The worst advice I ever got from a mentor was this: “Stop trading your hours for dollars.”
What he meant by that was that a traditional job does not scale, that the amount of money you can earn is limited by how many hours you can work. He was trying to encourage me to develop multiple streams of passive income so I could earn money while I sleep.
While I understand what that means, almost everything I learned from that relationship was a resounding What Not to Do. My first advice to other people would be: Make sure someone is actually living out whatever it is they are encouraging you to do, before you try to do it yourself.
My supposed mentor was trying to teach me to do something he had never figured out how to do himself. It was a mirage.
That was when I learned that trading hours for dollars is better than trading hours for NO dollars!
For every proven method of making money, there are more people failing at it and going broke than there are successful people making it work for them.
99% of people in MLMs lose money
80% of restaurants go out of business within five years
Only 25% of new businesses survive at least fifteen years
People love to talk about the rate of divorce, but even second marriages are statistically more likely to succeed than business ventures.
None of this is why I took a traditional day job, though.
It was mental bandwidth.
Before COVID, I was working on a book deal. I have an actual relationship with a publisher. It was going to happen in the near future - and then the world changed.
Two other things happened, all basically at the same time. My husband got sent to our living room on mandatory WFH, and I contracted coronavirus two days later.
Step 1: I realized my book had died, and could only be reborn in a radically different form
Step 2: I realized that I would not be able to write until my husband went back to the office
Step 3: I realized that the pandemic would most likely last three years* and that therefore I would need something to do.
Roughly a year and a half later, my assumptions have continued to bear out, which is about 10% reassuring and 90% disappointing.
Kismet applied, and my dream job opened up, and I got it, and it has been everything I wanted. It gave me something to do to distract me from the pandemic, gave me people to talk to, and I have been able to work from home. Perfection!
Of course there are drawbacks. I’m now on camera in meetings for hours every day, and there are few things I loathe more. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that my workstation is an arm’s length away from where I try to relax on my couch in the evenings.
These “issues” are, of course, nothing compared to the millions of people around the world who are forced to risk their lives working in physical proximity to other humans.
It is probably much more obvious now how much every job is a lifestyle business.
I chose being an employee and “trading hours for dollars” over being my own boss, because it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s freeing.
I log in every morning, hang out and help my colleagues get stuff done, sign out every night, and that’s it. Pass Go, collect paycheck.
I don’t have to spend a single moment worrying about marketing, scheduling anything, making sure I am adequately insured, inventing new products, analyzing trends, networking, or anything else I don’t want to do.
I don’t work long hours, weekends, or holidays.
I don’t have to hire or fire anyone.
I don’t have to pollute my personal interests and hobbies with a profit motive.
I don’t have to toss and turn at night, worrying about whether I can maintain enough customers or contracts.
I happened to have the great good fortune of filling a role on a team that was a complete replacement for the previous team. Everyone had gone months with those roles unfilled. Thus I am greeted with gratitude and respect.
Running my own business would leave me the sole bulwark against customer complaints and criticism. No thanks.
I choose to be an employee rather than an owner/operator because it is a laid-back way to draw an income.
A person with a certain tolerance for risk will struggle to tolerate working for someone else. Makes sense. I am a low-risk, high-challenge person.
Some people will choose a business that allows them to do something they love to do all day. For instance, almost every hairdresser I have ever met will say, “I always wanted to cut hair.” They did it for free as kids or teenagers, and figured out how to get paid for it as adults. Dog groomers and dog walkers also seem to just want to be around dogs all day. Owning a restaurant or a bookstore or a clothing boutique are maybe also along those lines.
I dunno. There has never been a time when I wanted to run a shop or have my own restaurant.
“Office lady” is the life for me. I like corporate culture. I like having a formal code of conduct. I think business jargon is hilarious. I like the predictable hours. I like how many things are transferable from one industry to another.
If I ever tried to run my own business, I would probably just try to replicate as much of standard office culture as possible, and in that case, what’s the point?
Part of why I hung up my literary aspirations, at least temporarily, was that I could not disinterest myself completely from the business world. Might as well make the most of it.
The truth is that having nothing to do can start out relaxing, even healing, and then eventually it can become incredibly boring. If you need something to do with your time, might as well acknowledge that whatever you do, it is a lifestyle. It’s up to each of us to make it an interesting one.
We went in to work for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
By “we,” I mean a group of people who were hired after the shutdown. We didn’t know where to park. We didn’t know our way around campus. We couldn’t find the cafeteria. We didn’t know where our desks were. We didn’t even have security badges.
That’s why we went in, for a site tour. We’re not actually officially back yet.
Like a lot of office workers, we’re in a weird condition right now. The rules vary a little bit depending on what state we live in, and there’s a certain amount of subjectivity. I don’t think anybody really has a sense of what would be the smartest, most efficient thing to do.
I was in quite a tizzy before we went in. My husband and I got rid of our car over four years ago, so I didn’t have an obvious way to get there - or, more significantly, to get home again. When I tried to call a rideshare home, I couldn’t get a Lyft and Uber canceled my ride. I walked over five miles that day. That’s one issue to overthink.
I hadn’t had a regular day job for over ten years before I got this job, and not only do I not have a corporate-appropriate wardrobe anymore, I realized that I don’t really know what women are wearing to work these days. At least, not in an office that leans business-professional.
