I’m getting my first performance review at work. This is the first time I’ve gone through a review in over ten years, and I’m feeling about it pretty much like anyone would.
I took this job because I wanted something to do during the pandemic and I stopped being able to work on my book when my husband started working from home. I was quite certain we would still be fighting this thing through the end of the year, even back in April 2020. It is disappointing to be proved right about that, but what do you do.
I was right, this new job has given me plenty to do. I’m so busy all day that I rarely give the pandemic much of a thought at all, unless we’ve gotten an email update about the “return to work” plan. I’ve made friends, and sometimes we chat and crack jokes and laugh. All of this is a huge improvement over where I was emotionally in March, sitting glumly on the couch and staring into the middle distance.
It is weird, though, that the review process is getting under my skin so much.
There’s the part of me that is cheerfully ready to work away the next couple of years while the world is turned upside down, no problem. This part of me is having a good time hanging out (and of course earning money) while the clock runs down, leaving me only a couple of hours at the end of each day to fret about COVID-19 statistics.
Then there’s the part of me that likes puzzles, that enjoys solving problems or noticing things that maybe someone else didn’t. That’s the part of me that likes work for its own sake. Doing something that needs to be done, maybe even doing it more quickly or putting a nice little spin on it.
Then there’s the part of me that wants to hide quivering in the closet rather than face my review.
What is going on there?
It’s not that we need the money; we were already living on half our income. The premise has been that I could earn significantly more if I ever get a book deal. (Or, especially, sell a screenplay). In that sense, if I left, it would not impact our lifestyle materially. Same tiny apartment, same car-free household.
It’s not that I have any particular innate desire to do what I’m doing forever. It’s the industry that I like, not necessarily my role within it, although it’s fine and I have no complaints. I appreciate the culture and the mission and I like working with all these brilliant, courteous people. I like helping out in the way that I can, but it’s not like any of my specific tasks are wildly fascinating in their own right. I imagine that if I left, it would be the place and the people I would miss, not the daily details of my role.
The only thing that’s hanging on my performance review, then, is my pride.
What I’ve done is to make myself vulnerable to criticism in a way that I wasn’t when I worked for myself. I took on the odd client, picked up the occasional freelance gig, and it made sense that these arrangements came and went on a temporary basis.
My relationship with external feedback doesn’t always make any sense, and I’m working on that.
I remember how terrible I felt, how drained and sad, after I won my election as division director. Objectively I had done well. In point of fact, I had won my position by a large margin. I tried to talk myself into something else; maybe I couldn’t make myself feel proud or excited, but at least I deserved to feel flat or neutral? I couldn’t figure out what was so depressing about the reality of winning.
Something about competition is demotivating to me. I don’t like being held up against others, even when the comparison works to my advantage.
That proved out again just this weekend, when I was invited to an online party and we played some games. I won a game, and I shrank inside.
I’m not even completely sure. I think it’s a mix of feeling like other people will be disappointed because it’s a zero-sum game, and if one person “wins,” then by definition others have not won. That feeling, plus perhaps a sense that another person might be annoyed or feel envy or jealousy about that supposed “win.” All the celebration and anticipation is over at the end of the game. The goal has been reached, and now what? And furthermore, so what?
The performance review process doesn’t seem to serve many people all that well. It intimidates everyone and it’s a huge time suck for management. The top performers are probably intrinsically motivated anyway, which is the reason that they do so well - but is the review process a way to somehow collect their focus and energy and figuratively inject it into others? Does this process indeed help people suss out exactly how to improve? Does it actually get the results that it’s meant to get?
I’m very lucky that I can talk directly with my boss every day, and he is pretty good about giving clear feedback and asking for exactly what he wants. Every morning, I clock in knowing what I need to get done, and why, and who benefits.
In fact, I’ve already read my review, and it was quite nice, and I have no reason to be as anxious about it as I am. I have really thrown myself into this job, seeing it as a form of rescue from the intense boredom and stress of isolating from the pandemic. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve done a few things that make me proud already, in only six months.
What I’m trying to figure out is why, objectively, the better I do, the more I freak out about being evaluated on my performance. I doubt I’m alone in this. It’s certainly something I need to get my head around if years go by and I somehow mysteriously find myself facing a promotion.
Stranger things could happen. I do like this place. As far as my review, if this sort of thing is in any way reciprocal, my job itself exceeds expectations.
I have to know. After all this, have you set up a desk yet?
Desks have always interested me, because in my experience most people don’t really use them. Desks are chosen more for their aesthetics than whether someone actually wants to sit in front of them and do stuff. Now that so many of us are stuck at home, when we never planned to be, I’m getting very curious how it’s all working out.
How many people live at your place? How many of them are studying or working from home? And how many have a physical desk?
The amazing thing to me, in my work with hoarders, has always been the way that stuff takes over areas that are no longer useful. Even when a certain space would be perfect for something that someone likes to do, that activity isn’t getting done because the stuff is in the way. The baker can’t bake, the crafter doesn’t have any flat surfaces to lay anything out, the writer has nowhere to write, the dancer can’t dance.
This is why I wonder. Now that the world has changed, are people changing the way they live amongst their stuff?
One of my friends has recently made a huge change. She has been dealing with chronic disorganization at least as long as I’ve known her, enough so that she’s been evicted at least twice over it. All of a sudden, she reached out and took me up on my offer to coach her. We talked on the phone for an hour - ONE HOUR! - and she’s spent the last several weeks clearing out her place. She sends me video updates from time to time and it’s incredibly dramatic.
Underneath all the piles, there emerges a fine design sensibility and some very graciously appointed rooms. Who knew?
