I took a hike to the top of a 6,000-foot ridge one summer. It had a great view of the 14,000-foot extinct volcano 20 miles away. Hailing from a state where the elevation tops off at 1,000 feet, experience had to teach me the counter-intuitive fact that a mountain looks bigger the higher you get.
As I gazed upon the snow-capped behemoth, dominating the landscape, it gradually, eerily faded away right before my eyes. I couldn’t see what was probably the cause, distant mists drifting between the mountain and where I stood. Rather, the air seemed to thicken somehow, and thicken some more, until I was staring at a spot above the horizon that was indistinguishable from any other mountainless spot in the sky.
That’s what my life has been like lately, only in reverse. The mountain fading into view is a metaphor for my own self. Insight is gathering form, but I hesitate to stare directly, fearing it might again elude me.
So when I sat down this morning, it was not to write about what’s new in my life, but to respond to 21stCenturySuperwoman’s kind nomination of Sensitive Type for the One Lovely Blogger Award two weeks ago. If you are not familiar with this award – as I was not – it’s a positive interbloggerly twist on the classic chain letter. To accept, nominees must:
- Thank the person who nominated them for the award
- Add the One Lovely Blog logo to their post
- Share 7 facts/or things about their self
- Nominate 15 bloggers they admire and inform the nominees by commenting on their blogs
First, let me just express my gratitude – the affirmation is very much appreciated. Full stop.
OK, moving on. Pleased as I was, I also experienced an immediate time-panic. I probably do not have to describe what this is to other HSPs. So I hearkened back to a previous post, and decided to make this a test case for my own advice – to start with “I’ll think about it,” rather than jumping straight to “yes.”
Thinking it Over
While I’ve been thinking about it, a lot of other stuff has happened. In fact, it was starting to happen before that, as I noticed when I re-read the July post in which I offered that advice.
In that post I said I hadn’t been able to identify the one talent that’s so natural to us (according to Marianne Cantwell), that we may have difficulty recognizing it in ourself.
“Difficulty”? HUGE understatement! This mysterious aptitude has eluded me for over a year, ever since I discovered her Free Range Humans blog. Barrie Jaeger said something similar in her book, Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person.
I was rather frustrated with Cantwell’s advice to ask our friends if we couldn’t figure it out. That’s all very well for extroverts like herself, as I commented on the post where she came out as an HSP, but don’t forget the introverts, who may need an alternate route.
Never mind, Marianne. I think I figured it out.
To me, this discovery warrants a long and intense drumroll, but it’s going to be anticlimactic for the rest of the universe, so I’ll just cut to the chase.
Sum, Ergo Scribo
In my inaugural Sensitive Type post, I wrote “scribo, ergo sum” (I write therefore I am). Or is it that I am, therefore I write? Chicken, egg, tomayto, tomahto – cause and effect do not apply here. Writing and being are inextricably correlated for me, and always have been, as I’ve known for a lot longer than a year. Kind of known.
I knew it in 2007, when I quit the job I recently described in Unfinished Business. If I was going to work that hard on writing, I wanted it to be my own. So what’s the first thing I did after I freed myself from the implosive pressure of being on call to someone with no concept of other peoples’ boundaries? I started a blog, of course.
I soon began to suspect that random posts about TV shows one week and international politics the next didn’t really hang together. Maybe that works for extroverts who already have a broad acquaintanceship. My natural-networker cousins, the marketing director and the resort manager, for instance, with hundreds of Facebook friends, most of whom carry over from the physical world. For their readers, the unifying fact that all the posts are written by someone they already know is enough. But for an HSP introvert who attends 3 social events a year, the target audience of people she hasn’t met yet need some kind of pathway to find the blog.
I didn’t realize any of this back then, however. There didn’t seem to be much point in posting to the internet when I was my only reader, so I abandoned that blog. But I kept the name, which was, frankly, the most inspired part of it, and resurrected it last year with a more focused topic.