This was the toughest part for me. I knew I would have to go in and get my picture taken for my badge. To say that I don’t photograph well would be a massive understatement. If I ever had a mug shot taken for some strange reason, everyone who saw it would automatically assume I was guilty. I always blink in photos, so they have to be reshot, and the photographer always tries to trick me by taking the picture before the count of three, and I’m trying not to blink, so I get crazy eyes. I’d show you but I don’t need the evidence floating around the internet.
So I get to wear this thing around my neck on campus all day, every day? Terrific. Now everyone can assume my baseline personality is angry and insane.
I took a vacation day before our site tour. I knew I would need time to find something that fit and looked reasonably appropriate.
The problem with staying home throughout the pandemic is that I bought a bunch of comfy stuff to lounge around in, my work pajamas, and none of that stuff is suitable to wear outside my apartment. More than that, it is very nebulous on sizing.
I couldn’t order something to wear in to the office because I had no idea whatsoever what size I am now. All I know is that it isn’t the same size I wore in 2019, because none of my normal clothes fit anymore.
It was the first day of the reopening in California.
You could go to our local mall before this, of course, or at least that’s what I heard. I hadn’t been anywhere near it since February of 2020. It was so strange walking in those doors like nothing had happened and seeing the same stores, with people walking around showing their bare faces. Like we had gone back in time.
I still wear my mask indoors, because nobody can stop me, and I most likely will for the rest of my life.
The other thing that hadn’t changed since the last time I went inside the mall was that none of the clothes made any sense.
This is going to continue to be a problem, because I still have a need for more than one outfit.
I went directly to the store where I had the most success finding corporate-type clothes that fit my build. I thought I would find a few things and try them on in three different sizes, and then I’d buy whatever fit, and then we would leave and eat lunch.
My friend was helping me, and now I owe her, because nobody should be forced to try to shop for clothes with me.
We both looked through every item in the store, and it was nothing like what I remember, because every item on the racks screamed “vacation,” not “return to office.”
Bare midriffs. Nobody should have to look at my midriff, especially not me.
Spaghetti straps. Low-cut tops.
Ruffly, fluffy floral dresses.
Shorts and more shorts.
“Is everyone going on a cruise?” I asked.
There was literally not a single garment I would wear into any office where I had ever worked or visited.
We left and went to a second store, where the problem was, if anything, significantly worse. I tried on a garment that was completely unsuitable, just to be polite, and it hung on me and fit oddly and was unflattering to a devastating degree. It was also $450, which I would almost have been ready to pay if it would get me out of this situation with something I could wear the next day.
We left and went to a third store, which had the same problems as the first two, only on a smaller scale because the selection was smaller.
We left and went to a fourth store, ready to give up. We got separated looking through all the racks.
Finally I found something that I would rate as a 2.5 out of 5. Under ordinary circumstances I would never have chosen it, but at least it looked workplace-friendly. I tried it on. It was so low-cut that I would have to wear something like a camisole under it, but it would have to do.
Then my friend called to me. She had found something. I called her in to the changing area, where she brought… the exact same dress in the exact same size as what I had just tried on. We couldn’t even laugh.
Unfortunately, I still don’t know what size I am now, because this dress is a “medium,” the vaguest size with the broadest range of all.
Everything about the experience of “returning to the office” was awkward, stressful, and inefficient.
I still don’t know where I’m going to sit or when I’ll be expected to start going in. I still don’t know what I’m going to wear or where I’m going to find it. I still don’t know how I’m going to commute in each day, or if I will have to.
As much as I’d like to visualize myself and my colleagues, happy and thriving on an ordinary workday, all I know is that I’m going to have to walk around wearing one of my all-time worst photos around my neck.
Can’t we all just stay virtual?
Coming home after a month away is an experience that can make even the most ordinary life seem foreign and confusing.
The first thing that happened on my trip home is that I couldn’t figure out where to find the rideshare pickup zone.
Imagine a capital letter T, where you are standing at the point where the vertical line intersects the horizontal bar. The point the map was telling me to go was at the far left edge of the crossbar. The point where I should actually be going was at the far right edge of the crossbar. So how did I end up crossing two streets at the bottom of the vertical line?
The reason I don’t travel the world alone is not because I’m too scared, it’s because I can’t read a map.
It isn’t easy for someone to haul slightly over 2/3 of their body weight down a quarter mile of city sidewalks. (That’s like Chris Hemsworth in “Thor” mode schlepping 142 pounds of gear). I tried balancing my 49-pound duffel bag on top of my 48-pound suitcase but then the wheels quit turning. I somehow managed to get it over my shoulder and hang my laptop bag and carry-on over the suitcase instead.
Who is this insane, small-framed woman with the ludicrous quantity of bags? Why, it is I, deranged amateur traveler, forgetter of 35 years of airport lore. Go ahead and stare, Angelenos, I have no idea what I’m doing either.
Nearly home, I looked up and realized that once again, the rideshare app was about to send my driver onto a completely different street nowhere near my apartment building. No matter how many times I input our correct street address, it decides that our actual location is another building on the opposite end of our block, technically three streets away. Fortunately I caught it in time. Who am I and where do I live?
I got home late Saturday night and my senses were thrown into disarray by the gleaming black floorboards. Who has black floors?? Oh, right, I do.
I set down my vast quantities of luggage in a massive pile almost as big as our dining table. I looked around, reacquainting myself with the rooms I’ve probably spent more time in than almost any in my life. Our COVID apartment. Compact, uncluttered, all flat surfaces bare and ready for use.
“It’s like a high-end hotel room,” I exclaimed, making my husband laugh, because really it isn’t.
