Lean Back: Confessions of a Recovering Workaholic

Lean Back: Confessions of a Recovering Workaholic

The job will not save you, Jimmy. It wont make you whole, it wont fill your ass up … A life, Jimmy. You know what that is? Its the shit that happens while youre waiting for moments that never come.”Lester Freamon, The Wire


A week and a half ago, after approximately 19 months of applications, interviews, thank you letters, and 15 of those months enjoying “funemployment,” I was offered a job. Today is my first day. As I watched the last remaining week of my “funemployment” unfold, I was flooded with a mix of emotions.

On one hand, there was joy and relief to finally have some certainty for the foreseeable future, not only in my income, but also that I will remain in Washington DC. On the other, there is still a sadness to see what has been a remarkable and life-changing/giving season of my life end, and to deal once more with the grind of employment. I’ve been reflecting on what this passing season has taught me about life, work, and humanity, and am hoping that I have learned the lessons well enough to avoid past mistakes in my job.

So I think it’s fitting here to quote my first boss after college and ask the question, “is everyone out of their ever-loving minds?” Of course, he didn’t say “ever-loving” but I’m trying to keep this clean. According to a survey conducted by Good Technology, 80% of Americans just don’t stop working. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American parents between the ages of 25 and 54 spent the largest percentage of their time working. And for 40% of the working population, a 12 hour day is common.

Because when work is your life, youre not even really a person. Courtesy of Online Career Tips

You know what I found most shocking about those chart for working parents? It was that the average seemed so low. As in, I think that a lot of people I know would love to only work 8.8 hours each day. This is despite the near constant commentary from people that “work sucks.”

Wait, scratch that. That’s a lie. I think a lot of people I know are extremely happy that they put in double-digit hours each day. At least, despite their complaints about long weeks and being overworked, they seem to love playing the “guess how much I have to work” game. And that is why I wonder if we’ve all gone collectively insane.

The questions I have about the absolute sovereignty over our lives that we assign to work are especially on my mind today as I switch from fun/self-employment to hopefully “Fun Employment.”

See, I used to be a high priestess in the Temple of Work. I offered my mind, my body, my soul to my career. In return it gave me a wonderful resume and a whole address book of great references and experiences. It also gave me a lot of stress and stress-related health issues. It gave me a decade (my 20s) of dead-end romantic relationships because I didn’t want to be distracted from my worship. And it gave me no rest from its constant demands for more.

In short, I leaned in.

Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read Sheryl Sandberg’s book yet, but I want to. However, from the excerpts from it that I’ve perused and the commentary about it that I’ve read, I worry.

And I don’t just worry about this for women. I wonder about this for both sexes. After being burned so hard from “leaning in,” I wonder how putting your work first is good for anyone?

A book like Lean In works so well in our culture. Work harder, better, smarter, faster! Climb climb climb! To where, the top? What’s at the top? Enlightenment? Holiness? Self-justification? Really, I want to know. Because since being off-ramped against my will, I have had trouble remembering why I drove myself so crazy to work so hard. I worked in non-profit and in ministry, so it clearly wasn’t the money. The prestige? Eh. The value of a job well-done, of changed lives? Sometimes.

What I do know is that despite the long hours I would work, the dedication I showed, and the absolute bullshit I would often have to put up with (go cry in the bathroom so no one sees your weakness, even at a church), my loyalty was not matched fully by my employer. My job was still eliminated and though I chose not to pursue an opportunity which would not have been the best fit for me, I was still laid off. No one was particularly happy about it. But it still happened.

And the irony of all of this? My new employers didn’t really care all that much about all that leaning in I did. The experience that was valuable to them was some part-time consulting and this very blog that you’re reading. The same blog that many advised me might hurt my attempts to get a job.

I have only been jobless for any length of time once before this recent season. That was a three month break between my college graduation and the start of my first job. I was so ashamed that I hadn’t lined up a job immediately after school.