Flash forward to 2012, where we find our narrator in another stressful job, this time as a salesperson for a tech startup where staff were “us” and customers were “them.” I stuck it out for a year by furiously venting into a notebook on my lunch hour, dreaming of the best revenge ever when it became a best-selling exposé/memoir. But one can only suffer so much, even for art. The day came when I reached my limit and walked out.
And what do you think I did first? I started a blog. What else?
This time I did have an enthusiasm to share. For the first couple of months of 2012, I was waiting for a post to go viral and make me a lucratively-compensated internet star. I wasn’t too sure how that worked, but I figured I would be showered with some kind of offers once I had a bunch of readers.
After three months, even though I had written it, they had not come. I investigated. I learned that the conventional “monetizing” options didn’t appeal to me. The very word “monetize” made me cringe. I also discovered that my niche was already filled to overflowing. Oops. That blog is still running as it approaches its 3rd birthday, with a surprisingly stable readership considering that most of my writing energy this year has been expended here. But I resigned myself to looking elsewhere for a livelihood.
And then, in 2013, I read Quiet, was shocked to realize I was an introvert, and you’ll never guess what I did then. Why how did you know? Yes, I did start a third blog. Indeed it is the very blog you are reading now.
Third Time’s a Charm?
You’d think I might be sensing a pattern by that time, wouldn’t you? But no. Blogging was just something I did, like writing journals before that, as unremarkable as eating, sleeping and showering. Doesn’t everyone? You’ve got to admit it seems that way sometimes!
By September of this year, I had articulated what I wanted my daily life to look like (which is Marianne Cantwell’s first step for building a satisfactory life, instead of the pick-a-career-from-a-list-approach). I described it in my 9/12/14 post (see “Wanted: Patron”), but I didn’t realize until later that I had described an actual job, with a name, that people were making a living at: columnist. Wait, don’t I already do that?
What’s the Difference?
Mr. Not So Nice – remember him? – is finding me more difficult to replace than he anticipated. Every now and then, karma catches up with someone who done you wrong while you are still around to feel vindicated by it :)
Over the past few weeks, as I phase out that job more gradually than was originally planned, I’ve been expanding my horizons beyond Free Range Humans, and looking at other blogs about how to live the life you want while paying the bills. I’ve read up on everything from professional blogging to hiring cheap foreign workers to write Kindle e-books which you then spend most of your time marketing (NOT something I would ever consider doing, if that even has to be said).
I’ve looked for this kind of information before, of course, and never found any solutions there. So what has changed?
Well, first of all, I have. I’m beginning to understand just how far off track I’ve been in the way I’ve tried to make a living for the last 40 years. Everything about it was wrong – the wrong skills, the wrong goals, the wrong environment, and the wrong people. And that’s not just because of my personality types.
The right question is not, “can I make a living?” but “can I make a life?”
It’s all been wrong because of this: I have to create. Have to. Nothing else works for me. Nothing else ever really did. Inspiration is churning away constantly in my head, and if it can’t find an outlet, I lose all passion, all sense of agency, and all feeling of purpose and meaning. I literally can’t live like that.
Yet all this time I thought I had to, because some 7th grade guidance counselor told me there were only 4 job openings a year in the entire U.S. for people in the creative professions. I thought you must have to be pretty special to land one of those 4 jobs, a lot more special than me.
I really hope they aren’t doing that to 14 year-olds anymore.
So I tried to work the conventional way because it was necessary to make a living. But here’s the thing: I HAVEN’T made a living! I’ve been stuck in an endless cycle of forcing myself into a life that is boring, exhausting, meaningless and self-eroding for as long as I can stand it, and then needing so much time to recover my equilibrium before I can function again that I’m driven right back into the same boat to pay off debt just when I’m starting to feel like myself again.
I could’ve been a struggling artist/writer all that time. At worst, I’d be no broker than I am now, and I might’ve been a lot happier.