It was late, it was late, I was so tired I could drop. I started digging around in my bags for the VIP items I need for my bedtime routine. Where do these things go? Every cabinet and drawer I opened brought back a resurfaced memory. Ah yes, this is what I used to do every day in another life.
I climbed into bed, my own bed with my own pillow. So. Comfortable. Only a month ago I had been complaining that we need to replace our 12-year-old mattress. Home again, it is hard to imagine what issues I might have had with it.
Slept nine hours and had a long nap the next day.
Suddenly it was time to go back to work. What, now?? Right now? Even though I had only taken the weekend off, I felt thoroughly disoriented.
I forgot the password to my desktop computer - and whether I might have written it down anywhere - before suddenly remembering it.
As I logged in at work, switching computer operating systems, I realized I had forgotten an important keyboard command. It took me another day to remember that I have a working desk lamp.
Nobody else really noticed that anything had changed. One week I just went back to my old background on video calls. That was it as far as my colleagues were concerned.
People only know what you tell them.
I did a leave inquiry. In the past year, I have taken four hours of sick time and eight hours of vacation. Last fiscal year I wound up cashing out my one personal day, a decision that was definitely not worth it. Right now it feels like a day off to do nothing but sleep would be worth about $20,000.
I came up with a crazy idea. What if I took a random weekday off, a day when my husband might be on travel, and just... slept in and did nothing?
Who would that person be? A person napping while other people were at work and holding meetings?
The trouble with this plan is that I am still who I am, which is a person who is not very good at sitting around and resting. I go camping and decide that’s not enough, I need to go on a 7-mile hike. I worry that if I take a staycation day, I will waste it doing chores and catching up on my email.
Travel is supposed to be broadening. There is this idea that we’ll return home having been changed in some way by the experience. Ultimately, the question is: will we let it?
What would you do if you were twice as smart?
The first person I asked this raised his eyebrows.
The second person responded that it would make it harder to deal with idiots.
(Would it, though? What if being twice as smart suddenly made it seem obvious not only how to deal with them - if there is such a thing as an ‘idiot’ anyway - but also how to change their perspective in such a way that they quit annoying you?)
The more I thought about this question, the more I wondered whether I would still be working on the same problems in my life that I do now.
For instance, would I still have a backlog of reading material? Probably. Would it be twice as long as it is now? Equally probable.
Would I still struggle with insomnia, probably yes, possibly more so.
On the other hand, if I were twice as smart, maybe I could finally figure out the answers to certain problems that I now find pressing, such as the desire to overpack on trips or try to do “one last thing” before leaving, making myself short on time. Or the pull to visit more and more attractions on vacation, thus changing cities too often and stressing myself out.
My image of being twice as smart is one of frenetic mental activity.
What if it were the opposite, though? What if being twice as smart meant more mental calm, as I realized that there was no reason to stress about certain things?
How about you? How do you imagine being twice as smart as you are today?
Another way of thinking about this mental game is to change the attribute. Instead of ‘smart’ we can think about being ‘attractive’ or ‘rich’ or something else. Funny?
Thinking about having twice as many family members, roommates, or pets would clearly be a little messy, even if you also have twice as many bathrooms.
Two parrots, two box forts...
Going back to those other suggestions, personally, I would not want to be “twice as attractive.” Presumably that would put a lot of people within range of a professional modeling career. I have always thought that being so physically attractive that people would insist on stopping you and demanding your attention - I have always thought that would be completely awful. The very Hollywood concept of being “discovered” was something I found alarming as a child.
You’re just sitting there minding your own business, and then someone comes along and wants you to stand still for hours so they can take pictures of you or film you? Do your hair and put you in false eyelashes?
Actually that sounds like something that people do for themselves these days, trying to become social media influencers, and it still sounds just as boring and unfulfilling to me today as it would have in the 1930s.
No thanks, I’d rather be ordinary looking.
“Twice as rich” is another interesting concept. For most people on the planet, doubling their net worth would still not make them “rich.” If I had twice as much money, I still couldn’t retire yet. Worse, I still couldn’t buy a house in my neighborhood, either.
This sort of raises the question, if everyone on Earth doubled some characteristic such as wealth, beauty, or intelligence, would it be noticeable?
Think about this for a second, if you haven’t already. If everything in the Universe doubled in size overnight - would anyone know? How could you prove it, if even your tape measure had also doubled in size? Relatively, everything would still be the same. Your car would still bump over the same potholes and your cat would still want the same amount of treats.
Would a cat sleep twice as much? If it could? That’s basically 24 hours a day.
Some of us could probably sleep twice as much, and it might not be a bad thing. Those of you in the sub-six-hour range might give this some thought.
Some of the same people could probably consume half as much caffeine at some benefit to themselves.
This idea is infectious. What if I spent half as much, or twice as much, of my attention, time, money?
Thus we return to the concept of being twice as smart, and what it would change.
How much celebrity gossip would Smarter Me follow? Is there something that I don’t find all that interesting today, that Smarter Me wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about?
Would Smarter Me still be into gator news? Yes, of course, who wouldn’t be?
Right now something interesting is going on at work. Well, lots of things are, most of which I probably don’t know about. One of them, though, is that my boss told me to follow up and file an invention disclosure on an idea I had.
This is not something that I currently know how to build. I am not an engineer. But innovation doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to have a working prototype, or even be totally clear on how to make something, in order to get a patent on it.