My friend runs her own business, but it is in no way paperwork-related. I don’t think she has a desk at all, and if she did I have no idea what she would do at it. She’s all phone, all the time. She remains my only client who has no issues with paper clutter.
I think a lot of people have a desk because it was given to them at some point, possibly in high school, and they just move it from place to place. They may never have stopped to ask whether they even like it, much less want it, use it, or need it.
Others probably have a “computer desk” that they picked up in the time when we all used desktop computers with a bunch of peripherals and disks. They may not have noticed that at some point they pivoted to doing almost everything on their phone or a tablet.
Most of my people have desks that are basically just another flat surface for piling mail and other papers. The dining table and the kitchen counters are basically the same way. When I do home visits, (or used to), we would whip through the papers at lightning speed because almost none of them were useful. It would be 90% junk mail, restaurant menus, catalogues, coupons, and random stuff they never asked for. Most of what was left was redundant, stuff we don’t need to keep, like utility bills and grocery receipts.
This is what I wonder. How likely is it that people are still hunched over, working or studying in some uncomfortable position all day, when all that unsorted paper is still piled up doing nobody any good?
I think about it a lot, because I started a new job not long after the stay-at-home order, and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have a decent office chair. I was using a wooden folding chair, one with slats that I never realized were so cruel. In all the time I had used this desk, I’d never sat at it for more than maybe two hours at a time. It actually made my butt go numb.
After two months of nine-hour days, I was ready for a proper ergonomic chair, ugly as it is. I assembled it at 10 pm because there was no way I was waiting another day. After a bit of time sitting in my lovely new chair, I bought a velvet seat cushion and I never looked back.
Life is too short to be hunched over and giving yourself back, shoulder, and neck pain at some makeshift pretense of a work station. Or to put your legs to sleep because you’re sitting in a slatted folding chair.
I know I’m not the only person who was doing this because I found out my work partner was using the exact same type of chair. It would be an extremely weird coincidence if we were the only two people on Earth who were doing that to ourselves.
I realize that money is tight or nonexistent for a lot of households right now. I also know that a lot of people habitually give their stuff all the best real estate and furniture in the house, and leave only little slivers for themselves. For many people, what they need to do in order to be more comfortable is to remove things, not buy or add things.
In the past few months, I’ve given away a lot of things to various strangers in the neighborhood. This has caused me to notice how much other stuff people are giving away, and that oddly seems to include a lot of desks, bookshelves, and chairs. It’s probably a combination of people relocating, and upgrading to newer furniture when they realize that what they had in February 2020 wasn’t working after the world changed. It’s entirely possible to take a look at the listings and realize that you’d be doing someone a favor by taking your perfect desk off their hands. Help them make some space.
Make yourself some space.
A question that is always helpful to ask is, If not now, when? What’s the exit strategy for what I’m doing? When will I want to do something else instead? The way we arrange our rooms is part of that, that sense that it’s good to change things from time to time. It’s good to make sure that our stuff serves us, and make sure we are not at its mercy.
Take a moment to look around and ask yourself, if you’re working from home: Is it time to set up a real desk? Maybe something different, maybe in a different spot? Is it time to finally sort out some stuff and let it go?
Best of luck to you, and I hope your chair is as good to you as you deserve.
Stuff is changing really, really fast in the world of work. Maybe not fast enough for all of those who have been unemployed most of 2020. I am sorry about that, and the most positive thing I can think to do is to propagate ideas that can help people be employed as safely and as quickly as possible.
This is why I think there are a ton of opportunities in spaces like helping businesses to go paperless and in making tech that can help people be in proximity without breathing germs on each other. Read on, and as I think of them I will continue to blurt out ideas about side hustle ideas that might not have worked in 2019.
I work in the aerospace industry, where almost everyone can work from home. Further, most people on staff are irreplaceable. You can’t just go out and recruit a bunch of subject matter experts in astrophysics from the parking lot of Home Depot. One of our colleagues was out with COVID-19 for months, and I honestly have no idea what her team did without her. We regard the coronavirus pandemic as the threat to national security that it is, and we plan accordingly.
This isn’t just about COVID. It’s about any situation that keeps people from getting in to the office. As a practical matter, it makes more sense for a workforce to be distributed if possible. We are at a stage where the technology is in place, so we shrug and move on, and we run shuttle launches from people’s home offices, and nobody really notices. Because it works.
One area where we don’t have it totally nailed down is security. There are meetings that have to be held in specially constructed rooms and with special secured telephones. This is true for us, and it’s true for the military, and for government, and I don’t even know who else. I just know that there are needs above my pay grade.
This is where I think there’s a place for some kind of custom home-office security phone booth.
(For levels above that, there are going to need to be far more SCIFs. That makes more sense than trying to expand the existing ones to accommodate social distancing).
It’s obvious that homes are going to start having more dividers in them, one way or another. I know a couple of guys who work out of their garage, because there are just too many people trying to be on web conferences in the rest of the house. If everyone who can work from home is going to work from home, there has to be more than just a bunch of noise-canceling headphones.
I’m sure most of you have already noticed what a very loud world we inhabit, in terms of garbage trucks and road maintenance and construction sites and landscaping and fire trucks and helicopters. Absolutely none of that is going to change. But the soundproofing can.
Apparently it’s already possible to blow in soundproofing materials into the walls, and that’s one of many great ideas for businesses that wouldn’t have had much runway before 2020.
I wonder if there might be room for little modular offices, like the storage PODS that you sometimes see sitting in someone’s driveway. Someone comes and delivers a little 6x8 office pod with a built-in wifi router and an extension cord that plugs into the house. Maybe it has a letterbox slot big enough for a pizza. Maybe it also has a little chemical toilet like in an RV.
