postcards from saturn, part two: know your limits.

A friend recently told me about an incredible costume he saw on Halloween in San Francisco: a woman wore an orange leotard with jerry-rigged midriff rings made out of fabric and hula-hoops. She also carried a small doll in her likeness that she periodically slammed against the wall or threw on the floor. When prompted, she explained that she was dressed as her own Saturn Return. In addition to being positively hilarious, this costume provides an interesting allegory for my own recent experience of late-20s interplanetary wrestling. As I first explained some months ago, my 28th year (now mercifully over) was characterized by the dawning recognition that a mounting series of difficult and life-shifting revelations had a majestic, absurd inevitability that I simply needed to ride out. I also found that, for various reasons, explaining my long-form train wreck to those around me was something of a necessity. Like a person who realizes that no one is going to understand their costume, not only did I find myself I dressed in a cosmically ill-fated onesie, I was grudgingly compelled to narrate an outfit I was already totally over. Luckily, the Saturn Returns shares one characteristic with all Halloweenish public holidays: not only it is unavoidable and absurd,  it is collectively endured. You can rest assured that countless others are either in the throes of their own slam-and-explain experience, or at least retain enough scars to remember what it felt like at the time.

In my inaugural post on the astrological nemesis that makes rounding 30 so ungraciously dramatic, I reflected that a core lesson of the process of coming into serious adulthood involves a) owning up to the fact that there might be something unpleasant lurking in the corners of one’s cerebral/emotional/spiritual kitchen, and b) subsequently searching for the cleaning supplies long forgotten (or never purchased in the first place) that might facilitate a little tidying up. In the process of coming to terms with my own a and b, I have discovered one of the larger roaches in my lacking-confidence-seeking-validation kitchen is workaholism. I work way, way too hard. I have over the past few years developed the habit of getting up painfully early to write. Like, every single day. With a full time job and weekend writing to boot, this amounts to a roughly 80-hour week. Which is great for productivity on the output end, but not so great when you have a family, life, and personality, all of which require care and attention rooted in emotional and physical rest. When I wrecked myself last year and didn’t break my pattern for a single day, I discovered that I have the capacity for relentlessness. Needless to say, while I still managed to churn things out, it hurt.

Why do I work too hard? Many reasons, first among them the likely root of a vast majority of voluntary workaholism: I love what I do. More specifically, I love  libraries, and by some superb accident I actually get to do libraries on a daily basis (and for a paycheck, which still makes me feel lightning-struck). I also I love to write, which provides a way to tease out the core of conviction that brought me to libraries in the first place, which can all too easily get lost in the day-in-day-out that often hollows out one’s brain so effectively. As writing is an impossibility at work thanks to the same tendency to overcommit, the early morning hours are my only means of maintaining a close relationship to the more reflective side of my productive self. This dedication to profession has always been part of my motivation to work hard, but last year I noticed that it too began to develop a relentless quality. In the last two months or so of writing my recent manuscript, I had the growing sensation of being pushed rather than pulled, dragged instead of driven, yet with too many projects and deadlines to let up in the slightest. This type of overwork is exactly like pulling a muscle then refusing to stop running (another syndrome with which I am all too familiar). You trick yourself into believing are staying in shape, but in reality you are simply breaking yourself down, bit by bit.

I have long observed that ambition most often exists in tandem with a competitive nature. I have always been an ambitious person, but am thankful that I am not competitive in the traditional sense, as in wanting win over someone else. Due to a strong sense of empathy, this type of win has never been a feeling that I particularly relish, and is one that I tend to be put off by in others. Interestingly, I have begun to realize that I have been competing all along, if only with myself – I agree to things I’m not sure if I can pull off in order to demonstrate that I can. This, if you think about it, is ridiculous. Competition implies two things: an opponent, and the ability to either win, lose, or draw. When you compete with yourself your opponent is imaginary, meaning that you are engaged only in a sisyphean exercise of chasing your own insecurities until you end up exhausted – otherwise known as burning out.

Success is a form of validation. Audience feedback is a form of validation. Praise of any kind is a form of validation. If one is motivated and engaged, one takes things on and receives validation by default. If one is also driven towards overwrought self-combat and/or seeks excessive validation through accomplishments as a monolothic marker of self-worth, one inevitably takes too many things on. This particular style of relentlessness is often a byproduct of professional insecurity intertwined with genuine, productive ambition. It is what causes us to act in ways that we hope obscure our own shortcomings, working far too hard in order to prove our fears about ourselves wrong. My old friend Emily Ford recently wrote an excellent In the Library with the Lead Pipe post on positive approaches to saying no to commitments. When she put the call out for contributions, I had plenty to say, yet I had to beg off because I already had too much on my plate – a perfectly ironic demonstration of the vicious, frying pan-to-fire overcommitment cycle. I started this very post almost six month ago, and am only now able to complete it (thank god). An accumulation of undones weighs increasingly heavy on an already taxed mind.

Like many close to me have said, it’s wonderful to feel pride about accomplishments, but it is also essential to draw a realistic line between serviceable expectations of self and insane, workpit-digging hubris. Love of one’s work combined with relentlessness and ambition can result in a tendency towards self-criticism, or worse: arrogance. Both can lead you to operate from a place that lacks heart. Should you find yourself pushed to one of these distractions, take it as an opportunity to closely examine what a decent work-life balance definitely does not look like as you claw your way out from under it. Balance means you are as good to your resting self and those around you as you are to your working or playing selves, in all things personal and vocational. Not in order to gain perfection, but as a daily practice. Now that I am firmly ejected from the most orbital days of my own Return, I sleep a bit more, ride with sanity, and say no to (as many) new projects (as possible).

This year I have had to challenge the more quixotic elements of my own mythology, which previously went something along the lines of go-go-go. Now I ask, have I gone there before?, and more fundamentally, do I really feel like going there again? That the simple breathing room this has created feels revelatory is an indication of how desperately I needed to learn Saturn Return Lesson #2: knowing (and setting) my limits. If abject exhaustion has taught me anything, it’s that self-flagellation under the guise of “hard work” leaves you absolutely cut to shreds. I will likely always be a professionally relentless individual, but am elated to be acquiring the ability to translate this into something more sustainable. If you can divert your craft-based energies towards an unselfish root, you can also mitigate your tilt towards self-combat. The crucial aspect of all of this the realization that it is a choice: self-validating output, or output that benefits both self and others – tangibly, conceptually, or tangentially, but above all consciously.

Stay tuned for Postcards from Saturn, Part 3: Look Both Ways.

8 thoughts on “postcards from saturn, part two: know your limits.

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  1. A great post, Char. I’m glad you are learning this while you are still young. You’ll have all the more years of balance in your life! I am heading out to hear Nancy Wilson in a few minutes — at Yoshi’s. Enjoy your weekend! I heartily recommend sleeping in.

  2. “One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators.

    I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”

    — Edward Abbey

  3. This post is very smart. I had some at least superficially similar issues with the end of my dissertation; noting that I took my current job partly to dare myself into completing the diss should suffice, I think. It took me longer than it should’ve to realize I had to say no to *everything* new outside of my central focus for a year, merely to get volunteerish things I enjoyed under pragmatic control (and to rebuild my health).

    Yes—sustainability FTW, definitely.

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