I love my idea. I am sure that if I were twice as smart, I would be building it. I don’t know how to make it right now - material selection, design, etc - but I like to fantasize that if I were twice as smart, I would.
I often quote Nick Hanauer with a directive that I use as my personal motto: “Solve the biggest problem you can.”
The trouble here is that you have to choose your problem - unless it chooses you, which problems often do, in the same way that a stray cat might choose you, only with less purring.
This is why I work where I do. I figured my company deals with the most interesting problems. I could be working at the animal shelter, or I could be working here, and there are plenty of other people drawn to the rescue space who could not or would not do my job.
I assume that if we were all twice as smart, we would be solving some of our biggest personal problems by working in jobs that are appropriate to our gifts. We would all choose to go toward the problems that we find the juiciest. Instead of feeling stressed by our bosses and our commutes and our colleagues and our customers and money and all of that, we could instead be animated by interesting challenges.
Or maybe not. I don’t actually know, because alas, all I have are the mental gifts that I have today. And all the rest. Just the one life, no doubling of anything that I have noticed.
Unless the entire Universe did get twice as big, just last night.
My director just won a loyalty upgrade. I asked for what I consider to be a major concession, and he immediately said, “Whatever you need.” I am so happy about this that I would probably come over and mow his lawn or paint his house.
What that means in business terms is several things.
One, if he needs me to expedite something, I’m eager for the chance to show my gratitude and I will leap into action.
Two, if he needs me to come in early, stay late, or skip lunch, why sure, I can probably do that.
Three, I’m not planning to go anywhere any time soon. He isn’t going to need to recruit or train my replacement.
I knew I had a good shot at getting a yes, because I took my job right at the beginning of the pandemic shutdown. The whole team had just turned over, and it was a bit chaotic. I’ve had a year to demonstrate that I can get things done remotely. In fact, while I have worked for this organization, I’ve never done it any other way. I don’t even know where my desk is.
I also know that my boss is a future-focused person. He is generally ready to try new things, willing to experiment and shrug off anything that maybe doesn’t pan out.
What an employee will ask for depends on the person. I’ve seen it happen. One person wants a standing desk. Another person wants to start the day at 6:30 AM and leave in the afternoon to beat commute traffic. Someone else wants to job-share with another person who also wants to switch to part-time. Yet another person wants to go back to grad school, someone else needs physical accommodations after surgery, and someone else wants to cut back hours and ease into retirement.
All I wanted was to continue to work from home in another state, so I can help out with some family stuff.
As far as employee requests go, this could have either seemed completely impossible, or come across as a cheap way to earn some brownie points.
In fact, the only effect my request should have is that I took some short lunches and then left early on Friday so I could go to the airport.
Whether this is going to sound like a perfectly acceptable request, or an unbearable imposition, depends a lot on company culture, the makeup of the team, and the attitude of management.
A scarcity-minded boss is naturally suspicious. What is going on?? What are these people trying to pull? How is anything going to get done around here if people are off gallivanting around? What else are they going to ask for? Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile.
An abundance-minded boss will think, Oh good, my team is comfortable coming to me with things. If I wasn’t seen as a reasonable, flexible person, then I wouldn’t be hearing about this. This is a much better situation than someone handing in their notice. Nobody wants that.
A decent human being is still open to the fact that real life proceeds while we are at work just as it does when we clock out. A person who has not been shut down and made callous by rigid structures will think, Of course, anything you need. Let me know if I can help.
The pandemic has shown nearly half of the workforce that we can do our work from almost any location, and in many cases we can be more productive while we do it.
I know of an early-career person who took off for a few months, working out of his van and driving from one campsite to another. That trip seems, if anything, to have enhanced his work ethic and commitment to the mission. It also seems to have had positive ripple effects on morale, as others heard about the trip, realized that they could probably do the same, and that they weren’t going to because they didn’t really want to live in a van that long.
It’s fairly common at my company for people to work late into the evening, and sometimes clock in on weekends, but then log in around 9 am. This arrangement is probably open to me, but the very thought depresses me. A younger version of me definitely would have preferred to sleep in every day and work as late as necessary to make up for it. The more mature me wakes up before 8 am, even on weekends, and might as well roll out of bed and get cracking.
What is it that we want out of work?
I submit that it isn’t any one thing. We can accept particulars such as a strict dress code, long or weird hours, high stress, tight deadlines, and other quirky rules. For instance, I worked for years for a company where nobody was allowed to use a phone with a camera. It was a security thing, and we shrugged it off. Constraints are a part of working.
What we want is to feel appreciated, that our contribution matters in some way. We also want to feel a certain amount of autonomy.
The core tension seems to be about that autonomy.
From one perspective, the requirement seems to be: demonstrate that you are on task by strictly obeying all rules and regulations at all times. Do not deviate.
From another perspective, the question is: if I get all my work done on time and meet or exceed all deadlines and other criteria, then why does anything else matter?
Are you really going to tell me that it is more important for me to wear shoes when I’m on the job than it is for me to go above and beyond on my projects? That you’d rather have total compliance on issues like being physically present, even if it came at the expense of many other things?
There is soon going to be a large-scale Game of Sorting. Some companies are going to insist on returning to 18th-century office procedures as soon as possible. Others are going to read the room and accept the new normal. Then the more traditionally-minded, authoritarian companies are going to find themselves surprised by the stampede for the exits.
I can already guess where my company stands on this issue. How about yours?
“I just thought I should tell you that I’m up to some shenanigans again,” I told my husband. It only seemed fair.
“Oh, what is it this time?”