There are still reasons why it makes sense for people to come in to an office, even if 100% of the work that they do can be done over a combination of computer and phone. Security is one of them, at least for the time being. Some people just really, really want to get out and have a “second location” to visit, so they aren’t climbing the walls at home and so that they have a mental disconnect at the end of the day. In those cases, I think the trend is going to be for retrofitting existing commercial real estate. It’s already started. Just add more interior walls, do some smart scheduling and planning, and upgrade the air filtration systems.
Other jobs have traditionally been seen as only possible in person, even though it would be possible to do them remotely. Visiting a doctor’s office is one of those things. I had email and phone conversations with my doctor when I had COVID, and then when I thought I got it a second time but it turned out to be pneumonia. Quite obviously, this was preferable for both of us than for me to get in a rideshare vehicle and come to the clinic to see him and shake his hand.
Will there ever be doctor visits where a telepresence robot performs a procedure in the patient’s house while the doctor observes from across town? Probably, yes! Although doubtfully within the next twenty years.
Other fields that we think of as obviously needing to be done in person, to a futurist, are not that obvious. The first one that comes to mind is construction. Why not operate earth-moving equipment remotely, if it’s safer for human bodies? Human safety needs to be our first priority (though I would argue it never has been so far) and once our safety is prioritized correctly, then it needs to stay that way. Better to wreck a million-dollar machine than a man.
There are already drones walking dogs, and robots delivering food, and artificial intelligence detecting anomalies on MRIs. The future is coming at us and it’s coming at us fast. I’m able to view this with excitement and anticipation, imagining a future world that is safer and cleaner. I see it as a human-centered model where we buy back the time we used to spend commuting, and instead use it to get more sleep, make art, be with our families, or whatever else we want. Let our work serve us, and let our work build a better world.
Not my worst nightmare precisely, but rather, my ‘work nightmare’ - we’re all on camera during meetings now. This wasn’t supported by our previous software package. I asked my boss during my first week, “What percentage of the time will we be on camera?” He replied, “Zero!”
Alas, it was not to last.
Technically we use three separate software platforms for calls, depending on who is involved. The rules are slightly different for each, meaning there is the usual amount of confusion over how to dial in or mute. To compound matters, individual results depend on whether each person is logging in via phone, company laptop, or VPN, whether they’re at home or on campus, and then whether they’re on iPhone or Android, Mac or PC. It’s still a little messy.
Let’s just say it’s not always easy to tell when you think you’re on mute and you’re not. I was just on a call with 140 people, and suddenly there were the outraged screams of a child piercing the background. For several minutes. If the child had been the victim of a dog attack or had fallen out of a tree, the cries would not have been inconsistent. No adult seemed to be supervising. Whose kid was this?? I figured out the only person with an open mic other than the speaker, whose unfazed expression showed it couldn’t possibly have been going on in his background. The guy with the wailing child ironically raised an eyebrow - and I realized, this must just be what parenting and home-schooling while working from home is like.
At other times, I have been treated to the sounds of someone chewing, shouting, holding a long rambling phone call, watching a football game, and even peeing and flushing a toilet. I’ve heard cats meowing directly into the mic. I’ve heard doorbells and lawn mowers and car alarms and sirens and barking dogs. Of course, I’m a fine one to talk, as I have a parrot who likes to sit behind me and peer over my shoulder at the screen. And beep, peep, and whistle while I’m on a hot mic.
This was all one type of mayhem when we were just on the phone together. Now that we’re on camera, it’s oh so much more.
There are several things that I hate about being on camera. For one, it makes me extremely self-conscious that I always look like I’m paying attention. I am camera-shy at the best of times. At work, it feels like the stakes are higher. The entire reason we’re on camera is to demonstrate that everyone is fully engaged in every meeting. This is where I feel compelled to monitor my facial expressions.
One day, I turned on my camera, went to wave to someone, and realized that there was a stack of empty boxes visible in range of my camera. My face morphed into annoyance and disgust - not a sexy expression - and then I realized that it looked like I was frowning AT someone. Not myself and my own recycling schedule, my own ability to frame shots - but AT a person. I would never make that face at anyone outside of politics!
Now I have to be self-conscious not only about my facial expression, but what is visible in my living room as well.
I’ve read up a bit on this, since everyone and literally their grandparents are on Zoom these days. People complain about anyone having a blank wall behind them. In other words, they want to SNOOP. They don’t want to look at me or listen to what I’m saying - they want to spy in the background, read the titles of my books, and assess my character, taste, and lifestyle based on what they can see over my shoulder.
In my personal opinion, that is far, far worse than being judged on my body image. I’d much rather have someone make snarky comments about my caboose than about how I decorate my living room. This is my private home, and if I wanted to invite you over to see it, I would. I doubt most people signed on for their jobs with the desire to have 100% of their professional colleagues inside their home.
It’s worse for some of our early-career colleagues, most of whom were caught out by the pandemic. One of our young ones has to work on his bed because he’s temporarily staying with his parents, and they work at home too. Another works on her couch with a TV tray in her lap, because she’s a newlywed and they don't really have furniture yet. It’s a little unfair for those who are still in the student lifestyle, sharing a video grid with a manager or director who has owned a home for 25 years.
At least two of my older colleagues have their work stations out in the garage. Why? With a spouse and two or more kids in the house, there just isn’t enough space or sound-proofing for everyone.
This is part of how I have finally gotten over my camera shyness and learned to fight my self-consciousness at work.
I turned on a blurry background, so all that can really be seen behind me is that I work next to a window. If you know where to look and what you’re looking at, you can sometimes see a blur of a red parrot tail somewhere over my head. A slight tilt of the laptop screen and the camera aims more toward the ceiling and less toward the scattering of feathers and shreds of lettuce on my floor.
