How to prioritize your preferences and maximize life’s most fleeting asset: time

My husband and I were streaming “Pretend It’s a City” with the inimitable Fran Liebowitz a couple of years ago, and she dropped this on us on Episode 3:

“As far as wanting to go places, I can’t believe people do it for fun. When I’m in airports and I see people going on vacation, I think, ‘How horrible could your life be? How bad is your normal life, what do you think, you know what would be fun? We’re going to pick up the kids, go to the airport, with thousands of pieces of luggage, stand in these lines, get yelled at by a bunch of assholes, stay out late, get squashed all together, and this is better than our real life.’”

I laughed at the joke, but a little nervous.

I have believed for as long as I have been working that life is too short to spread it out in the accumulation of vacations. I watched my stepmother work tirelessly throughout her career, saving and spending precious vacation days in destinations both relaxing and culturally rich, only for her life to come to an abrupt halt before she could retire.

Perhaps as a result of witnessing this, but also because of a desire to have a choice in the matter, I’ve spent most of my career subscribing to the “do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” theory. I stubbornly repeated this truism to myself and to anyone who would listen, even when it didn’t align with my daily work experiences.

I loved what I did on paper. I have worked extensively with non-profit organizations, believing in the mission and giving back. But the day to day? I used to get anxious about it on Sundays. It often kept me awake at night. Much of the experience was unpleasant, from sitting for long hours in a stuffy office to dealing with people and all their idiosyncrasies.

Only recently have I begun to allow myself to more carefully examine the fundamentals of my relationship with work and to ask myself some frightening questions. The questions range from, “Am I really happy in my everyday life?” to “If money was not an issue, how would I spend my time and energy?”

I feel confident enough in an externally validated kind of success to say now, in my 30s: I don’t want to sit in front of a glowing laptop most of the time.

I can also see much more clearly how, in hindsight, although I thought I built a career out of my own will and vision, much of it was tied to explicit and implicit messages throughout my education. These messages came from my family, but also from our broader culture and everything that is imbued with it: school, work, institutions, even the arts.

It’s about production.

School was about working toward a grade, added to a grade point average, culminating in the ability to enter higher education and receive financial aid. The job was about earning a paycheck to pay for my own expenses, yes, but also going to work and clocking in and out was a hallmark of working into adulthood.

There was a way to forge my path within certain parameters, and I chose that path. Yeah, it was a brilliant, brilliant way to build a life. But he was bound by unseen, unexamined expectations and shame over what might happen if he tried to live a life without checking certain boxes.

I got a title. I lived on my own. I traveled a lot. I worked at three jobs simultaneously; I discarded and saved. I climbed higher and higher in a professional career; it had all the benefits and some incredible perks. I got a mortgage of my own. I earned frequent flyer miles flying for work. I led meetings. Visibly I succeeded and visibly failed. My phone was exploding with work-related text messages throughout the day and I felt irritated and important.

And then one day I had a panic attack in my kitchen during a particularly stressful time at work, and slowly, very slowly, over the following months and years I realized that I needed to make a change.

One thing I realized: I love being outside. It calms me down and grounds me. I want to spend more of my finite time on Earth outside, alone but also with the people I love.

Second thing: Being creative gives me joy, especially when it’s tied to the outdoors in some way. I love to reflect and write about the many facets of being outdoors, especially in a way that invites others to “come in” outdoors. I love to approach and paint landscape art, especially in a way that draws attention to everyday beauty.

Thing three: I find great satisfaction and meaning in being of service to others and to media larger than myself, that give back and build people up. As much as I enjoy figuring out how to create and bring my own perspective to the world, I also have the ability to heal and facilitate so that the experience of others is better or at least more seamless. I find it incredibly challenging and also rewarding to use this skill, and this is increasingly what I am doing during something that is more like traditional ‘work’, through consulting.

Last weekend I realized that over time the line between vacations and my real life becomes more blurred. I’m at a point where I’m gaining more financial freedom, which is making it easier for me to decide how I want to spend what really is the most finite resource: time.

So I go outside. I write. I paint. I help people get where they want to go in their meetings. I walk and listen to podcasts.

When I go on vacation, I think about taking my easel. It would be nice to be somewhere else for a while, but still do the things I love to do.

My day-to-day is starting to match more with my definition of a vacation, where the things I normally do are also the things I’d like to do on official break. I think I’m finally allowing myself to not only identify, but build a kind of life that doesn’t leave me desperate for free time.

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