I told him I had stumbled across a video interview about a homeless woman a few miles from us who happened to have a master’s degree and some interesting engineering, logistics, and mathematics credentials.
I rewound and wrote down those credentials. I can help with this, I thought, and now to track down this person. How do I find her?
Those of you who have known me personally for several years may recall that the last time I got interested in something like this, it ended very poorly, but I was indeed successful in tracking down my target person a couple of times. With concerted effort, you can generally find a specific homeless person, because they have a strong gossip network and they keep track of each other.
This time it was a bit easier. I looked through the comments on the YouTube channel, didn’t find anything, and then emailed the channel owner.
He wrote back within ten minutes, saying he would be seeing her the following week and that he would pass on my message. [That was basically: I think I can get her a job, and please ask if I can bring her a small present, such as a pair of socks or a bottle of ibuprofen].
Several days went by, and I thought, alas, perhaps nothing will come of this after all.
Then I got another email. The YouTube channel owner passed on a GoFundMe link, which he said he had verified, so that the money would go directly to the engineer.
Oh cool! I thought. That is smart thinking.
What would you personally do if you were living at the park and you needed a job?
I know what I would do. I would use my credit card and get a room at an AirBnB, just like we did the last time we were technically houseless. I would call my family and I would call an employment agency. I have tons of resources, such that I would only wind up at a park if there had been a wildfire and I had to flee for my life.
Plausible where we live.
But then, I used to work in social services. I’ve worked at a couple of homeless shelters. I understand that the main difference between “the homeless” and the rest of us is that they tend to get hit with more disasters in a given time period. They always say they never thought it would happen to them, because nobody does.
I also live in a very expensive area. The reason it costs so much to live here is because this is where the jobs are. If you want to be within commuting distance of one of the many engineering firms in the area, then you’d better be prepared to pay. Renting a place is not for the faint of heart. We expect, every time we plan to move, that we may have to call on eight listings for every one that is available to look at. We know we’d better be prepared to make an offer on the spot, because the landlord usually has a couple other people lined up to tour the place after us.
I watched the video and I thought, this woman is a great deal like me. We’re close in age, we’re both White and we even have similar hairstyles. We could probably swap clothes.
Is it unfair that I took an interest in her story? Yes, of course it is.
There are well over half a million homeless people in the US, and nearly seventy thousand in my county. This is a societal decision that we made sometime back in the Eighties, to recognize that a lot of people have nowhere to live, and shrug, and train our children to step over them and go on with our lives. It’s easy for us to blame them for their situation, easy for us to accept the concept that over half a million people are lazy, or that all of them are drug addicts, or whatever it is that we tell ourselves. And our kids.
In this case, I listened with compassion, and I realized - this is one starfish I can probably help. I know that I can get her resume looked at. I have personal influence with HR people and hiring managers and program directors.
I spun out my story to myself a bit more. I thought of a few other women I know who would be in a position to help. I realized, I could help her get a salon haircut and an interview suit. With interviews lined up, it would be easy for me to get her into temporary housing and raise some funds to help her set up shop.
I hadn’t even talked to her yet, and I knew I had a plan. I had a hand-picked action team. If we met, I would make my pitch. Simply take one step forward and you are back in the game. We can do this.
This was all before I saw the GoFundMe link.
Aha, I thought, girl power. Good for you!
When I first saw it, the target amount was $10,000 and she had raised about $3,000 already.
I saw the necessity of it. She had nowhere to live, no furniture, no work wardrobe, no groceries. In our area? Half of that was going to go to first month’s rent and deposits. It could easily take four months of interviewing before she actually started a new job and started collecting a paycheck.
I kept checking back out of curiosity.
The donations poured in. The target amount was increased to $15,000.
Wow, I thought, go girl go!
Donations closed in on $14,000. The target amount was increased to $20,000.
Haha, I thought, excited for her. I showed my husband. “I’m starting to understand that she has a good head for numbers.”
“Now she’s getting greedy,” he said.
“I don’t know about that,” I said, “she literally has nothing. She’s living at the park. What she’s trying to do is step from that back into a profession, into an upper middle class lifestyle.” I reminded him how long it takes to get a good engineering job and how much rent is in our area.
“If I were the hiring manager, I would ask her, can you raise funds for my company the way you raised funds for yourself? It makes me wish I ran my own company so I could interview her myself.”
This is the American way. Rugged individualism in action. It isn’t a personal tragedy, it’s a societal tragedy. We were willing to let a perfectly good mathematician and engineer live at the park, and nobody cared, and all that human potential was wasted because we tolerate long-term homelessness with a shrug. If that much.
Nobody else was going to look out for Number One, so good for her.
I’m still going to reach out to this woman. I’m going to offer to take her to lunch. I’m going to offer to introduce her to my stylist. I’m going to ask for a copy of her resume, and if it’s a little lumpy I’m going to connect her with the person I hired to redo my own resume. If all goes well, I’m going to pass on her materials to my HR person and ask what we can do.
Then I’m going to ask her who else she met while she was... on sabbatical. I’m going to ask who she thinks is the next best prospect, and maybe we can see what we can do for that person.
Not because this person or that person “deserves” my help, but because it intrigues me and it’s something that I have certain powers to influence. It’s also high time we stop having a homelessness problem and instead have a reintegration project.
My hubby and I got our second shots last week. We are, as they say, in like Flynn.
Word is getting out, and people are starting to ask questions of us. We haven’t really gotten our heads around the idea that in another week and a half, we’ll be 94% protected against COVID-19.
Now that we’re in the vaccinated elite, it’s like doors have opened to us and we don’t even know what’s on the other side of those doors yet.
The first thing that happened is that some of our young people have started asking what our rules are for socializing.
The second thing is that our work asked on which exact date my hubby would be considered ‘fully vaccinated’ and thus free to travel again. Business trips.
There you have it. Right back to where we were in 2019, with a social calendar and a variable amount of business travel.
In the meantime, we’ve only just realized that we can go out in public and get PROFESSIONAL HAIRCUTS again.
My hubby needs to renew his passport. I called for him and found that he can get his photo taken 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, right up the street. He mentioned getting a haircut first.
“What, don’t you like my $6-equivalent home haircuts anymore?”
Haha, like I’m offended. The only thing more stressful than giving someone else an amateur haircut is: driving on the freeway. I might be willing to cut a man’s hair again under certain pressing circumstances - not sure what those would be - but it is unlikely that I will be called upon to do this again.
We keep talking about what else we’re going to do, once we’re free to go out and about.
Well, technically we’re free now. I think we could even go to see a movie at the mall. The pool is open at our building again, residents only. The gym next door is allowing people in. Cases are finally dropping in our area and things seem to be going well.
I have done something since we got our shots. I went to the store and bought some fresh raspberries.
I went alone, I wore my mask, I distanced, I was only in the store for ten minutes, the clerk stayed behind his plexiglass barrier, I left. Chances are, these behaviors would have served me just as well before I got my first shot, in the Wild West days.
The difference is that now, I no longer approach transactions like this in a flop sweat, with my hands shaking and my heart racing.
I am what seems to be fairly rare in the US: a true believer that the coronavirus exists and that it wants to kill you. I had COVID, I’ve followed the updates and pre-prints in various research journals, and I understand that I could both get it again and die of it.
A short list of things I would rather have happen than get COVID a second time:
Be audited by the IRS
Be attacked by a coyote
Or a mountain lion
Get a tattoo on my eyeball
Have a tooth pulled without anesthesia
Be hit in the face with a baseball bat
Have food poisoning
I suppose I should match this with a short list of things that I think would be worse than getting COVID again. That would basically be: being trapped in a submarine with the oxygen running out, being dragged underwater by an alligator, or, actually literally dying.
Probably none of those things will happen to me or to anyone I know. I sure hope not. (Except the dying part - can’t do much about that). Probably I won’t get COVID again, either, because I am now paranoid for life. I don’t really have a problem with the idea of wearing a mask in public forever, because so far it has kept me from getting the flu or even the common cold.
Also I don’t have to worry if there’s spinach in my teeth.
What are we going to do, now that we’re in the vaccinated elite?
Probably we will re-enter society gradually, one step at a time.
We do have rules for having people over. Those rules are 1, you must be fully vaccinated, 2, you must show your documentation, and 3, if you bring someone with you who is not fully vaccinated yet, then I will throw a huge fit and shove the whole group of you away from my door with a broom. Because a 10-foot pole won’t fit in my apartment.
Probably we will be expected to return to work soon.
I am not excited about this, because I know that there will be a certain number of vaccine skeptics on staff. I won’t know who they are, and thus I might wind up in a small room with one sitting on either side of me.
Am I paranoid? I am. The Pfizer vaccine that I just got is not protective against the South African strain. How long will it take to produce a booster shot that will include that strain? No idea.
Going in to work as a physical entity, rather than a virtual avatar, means I’m going to have to wear a mask at least ten hours a day. I will probably wind up eating my lunch in the parking lot so that I can feel safe to take off my mask.
I guess when it comes down to it, I don’t feel all that elite yet. I have a piece of information that stresses me out, which is that there is still a deadly and highly contagious strain of a virus circulating out there, and my injection does not protect me against it.
Going to work and being on site 50 hours a week with 3000 people, many of whom travel regularly, is a completely different risk profile than going to the grocery store for ten minutes, or getting a haircut in a private salon with one stylist and a locking door.
In some ways, being a part of the vaccinated elite is great. It’s our best chance to achieve true herd immunity and finally end the pandemic. On the other hand, it’s not perfect, and it creates a certain amount of pressure to get back to business and pretend that everything is normal, when it isn’t yet.
The rest of 2021 promises to be both exciting and super weird.
Have you booked your appointment yet? Or are you already elite like us?
I bought myself a new desk. I realized it was time to take myself a little more seriously.
I’m still in the same 4-foot-square corner of our living room. That part hasn’t changed. We live in a tiny apartment, and if I wanted more space for my desk it was going to mean a major overhaul of our living space.
While I do intend to lean into my job more, I don’t intend for that to come at the expense of the comfort of our downtime.
So if I’m still using the same amount of space as before, what was the point of buying a new desk?
What I had was a make-do desk. A little desk. A desk that, in its cuteness, asked, Please don’t mind me. I’ll just squeeze in right here and try not to be noticed. I had a desk that apologized for the space it took up.
When I bought it, I wanted somewhere for myself, a personal spot where I could stash my papers and occasionally sit to do some writing. We were in yet another tiny apartment, and there just wasn’t room for anything more imposing.
Something that imposed simply by existing.
The tiny apartment was my idea. I didn’t want to build our lifestyle around a long commute to my husband’s job. If we wanted to live close to site, then it followed that we would have a one-bedroom apartment.
We just both assumed that The Desk would go to The Earner. He needed to work from home sometimes, and that required a computer that would run certain software, and that meant a desktop PC, and that meant a certain amount of physical space.
None of these constraints are incorrect by any means.
What it leaves, though, are certain built-in parameters. After the desk, there is square footage available.
Some people work these variables with things like a loft bed, or a desk that folds down from the wall, or they don’t have a dining table or a couch. I’ve even seen someone use his living room for a two-man hammock.
My choices again, but I like having a dining table and a couch and a traditional bed.
It was my choice to buy myself an apology desk.
My little desk was fantastic for its original purpose. I loved how it looked and it could fit almost anywhere. I usually worked at a cafe, and I don’t think I ever sat at the little desk for more than an hour at a time.
That’s why I never noticed that it had terrible ergonomics.
Then I got a full-time job working from home. I thought, look at my little desk paying for itself!
Several months went by. I started feeling very crooked and lumpy.
It was impossible not to notice. My monitor was a few inches too high, but I couldn’t stand and work because the work surface was too low. I was sitting on my foot, trying to prop myself up to optimal height. I could never get comfortable.
The other issue was that I constantly had to swap out components depending on what I was doing. Set up my company laptop whenever I had a meeting, then move it again so I could use my keyboard and work, then swap everything out again an hour later.
I started fantasizing about a different desk, but I didn’t think one would fit in the available space. I wasn’t sure how I would want it to look. I felt too busy to spend all my spare time looking at furniture listings.
I tolerated a bad situation for months.
There are lessons to be learned here. How often do we tolerate situations that other people are not in, just because we feel too tired or burned out to do something different? Because we feel stuck and don’t know exactly what else to do?
Finally I had had enough. What was the point of earning money if not to spend it on life improvements?
This is a lesson I come back to again and again. If a problem can be solved with money, then solve it.
I got out a measuring tape and set to work. My available space was 48 inches across. Since I already had a tiny desk, surely there were other desks larger than that, yet still smaller than the big beasts I was picturing in my mind?
It did take me a couple hours of searching until I found something I liked that was small enough. It was flat, with no riser to prop up my monitor. Since I’m short, this is what I needed. A taller person might want to go the other way, adding a monitor riser or buying a different style to get the right ergonomics.
The desk shipped right away and arrived in the evening, three days later. I built it on my off Friday. It took about an hour to assemble, and two hours of rearranging all my stuff. It had been nearly a year since I built furniture from a kit, and I had forgotten how fun it can be.
The next day, I had a surprising case of delayed-onset muscle soreness from all the crouching and bending and lifting and turning bolts, but it was worth it. I loved how my new desk looked. The moment I sat down and looked at my monitor, I thought, Ahh, yes.
My cute little secretary desk is now crammed into the corner of our dining room. I refuse to let go of it. I still love how it looks, even though it’s so wildly inappropriate for a nine-hour workday. There’s nothing wrong with it as a desk - it’s just not suited to have a computer on it. One day, one day when we’ve moved somewhere else, the little desk will go in our bedroom where I can use it to write in my journal. I can separate my personal life from my work life just a bit more.
One day, having a little desk will no longer be an apology. It will be a way to take up a little more space for myself. I have plenty of work to do and I’m entitled to have somewhere suitable to do it.
I’ve been on the fast track before and I think it’s overrated.
It’s fairly easy to stand out in most endeavors, if you are a person of ambition. Show up to everything, and show up prepared. Pay attention and take notes when someone offers to explain something to you. Make yourself useful. Remember people’s names.
If you have intrinsic motivation - that is, your own personal internal reasons for being there - it will show. That motivation attracts people like a beacon. It doesn’t take long before opportunities start being handed to you every time you turn around. The more you do, the more you’re asked to do, and you start getting increased responsibility.
That’s the fast track.
The trouble with the fast track is that it doesn’t give you time to build relationships or get to know the deep culture of the organization.
That’s why I decided that the next time I took something on, I would do it the slow way.
I had to realize, for my own good, that every time I get involved with something I wind up in a leadership role. Not because I have massive charisma or anything - in fact, probably quite the opposite. The problem is more that when I get involved with something, I start noticing how much work it takes, and I start picking up litter or stacking chairs.
The grunt work is how you meet the real movers and shakers of any organization.
It turns out that it’s nearly impossible to do a lot of service work without getting noticed. If your goal is invisibility, there has to be a different way.
I realized that I don’t know how to be involved in a recreational activity just for the fun and relaxation of it. I don’t know how to just buy a ticket, have a nice time, and go home. I keep finding myself on the cleanup crew. Or, worse, the steering committee.
After finding myself on the board of two separate organizations in a row, I finally had to accept that there was a theme in my behavior. 1. I would get involved in something, 2. I would start volunteering to help run it, 3. It would take over my life until I was doing something org-related every day of the week.
That was when it hit me, if I was going to work rather than play, then I might as well start getting paid for it again...
I took a job.
A paid job!
I sat myself down and said, Self, it’s probably going to happen again. You’re going to do what you always do, which is to get curious and start asking questions. Then things are going to start rolling.
I’ve started to think in the four-year time horizon. If I start throwing myself into a new activity, even if I am truly terrible at it in the beginning, within four years I tend to have a pretty solid grasp of how things work. That seemed completely plausible in a new role at a new company.
I have probably twenty years of career arc ahead of me. A lot can happen in twenty years.
This is, by the way, a very difficult mindset for a twenty-year-old kid to hold. At that age, I would not have had the patience to think, I may be in this role for four years, and that’s okay. Also I couldn’t afford it. At the beginning of my career, I didn’t think in terms of skills or certifications or increasing responsibilities. I thought in terms of my rent taking up over 80% of my income.
