Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. – Bill Watterson
A few years ago I made a mistake. A clerical error – a mis-click – the kind of mistake that pretty much everyone makes once in a while when their attention is spread too thin. And I’d been spread very thin. I’d been asked to take on a huge project in addition to my regular job. Of course I said yes. I mean, I couldn’t say no. Set boundaries? Impossible. People might think I couldn’t handle it. People might think I was lazy, or unwilling to be helpful. They might not even… gasp… LIKE ME! Unacceptable.
I shouldered through it, working late every night and through most of my weekends. I was exhausted, but I thought I had it under control, and it did seem to be going amazingly well. Others commented on how smoothly it was going, how well-organized, how we were meeting every deadline (not typical for similar projects). I was confident, capable, efficient… prideful. Very, very prideful.
By the time I caught the mistake, it was too late to fix it. The moment when I realized what had happened, I was sitting on my bed with my laptop, and I’d been working most of the weekend. It was the kind of realization that makes your stomach drop and your chest clench. I remember spending a minute or two in child’s pose saying out loud and to no-one over and over, “What do I do? What do I do?” This was a little clerical error that was going to have big consequences.
I assumed responsibility for my mistake, as I should have, but I was resentful – resentful of the management that should’ve known not to assign me such a massive project when my plate was already full, the colleagues who should’ve seen I was struggling and helped, the people working closest to me who should’ve defended my honor when I was reprimanded.
I wish I could say this resolved itself quickly, but it took weeks and months for the whole experience to play itself out. Weeks of dreading going to work, of hiding in my cube, striving to have as little social interaction as possible, of feeling like everyone was talking about me, and many of them probably were.
That experience changed everything for me. I had a bit of an emotional breakdown. And to be clear, despite my resentment, almost everyone around me was incredibly supportive, giving me space and time to bounce back, and voicing their defense of my honor privately to me, if not speaking up publicly. Colleagues called to check in, to make sure I knew that the people who knew me understood this didn’t reflect on my capabilities, and more importantly, my value as a human being.
It took a long time to process, and I became very uninvested in my work. But as the pain of the situation started to fade, I began to see the value in the experience, the realization that I can set boundaries, and should, that I was not protecting myself from the pain of disappointing others by saying yes to every assignment that entered my orbit. In fact, I’d been subject to huge disappointment and disapproval as a result of not setting boundaries. I realized that my job did not prioritize me in the way that I prioritized my job. I realized that being respected for productivity is actually not such a great accomplishment. We are so much more than the sum of the hours we work.
I stopped working late every night. I recommitted to the daily meditation that fell by the wayside over these weeks of my life. I started setting boundaries at work. That was probably the hardest part. Most importantly, I experienced a shift in how I viewed myself. Rather than viewing myself as defined by my job, I started to view myself through a broader lens, and that opened doors for me to prioritize my personal life – my family, self-care, and eventually my decision to take on meditation and yoga teacher training.
This experience was the turning point that brought me from a path of striving to meet external expectations, to one that feels more authentic, true, and fulfilling. This path requires mindfulness – it would be easy to wander off course and find myself on the more well-worn path of “live to work.” But on this path, there’s time to notice the details that might have been lost in worry about upward mobility. I’ve made a conscious decision not to move up in my career, but rather to focus on outward mobility – to enjoy the job that, for all its stresses, gives me the opportunity to do meaningful work, and to be satisfied with it as it is. Rather than seeking promotions, I now seek areas of personal growth, and opportunities to do work that I believe will help my community.
Early on in this job, a colleague and mentor passed on this comic, Creating a Life that Reflects Your Values, by Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes). I kept it, and thought of it often, usually when I’d strayed off course from my own values. When she retired to pursue a life that better reflected her values, I gave it back to her.
Prioritize what you value, always, and do not to be pulled off course by outside pressures. I wish you all the clarity to find this truth on your own path – preferably without the traumatic catalyst I needed to get here!
To being subversive! 😉
Featured image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay