i just wanna be successful: the pressure to be 30 million things under 30
My girlfriend and I have this thing called “Sunday feelings.” It’s the feeling that kicks in on a Sunday night (or whatever your day before the work week starts is) around 8PM where you start to feel like you could crawl out of your skin from shame and anxiousness. The ambitious optimistic list of things to get done this weekend that you made on Saturday morning is haunting you. “Nothing” is checked off. Nothing “got done.
I feel like I’m constantly disappointing myself as I reflect on all the things I haven’t done. I didn’t read any more of the great book I started a month ago. I didn’t work at all on the website that I wanted to get done. I didn’t send the right email. I didn’t make anything, let alone anything fantastically creative or beautiful. I’ve tried putting myself on regimens of “project a day” or X a day. Make anything every day. It’s damn hard. By the time I sit down to fire up my old ass laptop and try to open Illustrator after having to force quit literally every other application so the thing doesn’t overheat, it’s close to ten pm. And sitting down to work at that time means forgoing important A Different World watching time . Or finishing the book. Or talking to my family or best friend. There’s only so many hours in a day. Fuck that beyonce mug.
Since graduating from college, I’ve struggled with balance. Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t a need to keep things in motion in college and before that. Rather, I only had one setting which was ON. I worked, I went to school, I interned, I was an RA, I had relationships – the whole thing. While a student, there wasn’t any expectation of downtime. No such thing as “after work” because work was wherever you were. There’s homework or RA duty or a fight to be had with a boyfriend or jobs to apply to. There was always more to be done. I was just always going.
Now I work full time at that same school that I attended and graduated from, as a program administrator for the Coolest Program at This University. I’m doing something I believe in, I work with amazing people, and I think I am pretty okay at it. My other thing I do is design. It’s what I went to school for, worked in, and aspire to work in again sometime. It’s my Main Thing. I get frustrated and sad and upset when I can’t be making things. I don’t consider myself an overwhelmingly artistic or expressive things but I do have a very physical or physiological tie to creative work, visual and generative thinking. I’m quick to see colors, forms, connect ideas, come up with inspiration for projects and things I want to see in the world. It frustrates me to be inspired and not to have the energy and time to be able to act on it.
I often go to sleep at night frustrated that I didn’t make the most of the day because of this carpe diem shit. Well I’m trying to carpe my diem I also need to carpe my sleep and carpe my well being. I’m trying to maintain and build relationships, romantic, deeply personal, familial, and professional. Being in school and keeping those hours was draining and took a toll that I seriously think was a huge reason for my need to leave the state for some time. I know that my need and urge to be working all the time comes from a lot of places. Working a lot distracts from other things going on. Fights with friends, insecurities about other things about myself, family issues, the current state of the world. I also know that as an upwardly mobile person with a background of both working class and low-income values, the emphasis placed on “work ethic” is a serious thing I need to undo. Since my “work” is often creative, though not particularly expressive, I feel like I can turn those feelings into productive things. I don’t know how healthy this idea is.
I feel a lot of peer pressure from people I see, especially on the internet who seem to have all the same things as me, talent, ambition, resources and not be wherever I perceive them to be in their creative process and careers. A tiny but loud voice shrills inside my head “I WANT TO DO THAT TOO!” TOO TOO TOO! I can make a podcast, host an art exhibition, start a design studio, make an app, publish writing, paint portraits, become an esty millionaire, read all the best things, go to all the talks, all this shit. I realize that the little aspirational voice inside of me, along with the other encouraging voices of my highly enabling family is the reason why I am where I am, wherever that is. I was able to see myself in a different place or field or mindset and say, why not me too. So here I am, fighting every evening against the clock, whining, why not me too.
All these 30 under 30 lists (see also ADC Young Guns) make you feel like you have to do everything right now, right away, or shame. These lists also leave out all the pieces and parts that allowed people to gain the measurable success that they’ve attained in a few years. The parents backing their business from the jump (ahem). The financial stability to be able to quit your day job to pursue your passion. (Fuck 99u and that whole productivity culture, by the way. It so easily feeds into this thing that I get so caught up in.) The angel investors and VCs who bought these people and their brands and their ideas. To get to that level of “achievement” – recognition, money, accolades, social status, stability, etc. I’d have to put myself back into that life where I only have one mode – ON. I’d also have to truly sell out and give up a lot of the things that make me who I am. I’d have to buy heavily into assimilation, capitalism, and individualism.
The irony of being expected to achieve a lot at a super young age is the very real element of ageism when you try to do just that. I work at a Big University where I’m combatted with a lot of mansplaining and visible bitterness that I’m the person that people have to talk to about things. I find myself talking slowly and allowing my voice to drop, smiling less easily, speaking a little more shortly and curtly. You can tell that unless people see my STAFF ID, they’ll think I’m a student and treat me as such which, first of all, don’t talk to students or young people like they’re dumb. I figure if I’m dealing with blatant aggression and snarkiness towards my apparent youth and girlishness at a university which is supposedly serving primarily young people, what is it going to be like when I’m “out there” again. Is this, like other forms of discrimination that I’ve had to face far less in a real way in my life, just another filter through which we can only be seen if we are deemed exceptional. Being seen as exceptional, smart for a _____, talented for a ______, eloquent for a _____, etc. is different than being included. It’s actually just another kind of toxic exclusion.
At this point in my life, I have financial stability. I can afford to live in my apartment and buy food and even extra stuff like donuts and t shirts. Even just a few months ago, I didn’t have that luxury and my work was not just side hustle, it was real actual hustle that I needed to make ends meet. And that was just six months of my life. Now, I come home after work to the apartment that I afford, where there is food that I have bought, utilities that I can easily pay. And yet I feel that need to keep accumulating work, time, and money. Nothing seems like a given. Like many, I was raised knowing that I was going to have to work twice as hard as others because I’m a woman and I am not white and my family does not come from money or stability. When you get your scholarships and you graduate from school and you’re out in the world trying to live up to those expectations, that thought hits you hard everyday. You really try to live that. That’s not just something moms advise, it is a warning. It is prophecy. You really try to do twice as much shit as everyone else because you know the safety net isn’t real. You can’t coast on mediocrity. You’ve got to be honor roll forever. Perfect attendance, at least.
I’m working on things in myself, primarily internally, shifting the way I think about things. Too often I try to change external forces, people around me, the way I behave or try to set a routine. I am not going to stop being any of the things I am and I’m not going to create more hours in a day. I want to make better use of what I have and all the assets I have in myself. Here are some things I’m working on. (It’s framed like “you” and “do this” but mostly because I wrote this journal style. I’m not trying to advise or tell YOU what you should do.)
Prioritize things I want to do over things I should or just could do. Lead with fun things.
Balance long term goals with short term factors. Long term goals are things like my next job, adult person goals, and the balance of working on things I am about as far as working towards some greater good and creativity/design. Short term factors are things like current things I’m doing, impulse, mood, and immediate external factors. There are things in the middle like the perception of peer pressure, real or imagined.
Honor what you’re feeling when you feel it. Embrace phases. Nothing lasts forever. It’s okay to have one week where I’m just doing people things and one week where I’m mostly doing work things.
For me creativity, specifically design or making is about form and/or analysis, visuals/sensory/tactile plus problem solving. The duality creates tension, like that between rest plus freedom plus play and tension plus time plus restriction. There’s a sweet spot between all these things that makes me feel satisfied. I’m used to coming to the sweet spot organically from having a lot of time in my life devoted to making, whether that be at school or at work. Now the space and time where I make is my home and the part of my brain and life that is home – where my girlfriend is, where dinner is, where friends are, where books are. Making is now in competition, and if not in competition , instead of all of these other things that comprise my home brain. Urban planners talk about third places, places that are not where you work or where you live. So maybe now, as we all have a million side projects and work outside of work, we are creating an imaginary fourth space overlaid on all of these places that we access through our states of mind and actions. It’s not like walking into a studio or office or devoted space. It’s creating a place in your everyday life. Fourth place is like the room of requirement at Hogwarts.
Choose people. Work will always be there and it will never love you back. Good feelings from work are cool but unstable and there will always be a next thing. More goals and to do’s fill up where you check them off your list. I am lucky to have many amazing supportive people in my life and feel so affirmed by them. They inspire me constantly to be creative and expressive but also, to honor my feelings and do what feels right for me.
Simplify and reduce. Like when you are running out of room on your phone and you go through and clear out things you don’t need . What apps haven’t you really used. What photos can you backup but delete from your phone. What old texts can you get rid of. Do that in your brain. but also your phone. Think about how to be conscious about how social media, using your phone, being constantly reachable and connected affects your focus, state of mind.
Realize you don’t have to do everything all at once or now.
Allow room for random creative impulse. Indulge in weird moods and ideas. Last week I wasted a whole morning off writing about flamingos. If you’re afraid of losing a whole morning, like I am, set a time limit or just stop doing it when you feel like it.
Don’t treat making things like work all the time. Don’t romanticize working all the time. Don’t think work will save you. Don’t act like working all the time is a struggle when you otherwise have a lot of stability and safety.
Less “to do list” more “done” list. When I was in high school and feeling low, I used to list all the good things that happened to me in a day in a journal. Sounds very wack but helped at the time to be able to focus on good things. Right now, I have an ABUNDANCE of amazing things but feel bogged down by all the unfinished biz at the end of each day. I think keeping track of all the things I do accomplish, observe, and experience will help me to see how full and productive my days can be.
Interrogate what it is that you see other people doing that you want to emulate. Shine theory that shit. Some of the things that I often feel envious of in other people’s projects are being able to make cool things with friends and “genuine” expression and creativity.
Spend time working on projects that further causes that I believe in, when money and building a client base are less important. I really like working with friends on their projects, creating pro bono work for organizations that I want to stand up for, and just generally doing things that I couldn’t be paid to do at a job.
How do you keep the balance? If you don’t work at a “creative” job but are a creative person, how do you deal with that?