I do for a paycheck. I’m not going to stop doing my regular job, being decent to people, or helping clients. I’m just going to stop everything else. No more extra tasks, no more pointless meetings, no more politics. If people get mad and want more, oh well.

We’ll see how it goes. Caring hasn’t worked out so well for me; let’s see what not caring has to offer.

2018 – A Year of Simplicity

My New Year’s resolution this year is to get back on track with the simple living/minimalism movement.

I first discovered this movement way back in 2000, when I was only 22-years-old. I embraced it with the passion and fearlessness that come naturally to the young (and a lot harder to my now about-to-turn-40-years-old self).

For two years, I pursued simple living & minimalism relentlessly, paring down on unneeded possessions, paying off debts, exercising and eating well, and reading copious amounts of literature in my spare time, of which I had an abundance. At the end of the two years, I had pared down so much on unneeded “stuff” that all of my possessions fit into my car (before I got rid of that, too). A lifelong anxiety sufferer, I remember it as one of the most peaceful times in my life.

And then I screwed it all up. Worried about my lack of career prospects (I was an English Lit BA working in the stereotypical barista-type jobs), I decided to apply to law school because I had a feeling I would do well on the LSAT. Yes, you read that correctly. I made a huge, life-altering decision on what was little more than a whim. I had mastered a lot of the physical aspects of simple living, but clearly, I had a long way to go on the mental ones.

It turned out, I was right about my test-taking prowess, and I was accepted into one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. I wish I could say that my training in the simple life had caused me to seriously reflect on what getting an expensive degree like this would mean for my life, but the truth is, I was so honored to be accepted by the school that I never seriously considered not going. I had grown up working class with less-than-ideal parents, and rejection – from my parents, from opportunities, from people from higher social classes, etc – had worn on me.  This acceptance filled a gaping hole in my self-esteem that I hadn’t even known was there. It was the “big F you” that many picked-on children fantasize about.

Except, it turned out, I was entirely unsuited to being a lawyer. Perhaps I would have been ok at a smaller, less competitive school, but at this one, I was surrounded by people with wealth and connections beyond my wildest dreams. I could never decide whether to try to fit in or to stake independent ground and this feeling stuck with me well beyond law school – as a result, I floundered between multiple identities for years. I would strive to accomplish some “prestigious” goal, only to realize that I didn’t really want it and quit either mid-stream or after I’d achieved it.

I graduated from law school almost 13 years ago. Since then, I have passed the bar, obtained another graduate degree, and embarked on three different careers (in fact, I’ve actually changed careers four times, but the last time was back to career # 1, albeit in a higher-level position). I never did become a practicing attorney, but my law degree & M.S. did land me all of those jobs, so, from that angle, grad school was a good decision. On the other hand, I still owe nearly $100k in loans (that is a triumph – it was once nearly $200k), my job is far more stressful than I want (much of it of my own doing – saying “Yes” to too many things), and, most importantly, I simply do not feel “at peace.”

I know now how right I had it back in my early 20s; I think I just needed to experience all of the things I was trying to avoid before I could truly believe that they weren’t worth having. Well, now I have, and I’m ready to rededicate myself to simple living. I suspect that with the hole I’ve dug for myself, it will take more than a year to dig back out, and, really, I’ve already started, but I’m taking advantage of the new year to begin chronicling my journey.

So, with that, let’s get started – Happy 2018!




Don’t Be Jealous Of Jerks

20171209_203920Recently, I learned that a former colleague of mine (let’s call her Jessie Jerkface, or J.J. for short) from back in my tenure-track days has gotten a cush new position at a better school for much higher pay. A friend of mine who still works with J.J. expressed mixed feelings about the move. “I’m glad she’s leaving,” my friend said. “But I can’t help but be a little jealous.”

Now, I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of jealousy. I have been jealous over some really stupid things in my day – Katie R. reading more books than me in the summer reading program when I was 8, every talented actress in every play I’ve ever seen, people who have gotten jobs that I was in no way qualified for and did not apply for. I work very hard to overcome this kind of jealousy, and I find that admitting it usually takes care of it – there is something about holding jealousy close to the vest that makes it grow, sprouting green tendrils like some kind of magical beanstalk, that creep right up your neck and will strangle you if you don’t cut them off quickly enough.