My competition on camera includes a lot of people who are less tech-savvy than I am, at least in terms of video calls. The rules of the game start to include more about competent use of the tool than oneupmanship over hair, makeup, and wardrobe - at least in our industry. I can certainly be thankful that I work with engineers and not in fashion, marketing, or television.
One day we all might start working together at the office again. (That’ll be weird since I don’t even know where my desk is yet). On that day, I hope that my colleagues will be surprised at how much better I look in person. In the meantime, I’m doing what I can to keep the bar on aesthetics and personal disclosure low, returning the focus to merit, where it should be.
I have some stuff to figure out. Don’t we all?
I work 8-6 at my new job, and it’s been hard to find the time to write my blog five days a week as well. Essentially all I do is work, try to put together a blog post, do chores, and sleep.
I hate the thought of just... having a job... forever and never doing anything else.
Also I’m like: ‘side hustle’ - on what side?? There are no sides??
I’m tired all the time.
(Isn’t everyone though)
But most people aren’t post-COVID tired, which is a different order of beast.
My big logistical plan for the past couple of months has been to brainstorm a list of blog topics, and then “catch up” on one of my three-day weekends so I can free up some time in the evenings.
But then all I do on the weekends is sleep.
I’m barely even reading any more.
Worst of all, I feel absolutely starved for alone time. I’m not an introvert, I’m a shy extrovert, but introverts will recognize this problem. I’m in meetings for as much as 7 hours a day. I have to be “on” and listening and ready to be called on at any moment. While it’s exciting and interesting, it’s also pretty draining. Sometimes I shut off my computer at the end of the day and just walk into the bedroom and sleep for two hours.
At the beginning of the year, what I thought I would be doing was finishing my book proposal. I had an outline and a lot of material, I was jazzed and productive, I was “in talks” about it with a publisher...
And then COVID happened and the entire premise of my book kind of just blew away. The world changed and my book was for the old world, the world that was.
Gosh. I’d love to write a new book for the new world... but when? When exactly is that supposed to happen?
I’ve always felt that the fountain is ever flowing and that the ideas are always there.
That, though, requires carrying the bucket to the fountain and hauling it up.
Maybe all of this is just because I’m so physically tired, and still trying to heal my lungs and my heart after nearly dying five months ago. Or maybe it’s just reality.
Maybe most people really can’t have a challenging full-time job and write books at the same time. Maybe it really is a zero-sum choice, one or the other but not both.
Or maybe I’m just tired.
I hope that this dilemma speaks to you. As you read this, I hope you recognize where you have challenging choice points in your own life and that you’re able to make more time to think them out than I have been lately.
I’m not a caregiver, I don’t have kids, I don’t even have a commute right now. I don’t need an excuse to be tired, though, or to feel like I have trade-offs that I don’t want to make. I don’t need an excuse to feel like there are demands in my life that have me spread thin.
I certainly don’t need an excuse to feel like I often create my own issues in my life.
This is where strategy is so important. This is where it’s so important to pull away for an aerial view sometimes. We say, “This is how it is right now, this is the situation. Now what?”
What if it’s still just like this a year from now?
How about three years?
Nothing changes if nothing changes, and then nothing changes.
I’ve just come out of a three-day weekend, where I did almost none of the things I had planned to do, including writing in my journal and resolving some of this stuff. Where did the time go? It seems to have elapsed in long conversations with friends and family. That is a trade-off that definitely should not feel like a trade-off. I can’t very well say, “Will you please give me back that hour so I can do some writing, because I’m parched for time to myself right now?”
What would that become? Me at the end of my life, in a stack of journals and books, alone?
What I’d like is a day to literally sit inside of a closet, on the floor, with the door shut, and just have... nobody call me or talk to me or ask me questions or task me or assign me anything. Or look at me.
That’s why I’m going to bed now, facing another busy working week packed with people and conversations, not “caught up” (whatever that means) and still with nothing to write about. Except for my sorrows, feeling cut off from my creative well, wondering whether I have to just say goodbye to that part of my life.
Those of you who know exactly what I mean by all of this, do what you have to do. The task here, I believe, is figuring out a way to create time and space out of thin air, time and space to remember who we are and why we do what we do.
I got a new job this spring. This is interesting because of the timeline and because of the type of place where I work.
My husband and I work for the same company, a place where a significant proportion of the staff have doctorates and/or patents and/or academic publications. He is an aerospace engineer. Everyone was sent on mandatory work-from-home the Friday before restaurants and bars were closed statewide. Nowhere in the US had shut down yet.
Incidentally, everyone got sent home two days before I contracted coronavirus.
Quite suddenly, while I was languishing on the couch, pretty sure I only had a few days to live, a job opening was announced. I thought, What the heck, if I die everyone will forgive me, but if I live I’d really like to work at this place. My husband filled out the application with minimal nods and hand-waving from my settee.
By the time we got to the phone interview stage, I was on the mend, and I was well enough to make it through a workday in time for my start date.
I started to notice very early on that our company was different from other companies. If you’ve read Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem you’ll get a sense of how I feel about this place.
First off, I noted that only three organizations seemed to be taking the pandemic seriously in the early days. Those were our company, Apple, and Toastmasters. They all sent their people home, the latter two because they have an international presence and leadership needs to be consistent.
The first two did it because in Smart People World, your colleagues are actual assets.
In the outer world, I see a lot of stuff that scares me and makes me feel more emotionally attached to my employer.
I see stores and restaurants supposedly banning people from wearing masks.
I see companies forbidding their staff from wearing masks. I see companies pressuring staff to come in and work even when they are symptomatic. I see companies completely disregarding the health or caregiving status of their employees, treating actual human beings as consumable items.
Even appliances and industrial equipment are given more care and respect than people.
The gamble seems to be, oh well, “we’re” doing what’s necessary “to survive” - meaning the company, an inanimate, abstract entity, gets to “survive” while flesh-and-blood people are expected to service it by sacrificing not only their own lives, but their loved ones’ as well.
I take note of which companies seem to be on the side of mass human sacrifice, bloody stone pyramid style, and which actually revere their human assets. It’s not like I’m going to forget three years from now.
Where I work, it’s like this:
Working from home is mandatory.
If you have a need to go to the building, you must get permission. To be on site, you have to fill out contact tracing forms each time, you have to distance, and you have to wear a mask on the premises. If you are caught being lax about these regulations, you will be warned, and it could be a firing offense.
You’re also expected to tactfully remind any visitors about these rules.
How far do we distance? You probably assumed it was six feet?
In our realm, not just our company but others that we pal around with, it’s actually eight feet.
Personally I aim for twelve and hope for fifteen, but then I don’t go out my door very often any more.
There is an entire system with a building floor plan and certain areas marked off. People have to sort of bid for these spots. One of the reasons that we are WFH is that almost everyone shared a small office, and that doesn’t work for distancing. When people work on site, they’re expected to stay only in the area where they said they needed to be.
We are fortunate that we have the kind of work we can do at home. We are fortunate that we had the space, the equipment, the electricity, and the phone and internet access that support our work. I would say ‘lucky’ but good fortune is based on direct action and the situations it creates, like a happy marriage, while luck comes sheerly from timing.
I also know with objective certainty that there are tens of thousands of people who could do their jobs perfectly well from home, and would prefer it, but their management forbids it. They do it because they don’t trust that people are professional enough to work without close supervision. They also do it because they don’t have the technical knowledge to figure it all out, and they do it because they are too lazy to ask.
Yeah, I said lazy. I generally don’t believe that ‘lazy’ is a thing, but when it comes to a matter of actual life and death, it is very hard to understand why else someone would avoid the marginal effort involved. Especially when working from home can have vast productivity improvements and cost savings.
Our company announced today that the signal for us to move from our current posture, and start sending more people back to work in their on-site offices, is wide availability of a vaccine for COVID-19.
This is new!
Previously, we’ve had updates once or twice a week. During my presence there, the message has consistently been to expect to WFH through the end of the calendar year.
Since then, there have also been various surveys and tracking dashboards. The message is clear that not only are people noticeably more productive, most are generally happier. One of my colleagues said she happened to be home to see her baby take his first steps. People are getting more work done, and also sleeping more, exercising more, reading more, and finishing projects. Surveys indicate that this move has left most people, like me, impressed with the company’s judgment and grateful to have job security.
I wish this were true for more people, and I have a strong suspicion that about another 20% of the workforce could do it if they were allowed.
To sum up, it’s like this. We work from home, and sometimes it’s a hassle, like when the VPN glitches or we have a power failure or we’re both on a call at the same time. A lot of the time it’s sirens going by, and that helps to remind us to stay inside and help end this thing. We work for a company that has taken a strategic position to keep everyone as safe as possible for as long as possible. They said today that we’ve had 33 total positive cases, which is less than 1% of the staff at our site.
We stay at home. We do contact tracing. We wear masks. We stay eight feet apart. We might go in again after there is “wide availability” of a vaccine. Then again, I suspect they’ll let most people work from home... forever.
The pandemic will probably destroy the reputations of a few businesses after they demonstrate their whack, psychopathic values. For companies like ours, the pandemic has confirmed our sense that we are actually doing something important, that our contribution matters, and that our leaders make sound decisions. We might not personally live through this, but our company will, and it’s actually reassuring to know that.
Early in lockdown, I almost bought $300 worth of shoes. They were seriously on sale!
I never buy stuff right away, though. I put together a shopping cart, and then I go through it again the next day. Most of the time I scrap the whole thing. I’m an under-buyer and I usually feel major buyer’s remorse when the physical item shows up.
This time was different. I had these shoes in the cart, and then I thought, where would I wear them??
Months later, this feels prescient. Indeed, where would I wear a variety of new shoes?
I actually hate wearing shoes, at all, at any time. I am obviously barefoot as I write this. I only wear shoes because I don’t want to cut up my feet when I go outside. (Although I did once step on a nail that went right through my shoe, fat lot of good that it did me).
Purses are in the same category of Stuff I Only Use Outside. I put my work bag in my closet a few months ago, and it’s only come out a few times. I don’t miss it at all. I used to hang it on my desk chair, but it won’t stay on my new office chair, and it would annoy me while I work all day for no reason.
Not only am I not contemplating buying any purses or shoes, I’ve been thinking of getting rid of more of what I already have.
I have a donation box going right now. I have yet to drop it off because I rarely cross the threshold of our apartment for any reason. I don’t want to carry it off only to realize I need to make a second trip. There is a pair of shoes in that basket right now. I liked how they looked, but they gave me blisters. I would wear them on vacation and get mad at them. Then I would unpack them and forget that these were Hurty Shoes. Then I would pack them the next time we went on vacation, and the cycle would repeat. Finally, as I was doing the classic self-isolation closet re-org, I pulled out the Hurty Shoes and said, “Never again!”
The next time we go on vacation, it’s going to be so exciting, the last thing I will want to do is to mess it up by giving myself blisters.
There are a couple other pairs in my closet that are a little tight. Why do I still have them?
I instituted a practice in my life over 20 years ago. That was the concept of the “cost per wear” that I picked up from Your Money Or Your Life. (If you buy something for $20 and you wear it 20 times, it costs $1 per wear). In my mind, I still aim for a $1 cost per wear even though inflation has gone up significantly since then. Therefore, I tend to punish myself by continuing to wear things I don’t like all that much until I feel like I’ve run out the dollar-meter on them.
The other reason is that my feet got a half-size bigger after the year I trained for my marathon. It took me a while to realize that this was not just a fluke of individual item sizing. Also, vanity.
I work from home. This is almost certain to continue through the calendar year. In fact, it may be forever. It turns out a lot of people at my company were commuting over 3 hours a day, and a few live so far away that they only go home on weekends! WFH has meant all these people can sleep in an extra hour and *still* be significantly more productive.
Also, they can work barefoot. Or who knows what else. We’re only on camera maybe an hour every couple months.
Right now, nobody is looking at anyone’s feet. If anything we’re checking each other for proper mask fit.
I was on camera last week with a guy in an office in another city, and he clearly hadn’t had his hair cut since before lockdown. This guy has a PhD and while I am sure nobody cares about his coiffure, I also wonder if anyone besides me even noticed.
Are we all going to have a permanent reset in our expectations about street clothes and business dress?
I wonder. I think it will polarize.
I suspect a lot of people are dressing up far more than they normally would because they are bored and lonely. Being on camera all the time and seeing yourself tends to lead to self-conscious fixations. (Personally, I find seeing myself on Zoom all the time to be extremely exhausting and demoralizing, which is why I accessorize with my enchanting little parrot. They’re not looking at me, they’re looking at her).
This is probably going to continue “when all this is over.” There will be a sense of ceremony, and a lot of people are going to want to rise to the occasion by going out and getting a haircut and then dressing up.
But then a lot of us are going to realize that our pre-lockdown clothes don’t fit quite the same way...
I really need to buy some pants right now - the weather is cooling and I only have like three pair that fit - but there is probably going to be a lot of shipping back and forth. Pants have never been an easy fit on me. I remember one trip when I tried on 38 pairs before I found a single one that fit. Either I have short legs, big thighs, wide hips, and a long waist, or pants are too long and too wide?
Or maybe it’s time to bring back the toga after all.
Whatever happens, when we finally start going out again, it will have been a long time since the last time a lot of us tried on new clothes. It’s going to feel weird. It’s probably also going to look weird.
Might as well reexamine what we have right now. Is this really what we think we’re going to celebrate in? If it isn’t comfortable enough to wear and use around the house, does it pass that test for the outer world either?
Hard work - what is it, exactly?
We’ve been having an extended discussion over the weekend about what ‘hard work’ means, and what it has to do with financial and career success. “We” meaning my husband, a couple of our young mentees, and I.
I think it’s a mistake to tell young people that hard work is everything. It isn’t!
Working hard in the wrong manner won’t really get anyone anywhere. If hard work was the secret to success, there would be a lot of very wealthy ditch diggers and demolition crews, am I right?
I worked much harder as a nanny than I do today. The mom of “my” kids once fell asleep at the table with her face in her mashed potatoes, so I think any parent or caregiver would agree that chasing kids around is quite hard work indeed.
My hubby and I both come from a blue-collar background. We were taught the inherent dignity of busting your butt all day. Sitting around with soft hands and no practical skills is embarrassing where we come from. In fact I know I could never have fallen in love with a man who couldn’t use tools.
My man can design a satellite, sharpen a chainsaw, build a battle bot, change the oil in a semi, debug code, and run a skidder. Which of these skills are ‘hard work’?
I can’t do any of those things - or at least I haven’t tried so far - but I can put on a conference for 200 attendees, carry a sleeping child to bed, cook dinner for 20, type 100 words per minute, sew a Halloween costume, balance quarterly financial reports, build a chair, and fight five dudes with my hands duct-taped together. Some of these things at the same time.
One of the first things you learn as an administrative assistant is that you’re expected to do things that people who earn 3-4x your wage abjectly cannot do.
There is a double bind, because the better you are at your job, the less likely you are to get promoted. If you aren’t great at the detail work and EQ necessary for the position, then it’s assumed you’re more or less useless. On the other hand, the better you are at it, the more people panic at the thought of trying to replace you.
I have felt like I do basically the same work that I did at entry level, other than obvious technological changes like moving toward paperless reports. Yet at one point I earned $7/hour for this stuff, with no benefits, and I was excited to get it.
What I think about ‘hard work’ is that it depends on what is hard for the individual.
It’s hard to work for a low wage and face all the issues that go with that: a long commute, roommates, juggling bills, unreliable transportation, an apartment/house/neighborhood with a lot of issues, no obvious solutions for problems that could easily be solved with more cash than you have. Or may ever have.
It’s hard to put your spirit into tasks that nobody appreciates.
It’s hard to wait on people who are mean and rude, and it’s hard to have a mean boss.
Obviously it’s hard to be on your feet all day and do labor that is physically challenging. It can be fun, too, though. There is a lot to be said for being able to see visual progress on something that you worked on all day, or to be able to drive by and point it out to your friends. “I helped build that.”
Does ‘hard work’ lead to success?
Not alone, though, and not out of context.
If I just do 100 burpees in my living room, I’ll be sweating, but then what?
I think the key isn’t so much ‘hard work’ in terms of exertion. I think it’s a combination of focus, accountability, and persistence. It’s not really ‘hard work,’ it’s emotional commitment and follow-through toward the desired outcome.
That state of being invested in the outcome quickly leads to a strategic perspective. This is where success comes from - in understanding why things are done in a certain way. That is the birth of motivation. Someone who cares that things are done properly is someone who will see ways to streamline the process, guide others, expand into new areas, and all the rest.
