I remember when I first learned to become a hard worker. In my junior year of high school, I went by myself to the University of Pennsylvania info session in my town. The dean of admissions asked the room a question (“What’s the second oldest university in the U.S.?”), and I answered it correctly (the College of William and Mary). (Yes, I was such a Hermione.) Buoyed by catching the dean’s attention, I went up to him afterwards to ask about financial aid. But when he heard I was an international student, his face pretty much shut down. He said, “Sorry, the only schools that offer need-blind admissions to international students are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and MIT.” Meaning, all other schools consider your family’s ability to pay tuition when they offer admissions.
At sixteen, I had never even thought of getting into a very selective college. I had never tried to become a valedictorian, and I was not naturally competitive. I had no notion of winning and losing. Penn was something I dreamed up on a whim, and HYP were even harder to get in. But because my family earned so little, I could only get an undergraduate education if I got into one of the most selective colleges in the country. So for the first time in my life, I studied like someone was chasing me with a gun.
The happy result of that transformation was that I attended Princeton and received truly life-changing education. I went from a doodling dreamer to a go-getter. I now take all large goals and break them into smaller goals and deadlines. I never back down from a task that I originally intended to complete. I’m motivated 99.99% of the time—and I don’t even drink coffee.
Being a go-getter has served to propel me forward. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if this mentality is completely healthy. Because of my past, I have a foundational belief that doing is the key to success. This in turn creates a fear that if I’m not constantly doing, I will fail. It feels as though if I’m not always busy, I won’t just stay still, but will slide back to point zero where I had nothing.
Whether you are informed by personal history, or have always had a natural drive, busyness is something many of us face on a daily basis. And the world at large glorifies busyness, conflating that with high functionality and success. I recently read on author Charles Duhigg’s website that he was inspired to write The Power of Habit because of his incredibly successful acquaintance.
“…He appeared to be a paragon of success. He was a forty-six-year-old staff writer at a prestigious magazine, as well as a renowned surgeon at one of the nation’s top hospitals. He was an associate professor at Harvard, an adviser to the World Health Organization, and the founder of a nonprofit that sent surgical supplies to medically underserved parts of the world. He had written three books—all bestsellers—and was married with three children. In 2006, he had been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant—and had promptly given a substantial portion of the $500,000 prize to charity.”
To be fair, the “point” of Duhigg’s praise was that this super-human surgeon also seemed to enjoy a top 1% quality work-life balance with his doting wife and children. But I couldn’t help but feel disillusioned by a largely false promise. There is no human, no matter how brilliant and efficient, who can perform a full-time workload as a staff writer, surgeon, professor, advisor to WHO, and founder of a nonprofit. All of those have to be part-time essentially, and then he would have to have a team of people whose work exists solely to support his purpose.
So that’s not the kind of efficiency just *anyone* can achieve—it’s generally a mark of great privilege to be busy with work, not just talent and drive. I don’t think busyness is evil—but we have to see it for what it is, and not just glorify ultra-doers. This paradigm also makes me uncomfortable because of its obvious masculinity—the whole, stronger, faster, harder ethos.
So I have been needing a paradigm-shift from my fear of inactivity; and the one who has inspired me most is Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, the head of William Morris Endeavors literary, lecture, and conference divisions and agent to Sheryl Sandberg and Oprah Winfrey, just to name a few.
“I just want to speak to that idea of juggling so many things. I know that we are in a culture of chaos now where we ask, “How are you?” and we say, “Busy.” That’s not me. I’m not busy. I’m full. But I’m still caught up on all my best TV shows, and I’m still reading for pleasure, and I still have time to do all the things I want to do,” Walsh told goop.
“I don’t respond to that sort of busy, busy, busy thing. That’s not me. I think that one of the added benefits of living a life of purpose, when you know your purpose and you’re prioritizing the things that are better serving that purpose, is that a lot of the bullshit falls away. And when you’re serving your purpose, you have all the time in the world because somehow time just expands.”
This makes a lot of sense to me as I juggle numerous jobs, projects, and commitments. Walsh has a one-sentence purpose statement, and any time she veers from that, she knows that it can be edited out. “I would deprioritize anything that didn’t serve that purpose. It doesn’t mean that I don’t do it, but it’s not a priority to me,” she explained. For example, my purpose is to use writing to preserve nature and reduce animal suffering. When I look at it that way, I feel good that I’m also full—not busy—with mission-aligned work. I’ve also turned down a few projects recently that were lucrative but not purpose-aligned, so I’m already making good decisions! Other things I wish I could do more of, but are not purpose-aligned: volunteering for local charities (because not writing-based), learning to surf, going back to ballet. I fully intend on doing them, but they don’t need to be priorities when life feels just a bit too crowded. To be successful, you don’t have to be busier than everyone else. You just have to be busy enough for the right reasons.
How do you plan on editing your life around your purpose?
Photo: Carl Heyerdahl via Unsplash; Courtesy of Thrive Live