The Provost’s office announced it is offering up to half million dollars to a lucky PhD program at our university. My team received the news with a collective wave of nausea. Great prize, slim odds. A seventeen page proposal would be due in less than a month.
We’ve hacked through the dense foliage of earlier iterations of the RFP for three years running, and the only thing to show for our noble effort has been “great language we can use elsewhere.”
We accept the challenge this fourth time. Despite unfilled positions, anemic staff, maternity leave, and faculty stretched to breaking (or maybe because of all these things), we have to try. We tell each other to phone it in because other programs always win anyway. We say it knowing the idea is absurd, knowing we will give it our all. Because this is us, an earnest clutch of A+ students.
My first impulse is approach-avoid this the way I do so many other tasks I despise: evade, excuse, put off, then CRAM. My rather irritating Better Self reminds me that as appealing as procrastination is, a more effective tactic might be to eat the frog. So I carve out half a day from my overtaxed schedule, shove everything else to the side, and start working.
A few hours in, I realize something marvelous.
This is a blast!
How lucky can a girl-writer get? The boss decrees that I ignore all my other business and spend my workday drafting and reworking a writing project — one whose goal is to land cash for my students. It’s a pain in the ass but it’s total flow. Challenge, creativity, reaching past my abilities to generate something meaningful. It’s a test.
So I play.
Only when I look up at the clock, close out, and plunge back into my burgeoning to-do list does the sickening stink of workplace misery engulf me.
And right there as I descend into the morass, I understand the mistake of my perception.
It’s not the task that sucks.
It’s all the tasks.
It’s the clutter, the questions with their missing answers, the half-complete puzzles waiting for someone else’s missing piece.
The desk-turned-junk drawer.
The “Do you have a quick minute?”
It’s the persistent drumbeat of financial crisis, and the knowledge that piles are growing while help is shrinking.
The hissing awareness that the only way out of a slow but steady downhill career grade is to eject from the vehicle and get behind the wheel of something else going somewhere else.
It’s the anxiety.
I carry the burden of all the tasks all the time, keeping myself frantically aware of everything un-done even while in the midst of doing. The irony? Evidence suggests this is a totally pointless expenditure of effort. All the things I set aside while tackling the Provost Award waited patiently enough. When my attention returned to those tasks, I took care of them just fine.
The world continued to turn. I continued to do my work.
As for the Provost Award? We wrote a fabulous proposal.
Our jobs are tangled up with so much of who we are. Work is values and perceptions. Work is what we believe to be real, and it holds so many of our wishes for ourselves, our families, the world. How is our performance? Are we making a contribution that matters? Can we afford the mortgage or will we find ourselves sick, broke, and homeless? Is there any joy in the work? Are we filling gaps and creating new paths?
Our livelihood is means and end simultaneously, existing in a thicket of uncertainty. Does protecting time for our families threaten our ability to support our families? Are we making a positive impact or making enemies? During the day-to-day minutiae, can we tell if our chosen methods are effective? How, under so much pressure, do we learn to do things differently?
Anxiety grabs all these drifting questions and presses them into one dense, throbbing, mass. What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t cut it? These __________ (vague but terrible) things will happen to my family and me if I fail.
I can see the bold edges now of the lines that hitch anxiety to controlling behavior. It’s a comforting illusion. If I can clean up this mess or present this shiny object as an example of my capabilities or get this person to fall in line with my clearly superior M.O., then the giant black hole of chaos seems a little less threatening. The world feels safe (for the moment).
The problem, of course, is that this constant vigilance about every possible danger fails to keep that danger at bay. It also makes for a wretched existence, and it turns a person into rather miserable company for everyone in (her) orbit.
Life IS uncertainty and chaos. We know this. I know this.
Every so often, like when an award application turns a bright light on the flaws in my perception, I remember again that only one thing matters: This thing right here.
Like paragraph 3 of the Provost Award. Or composing this outline of a presentation. Or winding my way through one maze of inquiries that leads me to an answer a student needs.
Or sitting in the other room petting the dog while my son turns the kitchen inside-out so he can make his own eggs for dinner.
Or holding still the slack thread between my love and me.
Because I know the reel in my hands is a stage prop, and the only way to capture the shape of my longing is to let go.
When I keep such painstaking track of all things that need doing, and catalog all the possible disastrous outcomes if they are bungled or forgotten, then every single moment of my life is toil. Carrying around all that responsibility means that my feet are too heavy for skipping, my neck to bent for lifting, my eyes too fogged for seeing the wash of morning light on the willow branch across from the bus stop.
The only control I have is to give my full attention to what’s unfolding right here, engaging it as it is and freeing it from all the hooks of what it might cause or become. When I am here, I can do a much better job assessing what is effective. I can sense what brings value to my life and to the lives of the folks around me. When I see how we are faring right here, right now, I can choose my next move.
Keeping my head in the game means admitting it’s only a game.
Choosing a play.
And then leaping in.