Keeping things simple

My oldest friend Tracy is walking through Albania at the moment. She’s with a group and I’m not entirely sure where they’re headed or when they’ll get there, and I’m not even sure I could identify Albania on a map.

I’m following her on Instagram. She’s a good photographer, she posts frequently and it’s really fascinating to see what Albania looks like.

What strikes me in the photos is how beautiful the countryside is, and how old-world the life is. She has lots of photos of donkeys carting loads of hay, women and men looking like every peasant photo you’ve ever seen, horses and carts in the roads, and tiny stalls on the side of the road selling a handful of cucumbers, some grapes and a few tomatoes. It’s very picturesque, but it’s also real life for Albanian villagers.

I live about 10 minutes’ walk from the central city. I walked into town this morning to meet a friend for coffee, then decided to go shopping.

While walking home carrying my branded shopping bags, I got to thinking about the Albanians in Tracy’s photographs and about the purpose of life (as you do).

Something in those photos made me reflect on what life consists of, the myriad activities that constitute daily life for each of us. It’s not the economics of it that got me pondering (although I don’t know how you make enough to live on when your daily income derives from the sale of three cucumbers and a kilo of tomatoes, and your customers are whoever walks past your gate on a given day). It’s more to do with an engagement with the business of life.

What I saw when I looked at those photos was a life driven by ambitions different from mine. So much of my world is implicitly or explicitly about “getting ahead”, going up in the world, making it, keeping up with the Joneses and every other cliché you can think of. There’s not much room for simply enjoying life.

I’m not trying to romanticise the life of an Albanian peasant here. I’m pretty sure it’s hard work, uncertain and at times grim and depressing. Nor am I suggesting they enjoy their lives, struggling in the aftermath of communist rule. This is about me, not them.

But they are immersed in the activities of their daily life. I haven’t learnt how to be that immersed. I am always living in the future (or the past, when I get in those moods). It’s always about the next thing, what I need to do, to achieve, the goal to reach or the plan to make. I’ve read, and believed, too many productivity blogs and books.

I suspect this sense of frustration at feeling dissociated from one’s own life and therefore finding little joy in it is what drives people to embark on “Eat, Pray, Love” adventures. The Italians, the French, maybe the Albanians, all seem to know how to enjoy the day to day of life: meals, a glass of wine, dancing, talking, being with friends and family.

What if I’ve been doing it wrong all this time? I’ve got a house, my land, retirement savings, a good job, new shoes. What if all of that is beside the point?

Well, I’m quite sure it IS all beside the point. It’s nice, it’s comfortable, and it provides me the luxury of sitting round pondering the meaning of life. But it’s not the point of life. It’s a means to an end, and the point is surely happiness.

And the way to happiness? Not sure. But it’s not buying new shoes, nice though they are.

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I’ve been sick most of this past week. No doubt the recent emotional stresses have contributed: although mentally I have got much better at dealing with stress, my body has little resilience and it doesn’t take much to tip me over the limit. I’m a lightweight. 

Lying in bed gives you a lot of time to think. A curious realisation came to light on day 4: I was starting to feel “left behind” by work. Things move at a hectic pace normally, and it’s particularly busy at the moment.  I was fearing that I was becoming more irrelevant by the day. 

What surprised me about feeling this was that I thought I didn’t care about it so much any more. With my Grand Plan to build on my land and retire there, I thought work had taken a back seat. And yet that fear of being sidelined reared its head just when I most needed to rest and not stress about work. 

I had a boss for several years who was very driven. He had a clear idea of where he wanted to get to, and drove all of us hard in that direction. He valued those who could get him to where he wanted to go, and being a people pleaser, I made myself into a Very Useful Person. 

Naturally I burned out. He moved on to others. He’s not cruel, or a bully, he just believes reaching the goal is the most important thing. Another approach would be to believe people’s job satisfaction is the most important thing and reaching the goal is secondary to that. I’m a better fit for the latter type of manager, although I did learn a lot from him and a lot about myself from the whole experience.

The trap that I fell into was understanding my worth in his terms. I was only worthy if I was able to deliver what he wanted. Once I was no longer able, I wasn’t as useful. I wasn’t as valued. 

I was primed for this of course. We relive our childhood relationships over and over. My mother had a very utilitarian view of her children: be useful or you are useless to her. 

As this fear of uselessness reemerges, it’s helpful to reflect on where it’s come from and remind myself what it’s really about. And not about. I’m not useless. I know that. I’m not going to be fired because I’m home sick for a few days. Sure it might inconvenience some people, but that’s life.

At times like this it’s good to remind myself  that a utilitarian view of people is not the only way to view people or to be viewed. And that it’s not the way I want to view or be viewed. 

Why I am not a lawyer

This past week I got to spend some time in Court. I was there observing, for a project I’m doing at work. 