I never took a year off to have some fun job at a ski lodge or backpack Europe. I couldn’t afford that financially, but especially couldn’t afford it spiritually. Putting anything before my career ambitions was heresy. The irony was that I thought that this was a good way to live, that having a good job and doing good work would lead to other good things.

By the time I found myself out of work, my soul felt like a shriveled and starved ghost. And I had done that to myself, because I believed that whatever part of me wasn’t focused on producing was unnecessary.

That’s what troubles me about leaning into work.

Because I’m sure I’m not the only one who viewed everything else as secondary or subservient to my career. I’m quite sure I’m not speaking a foreign language when I say that I once made almost all of my decisions based on what employers might think. From the large things like where I went to school, to the small things like how I’d wear my hair, my life was dominated by what would make me most attractive to employers. There were no boundaries between my work and meinstead I let myself be consumed.

I guess I should point out that I am a Christian and though I professed my faith daily, my real god was my career.

And when I found myself jobless and with hours upon unending hours of free time, I didn’t know how to use it. I felt like I was facing a deep abyss of nothingness and in truth I was. Though my soul was shriveled and small, my heart was cavernous. There was no way that my work could have ever filled that gaping hole, even if I had worked more hours and racked up more bullet points for my CV.

“Money, career, lovefor a period of time you may feel that you have something to live for. But if you actually get the thing you have been seeking, you suddenly realize that it’s not big enough for your soul. It doesn’t produce it’s own light.” (Timothy Keller, King’s Cross pg.204)

Although I am planning to work hard in my new role, and to “lean into” my assignments, I am actually terrified that I will not be able to maintain good work/life balance. And even though it has been a constant temptation over this past year, I have not leaned too heavily into writing for and editing this blog. I wish that I could say that I saw the light, put down my censer and left the sacred temple of Work of my own volition. After departing my last job on a metaphysical stretcher, I think I’ve finally learned to be healthy. And human.

What has been challenging for me over the past several days is to balance the joy over this new season of my life, while honoring the season that has passed. It’s tempting to frame the experience between my last day of full-time work and the next day of full-time work as a wilderness and God forbid, a gap in my employment (since I have listed my experiences with TWR, there hasn’t actually been a gap on my resume). It’s tempting to look at this new job with reliefnot only financially, but spiritually, as though I have been weighed in the balance and finally found to be worthy. And our crazy work-obsessed culture is probably doing that to me right now.

With the offer and my acceptance of it, I didn’t experience the magical transformation of becoming a Grant Writer, my new title. In fact, other than gratitude to have landed in a job that I actually want, I feel pretty much the same as I did the day before I was offered my job.

But still the faithful priests and priestesses of Work constantly proselytize to us and our kids that having a good job and being relentlessly good at your job will lead to a good life. We all probably tell that to ourselves every day. You know where I first started developing these habits? Kindergarten, when my classbecause we were “bright”was not allowed to have nap time. No rest when there’s work to do. Lean in, kids, because one day you too can sell your soul to the company store.

I don’t think that this is good for women. I don’t think it’s good for men. I don’t think it’s good for humanity. You know what hasn’t been shocking, but rather disappointing? How many well-meaning people who love me don’t seem to care that these past 15 months taught me how to face my hungry soul and learn how to fill it with good things. How many well-meaning people are rejoicing with me over this new job, but were not rejoicing EVERY DAY while I was learning how to be a human being for the very first time.

Where impatience used to be my biggest weakness (why are you not bowing to my demands, I want it NOW), after over a year of waiting, I have learned that it’s ok if other people have different schedules, paces, and agendas than mine. Where my only conversation topics centered on my work, I found that the time off from work allowed me to be creative, to pursue hobbies and practices, and in general to have a life.

I propose this heresy: while I lean back from my career-oriented tendencies, Im going to lean into the other 6.5 hours (on average) of my day to eat, drink, and be merry with the people who matter most.

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