I only did fun things and it made me miserable
At the beginning of the year I had the opportunity to take a break from work to focus on some personal goals. I wanted to spend my time in ways that felt more personally fulfilling, and I had a bunch of ideas I wanted to try out.
For years I've wanted to do art that combined nature, design, and science in an effort to bring people closer to nature. I've wanted to write a fantasy novel since I was 8. I wanted to build out my nature and design newsletter.
For me, these are ambiguous visions without extremely clear steps or a specific end goal. And on this break I started learning a lot more about my relationship to work, jobs, discipline, and tenacity.
I've always been a tenacious person. If I create a clear goal I figure out how to achieve it. That's how I got out of an abusive first marriage. That's how I transitioned from a previous career in human resources management into tech. That's how I built fulfilling personal relationships the last several years.
When I've got a concrete goal I'm strong, confident, and tenacious. I don't give up until I've achieved the thing I set out to do. When I first started this career break, I needed time to rest.
So this opportunity to take a real break and actually not do anything was an absolute luxury. I read books during the day. I laid in the hammock in the sun. I went paddleboarding with friends on a weekday. It was amazing.
Around mid-summer I started feeling like I wanted to have more focus. I wanted to do all the outdoor activities I could, but also wanted to feel like I was making progress on something.
But I was having so much trouble focusing. Nothing sounded fun. Doing ceramics required a lot of set up and clean up. I've written my whole life, but it can be draining to stare at a blank page with bad ideas running through your head. I tried gardening videos for a bit, but then stopped. I tried ceramics videos a few times, then stopped. I had all this time; literally NOTHING but time, the one thing I always lamented I needed. "If only I had the time" was a phrase I repeated around my house like a mantra. And here it was, a day full of time, a relationship full of support, and I was just letting it slip by. Continuing to do the very thing that I so desperately said I wanted to change—wasting time.
One day I was thinking about all this and started parsing out my phrasing. I didn't feel like doing ceramics today because it wasn't fun. I didn't feel like writing today because it didn't sound fun. That word kept showing up, over and over. I looked at how that word worked its way into my conversations. Did I want to take that workshop? Did it sound fun? Did I want to try that class? Did it sound fun? What did that word even mean to me?
The more I thought about it, I realized that, for me, "fun" was shorthand for enjoyable and easy. The day I figured that out was like feeling a lightbulb light up in my brain.
I had this excuse of "was it fun" as a way to get out of doing anything with an undefined outcome that also required work. Why was that? What was stopping me? Why was I standing in my own way like this?
For those who know me well, I love seeing immediate progress. It's why I'm so good at projects and hitting goals. Here's the target, go hit the target. I'm like an arrow that gets pointed in that direction and I just go.
But what I was struggling with was so different. I didn't have a quickly achievable goal for the art I wanted to make. I have a long term vision of doing gallery exhibits and doing artist residencies. But those aren't direct goals, they're far off visions that sound cool. And maybe they’ll change in a few years? Who knows? Not me.
But in order to get even close to that I had to do the work. And I was actively sabotaging my work.
What I settled on was that, although I'm goal oriented and tenacious, I lack discipline. Discipline, to me, is consistency. It's showing up day after day to refine your craft or share what you're doing. It doesn't have an end goal. Its purpose is to make you think, make you learn, and teach you how to stick with things. It is not fun.
I've also made a point my whole life to separate my identity from my job and the work I do. I don't want my job to define me, because jobs change, titles change, layoffs happen. But in this period of transition to do more meaningful work, even if it wasn't a specific job or title, I've had no choice but to acknowledge the work I want to do is also part of my identity.
I went to college for performing arts with a scholarship in vocal arts. I've had classical voice training since I was 10. And if you listened to me at karaoke, the only place I ever sing in public these days, I promise you'd have no idea that I can really sing... like quite well. I gave up on performing arts in college and changed my major to creative writing, because I loved singing so much. I loved it so much that it was too vulnerable to be on stage in front of people trying to share something that felt like a core part of myself. I would just freeze.
Same with my writing. I've written so much short story fiction that I've never tried to get published or even shared with anyone. Journals filled with the stuff. But I was too scared to share it because it felt like literally sharing a part of me. If someone ridicules it, they’re not ridiculing a thing I did, it feels like they’re literally ridiculing me as a person. And I was too much of a coward to handle that.
I think, deep down, it’s hard for me to admit I’m an artist. My taste outstrips my ability, and I think that might always be the case. I want perfection and when I can’t achieve it I’m unable to do anything. Mistakes and failure make me feel stupid, so I try to avoid that, too. And putting who I am on display is just scary to me.But once I’ve created and shared something, I always feel… lighter? Or more complete? I don’t know the right word. When I’m creating: ceramics, writing, painting, music, I feel like that’s when I’m the most me that I can be. But it’s usually not fun. It’s meaningful and fulfilling to me. Sharing what I’ve made makes me feel connected to other. I enjoy having done the work but don’t always feel enjoyment doing it because it requires repetition and consistency and mistakes and failure in order to improve. Repetition and consistency can feel like an obligation, and I hate the feeling of making mistakes and failing.That’s where the wonderful excuse of “fun” comes in. I deserve to have fun, I tell myself. So if something isn’t fun, maybe it’s not worth my time. What a great way to get out of anything that has any personal stakes at all! What a good idea to avoid making myself vulnerable and being uncomfortable!
But then I realized that’s how I end up on my deathbed, talking about all the things I wish I could’ve done but didn’t even try because I was too afraid. I’ll have used “it wasn’t fun” as a way to absolve myself from living my life. So I’ve stopped using the word fun when describing art or projects I’m doing. I’ve taken it out of my vocabulary. I need to find another adjective to describe why I’m interested in doing something. I’m reframing my relationship to work.
Doing work that I find meaningful, with consistency, with discipline, will help me live a fulfilling life. But a lot of it isn’t going to be fun.