The truth is, doing this isn’t usually hard at all.
A master of a field can walk in, take one look at something, say one sentence, and save ten million dollars. That person will be successful, but that contribution wasn’t hard. It was just the product of attention and decades of experience.
We spent a bit of time listing off factors that contribute to career success that don’t have anything to do with hard work. There are probably hundreds, but these were the basic dozen:
Personal work ethic
Choice of field
Who you know
Talent/unusual insight or ability
I happen to know someone who literally ran away to join the circus as a roadie for Cirque du Soleil. She had three items off this list: location, timing, and choice of field. They came to her town, she went, she said “take me with you,” and she went home to get her bag. That’s it. Didn’t see her for a year.
I happen to know someone else who had at least eight items off this list, who got fired and was out of work for a year. What he was missing was work ethic, coachability, strategy, probably talent, and eventually reputation as well. When he started messing up, he Couldn’t Be Told and he blew up his career. Did he work long hours at a difficult job? Sure, until I had to get him a cardboard box to carry his stuff out to his car.
Of the thousands of people I have met over the years, socially or through work or hobbies, the most chill have been 1. Martial arts people and 2. Astronauts. They never blink. Something has changed in their brains and they react with mild intrigue in situations where other people would panic. Hand either of them a wrench and see what they do.
Hard work is valuable for its own sake. When we’re mentoring less experienced people, though, let’s not attack their characters and imply that they are lazy, but rather show them how much more interesting life is when there is something challenging and worthwhile enough to deserve that hard work. If we can’t find it, let’s make it ourselves.
How many of us ever thought we’d wind up needing a desk for every person in the household? So suddenly?
This is a subject that tends to come up a lot, because everyone at my work was sent home to work for the indefinite future - with no notice. They’ve been continuously hiring, too, so all the new people like me were expected to provide all our own equipment.
Can I just say that sitting in a wooden folding chair for two weeks was a great way to bond with my work partner?
And also to perhaps permanently alter the shape of my caboose?
(Not sure about hers)
(Never seen it)
We’ve all been told to plan to work from home at least through the end of 2020. Personally I plan on things remaining more or less how they are through the beginning of 2023. I’d rather be wrong, of course! But it’s psychologically much easier for me to plan just to keep on keepin’ on for three years.
Same apartment, same job, same schedule, same... furniture?
I’ve heard a lot of stories about the truly pitiful situations that a lot of people have found themselves in, and the time has come to acknowledge them and take action.
By this I mean, yes, of course, we can’t have hundreds of thousands of people evicted and living in the streets. What utter nonsense. Just restructure everyone’s debts, from the banks and the mortgages on down. If I owned rental property right now, I’d definitely rather have a grateful, loyal tenant keeping guard over my biggest asset than an empty shell crying out for squatters, vandalism, and who knows what else.
That being said. This is about all the office workers and students who are suddenly finding themselves trying to get a full day’s work done amid a total and complete lack of ergonomics.
I’ve spent the last three months working full-time in a corner of our living room that is precisely four feet square. I measured it.
It doesn’t take much square footage to get in the zone and get some quality work done. It does, though, take a flat surface and somewhere decent to sit. This is quite clear in my mind as I gaze lovingly at the office chair I bought with my stipend from work. I assembled it before bedtime, since it arrived at 9 PM, because I couldn’t bear to wait for it one more day. My poor flat and striped bottom.
You know I used to work with hoarders?
One of the things that always boggled my mind was how so many people could fill rooms from floor to ceiling with ‘bargain’ items, all bought for $1-5, and then feel like they Could Not Afford anything. Anything! I would point out that if you have a hundred things you bought for a dollar, then in one way or another, at some point, you had a hundred dollars. If you had twenty things you bought for five bucks, then you had a hundred bucks. If you in fact had five hundred things (balls of yarn, sets of markers, stuffed animals, shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, etc etc etc) then you probably had enough cash flowing through your life to buy a nice piece of furniture.
What would it be?
A replacement for your lumpy, sagging old mattress? Or a bed frame to get it up off the floor?
A big bookshelf?
In this particular case, I’m changing the frame on this a bit. The concept here is not that there may be enough money for something nice, rather than a large pile of small objects. The concept is that there is probably enough space in the home for a desk of some kind, if some other objects are removed.
Keep in mind, I have lived in a space smaller than 800 square feet for the past five years. Currently we are at 650 square feet.
Three apartments back, I gave away a bookshelf on Craigslist to make space for the little secretary desk that I have now. There was no room in our apartment otherwise. My choices were: in front of the oven (blocking the fridge), inside the bathtub, or in front of our door. Or simply get rid of the bookcase and make space for something I use every day. Our next apartment was even smaller, so the commitment and the trade paid off.
I had a desk before, of course. It was made from a top I bought at IKEA for $12. I bought it because it was the biggest desktop I could find, which made it obsolete when we downsized.
See, I would never suggest that someone else do something I am not willing to do myself.
I got rid of something that was once very important to me, a bookcase I assembled myself and moved half a dozen times. It used to contain my cookbook collection, which I have since digitized. In the physical space where I had that bookcase, I now have a little desk.
It’s possible to put together a makeshift desk, or create a study/work area, without using a piece of furniture. One of my coworkers has a TV tray that she uses on the couch. I’ve seen photos of other people working in the driver’s seat of their car - not driving for a living, just sitting out in the driveway for some privacy - or on cushions on the balcony.
A lot of people are using their dining table. I know from my home visits that about 90% of dining tables are used for storage 364 days of the year. This is what I mean by trading for a desk. If all that stuff goes away, then someone has somewhere to sit and work. My husband, stepdaughter, and I have all worked together for days on end, sitting at the same dining table, and that location alone might solve a lot of problems for a big family.
