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The Work is What Carries Us Forward


Once, on the drive home from a really tough job interview, I thought back on the questions I’d been asked and what I’d said. Regardless of the scenario they presented or the skills they hoped I’d employ, all I could remember saying was, “I’d talk to the people.” I’m sure I included other specific points, because I actually got the position, but the funny thing is that the job itself turned out to be 99 percent talking to the people. Communicating was the real work of that job, no matter how many leadership seminars I attended or management books I read. When I did that work, I didn’t always feel like I was the best employee ever, but I was engaged, connected, and present.

The challenge of doing the real work—instead of all of the machinations surrounding it—is the essence of every part of my life. From my relationships, to my writing career, to navigating retirement, to the difficulty of getting myself out of bed and out to run on most days, I feel best when I just do the work. And despite this simple notion, I can almost never remember it when I’m slogging around in long to-do lists, angst about my life direction, or heady justifications for putting off running until tomorrow.

In fact, my resistance to this idea that doing the thing itself is better than any amount of philosophizing I might do about it is almost laughable. My relationships with other people are a perfect example. If I’m struggling with another person, I often torture myself with what-ifs, hypothetical emails I might send, frustration, and even anger before I just buck up and talk to him or her. In other words, it’s when I do the real work that is required of a relationship with another human being that I get the payoff. It might not be an easy conversation, but it’s genuine. And, many more times than not, it moves us to a new and better place in our connection with each other.

In my most frozen state, I can spend hours mapping out the road to perfection and then never actually get into the car.

Not always being willing to do the hard work required to grow and change is what keeps me reading self-help magazines, studying diet plans, and buying new running shorts. But, actually putting on those shorts and heading out for a few miles beats everything else, hands down. One run may not make me thin, fit, and healthy, but it’s a real thing, in contrast to the fantasy life I’m inhabiting when I’m reading about Sandra Bullock's fitness routine or imagining how great my life would be if I took up hot yoga.

As a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety—particularly before I did the work to get some real help—I know that just doing something instead of sitting on the couch and feeling bad about my life is much easier said that done. It’s one of the reasons that therapy and Prozac have been so useful. They’ve helped to raise the floor so that I can take action, which in turn gives me the confidence to do something else. But even with that kind of evidence, when faced with my own resistance, my first inclination is almost always to approach it theoretically rather than just doing the necessary work. I feel it profoundly now that I'm retired and find myself continually conjecturing about the best way to take my next steps rather than just taking some and then some more. In my most frozen state, I can spend hours mapping out the road to perfection and then never actually get into the car.

Writing is a great example of this. After years of grappling with the discipline required to write an essay or a book proposal or an article, I still go first to advice about writing, other people’s work, and reasons why I will never succeed as a writer. When I sit down at the computer on a bad day, my fantasies swing wildly from why I can’t write as well as my current favorite author to how amazing my life will be when Oprah reads my first book and decides to promote it. I write a few words, then look online for inspiration from other writers or check to see if anyone has commented on my recent blog post. By the time I’ve done all of that, I decide to read a book that’s like the one I want to write, and my chances for feeling good about myself are diminishing by the moment.

On a good day, when I just sit down and craft a story, it’s as sublime as winning a Pulitzer. Sometimes I think we’ve all gotten too far from the basic stuff of our lives. Our heads are filled with opinions, theories, plans, suggestions, and models. But when I set all of that aside and just do the thing I’ve been circling fearfully for hours—or days—it’s the best version of living a real life that I can think of. It’s rarely perfect—nor even close to it—but it’s always me doing something I need and want to do. And that’s about as great as anything can get.