The Journey of Recalibrating My Life in the Time of COVID.
It was a strange moment.
I was at home in the middle of the work week with the warm sun of a beginning Spring seeping through the living room blinds. I had just been sent home for the week with my future really unknown. Most of our patients cancelled their appointments not wanting to come out in the nascent pandemic, and the owner of the practice responded by sending most staff home with only the pay for the current time period promised.
How was I going to support myself? Would I have a job to come back to? While I had a stout emergency fund, should I start going into scarcity mode? It should have been a time of crippling concern about the future. Instead it became something quite different.
Since I started my new career, I had been grounded into dust. Only three months prior to COVID becoming a thing, I wrote a blog post about how my current job and residency were stealing my very vitality. My normal coping response was to take on more responsibility — wake up earlier, become more efficient, tighten the screws down — which completely backfired. I was already starting the process of decoupling myself from the false guilt and unreasonable expectations of the “extreme discipline” or “total ownership” mentality when I was sent home to what turned out to be an unplanned, four-day vacation.
Something awakened in me. I allowed myself to do things that were more similar to a previous self: listening to music while laying the floor, daydreaming while looking at the afternoon sky. As the day bled from morning, to afternoon, to evening, my consciousness was directed at self-actualizing activities that fed a soul that was very much wounded.
The best I could compare it to was that feeling you have when finishing a very good book. As you turn the last page and read those final words, you look up to discover that the very room you are in seems more alive. Everything seems sharp. Just BEING is electric and provides a very different vibe to being alive.
After a week of this, It became crystal clear that the way I was living wasn’t living.
Peeling Back the Onion.
It became clear I had a lot of work to do, but not the same kind of work I had been doing which involved long hours, less sleep, and more stress. How did I end up in this pattern of life when it was making me so unhappy? Where were these ideas coming from that long hours were virtuous and undirected play a hedonistic sin?
I must not have been the only one going through this realization because there was a plethora of podcasters discussing it. People were realizing there were positives to less hours, working from home, less time commuting, more time with family and hobbies (obviously this is for those who had jobs not displaced by the pandemic). A Very Bad Wizards podcast featured an essay by Bertrand Russell In Praise of Idleness. His message dovetailed perfectly with my own personal experience.
“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.”In Praise of Idleness, Bertrand Russell
An essay from 1935, Russell discusses the plight of the overworked in a capitalistic society. Obviously prescient for the times, he could not have imagined how technology would lead us back to industrial like conditions. While none of us are losing our hands in meat grinders, we are working 12 hour days with the expectation of constant productivity. This is also accompanied by moral claim — idle hands are the devil’s playground so you are the better person for working so hard 👍🏻.
This lifestyle was one reflected in my early home. Both of my parents had the protestant work ethic, but even with seeing the deleterious effects, it entered my psyche as a societal pressure. My mom still can’t retire. She might actually suffer from workaholism because even though she doesn’t like what she does (and has told us multiple times) and did it as a way to earn money and status (even though she now is financially independent), she can’t stop.
It makes sense though — if you spend 60 hours a week building your identity around one thing, what choice do you have?
I also realized something else: I had surrounded myself with people who also operated this way.
I worked for a company that was notorious for high (aka – unrealistic) expectations and long hours. One previous professor referred to it as a “factory” and “a machine” that burns through people. I was also in a residency which attracted Type A overachievers. The head of our program spent an entire lecture discussing how to set up RSS feeds to get research pushed directly to you so you can read it on weekends (his preferred time was Saturday at 6am ☠️ ).
Finally, I turned the mirror on me. I realized something very important about myself — I’m easily swayed by others and a hidden people pleaser. Yes, I might talk a big game, but at the end of the day I care very much what people think of me. I had given my self-worth over to interlocutors that did not share my values. I was letting them be my yardstick.
For so long, I had operated by other people’s rules. Now it was time to figure something out — what did I want?
I read two very good books around this time about self-development.
