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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Monday, March 7, 2022

“I have to work.”

Your get out of jail free card.

Nobody says, No, I’m not coming to your boring baby shower.

Nobody says, I really don’t feel like seeing you for lunch tomorrow.

Nobody says, Are you kidding? I’d rather eat a bucket of tar than go on vacation with you.

I have to work. I can’t get away. There’s a lot going on.

Admit it, you’ve used that excuse before. Sometimes it’s even true. Sometimes it’s more true than you want it to be.

The only thing that trumps work is death.

We don’t stop for life, to have lunch with a friend or watch a movie in the middle of the day, but everything comes to a screeching halt for death. Then we get in cars and on planes and do what it takes to get somewhere, be somewhere, make time for something.

We make time to be there for a person in a box, but not for a person across from us at the dinner table.

It’s disturbing.

I struggle with this a lot.

We always think there will be another day, more time, something else. And we have to work.

Because we have obligations, not to ourselves, but to other people, to the people with the money.

Because people are relying on us, waiting for us, expecting things from us. It’s easier to say “no” to a friend than to a client. Easier to cancel a Thanksgiving dinner than miss a project deadline.

Because work is the thing we derive our identity from. It’s the thing we “accomplish”. That is particularly true if you run your own business. Then you are your business.

There’s this illusion that somehow there is a work-life balance out there, if only we read the right books and practice the right rituals. It’s possible that might have been true 50 years ago, during a generation of people for whom work was a job. The thing you did nine-to-five or some other finite set of hours, then went home, gave the kids a bath or something, retired at 65, collected a pension and were done. Work was work and home was home and you had to balance those so you didn’t bring too much work home.

You don’t hear a lot about bringing too much home to work.

I realize I am talking from an infinitesimally small pool of experience, but scan the articles. Browse the books. Listen to the podcasts. I am not alone.

Everyone is an “entrepreneur” these days. Sometimes that means you work 16 hours a day to build something, and sometimes that means you’re a “social media expert” because you have a Facebook account and an iPhone and don’t want to wear pants.

The more our economy shifts towards tech and service, the more people become entrepreneurs. Some want to create, some don’t want to work. But they all very likely, and very quickly, realize that being an entrepreneur isn’t a job. It’s a life.

And so we work.

Not because we want to or love to, but because it’s so intertwined with our sense of being that it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.

It’s why tomes have been written about “finding your passion.”

If you’re going to be immersed in – drowned by – work, day in and day out, if it’s going to consume your life, it might as well be something you’re passionate about.

It’s hard to be passionate about a lot of things. And it’s hard to make money doing what you’re passionate about unless you have the right combination of skill and flat out luck.

Do you know what I’m passionate about? Writing these words.

I suspect, however, that they will never pay the rent.

I’m passionate about clouds. And about fresh strawberries.

I’m incredibly passionate about the ethical treatment of our food sources, which is why I only buy meat from real farms, and produce when I can. I’ll get on that soapbox one day.

None of it is going to infiltrate my entrepreneurial life.

So work is… work.

Work is the thing that takes up too much time in between cocktails and paint-by-numbers.

Work, by the way, is also the word.

And I didn’t exactly come here to complain about it. Quite the contrary, I came here because working today was enjoyable.

I quit my “job” after 12 years. That’s how long I taught kindergarten, the thing my parents spent exorbitant amounts of money sending me to college for. I quit it to “work for myself.” Or “work for myself with Ralph” to be more accurate.

I quit it for other reasons, including the fact that parents started to get younger than me and be snarkier than me. And because a thing I truly loved doing was becoming a thing I truly did not love doing.

Teaching was never a job. I may have worked for someone else, but it was still a life. Ask Ralph. I spent our honeymoon looking for things to bring back to the kids, things to show them, things to share, gifts to give.

We got married in March. I was teaching in New York but we moved to New Jersey after the honeymoon. Or, he moved to New Jersey and I lived with my parents during the week so I could finish out the school year. For the first four months of our marriage, we only saw each other on weekends because I couldn’t leave a bunch of five year olds to someone else.

Yeah, that was a life.

Teaching consumed me. I guess if I had to come up with a passion, that would have been it. Watching those kids grow and blossom and change and become. Being part of that. Doing something creative, every day. Mending rifts, soothing feelings, and sometimes just yanking out the time-out chair and gritting my teeth. Sharing the wins and the laughter. Wiping up a lot of snot and paint.