So when my friend admitted that she was a little jealous of J.J., I almost said, without thinking, that I was, too. But as I was typing up the commiserating text, I realized that I actually wasn’t jealous. At all.

It came as a surprise to me, and as I thought it through, I started to think about what I know about J.J. and how she got her new position. During my time working with her, J.J. was, to put it mildly, utterly awful. She was a textbook narcissist – charming at first, but as soon as you got in her way, watch out. Initially, I thought that she and I were friends – that “friendship” ended, however, after she did things like: took work we had done together and published it under her own name, abused a position of power she had over some students to boost another publication she was working on, started multiple behind-the-scenes campaigns aimed at reducing her workload at the expense of others (including me), neglected her duties at our school in her relentless pursuit of networking her way into another position while simultaneously demanding raises, etc.

In short, J.J. sucked. In some ways, that worked for her. Although most of my former colleagues eventually found her as obnoxious as I did, she had a few minions – mostly embittered senior faculty who disliked our dean – who regularly stuck up for her, no matter how outrageous her actions or claims. In fact, it turns out that one of those people played a pivotal role in her getting the new job – the senior faculty member’s best friend is a high-level faculty member at J.J.’s new institution.

And while J.J.’s reputation suffered at our workplace, her national reputation did indeed flourish, mostly via connections that she fostered while neglecting her work at our school. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, she fully admitted as much to me back when we were “friends” – telling me that she formed relationships with people whether she liked them or not if they could advance her career. She once bragged to me about a high-level appointment she’d received because she was friends with the leader of a professional organization. I saw the organization advertising for the position a week later, seeking applications for what was supposedly an “open” spot – lo and behold, the spot went to J.J., who had already been appointed behind the scenes.

In some circles, J.J. would likely be considered a success – she used politicking and selfishness to get ahead while doing the least work possible. But, there’s the rub. If politicking and selfishness are your bag, then, go ahead, feel jealous of her and people like her. But if you pride yourself on ethical behavior and more natural forms of networking (i.e. only befriending people who you actually like), then there’s no reason to be jealous, even when someone who engages in more cynical actions gets rewarded for it.

Because, here’s the thing. Nothing in this life comes for free. Every action we take, every goal we wish to achieve, has a price. When you see someone who has something you think you want, ask yourself – what price did they pay? Would you be willing to pay that same price? If so, then get to it. If not, though, then there’s no reason to be jealous because the person who has whatever it is you think you want was willing to do things that you weren’t to get it. You can’t expect to have what they have if you aren’t willing to do what they are willing to do to achieve it. And more importantly – if you find what they did to achieve it loathsome, then rather than feeling jealousy, you should feel relief that you have not yet sunken so low.

That’s why I can be jealous of random actresses in plays, but I’m not jealous of J.J.. Not knowing those actresses, except for from their performances, I imagine that they got there through hard work and talent. And hard work and talent are positive characteristics and ones worth being jealous of (assuming they spur you on to action). I, of course, have no way of knowing that for sure, but I also have no way of not knowing it, and that is what I assume when I watch a good performance.

But, with J.J., I knew exactly what she did and was willing to do in order to get where she got. And I was not willing to do any of those things – and would have been deeply ashamed of myself if I ever had. In fact, the presence of so many J.J.s in academia is one of the main reasons why I left – while I wouldn’t say that the majority of academics act like she did, she certainly wasn’t an anomaly. So why begrudge her her success? Why envy it?

It is pointless to want something when you aren’t willing to take the steps necessary to get it. It is pointless to feel jealous of someone whose every action you find despicable, just because it “worked” for them. After all, aren’t they still despicable? Instead, think to yourself – “if, in order to get into that same position, I’d have to change everything I like about myself and renege on all of my core values, do I really want that position?”

I’m not religious, but there is a quote from the Bible that I always keep in mind when I find myself becoming jealous of someone whose personal values I despise. Mark 8:36 says, “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”

Keep that in mind the next time you’re feeling jealous of someone who you know has engaged in unethical behaviors to get where they are. Before you wish for what they have, remember that in order for you to have it instead, you’d have had to behave like them. And if the idea of behaving like them makes you nauseous – makes you feel like you would be “losing your own soul” – then you are far better off without whatever it is that they lost their own soul to get.