The professor wears plaid clogs. She strides into the conference room, bold black and gray swimming around feet sheathed in silver-threaded socks. I tell her I like her style. She tells me that every time she hits a professional milestone, she buys herself shoes. She can stand in her closet and scan the trajectory of her career: her first publication shoes, her first edited volume shoes. The plaid clogs? Tenure-track shoes.
“What’s next?” I ask.
“Full professor, going up next year.”
“Have you scoped out the shoes?”
She shakes her head. “Oh no, that would jinx it.” Then she grins. “Which is a total lie. There are these boots,” she sort of moans. “Boots and a whole new outfit to go with them.”
This concept mystifies me. One friend picks out a fancy purse for every promotion or raise. Coach, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton. Another takes herself on a cruise. I clap along but something rankles. We’re dogs now? We get cookies for every well-timed wiggle?
Kicking off my latest creative project reveals the extent of my incompetence with regard to incentives. A writing buddy, skimming my eight-month schedule, says I’m all stick, no carrot. He wonders out loud how we can bake in encouragement. “When you hit this next deadline, how should we reward you?”
I look at him and raise my eyebrows.
“Reward?” He says. “You know, Re–Ward? It’s this thing like a prize? To celebrate?”
I look at him some more.
The writing itself serves as the prize, right? That’s what I ask next, knowing that even this noble idea is a stretch. The closed captions under my blank stare read like this: My responsibility is to meet the objectives I’ve set. I head to the office every day and finish my projects. No treats. I organize my son’s birthday party, schedule a chimney cleaning, haul the dog in for her shots, present at a conference. Still no treats. I charge through my days and do what’s required. This wins me a paycheck and a tidy house, not gold stars and donuts.
Writing Buddy flips open his notebook and shakes his head in what I hope is mock exasperation. Readying his pen he says, “Okay, what kinds of things do you like?”
Here we go, back to the unit circle.
“Um, dance? I like dance.”
“Okay, so after you finish this task, you’ll… dance?”
“Maybe with people?” I say.
Ten tortured minutes later, he’s assembled a list of eight items I somewhat enjoy. Nothing strikes me as particularly rewarding, not the way a shelf of tenure shoes or promotion purses should. Anyway, I can’t afford such extravagances. Spa days and baubles are for other girls. I have a kid to send to college.
There’s no room on my counter for a treat jar.
I wonder though. . . is it possible all this inner chatter actually serves as cover? Might it be that something else is at play here, something older and more sinister wrapping its talons around my imaginative synapses? I wonder what blocks the light and makes me squirm as I sit with this question.
“How will you reward yourself?”
Blanks. Nothing but.
Until this bubbles up:
Being born into abundance is no guarantee of excellence. Indeed, it’s far easier to squander potential than to harness it. For a child of privilege, milestones and deadlines are not ribbons fluttering across a finish line, they are duties. Meeting them merits no celebration because where I touch down in any endeavor is miles short of the credential I should have already acquired: PhD, published novel, executive leadership. Functional marriage. Living salary. You name it, I’ve bombed it.
I listen closely. This score of abuse and self-pity rings in a remarkable imitation of my own voice. In her contempt for rewards, she sneers and spits. In her reduction of celebration to stupid dog tricks (such a clever analogy!) she shrugs off hunger. The Second Noble Truth is that the origin of all suffering is craving and clinging. She slouches in the rafters and scorns those fools and their base desires. Her work is difficult and important. It serves as its (her) own honor. She refuses to need anything more.
I listen closer still. Here appears a thin crack in the edifice, the one now spiderwebbing across the surface. Is it possible that holding on to an outdated belief might itself be a form of clinging? Maybe the refusal to reward masks a fear of unfolding into something beyond oneself. Maybe contempt for marking milestones stands in for resistance to the generative power of joy.
March in step with the drumbeat of asceticism long enough and the blood falls deaf to cricket and wing.
I could certainly justify abstinence from praise. Many of us do. Why thank co-workers, students, and kids for fulfilling their duties? We don’t give medals for showing up on time.
This idea sounds remarkably like my grandfather’s Depression-WWII-era work ethic. Does it apply today? Recent research on gratitude and productivity reveals something more nuanced about how people respond to commendation, particularly the kind focusing on processes rather than characteristics. When it comes to doling out the good stuff, the answer is clear: appreciation orients the appreciated towards strengths and successes. People tend to repeat behaviors that receive praise.
Which leads me back the the discomfiting question: “How will you reward yourself?” I am embarking on a complex and long-term project that has only a slim chance of making the tiniest ripple in this big world. Do I actually believe that flagellation and obligation will sustain my momentum? That I exist as an outlier? That I alone run on the fusty fumes of last century’s notions of nobility?
Maybe making that list is as important as doing the work to earn it.
When we part, Writing Buddy takes his notebook with him. So let’s begin again here, rolling out dough and cutting the shapes. When hitting the next milestone, I’ll choose a prize from my very own treat jar. Maybe one of these:
- Gather friends for a night of live music and dance
- Download a bunch of songs that make my belly hum
- Take a day off work and go hike in the Shenandoah
- Get tickets: Shakespeare or ballet
- Attend a dance class
- Buy a piece of fire-gleaming-glass-and-bone jewelry from a local artisan
- Schedule a massage
- Stay overnight in a near-ish town offering music, art, and history
Eight months, eight opportunities for appreciation. Each is an invitation to pause and recognize that this story I’m writing — the one of ink and the one of days — unfurls as I do: one chapter at a time, one breath per page. One sweet reward for every small triumph I claim.
Image: Paul Klee, Comédie, 1921