by Ashley Brandt
“Where do you learn that?” I remember my cousin asking. My blank stare hinted that I didn’t know what she was getting at. “You know, how you always put your work first. Where did that come from?”
I didn’t have an answer for her. For as long as I could remember, doing my best work was what defined me as a person and how I measured my success. I always made time for birthdays and holidays but invitations for things like Sunday football games and weekday game nights began to fall off. The reason was always, “We just assumed you’d be working.”
I thrived on being excited and invested in my career and the path that I saw it taking. Long hours and weeks without ends didn’t phase me because the work that I was doing satisfied my social, cultural and, of course, my financial needs.
But when setbacks started to come, as they were bound to, I started to unravel. Every misstep felt like I was falling off a cliff, needing to start climbing from the bottom each time.
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A while ago, I came across a piece by the writer Victoria Sowell that made me realize how common this experience is. Sowell explains in the piece that, at a certain point, she realized that her focus on professional performance had eclipsed all other parts of her identity. In a constant pursuit of results, she lost her sense of self. Inevitable and occasional professional setbacks began to feel like personal failings.
“What you do matters, but it does not sum you up,” Sowell writes. “If our lives center around simply our performance, then we will never stop striving.”
This isn’t an epiphany hidden in one dark corner of the internet. As The Cut points out in a recent piece, obsessing over work can create a dangerous link between productivity and self-worth. Ironically, this can lead to emotionally-charged and ultimately counterproductive decisions at work. Not only that, psychotherapist Amy Morin writes in Forbes, but it can prevent you from taking the kinds of risks that lead to creativity and success.
I am lucky enough to work for company that believes in the value of the life I live after 7pm and on Saturdays. But I didn’t start taking advantage of this policy until I started to realize the impact that tying my identity to what I do for work was starting to have on my self esteem.
After my most recent change in roles, I decided that I wanted to make a new effort to find joy outside of work and build on interests and passions of mine that have nothing to do with work. I started signing up for soundbaths, forager-led hikes and ceramics classes.
In my ceramics class, I am able to take on a different form. Instead of slumped over a laptop keyboard, I strategically perch myself above the piece that I am trying to influence under gentle force. Instead of wearing my uniform of dark pants and a striped shirt, I am wearing dusty boots, vintage mechanic’s coveralls and a bandana containing my unwashed, wavy hair. My hands are too wet to worry about checking my email and my mind is too occupied to wonder what I am missing on Instagram. While my efforts might not yield something that has values to others, the time that I am spent at the wheel is invaluable to me.
At first, the results-oriented part of me expected that my first ceramics class would unlock a dormant talent. A hidden spark that I had been suppressing while honing my spreadsheet crafting abilities and Google drive mastery. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. But as I began to focus more on exploring than performing, my lack of natural ability did not stand in the way of me enjoying my time at the wheel.
I’ve found that these pursuits have not only lightened my emotional load, but have also led to benefits for my teams at work. At times when I might have taken feedback as a personal slight, as I might if I thought of my work as the sole definition of who I was, I can approach difficulty with a more level head. In broadening how I define myself and my passions, I can reach milestones in both my life and my work without overextending my emotional capacity.
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Of course, I have more work to do. I still have moments where comments feel personal and days when I feel like I can’t get anything right. But I take those moments to think back to when I’m at the wheel, the clay doesn’t flex, mold and expand because of how it feels about me as a person but because of the effort that I bring to the wheel.
By mentally taking myself back to the times when my hands are dirty and the only real control I have is the speed of the wheel, I am able to bring forward my true self. Someone that isn’t fully defined by her spreadsheets or the cups and bowls that go into the kiln, but someone who is able to thrive in the space between.