Enough Gold Stars
“When you’re a child, you try to please your parents. Then at school you work for gold stars from your teachers. As an adult, you earn approval from your boss. And then you die.”
The high school students I was talking to got bugged-eyed and laughed uncomfortably. It was a crass thing to say, but I could tell, deep down, they knew it was a little true. They, like me, are high achievers. They are frantic to build up their college resumes just right. They are good at doing what they are told when they are told and acquiring their gold stars of external approval, regardless of if it lines up with their values. The authority figure may change, but if we are not careful, the subservience never will.
We live on our parent’s time, then follow the bells of school, then come in and stay as long as our bosses ask us to– the tasks and the schedule always determined by someone else. The systems we live in, one after another, reward subservience. We begin to need other people to tell us what and when we do things. Unless we don’t.
Fifteen months ago, I became self-employed part-time. Even at twenty hours a week, I was disarmed to find how hard it was to set my own schedule and to-do list. It was disorienting to have no institution to serve or no authoritarian to answer to, along with no steady paycheck. Almost daily I was struck by the voice whispering, “You could just not work and no one would notice. You could just disappear.” The flip side is that if I could find some real inner courage, I could spend my time exactly how I wanted to. Luckily, I have always found fulfilling and meaningful employment. The work has, for the most part, been in line with my values. On my good writing days, I think about the people who are beholden to a work structure that confines them. On my bad days, I long for a boss just to tell me what to do. The main struggle became not having a gold star holding authority figure to impress.
There are wonderful things about being self-employed. On my writing days, I don’t use an alarm clock. I wear sweatpants. I have no commute time. But there are also challenges. I no longer have an easy answer to the ever-popular middle class question, “What do you do?” Also, there are days I don’t go outside. Or days I only eat grapes and pretzels. There is no more paid vacation, no structure or enforced rhythm to my calendar. As David Cain writes, “When you’re self-employed, every day is Wednesday.” At any moment, I could work or not work, and I must choose. And no one cares but me. I have to decide when to push through, when to rest, when to dig in and when to walk away. I have to navigate every aspect of my business, from writing to editing to publishing to promotion. I have to be my own project manager and implementor, requiring self-encouragement and self-forgiveness. I have to create a system, not based on gold stars, but on happiness, fulfillment and the dignity of good work being a part of a good life.
I like working hard, my work is important to me, and there are no shortcuts. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done. But being burned out with computer screen brain doesn’t lend itself to beauty or creativity. It took me awhile to not feel guilty for meeting a friend for coffee on a writing day. After all, I don’t spend any work time at the water cooler or out to lunch meetings, and if I don’t let other people energize me, my writing gets weird. Then it took me awhile to know when to say no to people who caught on and said, “Let’s hang out. It’s just a writing day for you right?” It took me awhile to count reading as work. It took me awhile to sense when I needed to walk away from the screen to change the laundry, make food, or empty the dishwater. I am still working on knowing when to shut the computer down for the day and when to take a day off– when and how best to use the flexibility to my advantage, and how to track success, productivity, progress, and the natural ebb and flow of the publishing world.
After fifteen months of being self-employed, I’m still trying to figure out how much work is enough. The freedom is scary and exciting, taxing and rewarding. It’s a privilege I’m learning to embrace and celebrate. Side-stepping the gold star system feels ever-so counter-cultural and good and right.