I attended two mornings of District Court. The first day was for case review hearings, where prosecution and defence are supposed to put forward an agreed summary of the arguments in the case to the judge who then can give early indication of whether there is an argument to be heard and if not what sentence is likely. This theoretically gives the defendant an opportunity to plead guilty, avoid the trial before the judge, and get bonus points for an early guilty plea leading to a discount in the sentence. 

When the process is followed, this is frequently an efficient way to proceed for all parties. Except of course there is endless pissing around on all sides leading to further hearings being scheduled and cases dragging on for months. This probably doesn’t bother the defendant but for the victims and witnesses, it’s a real cost having to come back to court time and again. 

The second morning was list Court where everyone arrested overnight appears including a large number of traffic related offences. This moves through pretty quickly as people are either bailed or remanded and a hearing date set down, or fined and discharged. 

Never having had occasion to be involved in the justice system in this way, I found it all quite illuminating and sad. But more than anything I was struck by how boring the whole process is. A lawyer has to show up for half an hour to represent someone who has made an obviously bad decision, usually while under the influence of alcohol, then try to present some kind of case for leniency or mitigating circumstances or denial of the events. This seems like a deadly mix of repetitive and detail oriented work. Likewise for the prosecutor, worse since there was only one of them whereas at least the lawyers only had to represent one or two clients. For the judge, it has to be mind numbing sitting there listening to one story after another with only minor variations from day to day. The registrar who was managing an endless stream of paperwork as well as scheduling court dates and keeping the whole process moving seemed to be the busiest of the lot. 

If anyone chooses a career in law and especially criminal law based on what they see on TV in shows like The Good Wife and whatever legal dramas are current now (I was going to write “LA Law” then realised that’s decades old!), I fear they’d feel sorely misled.  The same is true of NCIS-type crime shows as a representation of investigative and forensic work. Most jobs are a good deal more boring and mundane than they are on TV. Intellectually I know this, as do most people, but I was still a bit shocked to realise just how much reality differed from drama. 

It makes me realise that my own job is actually pretty interesting. 

Making the most of waiting time

I’m a sucker for productivity blogs and life hacks. Not that I routinely follow their advice, but I do like reading them. I keep reading them because I keep thinking one day I’ll stumble on The One Thing that will transform my life and make me super productive and ultra efficient.

The fact is, though, and without bragging, I am already pretty darn productive and efficient. I get stuff done. A lot of stuff. In spite of periodically having a day in bed because fatigue has overtaken me.

I’m something of a machine at work. I have well-honed powers of concentration, and can tune out most of the noise from around me when I need to get things done. (Worth nothing, though, that this comes at a cost: tuning out noise and distraction depletes mental energy, a total waste of it.) I work from home one day a week and usually devote it when I can to ‘deep work’, the kind that requires uninterrupted immersion for serious thinking.

Reading those blogs and life hacks makes me realise that I have a lot of good productive habits already. No real surprise there. But there is one oft-repeated tip that I totally disagree with: that is the tip that advocates doing email or making phone calls or checking whatever on your phone when you are waiting.

I believe this is counter productive to the pursuit of greater productivity. Instead, waiting time is best used as “free-range thinking” time. Don’t check or respond to email, don’t make calls, don’t run through your to-do list: spend this precious time thinking about nothing, daydreaming, just letting your mind wander. Take a break.

We can’t work in a focused way all the time. Half of the other tips in your typical “how to be more productive” list are about chunking work, using things like the Pomodoro technique to concentrate work into 90 minute blocks. Crucially, techniques like that work because in between blocks of work you take a break. The breaks are vital. They are what make the technique work.

The point of the breaks is to give your brain a rest. Switching from reading up on constitutional law in the 1800s to checking your email is not the kind of break your brain needs. Take a proper break. Go for a cup of coffee, stand in line and just look at the coat of the person in front of you, or out the window at the passing cars, or the rain, or the sun, or the leaves, and give your brain a rest. Stop beating it to within an inch of its life.

THAT is how you make the most of waiting time.

Underestimating what others do

Walking home the other day I passed two women deep in discussion and caught part of their conversation. One woman said “once she explained it, it was just common sense really”. 

It got me thinking. Aside from the cliché that common sense is apparently not very common, I was struck by something that has bothered me professionally for years. 

A large portion of what I do at work is explain things: I make complicated stuff easy to understand. The problem with this is that once people understand the thing that was previously opaque, they no longer perceive its complexity. Nor do they recognise that the reason they now understand it is not because they suddenly just “got it” in a flash of self-generated insight, but because someone else worked hard to make it clear to them. 

It’s a peculiar bit of mind warping that goes on inside our heads at this moment of understanding. We congratulate ourselves on our cleverness at understanding and attribute it to our own brilliance. We completely overlook the person who has led us unobtrusively along the path to insight. 