My bestie and I both have bathtub trays, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we both have the habit of sometimes working while we soak. (Me, on personal projects - her, I won’t ask so I don’t have to tell).
A lot of households have completely viable furniture that could be a desk for someone. Maybe something weird, but still something about the right height that has a flat surface. An end table, a coffee table, a dresser, a kitchen counter, a rolling toolbox? An actual desk? A lot of households also have plenty of square footage for someone, either in the garage or an extra bedroom or some other place. When I was a newlywed in my first marriage, I had my desk set up in the walk-in closet next to the bathroom. Bookcase and filing cabinet in there, too.
Stephen King wrote Carrie in the laundry room. Thomas Wolfe was very tall, so he stood and wrote his books on top of his fridge.
The thing here is to value humans and human activity over any random pile of stuff.
Marie Kondo told everyone to make sure your stuff ‘sparks joy.’ I say it’s more important to build your personal environment around the stuff you like to do. Everyone in the house should have physical space to sleep, bathe, eat meals, stretch, relax, make things, and (now, alas) study or work at home. Any clutter that is in the way should be removed so the people can simply do their thing.
If there isn’t room for you or for anyone else in your home to get your work done, look around and figure out where it could happen. We might be here for a while.
It’s easy to panic when the money is gone. Financial transitions are one of the scariest ways to enter the Place of Uncertainty. Looking backward years later, a few months may seem like more of a blip or a speed bump. At the time, though, there’s no way to know how long they’ll last or how exactly they’ll end.
I know whereof I speak. I’ve had to do this a few times in my life for various reasons. I started wandering down Memory Lane a bit, thinking what I would do if I were out of work, single, in debt, food insecure, with no way to pay the rent.
What I did that worked for me was, essentially, to find a sponsor. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but that’s what I was doing. This strategy may work for others.
Getting a sponsor when you’re desperate and broke is something that plenty of people do. Usually this sponsor answers to ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ This isn’t always an option. Not everyone has parents. Not all parents are in a financial position to help out. Sometimes there is another kid there already. Maybe the parent is sort of looking for a sponsor too.
I lay all this out because some who are reading this may be in more of a position to be the sponsor, rather than hunt for one, and it helps to have that extra bit of understanding and compassion.
I didn’t necessarily go to someone looking for a place to stay. It was more like I had nothing else to talk about, and because I shared my pitiful situation far and wide, someone would pop up and offer to help out. Once it was a former roommate, but other times it would be someone I barely knew.
This is important because we don’t always realize that the world is so full of giving, caring people who are willing to take a chance on someone.
Usually the person who is willing to help out isn’t in a great financial situation either. This is why the situation usually works like this:
You can sleep there, and bring some of your stuff, but there isn’t room for all of it, and probably not for any of your pets. You feed yourself and you can have a little room on one shelf in the fridge. And you pitch in for utilities and/or part of the rent.
For a lot of families, even $200 a month can make the difference while they’re trying to keep it together.
This is where you can start to reframe yourself as an asset, not a pauper or a beggar. You have value! You are bringing something to the table! This can be a situation of mutual benefit!
I was generally welcome as a couch-surfer or fringe semi-roommate because I didn’t have a lot of negatives. Sure, I was flat broke and I didn’t have a car or even know how to drive. But I didn’t smoke or drink or have awkward substance use moments. I didn’t steal. I didn’t have a criminal record. I didn’t raise my voice at anyone, slam doors, punch walls, throw things, etc. I was (and am) generally a quiet, clean, safe person.
I’m not going to claim that I was Mary Poppins. During the situations when I needed a sponsor, and there were a few, my life was shambolic in many ways. I had what I now recognize as Drama. While I did have a plan for my situation, I did not have a plan for avoiding that Drama yet, because I didn’t understand that I could build my life in a way that would largely avoid it.
I did, though, clean up after myself. I didn’t leave trash or dishes lying around. I could use the kitchen or the shower without it looking like a bomb went off. It is impossible to overstate the importance of being clean and tidy when living on the good graces of another household. You simply can’t be as casual about your shoes, bag, clothes, bedding, dishes, food wrappers, electronics, books, notebooks, pens, etc as the people who are on the lease.
I was able to get a sponsor when I needed one because I had a plan. I always feel frantic when I have no income, and bored and restless when I have nothing to do during the day. I was always looking for some way that I could level up and earn my way out of the situation.
The first time, I had a job but not enough savings to pay a deposit on the room. It was fine - I always paid my rent on time.
The second time, I had a pending legal case and a check coming in.
The next time, I was applying for school and I needed somewhere to be until the dorms opened.
The next time, there I was again, able to pay a deposit this time but technically unemployed until Tuesday.
(There are a couple of spots in there that I’m eliding to streamline the narrative).
The thing is, I started my adult life with a part-time minimum wage job at a convenience store. When I got a job as an office temp it felt like I had won the lottery. I was thirty before I had any financial stability to speak of. I hustled my butt off to get through college because I knew that was my only way to earn the kind of income where I could quit bouncing out of penury and into financial disaster over and over.
Now I’m proud to be the one who is able to help. I’ve hosted all sorts of people on my own couch, lent or given money, sometimes anonymously (or hid it somewhere where nobody would find it until I left). I’ll never stop because I can never go back in time and not need a helping hand. It feels like a karmic debt that can never be repaid.
I know from experience that hard times are temporary. Terrifying! Traumatic sometimes! But temporary in the end. There are a lot of people like me out there, who know what it’s like and will respond to an honest plea.
Just remember to always clean up after yourself and be easy to get along with. Hang in there. When things are at their worst, that means it won’t take much for things to get better soon.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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