May 6, 2014

On the occasion of my 28th birthday.

Once again, I have the good fortune of marking another lap around the sun: 365 sunrises and sunsets, 52 Sunday mornings, 12 full moons, and two sets of equinoxes and solstices. Of course, these are just the natural markers of a year. I’ve marked it myself with two friends’ weddings, a bachelor party, and my own engagement; travels to California, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C.; moving to Jersey City and then Indianapolis; two major launches at work; three sets of injections into my spinal cavity; and uncounted mistakes, small triumphs, and treasured but still-too-infrequent moments of serenity.

If you look back on this site, you can find posts from my 25th and 26th birthdays, but not the last one. Last Spring, I let myself get pretty overwhelmed with work, to the point where I was working nights and weekends to try and keep up, and even that wasn’t enough. Finally, after a hazy all-nighter, I took a wee-hours walk through the side-streets of Highland Park and came face-to-face with the beast I’d been running from for months: the acceptance that I couldn’t handle it. That I’d failed, and worse, let others down. I dragged myself into work that morning and glumly told my team that I hadn’t finished all the work that I’d said I would, and their response shocked me. That was fine, they said. We’d prioritize. Bring on some extra help. It would be okay.

And it was, really. But the experience set the tone for the year to come, a year in which I would squirm between trying to set realistic expectations for myself, and misplacing my sense of self-worth in the length and breadth of my to-do list. Gratefully, I learned some things from all this:

The Need to Compartmentalize

Chronic back pain, moves to two new cities, a demanding job: this year I’ve not had to look far for things to worry about (as if any of us do). Naively, I took the “Worry about it until it’s done” approach, which can be motivational in small doses but quickly has the opposite effect. It took reaching my breaking point to finally allow myself not to forget but to lay down those burdens from time to time. Just because something is worth worrying about doesn’t mean it’s worth worrying about all the time. Nothing is.

Don’t Put Off What’s Important

When it came to attacking that to-do list, my first instinct was to attend to the easiest (and typically least consequential) things first. Seeing my task list shrink from 11 down to five things felt great, except that now I’d have five big, intimidating tasks left. So of course, I would take a break, and by the next time I attended to it the list would be a dozen items long again. It was a vicious cycle, as tasks would grow ever more intimidating the longer they remained undone, which led me to keep putting them off.

I’ve since come to learn some helpful strategies:

Pleasure is Not the Same as Happiness

Curiously, at times when I felt most exhausted and miserable, stealing ten minutes to go for a walk, sit in the park, or read about something new would bring me more joy than many hours at a bar or playing video games. While I can’t recommend exhaustion as a spiritual practice, I’ve come to appreciate that the less pleasure I take from life, the more I appreciate what pleasure I do. By acclimating myself to discomfort, I find it easier to be comfortable. Try it. Go for a walk in the rain. Set the thermostat outside your comfort zone. Push through procrastination. Eat raw kale. The will is like a muscle: by exercising it, you make it stronger, and the things you don’t want to do but have to all get easier.

Success Looks a Lot Like Hard Work

Like “love,” I lived my whole life thinking that “success” was a finish line, and once you got there you wouldn’t have to worry about anything else. This year has at times felt like a slog through the mud, and yet I can’t deny that it’s been a tremendous success. My struggles at work have borne the fruit of experience. Through all the visits to specialists, the procedures, and treatments related to my back, I’ve learned some important things about the only body I’ve got. And above it all, the hard-won skills I’ve mentioned above for managing a life have given me the confidence to propose sharing that life with the person I’ve been waiting all mine for. In short, I’ve learned that success is better defined by what you learn than what you have.

Self-sacrifice is Never Just That

All too often I’ve approached difficult situations with resignation, thinking “I’ll just throw everything I have at this and be miserable until it’s done.” (To its credit, this proved a more successful approach than my previous strategy, avoidance.) But while this may have seemed at the time like selflessness, in hindsight it was anything but. It was mere ego keeping me from asking for help, instead spending much more time trying to prove that I can handle everything myself. And of course, all that time I sacrificed was not entirely my own. I was taking my time and energy away from those who deserve it: from my fiancée, from my friends and family, and even from the strangers I might have helped if I weren’t so damn busy. We’re all in this together. We owe it to each other to be, if not happy, then at least present.