Now I have the time and the wherewithal to relax and look around a bit.
There are certifications I could run out and get for myself over a long weekend, or perhaps within six weeks. There are a bunch of things I could cram for in a very short time that I could tack onto my resume. If all I wanted was more money, I could target a search for open roles and start shooting my shot.
This is somewhat of an experiment, but I don’t think that’s actually the fast track. In some ways, I think it’s faster to go slower.
One thing that money cannot buy is reputation.
Reputation is the slow track.
When I was young, I used to wonder why So-and-So got a promotion. Or not really wonder, just hear about it and get mad. Isn’t it obvious that I’m the one who really needs that money! That was an improvement over my original idea, at 18, which was, Isn’t it obvious that I’m the smartest person here??
(If you’re so smart, why aren’t you the one getting the promotion?)
Now, I actually wonder. That is, I ponder over what skills that person has demonstrated, what types of problems they are known to solve, and how they earned their reputation. If A, that person has definable traits that got them a promotion, and B, I can figure out what those traits are, then C, I can work to acquire those promotable traits.
It’s also slightly more complicated than that, in the sense that not every promotion is one we would want.
I’m finally in a place where I can be glad for someone who got promoted, and also realize that I myself would never want that particular job.
Part of the slow track is figuring out how the organization is run, what roles it takes to get everything done, and then where you do and do not see yourself eventually.
For instance, in the space industry, there are a lot of jobs in shifts all around the clock. I sometimes think, I bet someone else absolutely hates working in the middle of the night, but they do it because it needs to get done. I, on the other hand, am a born night owl. Wouldn’t it be nice for everyone if that was my job?
I haven’t been at my current job for a year yet. I’m still figuring out how they do things. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in five years.
That’s okay, though, because on the slow track you can take your time to figure it out. All I need to know is that I like this place well enough that I might still be there in twenty years.
If you’ve been working from home, are you going back in? Is your company expecting people to start coming back into the office?
It’s been reported that one in three professionals who work from home plan to quit if they’re called back into the office. Interesting, right?
We don’t have guidance on this yet. All we know is that we’re working from home through June. That is creeping up on us fairly quickly, on the order of a school term. This is why I think it’s a good idea to plan now.
Do you love what you’re doing or are you just hanging on because this is a scary time to be out of work?
Did you love your commute, or... did you not love your commute?
If you could keep your job and live anywhere in the country (or possibly the world), where would you go? Anywhere? Or just stay put?
If the thought of driving back in makes you break out in hives, what are you going to do about it?
Are you finally going to hire a professional to update your resume and start looking for something new? Are you going to go into business for yourself?
Are you going to use any of your accrued vacation time?
Do you still fit in your work clothes? I know I don’t fit in mine! Goodbye, work pajamas, it’s been lovely...
I’m definitely planning to stay put with my current company. Since my husband and I work for the same employer, even in the same building, it would make sense for us to ride in together.
Would it, though?
We haven’t owned a vehicle in four years. This makes the question more transparent for us than it is for most people. Is this job “worth” a car payment, insurance, maintenance, and all the rest?
There is one advantage to having a daily commute, and that is, if you plan it carefully, you can block off that time to do specific things and get them off your list. My version of this image would be my husband driving while I order grocery delivery, work on my tech newsletter, and process email.
Perhaps that differs from his version? Maybe he doesn’t want to be my chauffeur?
What will probably happen, if we’re both called in to work physically inside the building, which is bonkers and makes no sense, what will probably happen is that I’ll buy an electric bicycle and ride that in.
Why? Three reasons.
In the past I would have planned to take the city bus. Now that there’s COVID, I would only do that if I had some kind of astronaut helmet. It’s not just COVID I’m worried about, it’s the entire category of airborne respiratory infections. I read up on the subject back in 2018 and discovered that bus riders are something like 6x more likely to pick up the common cold. I’m sorry, but after the lung scarring I got from COVID I am simply not interested in even the mildest form of sniffles.
This is the sort of thing that more people should probably be thinking about, but probably are not.
Are you just going to shrug and go back to the same commute you always had? Or are you going to use this opportunity to rethink your default?
Are you going to go back to the same schedule you always had, the one where you never get enough sleep and you never have time to work out and you constantly feel like you’re running to keep up with laundry and chores?
Or are you going to try for something different this time?
Are you going to eat the same eleven things, sometimes skip breakfast or eat lunch over your desk?
Or are you ready to shake that up?
Are you assuming you can wear the same work wardrobe you did a year ago, or are you going to go in there and try stuff on like I did and discover that that isn’t really going to work?
Personally I’m going to shoot for working from home permanently. I don’t see adding a commute to the day as adding any real value. At my work, a number of things that I currently do would be less efficient, or actively impossible, to do in a physical room rather than virtual. I don’t think it would be a hard sell.
Just in case, though, I’m forming a parallel mental track. There’s a future version of myself wearing trousers and actual shoes, walking the halls of a building and trying to be efficient despite the 18th-century issues of the “modern” workplace.
I’d like that future version of myself to be having fun and making money.
If necessary, I’d also like that future version of myself to get a fresh start with fresh new habits. There’s a narrow window of “fresh start” opportunity whenever we make a dramatic change, and I want to take advantage of it.
Am I going in to work? Not sure yet. If I do, I want it to feel like a good idea.
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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