Next time someone explains something to you and it seems really clear and straightforward, instead of congratulating yourself on your ability to grasp complex concepts quickly, congratulate them on their skill in communicating complex concepts simply. 

You don’t have to be passionate

For years, I have been angsting over ‘finding my passion’ with the intention of following it, once found, into career success. At some point I started to believe that it had run away after years of neglect, and I was doomed to live a passionless life in my current rut, working doing things I didn’t believe were my passion because I didn’t know what my passion was.

I think I have finally come to realise, intellectually if not yet emotionally, that ‘finding your passion’ is a bit like looking for happiness. The harder you look, the more remote it gets. It seems instead to be something that grabs you when you’re busy doing other things (much like life happens while you’re busy making other plans).

I’ve tried to figure out my passion by sitting down with a bunch of self help books, making lists of my strengths and weaknesses, skills and talents, and what I enjoyed doing when I was 10. This got me nowhere other than to realise that my current career choice is well matched to my strengths and skills. Which left me thinking that I must be passionless, because, while I enjoy my work, I wouldn’t describe myself as passionate about it.

My father used to encourage us to do something for which we had ‘a fire in your belly’. He was an architect, reluctant to retire, and still interested and up to date with the world of architecture both locally and abroad. He still has his passion for it. I have never felt this about anything work related. I’ve enjoyed pretty much every job I’ve had but I’ve never had that deep drive in my belly to do this one thing.

I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. It’s a marvellous book about living a creative life. Her approach is so obvious somehow: just be curious. Be alert to that little prompt that says ‘huh, that’s interesting’ when you are in the middle of doing whatever, and follow that prompt to see where it leads. I love the story she tells about a 90 year old women who, ten years earlier, had got curious about Mesopotamian history and, having spent 10 years following her curiosity about it, was now considered an expert.

I have come to the conclusion that the current emphasis on following your passion is mistaken in two ways: first, that you know in your heart of hearts what your passion is, you just have to listen to that internal voice; and second, once you find it you should monetize it.

You might not know what your passion is until you discover it, which means you need to expose yourself to all sorts of things in the course of a lifetime and yes, by all means listen for that little voice but be aware that it might just be saying ‘huh, that’s interesting’ rather than announcing with exploding fireworks that ‘this is IT’.

Second, you don’t have to monetize it. How many times have I read about Einstein working in the patent office by day and doing ground-breaking physics over his evening cocoa? And still the message didn’t get through to me that you don’t, and quite possibly shouldn’t, quit your day job to follow your passion. As Gilbert says, don’t put that kind of pressure on it. Just enjoy it. Don’t even worry about being good at it, just enjoy it.

That’s all. Do stuff, be curious, and enjoy it. I could do worse than live by those words.

 

 

 

Drifting dangerously close to breaking point

I QUIT
Not really. I just feel like it sometimes.

Because some people in our organisation deal routinely with unpleasant and distressing material and events, we have good support systems in place for staff.

I have been grateful for them recently.

I realised I am approaching breaking point. Some of the behaviours that signal trouble for me include:

  • mindless surfing and playing on my phone until late at night when I should be sleeping
  • not bothering to prepare food, especially skipping breakfast
  • eating lunch very late or not at all
  • getting no exercise
  • being tempted by the idea of being hit by a bus so I can have a nice long rest in hospital
  • dreading waking up, and waking later and later

All of these have been happening. What’s not clear is what is driving the stress. My job has its frustrations, to be sure, but on its own is not so stressful it would be causing this kind of behaviour.

The fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis is a major factor. I feel so exhausted most of the time that attending to even the basics of living  (showering, dressing, getting to work) are taxing my energy. By the time I have dealt with work and its inevitable pressures, it’s not surprising I am showing the strain.

So I took myself off to the Welfare Officer to see what can be done. She’s referred me on, so I’m booked in to see someone next week to discuss what my options are. I’d like to reduce my hours, but I know my boss is oddly reluctant to consider this (I say ‘oddly’ as she has been extremely supportive and understanding of my need for rest). Working from home would be one option but for boringly tedious corporate reasons, that is difficult to organise at the moment (you’d think you could just go buy a laptop and make it happen, but no.)

I don’t want to quit my job, as I enjoy it most of the time, and I’m very uncertain about what would happen if I stopped work (financially, mentally, socially). I’d like to find a happy solution. The challenge is that solutions take work, and work takes energy, and I have so little energy left after brushing my teeth that it seems like an impossible task. And yet, it could make all the difference.

It’s like the poverty trap: if you could just save a bit to get ahead of the bills you could change the whole dynamic, but you don’t have enough to get ahead. So the situation gets worse and worse. I do need to intervene to break this cycle before it breaks me.