When it stopped being more of the former, and started being more of the latter, I quit.

I don’t think passions were meant to last forever.

I started working with Ralph, not out of some burning desire to manage paperwork, which is exactly what I did in the beginning, but in part because I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, and there was this whole business to manage and take care of, not as entertaining as kids, but not as snotty, either.

That was more than 20 years ago and a lot has changed, but the fact that work consumes much of life has not.

There is no such thing as work-life balance. That implies there are two things, and they are in opposition, and you need to figure out how to keep them from tipping you off a cliff one way or another.

It’s really work-life integration. Doing all the things that are part of your existence without one consuming the other like a parasite.

I never liked marketing.

Yet, somehow, it is what I have done for 20-plus years.

The two things I do like, however, are helping people, and doing something well. I like doing and building and creating. I like the relationships that those things open up.

I like the synergy between helping my clients’ businesses grow and change, and being part of that, while sharing their passions with the people they serve. And making people’s lives better because of it.

The least fulfilling work is work that’s about the money. The stuff you do to pay the rent and afford the cocktails. Some of the highest paying jobs have been some of the most soul draining.

The best parts are the ones that feel purposeful. The best ones are with people you connect with, work with and not just for.

I remember someone coming to us once to ask about helping her build her business, and she had no money, like no money. But she really wanted to build something, and her energy was contagious. I wanted that job. I was THATCLOSE to saying I’d do it for free, but that would have made terrible business sense at the time, and we were already donating work to other organizations, so I let her go. But it wasn’t about the money. I really think if we had been in a different position, if circumstances hadn’t been what they were just then, I would have done it.

That’s when work is good.

Today, work was good. It’s hard to define exactly when it’s good and when it’s not, but you always know.

There are a few things I can count on to push it to the “good” column.

Doing something creative. You could argue that marketing should always be creative, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s rote, and you follow the three-step plan and you get the result and you’re done.

I like building websites. I’m as far from a designer as a bagel is from Tennessee, but I’m a pretty good hack with CSS and I know how to match colors. Building websites is not a money maker. But the process of doing it is fun.

Doing something hard. You could argue that that’s every day, between broken browsers and fighting with apps and things always on fire. But that’s just aggravation.

Writing a blog about an empty box – the same empty box – for the sfennthhhllvnhttnth time is hard. I complain about it every time. It takes me half a day to come up with 500 words. That is not a money maker. But when I’m done, it is so satisfying. Even while I’m writing it, coming up with a great turn of phrase or a new idea, is incredibly satisfying.

Doing something alone. It’s nice to get in a groove, without interruption, text or phone call, without the universe imploding or the space-time continuum crumbling, and just… do something.

The best days are the ones I can sit in front of my computer and check off thing after thing, in the zone and on a roll and whatever other mixed metaphor you want to throw in.

Doing something with people. I am fortunate enough to be working with people that I like. I don’t always like the projects, or the 27-alarm emergencies, but working with good people tempers a lot of that.

When you can spend a half an hour on a phone call with a client talking about bread and Pelotons before you get to the part about work, you know you have good people.

Today was a good work day.

Today was a day that reminded me why I do what I do.

Today also reminded me that work is not life, and even when it’s really, really good, it’s still just one part.

I’m going through a phase, a rethinking phase, a what-am-I-doing phase. I want to enjoy more days like this, but I also don’t want to wait for the next person in a box to remind me that there are other things.

A caterpillar, before it turns into a butterfly, actually dissolves. Melts. Digests itself. Turns into an amorphous goo, or as one person on the internet helpfully put it, into “caterpillar soup.” The only thing that’s left is a glob called an imaginal disc, which is the essence of the caterpillar-butterfly. From that, comes everything.

I like that metaphor. And I like how imaginal disc sounds like imagination. In fact, it shares etymological roots with the Latin word imago, meaning image.

Today felt a little less like soup.

And it’s with that thought that I will go live the rest of my life.

Photo: butterflies at the park where we usually walk. There are hundreds of them during the summer, in black, blue, yellow, orange, green and brown. Some are as tiny as quarters and they swirl around your feet when you walk. Others prefer the wildflowers.