This morning I sit on the balcony with coffee and lose track of time. If I’m not careful, I lose a whole year.
I blame it on the trees. They are the same color as last August, that rich green of deep summer. Spring left central Texas months ago. We’re in summer for the long haul, now – the stretch of the year that lasts from late April to November – so it’s easy to lose track of the difference between June 2020 and August 2019. Time (and everything else, if we’re honest) turns a bit liquid once the daily temperature exceeds 90’F.
I don’t really mind. It’s a novel exercise – “What would my life look like without 2020?” More than 2020, of course – what has changed between this summer and last? What would I lose if I was really sitting here in August 2019? Was there anything I should have held onto – that I didn’t?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this year has changed my world. It’s been an internal change; nothing flashy. Some days I don’t even notice it myself. But in June of last year, I was happily embarking on a busy summer. I was grateful to have a busy summer.
For about two years prior, I’d grown very comfortable in my role of “busy.” It’s an easy role – American society even attaches a measure of prestige to it. It’s like a consolation prize. “Ooh, look – you haven’t accomplished anything of note, but you’re busy! Tell me more.”
In August of last year, I decided to do something I’ve never voluntarily done. For the first time in my life, I voluntarily decided to drop a responsibility that had told me who I was. I decided to give up being busy.
For a busy person, few things are quite as terrifying as not being busy. Busy is more than an identity, more than a way of life; it is an existential retort to the idea of a cosmic “so what?”
Busy is the opposite of facing up to those “so what?” moments. You think I’m joking? How many busy philosophers do you know? There’s a reason that philosophers, as a profession, are known for sitting around. It started with the Greeks and there’s been no reason to change a winning formula.
At any rate, I’m not going to list out everything I was juggling at the time. That defeats the point of giving it up. So, having stepped away from the gory details, here is what we are left with: although it didn’t all happen at once, I went from working a measurable 60 hours a week to, currently, 24 hours a week.
The thing about working 60 hours a week is you always have something to do. Furthermore, and more importantly, you always have a beautiful excuse for things that remain undone: “I’m busy.” It’s not even a falsehood. What more could you want?
The obvious answer is – more time. But this isn’t quite the case. When you work 24 hours a week for other people, you are left with the prospect of at least – at least! – 16 hours of a working week to work on your own projects. In terms of actual time, you have four whole days to yourself. What this translates to is a revelation. It turns out some things still don’t get done. The reason they don’t get done is no longer because “I’m busy.” They don’t get done because, simply, I don’t want to do them.
It turns out there are some things I just don’t value enough to do.
Let’s revise the above statement: it’s not that I don’t value these miscellaneous things enough to do them. It’s that I value my own time too much to spend it on them. When your time is your own, you become aware of its value in a way that is antithetical to most discussions of an hourly or salary pay rate.
This may, of course, not be true for everyone. I ask the economists in the audience to kindly look away.
Allow me to digress for a moment, while the economists are elsewhere recovering. Among the various job outcomes represented by my college friends, I see a remarkable lack of diversity in qualitative outcome.
Quantitatively, many of them have jobs, some of them are in grad school, a few of them are in between jobs. Some of them are earning “good” money (plot twist: to the Federal Reserve, it’s all the same unless it’s laundered); some of them are barely earning more than minimum wage in their respective states. A few are receiving unemployment.
Qualitatively, all of them seem to have about the same level of work-related happiness and meaning. This level is best described as “meh.”
So – goes my logic – that means that neither happiness nor meaning are directly correlated to the job outcomes of college-educated individuals?
The point that I wish to highlight here is that, in my limited observations, the individuals who are earning a lot or in more prestigious positions don’t seem to be a great deal happier than the ones who aren’t. They certainly have fewer stressors; they don’t worry about medical crises or rising rent. But the absence of toxic stress isn’t the same as a perceived increase in happiness or life meaning.
The thing about a paycheck is it doesn’t measure what you think it measures. Most people think a paycheck is a measure of the value of their time and skills. But it’s not a measure of your value of your time; it’s a measure of what the market is currently prepared to pay for the time of a person with a particular skill set.
You may note a bit of slippage between the two concepts.
Before I am required to include a chart, graph, or spreadsheet, I will derail the labor economics portion of this discussion. The important point I wish to highlight is that, once basic needs are met, no one other than you can accurately define the value of your time to you. As in other areas of life, knowledge is crucial. So spend some time thinking – how do you value your time?
You may feel your time is best valued in time spent with family; in gardening, reading, cleaning, skateboarding, painting, praying, or any other of an infinite variety of activities that help humans feel alive. You may have several competitors for “most valuable use,” or you may wish to discard the idea of value and simply embrace the moment.
Currently, I find my time is best valued in writing. That is, there is no other activity which I feel is as good a use of my time. It’s not a comfortable place to be – there are lots of other activities which are almost as good, and sometimes I am aware of the opportunity cost. But I would far rather have the option to choose, with the knowledge of what I am measuring against.
The price is that, between last summer and this, I’ve discarded a lot of goals that have been with me for a while. In some cases I’ve let go of a decade’s worth of ambition. Give up busyness, gain an understanding of value: for me, right now, it’s been a fair trade.
Of course, after all this I remain a workaholic. It’s a family trait on my mother’s side; some things are not passed on by chromosomes, but what Terry Pratchett refers to when he observes that “some genetics are passed on via the soul.” Just because I’m not busy doesn’t mean I’m comfortable not doing anything.
But at least the things I now stress (bad habit, don’t recommend it) about are things on my own behalf. Here is the slightly morbid truth: I’m finally working on something that, if I died part way through, would still have enough of me in it to be worth leaving behind – something that no one else could have made.
To make something that no one else could have made: that’s the closest I’ve come to understanding how I value my life, and the lives of those around me.
I guess it has been a year since last summer, after all.