One was When Pleasing You Is Killing Me. Written by a psychologist that specializing in helping people recover from narcissistic interactions, it was the perfect book for me to start organizing my life. I didn’t realize how much the narrative in my head used moralistic language. I discussed everything as obligations using words such as “should” and “have to.” Playing a video game was not just a hedonistic task – it was a moral quandary that butted up against more productive things I should be doing!
I was reminded of my father who, after working from 5 am to 5pm, would say “but it has to be done!” when completely drained and exasperated but still “having” things to do. He would buckle up and keep going down the to do list regardless because it was “morally” the right thing. I was approaching my life the same way, as a to do list to be checked off and carrying a false sense of guilt for not fulfilling my societal obligation if I decided to do something just for the pleasure of it.
The second book was Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. In a surprising turn of events, Kaufman discusses how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was never a pyramid; that was made by some marketer in the 60s! Instead, Maslow had a much more deep and insightful way of what makes a human being transcendent and complete. One line from the book particularly stood out:
“the more our judgment of self-worth becomes internalized, the less the power of others has to completely sway how we see ourselves.”Scott Berry Kaufman
I was miserable in my current life. I needed to define a different set of priorities that was based more on my values and goals and less on what society, family, or peer group thought.
The Road Less Taken.
I think the transition can overall be summed up with this apocryphal quotation of Freud:
Going from a people-pleasing workaholic filled with false guilt and over moralization to something more self-centric rubbed quite a few people the wrong way.
I was a part of a project that had spiraled out of control. I was supposed to be the lead author of a research paper. However when I began to realize this wasn’t something important to me, I was bullied for being open about my situation. They tried to guilt trip, make me feel awful. They sent snide e-mails. They condemned the work that I had done. Put simply: they made me feel like shit.
What really took the cake was when one of them, who I happen to know is financially very well off, told me that if my current job was taking me away from extra curricular activities (reminder – this was a project I was doing for free and without any benefit to myself), then I needed to go find a new job that allowed me to do things to “move the profession forward”. Find a new job! In the middle of a pandemic! When I recently was sent home without enough work to do!
The more I descaled myself of all the extra, the more roadblocks I ran into.
I attempted to talk to the head of the residency about my current situation, but all this turned into was a ploy for him to try and get me to do residency FOR ANOTHER YEAR. As I poured out my experiences about how I am tired of working this much and realizing I want to go in another direction, he decided it would be a good idea to tell me how smart I am and that he has a great deal where I can DO IT ALL AGAIN!
Work might have been the most troublesome cart to delink from. After a year of working more hours than others due to residency, I realized a very fun fact — I had been underpaid by around 10k. I realized that this place truly was never going to change so I decided to exit stage right.
Management quickly initiated the feel miserable program I had seen so often from others. They attempted to recoup healthcare premiums for the 12 days I wasn’t going to be employed in December, the large some of around $75 dollars. I was yelled at in front of coworkers and told that I was going to be “speaking to lawyers.”
All this, just for a little free time?
The Fruits of My Labor.
It was so worth it, though! This is a hard transition, and I am still working through it, but my life is nothing like it was over that previous year. I feel more like a fully integrated, complete person. I’m not a worn out rag that’s wringed out. I don’t have to sleep from Friday 9pm to Saturday 1pm to feel human again. I’m also able to do things that are oriented around what I like instead of living the lives of others.
After having some more time to myself, music started to pour out of me. I’m still working on an album, but here is a demo of one of the songs.
I picked up a new hobby of perler beading, and I’m getting really good at making all sorts of pixel art and being a part of an online community that appreciates the same interests.
I started reading again, and have read multiple amazing series of books that have tapped into my imagination that I was letting whither. I lost weight and was able to fit in all of my clothes again. I started sleeping 8 hours a night without waking up at night thinking about what I should have done or need to do.
I am in a relationship that I think is going damn well. I finally have time to put more effort into it and, surprise surprise, that’s gotten better, too.
It’s never too late to live your best life!