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Friday, June 14, 2013

Stop! Look at your life

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It's Friday, it's raining, I'm listening to Sonata Pathétique by Beethoven, comparing it with Mozart's piano sonata #14 (K457), and trying at the same time to get R' recital piece (Haydn's Surprise Symphony) out of my head - not that I don't like it, and she played it wonderfully... but I've been listening to her practice for weeks and need a change!

But mostly I am reflecting on my life.

A few different readings stimulated this contemplative state of mind.

FIRST, I received a magazine containing two articles that caught my attention: one about ambition and career (depicting women who have achieved a lot in their respective field), and one about a couple who decided to sell everything and live on the road for a few years with their 4 children. Those marginal life choices are appealing enough that I sometimes ponder them seriously, yet I still haven't made a move toward them. Why is the question. Is it too scary? Does it involve too many sacrifices? Or is it simply not truly my cup of tea?

Maybe I just don't "feel like it" quite enough. 'Cause when you really feel like it, you make it happen no matter what... right?

Sometimes it occurs to me that "I don't feel like it" is a perfectly acceptable reason for not doing something. There are two unavoidable things in life: death, and income tax. As much as some of us entertain the opposite illusion... we do have control over pretty much everything else (maybe with the exception of disease unexplained by controllable risk factors).

Are there things you wish you would accomplish yet do not make any crucial step toward? What is the explanation to your lethargy, you think? The true, profound explanation?

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About ambition in particular. We live in a competitive society, and are driven by the American Dream: you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Empowering thought for sure. The second part of this American dream motto, however, cannot be overlooked: you can accomplish anything you set your mind to... if you're willing to put the effort and endure the necessary sacrifices. The actual amount of effort and sacrifice that's needed depends on a variety of factors including natural abilities (but of course the idea that we might not all have the same natural abilities to start with has become unpolitically correct). In any case, there isn't much more to it: ambition is great... as long as your goals are realistic, i.e. they can be achieved with a level of effort and sacrifice that are acceptable in your eyes (this obviously varies from person to person).

D and I have talked about this before: it seems like we've both gone from youthful ambition to "old age" detachment (that's a state of mind, not a number!) without passing Go and collecting $200! We work reasonably hard, but to us, a job is not everything, and prestige and money should be put back in their place. They are alluring, of course, but nothing more than an illusion of happiness. If one manages to gain prestige and money naturally with a reasonable effort, great! But striving for them at the expense of everything else is senseless. I am always impressed with D's attitude toward it all: despite carrying Dr. before his name and a couple other letters after (and despite doing an important job), he is extremely humble, never boasts, and more importantly makes sure his job never gets in the way of his other priorities in life.

As for me, my personal relationship with ambition and accomplishments is the following: I do not want to be an underachiever, and so I make sure I set challenges for myself and put my abilities to a good use. Hopefully, I will end up making a - small - difference in the world, in my own, personal way. I do not want, however, to be an overachiever either, i.e. live for performance only, and put myself in situations that significantly exceed my "level of incompetence" (see Peter Principle). I've been in those waters. It's NOT a good place to be.

The line between underachieving and overachieving is thin and blurry. Have you found where that line lies for you?

SECOND, I read about a fellow blogger's questioning; one of her mantras, these days, is "I am enough". The premise behind this is that we should be content with who we are (and, in her case, with what we look like). Simple concept, yet so difficult to achieve. 

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Is it even possible to feel that we are enough when everything screams at us that we could be better? Leafing through the aforementioned magazine, I was appalled by all the "picture-perfect" ads (or, should I say, "Photoshop-perfect"). This is but one example. We are constantly bombarded with images of perfection. Whether we feel pressure to "perform" at home, at work or anywhere else... it does not leave much room for "I am content to be alive and breathing fresh air", does it?

I am not making an apology of laziness; in fact, I believe we should regularly ask ourselves if we are doing our best (and, ideally, ask ourselves if we are making a change for the better in this imperfect world). But chronic dissatisfaction with oneself is counterproductive at best.

Do you think you are enough?

THIRD, I stumbled upon Le Blog d'un Condamné (in French), written by a 58-year old man who has been given 30 days to live (he's at day -20 today), and who in turn decided to write about his metaphysical qualms and reflections. Being confronted to his ultimate deadline, he puts on the page what all of us should start thinking about long before we face the final stretch: what is the meaning of life? Corollary question: what's important in life?

Have you ever taken the time to seriously ask yourself those questions?

One of the things that the "condamné", who used to be a senior engineer at the top of some prestigious firm, states, is that career, in the end, is meaningless.

I'm not completely sure about that, since a career, when well-chosen, can be a wonderful source of stimulation and exciting challenges. Contributing your time, energy, talent and training to others who need it, whatever the field (and making money from it), certainly has nothing wrong to it.

However, this statement struck a chord with me as I often reflect on the place our job should occupy in our life. From the mommy point of view, there is just no way to reconcile a great career with a balanced family life (most of my friends who are moms strive to work part-time despite their admirable credentials). I used to feel ambivalent and guilty about the whole concept, until I read this article entitled Why Women Still Can't Have it All. (I highly recommend it if this is a topic you're interested in.)

When pondering how much importance your career should take in your life, I suggest you try and rank your priorities. I, for example, want to keep my body and my mind (and those of my family) healthy. It's all about balance. I exercise for an average of 1 hour every day. I probably spend as much time prepping and cooking healthy foods (veggies, veggies, more veggies!) There, 2 hours a day just disappeared! Not to mention the time I spend taking my kids to their activities (even if they don't have that many compared to other kids we know!), and the time we spend talking, reading and playing together. On top of my job, I also, you might have noticed, write a blog, which is my creative and incredibly rewarding hobby (I believe all of us should have one). I walk my dog. I spend time with people I love (or write or talk on the phone) on a regular basis. I volunteer (giving some of your time to the community is also something I believe in). I sleep my 7 hours a night. Last but not least, I refuse to be overly stressed. How do you combine all that with a big career, I don't know.

I have known mothers with what you would call a big career. They were completely over-stressed and exhausted. One decided to quit and adopt a simpler way of life with a job that doesn't pay half as much as the one she previously had. When asked about it, she says without any hesitation that she would never go back.

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The only real motivation I have to work hard is my desire (need?) to travel to my heart's content, taking my kids along. Traveling was one of the best gifts I received from my parents, and it's true that it broadens the mind.

Do you have one thing you are willing to work harder and make sacrifices for? What's on your "worth the effort and sacrifice bucket list"?

Even if I sometimes question my choices, I am very aware that if I had made different ones (e.g. emphasizing the career at the cost of the rest), I would question myself just as much. There's just no way you can have your cake and eat it (without suffering an indigestion anyways!)

If you're feeling like you're not quite enough, or simply at the end of your rope... before you sit down and get started on your "life priorities list", may I suggest you listen to some soothing music?




'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.


4 comments:

  1. Well written & decorated with images...

    ReplyDelete
  2. There is one other inevitable in life, we will lose our way. What we do with that will define us.

    http://calorielab.com/news/2011/12/05/tis-a-gift-to-be-simple/

    ReplyDelete