Six months ago today, I closed my company laptop, handed my boss my badge and my corporate credit card, and walked through the imposing entrance of the insurance company where I worked for the last time.
I’ve taken a break from work of any kind: no remote job, no freelancing, nothing at all. It’s not that I couldn’t do any of this from the road: my old communications job could be done from anywhere with a WiFi connection and freelancing in my field is pretty easy as well.
But I’ve had a job since I was 16 years old, not counting all my babysitting years either. It was time for a break. I wanted this year to be about change, about growth, and it’s harder to do that when you’re tied to a schedule and a laptop and an easy fall back into the often mind-numbing distractions of work.
It’s the same reason I’m sober over here in Asia: I want clarity, space, focus. I don’t want anything attached to me, like the weight of expectations or the tether of good old American workaholism. I have enough baggage (both the 35 liter backpack I carry with me and 33 years worth of life baggage).
Meeting so many people from across the world in the last few months has given me perspective on just how work-obsessed American society is. It’s one of the first questions an American will ask you, which shocks pretty much everyone in Europe. Your work defines you, helps someone put you in a box so they can figure you out. It makes sense: in a country with no guaranteed vacation time or holidays or sick leave, where our retirement prospects look ever shadier, work is where the average American spends most of his or her time. That does come to define you if you let it.
We tend to think of work as something you do steadily and all-absorbingly (I have heard so many snide comments slamming those coworkers who dare to actually use their vacation time, or who don’t answer emails on a Saturday night), until you are An Old sometime in the distant future. Then, you can prop your worn-out body on a rocking chair on a porch somewhere and suddenly enjoy life again.
But this trajectory raises some questions for me. Why should we spend our healthiest and most active years ceaselessly chained to a desk, and leave the actual living until it takes us five minutes to wrestle our tired selves out of bed in the morning? And when we spend our whole lives doing nothing but working, working, working, then how will we suddenly enjoy all this leisure time that’s been dropped in our laps? If we never practice a life outside of work, then work becomes our whole lives.
And our heartless American corporations don’t care how many years and nights and weekends you’ve devoted to them when the bottom line appears. Trust me, I used to write those “goodbye” emails from ousted executives who had served 20+ years with the company, only to be unceremoniously dumped when they were no longer needed (I think one of them did get a homemade scrapbook from the ladies in HR).
I’m not saying we should all quit our corporate jobs, grab a backpack, and travel the world forever instead. I mean, it’s great for me but we all have different loves. And the bills gotta get paid somehow, that’s for sure.
But maybe it’s worth occasionally taking a step back to look at the big picture of your life. Are you working 10 hour days so you can get a promotion so you can work 12 hour days instead?
As I was thinking about leaving, I looked around at the executives at my Fortune 100 company that I admired (and there were many!). As interesting as their jobs looked, they worked nearly every waking hour of the workweek, and most spent Sundays working too. They made wild amounts of money that they rarely got time off to spend, and got trips to exotic places in business class where they mostly saw the inside of identical conference rooms. I could stay on my current track and aim for those heights, but to what end? Was that really my dream? Or am I content with lesser heights and greater time?
I took a pretty dramatic route to change my life (it’s why I love opera so much: I am a dramatic bitch). But there are ways to disconnect from work a little to connect to the rest of your life more too. Think about how your life will look when you’re easing your 70 year old body into that rocking chair on the porch of your little Maine cottage. Will you regret spending too little time at work? Or will you think wistfully of that book you never took the time to write, that city you never visited, that animal sanctuary you never founded?
We each have only one life, of uncertain but certainly finite length.
“Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver