Tag Archives: job

On Failure

Failure and I have never had a good relationship. I was always that kid who could pick things up with relative ease, I was a star student and teacher’s pet throughout high school and did well in my university classes too. I won medals in my extra-curriculars and my bosses’ regard during summer jobs. I always thought that if I followed the rules, laid out a good path for myself and worked hard, then things would fall into place. But that feels like a very naïve perception of things now.

I understand that failure is a natural part of any learning process. I understand that failure allows people to evolve and become stronger. I even understand that it gives people character, experience and intellect. Yet despite understanding these things in theory, the fear of failure still stops me from living the exact way I want to. It means that I can’t stand being a beginner. Rock climbing, yoga, guitar –things I discovered I loved yet have completely stopped practicing because they involve too much public failure as a beginner. Even as I write this, I worry I’ll fail at getting my point across or at making this article compelling and relatable.

Lately, failure is mostly associated with the job hunt. I finished my Masters 6 months ago and I am still waiting tables. I’ve been told that’s a normal amount of time, and that in this economy it’s actually not even that long. But every day, my various visions of the future get a little bit fuzzier. That image of me managing a team of policy advisors then driving home in my electric car to my beautifully decorated home gets blurry when tips from work are bad that week and I worry about the electricity bill. The picture I have of working in the field, collecting data on endangered species in exotic locations fades with each rejection email. The constant feeling of failure does nothing to motivate me to keep sending more job applications into the void of HR email accounts. Each rejection letter ends up making me feel more entitled, like somehow because I’ve gone through this, I deserve the job more.

I’m aware I’m not the first recent graduate to feel this way. And I’m trying to take these daily feelings of failure in stride by making time for friends and being out in nature. But the sinking feeling is inevitable when I sit down in front of a miserably formatted Word document job application once again. I apply to most jobs knowing I’ll never get an email back, let alone a positive response. Every pep talk from well-meaning employed friends or family feels like a repetitive reprimand despite it coming from a place of genuine kindness and concern.

I’ve been thinking more and more that I want to get creative and approach the entire job process differently, as so many of my peers are doing. Young people are taking the cards dealt to them and turning their traditionally losing hand into something wonderful by starting creative businesses, working remotely in budding industries or foregoing the notion of a typically defined career entirely. But again the fear of failure stops me in my tracks, despite my extreme admiration for friends who have taken the leap.

For now, I’ll keep searching and enjoying the little things. No doubt that this idea of creating my own career path will keep brewing in my mind the whole time. Maybe I’ll try and think back to the days when I barely had a concept of failure. I’ll try to incorporate some of that boldness into my future career goals. After all, back when I was a straight A elementary school student, free from the fear of failure, I won our school’s Valentine’s Day lip syncing contest five years in a row.

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on photosynthesis

Sometimes life throws you curveballs.

Sometimes, it’s 4:45am on a Saturday morning and you’re crying in your room after having just finished watching Warrior (2011).

Now, not to take anything away from the film – which is great – or from the performances of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton – which were greater – but I don’t think that the heartfelt MMA action-drama is what is causing the faucets of my eyeballs to leak onto my face.

You may have noticed that it has been a while since I have written anything on the blog. Or not. I guess that’s maybe assuming a lot. Either way, the truth remains – I haven’t. But it hasn’t been for lack of topics.

In early October I wrapped up my time with Engineers Without Borders Canada – two years of working there. My first real job, done. The end of an era. It would have been one thing to step away from this job for want of a change of scenery, but that’s not why I left. I wanted to fundamentally change what I was doing.

Ambiguity.

In late October I put on an art show with my photos and paintings. It is all hung at a place called Sadie’s Diner here in Toronto, and will be there until late December. I have never done anything like this before and doing it while unemployed has felt like a big risk, financially and otherwise.

Ambiguity.

The exciting and life-important thing in all of this is not that I put on an art show. The exciting and life-important thing in all of this is that I managed to find the self-trust to allow myself the chance to take a chance on, well, me, to put on an art show.

Then there’s the unemployment. It is only so long that the joke of #funemployment remains funny. Only so long until the daily grind and grey of unemployment sets in. The entry level jobs looking for three years’ experience, the unpaid internships, the rejection emails, the self-doubt and criticism – each one like a wave pounding the shore of your resolve and there are days where pulling yourself out of bed before 1pm seems impossible but for a small act of god. Or Santa. Or Captain Crunch. One of the three.

Ambiguity.

All of these things are ripe with ambiguity, and all of these things are ripe with content for blog posts.

But it has been a while since I have written anything on the blog.

I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. But my head has more often than not been cloudy and the thoughts hard to come by. I’ve been feeling lost. Uninspired. Deflated. It has been overwhelming, to say the least.

Sometimes it’s hard to see a reason to wake up in the morning, and sometimes, it’s 4:45am on a Saturday morning and you’re crying in your room after having just finished watching Warrior.

But I don’t think the heartfelt MMA action-drama is what has caused the faucets of my eyeballs to leak onto my face. To try and explain what (maybe) does, I have to tell you a story.

It’s early January 2012 and I’m walking home along Bloor St. in Toronto. It’s cold, and at my sides hang six or seven grocery bags, stuffed to the brim. On my back sits a backpack filled with cans, and I’m coming back from a grocery trip to No Frills.

Now, the thing about coming back from a grocery trip at No Frills, is that I don’t live anywhere near a No Frills. But I’m a student and I’m poor and I have this stubborn belief that I should do the things I’m capable of doing. It’s why I carried a mini-fridge from Canadian Tire to my dorm room in first Year University. It’s why I moved the contents of my apartment – from desk to shelves to bed – by longboard, twice. And it’s why I’m walking back from No Frills, six or seven grocery bags at my sides and a backpack filled with cans on my back. Because I can.

So I’m walking along Bloor St and it’s cold and it has probably been half an hour already, with another 10 minutes or so in front of me. I’m walking along Bloor and my hands are crying out – the weight of the bags and their thin plastic handles are digging into my fingers, punishing my stubbornness. I’m carrying all this shit, just passing the Tim Hortons near Bloor and St George, when I feel the phone vibrating in my pocket.

I had only just recently acquired a cellular communications device and so this idea of always being in reach was still new to me, and so, my first thought was: “Who the hell could that be?” As you may or may not have noticed (depending on your imagination and reading comprehension) I’m not in the most opportune position to be taking a call. But when you don’t have caller ID and you don’t have voice mail and your first thought is, “Who the hell could that be?” the question of “Did someone die?” is too real a possibility to let the call ring out.

So I awkwardly fumble for the phone in my pocket, and still holding the three or four bags in one hand I lift it to my ear and answer, “Hello?”

I don’t recognize the woman’s voice on the other end but she identifies herself as a staff member with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and she asks if I have a minute.

To take a step back, this call wasn’t quite as totally out of the blue as it probably seems, for myself and a group of friends had done some work in partnership with the Legal Network just a couple months prior, at the start of December 2011. Bill C-393 was going through Parliament at the time and we had organized a demonstration at Yonge and Dundas, to coincide with the Bill’s second reading and to try and put pressure on the government to make some crucial changes. As well as organizing the event, I filmed it on the day of and put out a video that we later sent to every Member of Parliament.

There’s a long and anger filled rant that I could go on about this Bill and the issues surrounding it, but I’ll spare you. The important takeaway is that it was an issue I was very passionate about and that the Legal Network – and their Executive Director, Richard Elliot – were something of an intellectual crush of mine.

So she identifies herself as a staff member with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and she asks if I have a minute. I lie and tell her that I do, trying to play it cool so she can’t hear the strain in my voice from the three or four grocery bags that I’m still, for some reason, holding up to my ear with the phone.

She tells me that they want my help with something, but that it’s “sort of top secret” and before she says any more she asks me, “Are you in?”

Yes. This is probably the coolest thing that will ever happen to me.

Now, I have no idea what to expect or what they could possibly want from me, but I say, “Yes, of course I’m in.” Partially because I love their organisation and have an intellectual crush on their Executive Director, and partially because of the off chance that this might be my one chance…to become a super spy.

When she proceeds to explain the situation I don’t get my dream of being a super spy but what I do end up with is a pretty close second.

I’m told that one of their staff members managed to record some footage with popular artist K’NAAN (of Waving Flag fame) backstage at a recent show. In the footage K’NAAN gives his support for Bill C-393 and the Legal Network wants to use this footage to kick off a massive petition campaign, to coincide with the Bill’s final reading in the House of Commons.

The only problem, she tells me, is that the footage is in a few different takes and it isn’t that great and they need it in a finalized and shareable format by tomorrow and they didn’t know who they could get to do it and so they thought of…me.

I know.

This is probably the coolest thing that will ever happen to me.

I’m told to await an email with the footage, which will come once it’s uploaded, and so I hurry home with my six or seven bags of groceries and backpack full of cans, to wait.

And now I’m home in my shitty basement apartment and the groceries are put away and I’m at my desk in my cramped, windowless bedroom (gotta love the Toronto rental market) and I’m hitting the refresh button on my Gmail. And I’m hopped up on adrenaline and caffeine, too excited by the events of the day to do anything other than wait, so I wait. And I wait. And I wait.

A couple hours go by with no email and no word and I begin to worry, but then the phone rings, and it’s the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the footage is almost uploaded.

Finally the email lands in my inbox and I eagerly open it and download the footage and I hit play AND

What I’m met with is a grainy, poorly framed, 7 minute clip comprised of a few different shots, in which K’NAAN (bless his heart) repeatedly makes mistakes regarding the more intricate technicalities of the bill. All the right facts are there, they’re just in different takes and so I set out on the task of stitching together something usable.

It takes most of the night to edit and the rest of it to get the video uploaded, but come morning I send it off to the folks at the Legal Network who in turn send it off to K’NAAN’s people (I know…) for approval.

It takes a couple more hours but it comes back with the a-ok, barring one minor change: K’NAAN’s name is to be written in all capitals.

I could go on forever here about the bill, but the quick summary version is that the video got 21,000+ views, the petition got 50,000+ signatures, and the bill made it through the House!

I wish I could say that this ends on a high note, but the quick summary version ends with an even quicker punch in the gut, in that the Bill was later killed on paper in the Senate, thanks to some political shenanigans from the Conservative party.

But this post is not about politics and the problems with it in this country. Instead, I share this story for a couple reasons:

  • It is a pretty cool moment in my life that I don’t often get the chance to share
  • Because lately, I’ve been feeling as though I’ve lost something

When I first picked up the phone on Bloor St. that cold January day, and when I was asked if “I was in”, I was prepared to say yes, no questions asked. I would have done literally anything they asked of me in that moment.

At the time I was in University and working part-time and struggling with course loads and probably a bit of depression (or at least, Seasonal Affective Disorder – the shitty basement apartment with the windowless bedroom will do that to you), but despite all that I was completely and thoroughly wrapped up in this issue. It became my primary focus that semester, so much so that I can still – nearly three years later – rhyme off all of the details surrounding the bill and its journey through Parliament. I can’t tell you a damned thing about what I learned in class that semester. Hell, I don’t think I can even tell you what classes I had that semester.

And I don’t know why this was the case. I say that not because Bill C-393 and access to medicine is not an important issue, but because it’s one that I had no real connection to. I didn’t know anyone who had suffered from HIV/AIDS, I just saw something that, to me, seemed painfully and glaringly obviously unjust, and felt compelled to try and do something about it.

There was no pausing to reflect and no thought about whether I could handle this extra time commitment. Just action. Just fire and passion.

I tell you all of this, dear reader, because at the beginning of October I wrapped up my time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. In late October I put on an art show. And as we sit here at mid-November the joke of #funemployment has lost its humour. The days have become grappling contests between the often harsh self-criticisms of “you need to be more productive” that wail like bomb sirens, and the simultaneous and unshakeable desire to do nothing at all.

There was a time when then-me would have relished in this free time, would’ve taken it as the opportunity to do what I wanted when I wanted. Time to photograph, to video, to write, to volunteer, to protest. In these long weeks it seems that all I can motivate myself to do, however, is rock climb and drink gin and tonics while playing Batman: Arkham City.

And so it feels like I’ve lost something.

And somewhere deep down I have this horrible fear that this – this complacency and loss of fire – and not the full time job with benefits and a desk – is the marker of my transition to “adult life” that I’ve thought so much about these last couple years. A fear of some unavoidable dividing line cutting through my life, where on one side there is youthful optimism and spirit and on the other side there’s a tame and docile curmudgeon stocking up on for-sale toilet paper and toothpaste.

Case in point, the other day my roommate asked me to come with him to a march happening at the University of Toronto, in support of fossil fuel divestment, and I couldn’t drag myself out of bed to do it (for context, the march was happening at 12:30. This wasn’t a 7am affair). There was a time when then-me would have said “Of course I’m in!” There was a time when I would’ve been out filming, running alongside the march and climbing on top of newsstands to get a better angle. A time when I would have stayed up all night editing the footage to be able to put a video out by the next morning.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something.

For a long time my “anthem” was Frank Turner’s Photosynthesis. There’s a part of the song that goes:

“All your friends and peers and family solemnly tell you you will, have to grow up be an adult yeah be bored and unfulfilled. Oh but no ones yet explained to me exactly what’s so great, about slaving 50 years away on something that you hate, about meekly shuffling down the road of mediocrity, well if that’s your road then take it but it’s not the road for me. I won’t sit down, I won’t shut up, but most of all I will not grow up.”

This was my jam. This was my quote on my staff page of the EWB website. This is still a quote on my “About” section of Facebook.

And last week, I couldn’t pull myself out of bed to take part in the divestment march.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something. And I’m left wondering what it is I stand for and where it is I’m going and whether any of this actually means anything or matters, or whether I’m just a self-absorbed 20-something millennial obsessed with a bullshit notion of “finding myself” and “making a difference.”

And so as heart-wrenching as Tom Hardy’s turn as “Tommy” in Warrior was, I don’t think it’s what had the faucets of my eyeballs leaking onto my face at 4:45 on a Saturday morning.

Instead, it was likely this unshakable feeling that I no longer know which way is up. It was likely the knowledge that the moments in my life that stand out as the most meaningful were driven by action and not pondering thought, and the simultaneous fear that I don’t know how to “just act” anymore.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something. But I also don’t believe that it’s gone. This notion of the line of adulthood, from which there is no return once you cross, is silly. I know that. There’s no reason that the higher level of responsibility that comes with being an adult has to be mutually exclusive from being the idealistic, energy ridden millennial from early January 2012.

And so I don’t believe that it’s gone. That said, I’m finishing up this post in a coffee shop in Guelph and I can barely bring myself to fire up the computer to add in these last minute additions – the Grey of today has long set in and the grappling match is well underway. So it’s hard.

But I won’t sit down. And I won’t shut up. And most of all I will not grow up (but also, I will. Cause that’s ok).

And so while I feel as though I’ve lost something, I’m working on getting it back.

 

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

 

 

 

 

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on an island in the sea

I live on an island in the sea in a used-to-be-more-vibrant pink house that from the front would not be out of place in a documentary about crack dens.

I sleep on an air mattress that deflates every two nights regardless of if I sleep on it or if I remember to put the cap back on the nozzle in a room that is painted an oddly comforting shade of olive. I don’t even like olives.

I share this apartment with two housemates, one of whom I’ve been calling the wrong name for the past three weeks. Thankfully he is kind and thinks this is amusing.

I walk to work via the same route everyday, listening to the Google Maps lady’s commands but still turn the wrong way out of the house each morning.

I went to my first hot yoga class last night and grab a corner spot in what I thought was the back of the room. My proximity to the mirrors should have given it away, but it was not the back and I was not prepared to bend my legs like that.

So far my completely out of the blue decision to move to St. John’s is working out. I have a job I love where I with people I respect, in a city that has been nothing but welcoming (despite the face locals make when I say I moved from Toronto). It’s only now just sinking in though that maybe this decision was a bit… unusual.

It’s hard to know what the “right” thing is to do when it comes to life decisions. Do I make the move? Do I take the job? Do I live with these people? Or harder yet, how can we be sure that these decisions will serve us well? Am I just running away? Will this hurt my relationships? Am I letting my family down?

I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. But instead of an overwhelming feeling of doubt or indecision my gut has been telling me that this is right. That this change is good. Sure it’s overwhelming, strange, and difficult too, but ultimately it’s good. I don’t know how I know this, but I have a friend who reminds me that the feelings in the pit of our stomachs are real and should be listened to.

Despite my overwhelming instinct to rationalize and reason through most thoughts and feelings, I’ll admit that letting go and allowing myself space to think and feel without boundaries has led me to one of the most wonderful opportunities in my life to date. A week worth of gaffes later and my gut-brain is still staunchly in favour of it all, which is a win after a few years of feeling a little off kilter. I know it’s unusual to find this kind of comfort and resolve in a decision, and for that I’m infinitely grateful.

I’m think I’m in the right place.

– Mica

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The summary post

Last week, Embracing Ambiguity reached the 50 post milestone. To celebrate, various authors who have contributed to the blog over the last year and a half wrote a post on a similar theme. That theme, roughly, was: “making the decisions that will impact EVERYTHING” and “the narratives we tell ourselves about what we’re doing, why and how we feel about it.”

It was amazing to see different authors take the prompts in completely different directions, and inspiring to hear their experiences, interpretations, and fears. With five new posts in the span of a week, we realize you may not have been able to keep up! So, just in case you missed anything:

ON THE ALWAYS, EVER CHANGING | Author: Jeff Ku

“Things will always be ever changing for me, and if you stop and talk and listen, it is always ever changing for everyone else too.  No stint of work, no matter how short or long is a waste. It is a learning opportunity, each one being a directory guide on the long hiking trail, helping me decide which direction to pursue.  And you know what? I may not end up at a final destination where THE ULTIMATE MEGA JOB has been waiting for me to get to.  It will actually probably lead me back to the beginning where I get a good laugh at my work life, and I then discover the joys of retirement and being a bratty old man.  But as long as I am learning, and gaining and fulfilling some aspects of my life at my job, I will stick with it.”

Read more here.

ON BECOMING PROCESS-ORIENTED | Author: Maya Fromstein

“Slowly, slowly I am trying to learn how to focus on the present moment. To not necessarily focus less on “WILL THIS JOB DEFINE ME” or “WILL THIS MAKE ME THE MOST QUALIFIED EVER” and “WANT. TOP. MARKS”, but to actively incorporate and pay attention to the moments of “Well this is nice” and “mmmm” (four m’s, check it) into my life. To respect my body and my mind and all of their assorted needs, while simultaneously respecting my potential and my future aspirations. To truly believe that if I take the breaks I need, and stimulate the other areas of my brain or hands that thesis writing and computer typing leave wanting, it will enhance all areas of my life.”

Read more here.

ON PEOPLE | Author: Stefan Hostetter

“Rather, I had found the people that made the world make sense. If I had accomplished nothing else, I had done this, and I realized then and there, that I think this would be enough. I would never be making a choice that would impact everything. I could never have a failure too great. I could never be so wrong that I couldn’t be right again.”

Read more here.

ON CHOICE AND CONSEQUENCE | Author: Tyler Blacquiere

“I can’t accept that the “right thing” doesn’t matter – that there isn’t a choice to be made – because I can’t accept the alternative. Because the alternative is one of complacency and complicity in all that is wrong and needs changing in the world. Choice and consequence. It has to matter. Because for everything I said above, it still holds true that life is too damn short and too damn precious and people are too damn great and the world is too fucking awe-inspiring for it not to matter.”

Read more here.

ON COCOONS OF SAMENESS | Author: Mica McCurdy

“So now I sit here, feeling all warm and fuzzy for fall foliage, and wonder who I’ve become and what exactly I’ve done if I’ve not made many intentional choices over the past few years. Who am I if I stumble around from job to job, thing to thing, without really taking a moment to pause? Is this the person I want to be? And if so, what decisions am I going to start making to intentionally maintain that? But if not, who? what? how?”

Read more here.

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on the always, ever changing

EDITORS NOTE: This blog post is the first in a series, intended to celebrate Embracing Ambiguity reaching the 50 post milestone. In response to a recent post, Embracing Ambiguity received an email response that asked a lot of great and challenging questions. To celebrate a year and a half of existence, and our 50th post, various authors will be responding to these questions over the next week. In general, the theme is (roughly) “making the decisions that will IMPACT EVERYTHING”, and  “the narratives we tell ourselves about what we’re doing, why and how we feel about it”. It is left to each author to choose how closely they reference / stick to these original prompts. We’re excited to see what they come up with. If you like what you read, share it on Facebook and Twitter and help #EmbAmb increase it’s reach. Happy reading.

—–

As the new year rung in for 2014, I was happy that my masters was behind me, and that in a few days, I would be reunited with amazing friends and helping run a conference in Toronto for approximately 800 people (the result of 8 months of working remotely with remarkable people).  I told myself that I would take things seriously after the conference was over.  I had already moved back in with my parents for two weeks at this point, and I had decided that I wouldn’t worry about looking for work until the dust settled from the conference and I had time to breathe again.  Who would be hiring during this time anyways? Everyone is too busy stuffing their faces, enjoying the company of friends and family.  Who would have time to care about what a fledgling engineer-in-training was thinking about in regards to careers and what to do with their life right?

After I came home, I muddled around, sending one or two resumes out a week, but mostly read, played video games, and went to yoga every day.  And then I miraculously stumbled into a job, thanks to my friend’s connection.  I’ve been working that same job for just over half a year now.  It wasn’t work that I thought I’d be working in when I first got out of school, but somewhat related to what I studied (in my undergrad at least).  Now that I’ve worked this long at my job, I’ve been asked several times how I like it.  My best answer?

“Well I don’t loooooooooooooooooove it… but I don’t hate it either…  I guess I’m content.”

I thought for the longest time, that I would only really enjoy working if I loved it.  If I felt like I was making a difference in the world. And everything I did at work aligned with all my values and beliefs.  That ultimately dictated the direction of where and what kind of jobs I was applying to during my funemployment phase.  It also dictated a lot of emotions and frustrations I was feeling during my first couple of months of employment.

Over the next few months, and allowing myself to have more patience, to open up, to talk more and converse with coworkers and to build actual relationships there, I’ve realized a few key things.

  • No, this job is not my ideal job. I don’t know if I actually know what that ideal job is for myself yet.  But I am also just starting out, and no one is going to take me seriously or give me any credibility with no experience and such marginal understanding of how things work if I only looked for these ideal job opportunities.  They simply do not exist for people as junior as me, even if I arrogantly think I have what it takes, and so desperately want it.

 

  • I am not powerless, however. I do have a say in shaping my own direction and path.  Right now, my responsibility and goal is to learn.  Simple as that.  I am here to learn and gain experience and it is then that I can start finding opportunities to grow and improve.  It is with this new knowledge that I grow, that I can start seeing where I can and want to go and to direct myself in those directions.

 

  • Famously reminded to me by a coworker friend on a near constant basis, as he is seeing signs that I’m burning out and overworking, that we should “Work to Live, not Live to Work”. Work cannot fulfill all aspects in life, and it shouldn’t have to.  It does allow me to practice my problem solving, team work, and technical skills.  It does not, unfortunately, allow me to truly practice my interests in environmental sustainability (arguably it can be counterproductive to this point), or other social justice issues of international development or gender equality, mental health awareness, or leadership building and youth engagement.  But the interesting thing is it does provide me the opportunities to do so.  I can afford to attend conference, talks, and even certification programs in any of the above.  My job has provided benefits towards maintaining a healthier lifestyle if I so choose.  And it even has team building events geared towards doing volunteer work together in our local community.

 

  • I have been reminded once again, how important relationships are to me. Over the past 6 months, I’ve been able to make some great friends at work that I truly enjoy the company of at and outside of work.  I work with a great team, and we’ve gotten to the point where amidst frustrating scenarios at work, we can laugh and joke.  I even like working with my boss.  How many people can say they like their boss, and working with them?  I am very fortunate to have come across these amazing people, and if I were to decide it was time to leave, the hardest part would not be the pay or benefits, but to have to say goodbye to these great people.

Do I necessarily see myself working this same job 5 to 10 years down the road? I can’t really say, it could go both ways.  I honestly have no clue.  What about 2 years from now? Who knows?  If I’ve learned anything in my early 20s and adulthood, it is that a lot can change and happen in a short amount of time.

Is this job the right job for me? Once again, I do not know.  But, for now, in the present moment, it feels right.  6 months from now, it still might feel right, 1 year, still right, 5 years, maybe it still feels right.  But until it feels wrong, there isn’t much for me to worry about and to have to take action against.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t any excuse to be complacent.  I still need to keep on my toes and find opportunities to improve and seek those clues that might take me on a grander adventure, one that will provide me greater challenges and enjoyment.  Things will always be ever changing for me, and if you stop and talk and listen, it is always ever changing for everyone else too.  No stint of work, no matter how short or long is a waste. It is a learning opportunity, each one being a directory guide on the long hiking trail, helping me decide which direction to pursue.  And you know what? I may not end up at a final destination where THE ULTIMATE MEGA JOB has been waiting for me to get to.  It will actually probably lead me back to the beginning where I get a good laugh at my work life, and I then discover the joys of retirement and being a bratty old man.  But as long as I am learning, and gaining and fulfilling some aspects of my life at my job, I will stick with it, and when the time comes where my position fails to provide me with those opportunities I seek, then it just means that it is time to move on.  But time is not now.  Although I am sure that time will come, as the time for all things will eventually come.  For now, things feel right.

-Jeffieku

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On running (and the downfall of pride)

It is a dreary, wet, and cold October morning, and there is paint dripping down my face. The helmet atop my head is two sizes too small, and has my skull locked in a vice grip. The small camcorder haphazardly taped to the top of that large child’s helmet is now getting wet, and so I’m not even sure that this little experiment of mine will work. Oh, and we can’t find the starting line. Well, we can see it, but getting there is another matter.

Confused yet? Fair. If your first thought upon reading the above was not “the start of Tyler’s short lived and disappointing running career” I could probably forgive your error. But that’s just what it is. Every word of it, the truth.

It was a Sunday and it was early. The helmet was on my head because I needed a way to mount the camera, and the camera was atop the helmet because I had the bright idea to film my 5k race, in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Both of those things were the case because I was, at the time, interning at EWB, and because interns are keeners, I was filming my race to make a video for EWB’s Run to End Poverty. Oh, and the paint…orange was EWB’s colour. So, naturally, I painted the helmet orange. Apparently, however, when you glob on large amounts of paint the night before, it takes a somewhat long amount of time to dry. This hadn’t happened, and now the rain.

But back to the race. After stumbling around confused, we found the start, and the race began. I had always been generally athletic, but this was my first official race. I hadn’t really trained, hadn’t really slept the night before, and I really had to pee. Did I mention the rain?

All this aside, I loved it. The race was a blast. I never really had opportunity to realize it before, but in those short 5K I saw just how into the competition I could get. The thrill of passing people drew me on, faster and faster, and in just under 24 minutes, it was over.

For a while after the race, that was that. It was fun, my video turned out surprisingly well, my shrunken head returned to normal size, I hung my race bib on the wall, and went back to everyday life.

But as the New Year rolled around I found myself thinking about running more and more, and began to play with the idea of training for the full marathon in next October’s STWM.

Now, on a few occasions during my young adult life, there were times when I ran consistently for general health and wellbeing. But I never considered myself “a runner” – I never formed part of my identity around the activity. That changed in March of 2013, when – with the help of my Uncle Bryan and Elevation Personal Coaching – I officially began to train for the elusive 42k.

It didn’t take long before I was hooked. The thrill of pushing your body beyond what you thought previously possible, and the ability to actually see your progress kept me coming back for more. Over time, running became a bigger and bigger part of my life.

I was building my schedule around fitting in runs, I was eating better, and more, to match my level of exercise. Hell, I had even bought protein powder.

Pretty soon, I started to eagerly anticipate Sunday mornings, when my world became one of a still rising sun, a cool crispness in the breeze, carbohydrate gels and logged kms, in my weekly long distance runs.

I will never forget my first attempt at 15k – the first time I experienced “the runners high”. As I rounded the last corner in my route, coming into a 3 block straightaway to my apartment, I was on top of the world. I didn’t feel tired, or sore, or worn out. On the contrary, it felt like I could’ve kept going for another 15K.

Part of my enjoyment from running came from – and excuse me while I ditch humility for a second – I was fucking good at it. I was managing the upper distances without too much trouble, and more importantly, to me, I was fast. My uncle and coach had dubbed me “Flash” and I became obsessed with the idea of speed.

It eluded me at the time, but looking back now I can’t help but think that running became a proxy for other things in my life. After some rough personal-life times and the stress of work-life times, as well as a general late winter/early spring malaise, it felt good to be doing something I enjoyed, and doing it well. In part, I think, because it was real and tangible. Unlike my work, which was ambiguous, short term and at times, hazy – where success was unclear and in an environment of brilliant people, often overshadowed – running was real. My times were definite and quantifiable; in the immortal words of Shakira: “Ooh, my Garmin don’t lie.”

I had something I was succeeding at, and was proud of it.

But my uncle’s nickname of “Flash” was not – I think – just a reflection of my finish times. It hinted at my tendency to be young and dumb and overzealous. Things were going great, I was feeling good, and so when Bryan would say things like “Keep the pace above 4:45” or, “Take it easy on this one,” my brash brain would, at times, respond, “but whyyyy?!” I could do it so much quicker. And I sometimes did. But with a body as complex and susceptible to injury as the one we’ve got, speed isn’t everything. And pride will be your downfall.

It was a gorgeous Sunday morning. I was in cottage country with colleagues. I’d avoided drinking the day before, in preparation for what was to come: an empty country road, a backpack full of water, and 21K. Now, I had done this distance before – this was a revisiting. A step back. A refresh. My instructions were to do it at a reasonable rate; just take it easy and enjoy it. But my pride had other ideas.

I wanted to crush it. I wanted to push myself and see just what was possible, and what I could do if I went all out. And so I did. I pushed and I pulled from deep within and in less than an hour and a half later, I was done. I didn’t tell Bryan. I think I knew that he would be less than pleased. But I did it. It was possible. And what’s a little extra effort now and again, anyway? Well…

I was sore. Not unreasonably sore, I convinced myself. Just sore. Looking back now, this was likely the beginning of the end. For it was a week or two later, 23K-ish out on the Toronto Waterfront that my right knee gave out. I’m not even really sure what happened, it just kind of…hurt. A lot. And I stumbled. And then running was impossible. And then walking was hard. But there I was, 20K from home, without money or a way back. So I walked. Slowly, and gingerly; in pain, both body and pride.

It was awful, long and slow, but I made it home and reported the news to my uncle. A few weeks off was the prescribed solution, along with a lot of ice and elevation. Despite my best attempts, however, a few more ups and downs made it clear that I wouldn’t be ready to run in October.

It was now my turn to be crushed. To have trained so hard and for so long, and now…this. Watching from the sidelines on race day pained me in a deeply physical and emotional way. All the success, excitement and hope for what was possible was gone. In its place, a feeling of stupidity and hopelessness about running.

It took a while, but I eventually got over myself, and life moved on. I resolved to come back better and, more importantly, smarter, next year. But when next year rolled around the universe had other plans. Despite months of rest, my knees just never felt the same, and life events threw curveballs in many attempts to get training back on track. After a number of these false starts and several long winded Facebook explanations to my uncle, I went silent. I stopped running and stopped communicating.

I had given up, and I retreated.

I was scared about the state of my knees and their ability to carry me on the wind again. Was embarrassed to have done this to myself. And, I felt like I was letting Bryan down. It was hard enough to admit all of this to myself, and so I never tried to convey it to my uncle. For a long time, I beat myself up about it, until eventually I pushed it out of mind and tried to focus on other things – work, writing, photography.

Recently, however, I went for a run. Not a timed, training run. Just a run. It wasn’t very far and it wasn’t very fast and I didn’t have carbohydrate gels and I didn’t post the results to my online training diary. And it was…nice. I was relaxed and without pressure. There was no expectation, no target to hit and no fear of what was next or whether I’d be able to run again in the future. Just me and the trail. For so long, running had been a means to an end – I was training for a marathon. There was an end goal in mind and running was (quite literally) the vehicle that would get me there, across the finish line at the 42K mark. Now, for the first time in a long time, running was an end in itself. It was a nice change, and one that sparked a realization about my relationship to a lot of what I do in life. It was in this moment that I was reminded, in particular, about this crazy hectic panic filled transition between “now” and “adult life.”

Because I have very much been treating that transition as a means to an end. Work has been the thing, the experience, and the connections that will lead me into whatever my “place” is. I’ve seen work as the path leading me to my real purpose – the big shiny pot of gold at the end of the terrifying rainbow of young adulthood. In approaching it this way, it has been needlessly stressful. Every slight hiccup, diversion or stumble along the path has been so much more than that, because of how it was detracting from my pursuit of “the end.” I have consistently failed to see these things for what they are: a challenge, a learning opportunity, a potential for skill development. That’s not to say that these moments wouldn’t still be stressful through this different mindset, but I’d be able to take them as they were, instead of as what they could be.

So maybe, if I can get over myself for long enough, work too can become an end in itself. I can take pride in the everyday small projects and wins. And maybe, I can start to find enjoyment in it again.

For now I’ll keep running. Not far, or fast. And without my Garmin. I’ve accepted that there probably isn’t a marathon in my near future. But someday. And when that time does come, I’ll be smarter. And I’ll listen to my coach.

(ps sorry Bryan)

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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On CHANGE (or: This one time, in Ottawa…)

Goodbyes suck. I was reminded of this fact a couple weekends ago, in Ottawa. Reminded of it over and over and over again in rapid succession as one by one, the people I’d spent the preceding four days with trickled back to their respective pockets of the country.

It’s amazing how quickly bonds can form when you stick excited, passionate people with similar interests, values and beliefs into the same small space to discuss, debate and learn. We were gathered in Ottawa for an Oxfam Canada Conference, and in attendance, a cross section of the organization’s campus (and alumni) presence from cities across the country. 40 or so energetic, lovely and inspiring young people.

It was in watching these energetic, lovely and inspiring young people enter their cabs that I was reminded that goodbyes suck. Reminded of it in every farewell hug that decoupled momentarily, only to snap back together like a set of magnets, determined to demonstrate the truth of the notion that opposites attract. I was reminded of it in every attempt to prolong the farewell, in every mushy showering of verbal affection, and in every promise to keep in touch.

I was reminded of my disdain for goodbyes each time the Oxfam corner of my heart felt a small pang of ache with the slamming of each car door. I have missed this community, this cause, these values, and these people.

And so while the conference made clear that which I already knew – about goodbyes and about a longing to be more involved with Oxfam – my four days with 40 inspiring leaders and a dozen or so insightful facilitators also reminded me of something else.

For the last two years, since graduating, I have felt adrift in the terrifying sea of young adulthood. I graduated UofT after 4 years of contempt for the University process, environment and culture. Graduated UofT with an uncertainty about who I was or what I was doing or where I was going, but also, with an unshakeable certitude that whatever the answers to the who, what, where were, they sure as FUCK would look nothing like how I had (formally) spent the previous four years.

After graduating I applied to every job under the sun. Street outreach officer, Communications Guru, Campaign Manager, Freelance BBQ Sauce Inspector, Event Coordinator. The list goes on. Hell, for giggles I even applied to (and was somehow interviewed for) the ED role of a small upstart.

Despite countless resumes and cover letters, proclamations of how I was the “best candidate for the role” and “please oh please god just hire me I won’t burn anything down I swear…” I had found nothing.

Imagine my shock – no one wanted to hire me?! My undergrad degree in Peace and Conflict Studies doesn’t allure you, you say? Would a nice crisp Queen Elizabeth II help? No? Ok…

What did help, however, was taking my university degree off my resume. I was no longer “Tyler Blacquiere, Honors BA with High Distinction from the University of Toronto”, and instead, was “Tyler Blacquiere…I’ve worked at a library before and I probably won’t burn anything down.”

Well, the latter must have been just the ticket, and thus set off my summer of pretending to rearrange shelves full of bagels, in the bakery at my local Loblaws.

Now, look. There’s nothing wrong with working in a grocery store or a Walmart or a WHATEVER. At least, not inherently. There WAS something soul crushing about erasing my last four years to get said job. There WAS something problematic about the amount of food that was thrown out, often even before its best before date. And there WAS something about the experience that was fundamentally at odds with who I considered myself to be – or rather, the person I wanted to be, and the place I wanted to occupy in the world.

For a long time I have been someone with a core set of values held close to my chest, and in times like my summer at Loblaws, when my actions have felt at odds with my beliefs, I have been met with great distress. Put simply, I try my best to hold myself to two main things:

  • I want to leave behind more than I take
  • I believe that life is meant to be lived for other people

My time spent in the bread aisles of Loblaws was not facilitating either of these, or other, values. Unless, I guess, you count helping people find bagels as “living life for other people” (sometimes you just really need some pumpernickel?).

You can imagine my joy, then, at being offered an internship with Engineers Without Borders at the end of that summer, in September 2012.

I was unsure of exactly what I’d be doing, and unsure of how exactly I’d live off an $800/month stipend, but these questions were irrelevant when weighed against a continuation of my current reality.

EWB was a charity. It was working to end poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. It was, for the most part, doing “development” in a smarter, more innovative way that most other charities.

Me, and my values, couldn’t be happier.

I now stand at the start of September 2014, and I’ve reach my two year anniversary with the organization. During that time, my roles and responsibilities have shifted considerably. From a videography and fundraising focused internship (September 2012 – January 2013) to a series of short term, part-time and full-time contracts, focused on EWB’s charity run and holiday campaign (January 2013 – December 2013), to a full time non-contract role in January of this year, focused on fundraising and communications.

These past two years have not been without their ups and downs, but on the whole the experience has been a good one. I’ve had the opportunity to occupy and lead a number of different roles and projects, worked with some pretty incredible people, and – not insignificantly for someone in this “transition to real people life” – have been able to keep myself consistently housed, fed and clothed.

These positives aside, however, things have been growing increasingly challenging. Motivation has been hard to come by, excitement has been relatively non-existent, and the days have started to drag. I have felt “there”, and not much more. The passion, felt so strongly in these 4 recent days in Ottawa, has not translated back into my work with EWB since returning to Toronto.

For the most part, I’ve been unsure as to why. Certainly, there have been some clear challenges in life and work that would explain part of my declining happiness in my current role, but nothing that really gets at the feeling of just being sort of…done.

It was not until this one time, in Ottawa, surrounded by 40 or so energetic, lovely and inspiring young people, that I was reminded of the reason why.

All throughout my “activist days” (if I can call them that) of University, I spent late nights working on things for Oxfam, Canadians for CAMR, and the Green Society Campaign (to name a few) and early mornings working on essays which, at that point, had taken a back seat to more important pursuits. Through the petitions, the protests and the press releases; through the MP meetings op-eds and videos, I felt like I was “doing something”. Felt like I was leaving behind more than I was taking, and like I was living life for other people. And sure, maybe I was just young and naïve and dumb, and now, in looking back, maybe I’m romanticizing, but still. It felt as though there was inherent purpose in what I was doing. It required a certain fire; required boots on the ground and coffee in the veins. And naïve dumbness aside, it did, in one way or another, and regardless of size, contribute directly to change.

And I know. I KNOW. Fundraising and communications are important. Fundraising is what enables the “on the ground” work. It lets EWB’s ventures operate, and provides the backbone for worthwhile programs like Kumvana, which connects young African leaders to the resources and training they need to amplify their impact and reach within their communities. It’s important work.

And communications puts knowledge into the hands of the people who we rely so heavily on to sign our petitions, run in our fundraising races, and become monthly donors. It helps them make informed decisions about where they’ll invest their money, time, and support. And, it shares the successes of our ventures, funded in turn by those donor dollars. It’s important work.

But. As important as it may be, I’m realizing that it’s incompatible with some central tenets of who I want to be. It’s incompatible with my strong desire for direct purpose and action. It is, I think, one step too far removed from the change creation process – from creating the kind of world I want to live in – to ever be truly and consistently satisfying. I was reminded of that in Ottawa, as I sat with 40 or so inspiring young leaders and talked about Oxfam’s new campaign to have a third televised leader’s debate, specifically around the issues affecting women. I was reminded of it as I participated in and lead sessions that drew me back to the days of yore. And I was reminded of it in the flurry of brain activity that followed.

In the last two years, as I’ve jumped from role to role, I’ve endured through any moments of doubt or question about what it was I was doing by, in part, rationalizing that “at lease it’s not Loblaws”, and, in part, by giving into the fear of leaving and stepping into the unknown once more. In doing so I have become disconnected from my desire for direct, purposeful action. And it’s starting to wear through.

I miss the days of being so excited by what I was working on that I’d gladly stay up all night and push through to the morning. I miss the days of frantic, furious inspiration that comes from pursuing something you truly love. I miss the feeling of being truly and deeply tired from a day’s work. Not the kind of tired that comes from being bored and grinding, but the tired you feel in your bones. The tired you earn after a day’s worth of pouring passion into a vessel of your own creation.

If I’ve learned one thing about this journey to adulthood, it is that this whole thing, this whole process, is one of crossing all that from your list which you know is not for you. So as difficult as it is to find myself in this spot, I know that I am, at least, getting a bit closer to finding my place.

Whatever the hell that actually means.

…and then I found $20.

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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On lettuce

If you asked me last year, or even last week, if I thought I would ever find myself contemplating eating an entire head of plain lettuce I’m quite certain my answer would be no.

In fact, if you had asked me to make three statements of things I knew for sure about my life I believe they would be in order: I will get married, I will have a fulfilling job and I will never eat an entire head of plain lettuce.

I mean I don’t even really buy lettuce, and regardless salads are pretty easy. So why would I ever do this? If you had asked me then, I would have said I wouldn’t.

Just in the same way I know that I will get married. I love people, I’m good at relationships, it’s shown itself to be the case that at least some people can love me. So eventually those stars will align. That is pretty obvious I feel.

The bottom line is that lettuce just isn’t enough by itself. And it is only once you find yourself staring at the pile of chopped lettuce on your cutting board that you think…maybe. I mean, what other options are there? I didn’t plan for this, I just sort of stumbled into it and now it’s here and I don’t know what to do with it.

It is the dead end job of foods.

I try a bite. It really isn’t that good. In fact, I’d argue it’s bad, but I’m not in a position to complain. I came home knowing what was here. But the rain, but the broken bike, but faint hope that Tyler might be home to save me from myself, but every excuse in the book.

It’s only as I begin to shove large chunks of it down my throat while washing it down with a beer I don’t like because I bought it for someone else that I fully realize that I have only done this to myself. I could have acted differently, I could have avoided this, but I didn’t. And now I see that each of my minute decisions over the past few days, weeks, months have lead me to this place. Every time I was too lazy to stop on the grocery story, not checking ahead to find out if we had onions, entertaining the idea of eating it in the first place. It was all me.

This is my personal nightmare.

The only thing I fear more than a life that ends too early is one that extends long enough for me to know for certain that I have wasted it. I have an odd skill for deluding myself. An odd talent for accepting what is in front of me as what was always going to be.

I toss a bit of the lettuce into a pan with vague plans to fry it with something but I still continue to munch away on what cannot fit. I guess this is just where I am in life.

I finish the lettuce.

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On owning that ponytail and working that up-do

***Note from Tyler: I did not write this. The author wished to be kept anonymous, so I’ve just posted it under my account***

 

A boy graduates from university. He moves to a new city and with no contacts – knowing nobody “in the biz” – manages to land his dream job. He spends three days a week gardening in a serene environment, encouraging children to learn about PLANTS. A young girl goes up to him and – I kid you not – she asks, “Can you show me the edible flowers, please?” A young boy, when asked if he’s hot because he’s wearing a black t-shirt in the sun, responds with: “Why? Does the colour black absorb heat?” I mean, for real peeps, what more could you want out of life. For the summer this graduate lives on an island near the city, out of a camper. He is mobile. He is heavily bearded. He wears a comfrey leaf as a gardening badge of honour. He is living “the life.”

———————————————————————————————————————

A beautiful girl beams with a smile that light and love seem to pour out of. She is graceful, intelligent, and wildly capable. She is surrounded by oh so many people who love her, and has the bravery and compassion to give space to the one she loves when he needs it most. Of course (of course!), she works full time at a job that is putting her on the right path to reach her end goal, and her co-workers seem to be total jokesters, and a pleasure to be around. As if she needed more reasons to be self-confident, she speaks three languages fluently and has hair that doesn’t quit.

———————————————————————————————————————

I could go on with other anecdotes that I collect in my storybook of “Why Everybody Else is Better Than I Am”. Seems petty, and melodramatic, but if I’ve ever met you, you can rest assured you’ve got your own chapter. For my entire life, comparing myself to others has made itself a central tenet, and I continually beat myself up for the countless ways in which I didn’t/don’t measure up. The seaweed truly was always greener on the other side of the sea, and it killed me. Well, it didn’t–but it did push me to a path of self-destruction that I lovingly and deceivingly labelled as motivation, drive, “an edge.”

Although I have been theoretically taking this past year to heal, I can only truthfully (and I sometimes even believe myself when I say it!) say now that I am finally on a new path. I can definitively say, on most days, that I have left my previous path behind me. Them shoes been worn for a long time, folks. I am now on a path to recovery. A path to health, well-being, happiness, and success. My old path only had one end goal–”BE THE BEST”–and scenic routes were punished. I am not sure what or where my new path is leading me toward, but I do know who I want there with me and that it sure as hell won’t be linear. I understand that on some days I may be tempted to turn back and return to the path I had walked so well, and that on other days I might only make it forward on my hands and knees or in a loved one’s arms.

But what is most important for me to understand, appreciate, and turn compassion towards, is that my path is my own and it is no one else’s. No one else can be farther ahead, even when it seems like that is so painfully obviously the case (and the only possible Capital T Truth), because they’re on their own fucking path. And that’s what makes each of our paths so beautiful dammit! Everybody walks at their own pace, in their own direction, with their own swagger, on their own path. I am not in anyone’s footsteps. I am not anyone’s runner up. I am moving in the right direction at the right pace. And it’s “right” because I said so and I am the only one who can.

In the great words of that SNL skit, I am trying my very best (and receiving all of the help along the way) to “Own that pony-tail! Work that up-do!”

Because at the end of the day, that boy – with the figured out dream-life – asked a nearly perfect stranger to hang out sometime soon. He was vulnerable and in need of a friend.

And that girl – who could not appear more content with life – struggles every day to give herself the love she so effortlessly shows others, with a voice that tells her she doesn’t deserve to eat three meals a day.

Neither of these outweigh the positive things they have going for them, not by a long shot, but it does show that there is always more depth to be discovered. Their seaweed has its own shit going on, too, even if everything else seems “perfect.”

 

I am on my own path now.

I am no one’s runner up.

 

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On music and happiness

If you’re anything like me (or most people, really), music has a constant presence in your life. As regular as your heartbeat and as unconsciously there as the breaths that keep that heart beating.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself: “Yes! That’s me. I listen to music all the time.”

If this is true, my question to you is this: you may listen to music all the time, but when was the last time that you really heard music?

Now, I know. I KNOW. I’m quite aware of how big a pretentious hipster douchebag that makes me sound.

But really! When was the last time that you heard music? When was the last time that you let yourself hear it?

Let it be the thing that you are doing in a given moment or chunk of time

Let it wash over your senses like a sonic baptism

Let it empty your mind save for chords and words strung together by human heart

When was the last time that listening to music was an event – something that you blocked out a space in your day calendar for: “An hour with Dan Mangan” or “Lunch with The Killers”?

Because yes, sometimes music is a background nicety. Sometimes it’s a distraction from the noise of a busy coffeeshop. Sometimes it’s an excuse to throw your body around with a primal fury; an excuse to sweat like it’s your day job and to throw the definition of personal space out the window.

But if you’re anything like me, it’s very easy to let music be that and only that: a background, a distraction, an excuse.

Sometimes, though, I think it should be more than that – it should be an event. You should devote yourself to it like a sculptor to his stone, take it in your arms and let it whisper its secrets into your ear.

I had forgotten that.

Forgotten it until just now – 20 minutes outside of Kingston – on a hot bus with 15 or so people, some of whom I know, many of whom I don’t. Forgotten it until just now when I put my headphones in, folded my legs, closed my eyes and let myself remember why The Gaslight Anthem’s “59 Sound” is my favourite album. Forgotten it until I had sat there through all 12 tracks, eyes closed and coffee cooling, locked in a state of musical meditation.

And it was wonderful. I really heard songs that for so long now I’d only listened to. Picked out the bass line and followed it as it weaved its way in and around the drums and guitar. Tracked the tiny variations in vocal range. But it was only because I let myself – only because I made the conscious decision to let music be the thing that I was doing in that moment. Nothing else.

It was in this moment that I connected a dot. Not a big one, mind you, but a dot nonetheless. In part, it was inspired by Stefan’s recent post, and this quote from it:

“What if I work not because I want or need to, but because I have to. What if I work to escape? Work keeps me company when no one else is available. Work allows me to tune out the rest of my life’s concerns because there are more important things to do. Work doesn’t flake out or run late. Work is reliably there, just waiting to give me the momentary validation of checking something new off my to do list”

And, in part, it was inspired by something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: happiness and work.

It started on a bus. We were coming home late one evening when she asked it: “Are you happy at your work?” The driver behind the wheel of her question was nothing more than innocent curiosity, but it landed with a thud in the space before us, shaking the suspension and rousing heads from cell phone screens. “I…” Pause. Uncertainty. Play it off: “Define happy,” I joked. Seeing through the cracks in my playful façade, she backpedals. “We…don’t have to talk about it now, or ever! I just…I’m here, if you want to.” “I know, love. Maybe some time not on a bus?”

Since then I have been lot more conscious of the question. Am I happy in my work? It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around, for a number of reasons. Though my response of “define happy” was in jest, there is also some merit in it.

Does doing the work make me happy?

What if the work doesn’t, but the people do?

What if it’s neither, but instead the knowledge that I’m “making a difference” (whatever THAT means)

What if only parts of the job make me happy? Is there a threshold? Some minimum happiness level I should be aiming for?

Is happy the same as fulfilled?

I’m often stressed, tired, overworked. But happy isn’t mutually exclusive to those things, is it?

I could add a million more questions to this list, but there are other problems, as well. With the question of “are you happy at your job?” comes an unspoken but understood question of “would you be happier elsewhere?” And really, how do you know? How the HELL do you know?

And, besides, do you have to be happy? Society seems to tell us so. If you went out into the street and asked 100 people “What’s the meaning of life?” I’d be willing to bet that happiness, or some variation thereof, would be the most common answer.

Then there are the articles: “7 Steps to Happiness” ; “3 Changes you can make RIGHT NOW to be Happier” ; “GURL, WHY YOU SO GOD-DAMNED MOPEY ALL THE TIME?”

Most recently, it has been the “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” trend. These ideas are often presented as if happiness is a tender fruit to be plucked from a tree.

In truth, it’s hard to find. Hard to define. Hard to know when you’ve got it, and all too easy to recognize when you’ve lost it.

But that’s ok. It’s just as ok as it is for music to be a background, a distraction, or an excuse.

For a long while after that question landed on the bus, I beat myself up about it. “How can you not know?! What if you’re settling? You’re not unhappy, you’re just afraid of failure and so are trying to run away. You’re wasting your artistic talent and creativity – you could be doing so much more somewhere else.”

It’s only now, after hearing music for the first time in a long while, that I have a bit of clarity. It doesn’t matter (mostly). You don’t have to be happy all the time. You don’t. We’re often sold the idea that we do – told that eating a salad alone is a hilarious, uplifting activity, told we need to pursue happiness like a chorus follows a verse. And sure, it’s an important part of life – but that’s not all there is. The beauty of being human is experiencing a complex range of emotions, and no one is inherently good or bad – or better or worse – than the next.

What’s important, I think, is that it’s conscious. That there’s a decision. See, what bothered me about my musical revelation on the bus is not the pure fact that for some time now, I’ve only engaged with music as a passive listening experience. What bothered me was that it wasn’t a choice. It was just happening. In my rush-rush driven attempt to finish all of the things, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed getting lost in a good album. Forgotten how much I enjoy letting music become an event. I was letting my default state take over.

And (I think) it’s the same for happiness. It’s okay to not be totally happy in your work. Or at least, uncertain of what it means to be. But, I think it needs to be a choice. I think it’s a problem if it’s not – if it’s just your default state that switches on with the lights in the office on those early Monday mornings. If there’s a choice, if there’s a conscious decision to prioritize something else – impact, fulfillment, money, whatever – I think that’s okay.

That’s why Stefan’s post from the other day struck me. It was this one line: “What if I work not because I want or need to, but because I have to”. Specifically, it was the “not because I want or need to”. It reminded me of times in my life when I burnt myself out because I was unconsciously acting on my default state of working myself to exhaustion. Not because I wanted to or was choosing to, but because that’s just what I did.

So the real question, then, is not “are you happy at your work?” It’s whether or not the answer to that question is the product of conscious choice.

But that, my friends, is a question for another day.

 

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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