The saddest thing is that I knew this, too, kind of. Of the cultural roles on offer, I identified “artist” as the one that fit me best when I was in high school ! But I thought I was some kind of defective artist with no art!!
Again and again over the past 40 years, I have considered getting career training for various crafts, but I always hesitated because I feared I couldn’t make a living at it. Sitting here in debt to the tune of a year’s income (a year when I’m working), the irony is a whole lot richer than I am.
Is this you, too? If so, don’t do like I did. The right question is not, “can I make a living?” but “can I make a life?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to be figuring it out at all. Better late than never – way better. And I recognize that doing it at 56 is my personal path, which no doubt taught me all sorts of useful life lessons. But if you can learn from my experience instead of your own, I recommend that. Those lessons were pricey. Literally.
There’s Something Happening Here
The really interesting thing about all of this (for people other than me) is that something similar is happening for a lot of people right now. If anything, I was a little ahead of the curve. Most of the blogs I’ve read in the past few weeks didn’t exist when I first went looking for them in early 2012.
I don’t know if it’s the influence of Quiet, the maturation of the internet and people who grew up with it, something the alien scientists put in the water, or wisdom descending at last upon the humans, but something’s going around. People are looking deeper in all walks of life, quietly, often individually, but with persistence, determination and action. Quality is in the ascendant, while greedy self-interest is losing its cachet.
It’s possible to view the “forging a new job path” trend as a gigantic spontaneous pyramid scheme, since most people who blog about it derive at least part of their income from mentoring others. That part of it will eventually collapse when the market for mentors is saturated. But there’s a strong streak of genuine altruism running through it all that belies that perspective. I guess when you start thinking about making a life rather than a living, you start thinking about other people differently, too.
24 Hours a Day
This post was about time, wasn’t it? It was going to be, because my struggles with time have been a recurrent symptom of the underlying problem I wasn’t seeing. I was always racing against it, never having enough of it. What I wanted to be doing was deferred to left over time, of which there was none, as optimal recovery time for my stressful life always exceeded the hours in the day. I thought I didn’t believe in “disciplining” myself – I wouldn’t use force on someone else, so why use it on myself? Yet I see now that I forced myself into schedules with no space for me to be me over and over again.
I checked out Elance and similar writing/editing gig markets a couple of years back, and was appalled by the incredibly low rates of pay. That stuck in my head as the best I could hope for as a professional writer, and confirmed what I learned in middle school, that I had nothing more to offer than what a million other people had at least as much of.
However, in my recent reading I’ve discovered what I’d begun to suspect, that there are writers who make a decent living writing blog posts after all. My first reaction was, hey, I already know how to do that. I even have a body of published work to point to. I checked into the nuts and bolts of it: real-world pay, bylines, contracts, word counts, and tips for scouting and managing clients. All of this info was provided by currently active professional bloggers who put it out there to help other developing writers, even though they may be legging up their own competition. See what I mean about the altruistic streak?
Why is doing what I care about, what fulfills me, always the last thing on the list?
I didn’t get very far into it before I started to have qualms. I’m a slow writer, and compensation is per-post, not per-hour. I’ve finally noticed that deadlines stress me out inordinately. Then there’s all that client management. Mr. Not So Nice has left me mistrusting my interpersonal instincts. Not to mention that my writing energy would be squandered on someone else’s interests. Would there be any left over for my own? Leftovers again. Why is doing what I care about, what fulfills me, always the last thing on the list?
I thought to myself, this isn’t what you want. It’s just another case of something that sort of resembles what you want to be doing, but isn’t really it. I’ve begun to understand that there’s no such thing as “sort of the right thing.” It is or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, a close miss is no better than a distant one. In fact, it’s usually worse, since it’s a lot easier to mistake myself for the problem when I’ve mistaken the wrong job for a solution.
While I’ve overlooked some pretty important things about myself, I haven’t missed everything. There are certain cycles I experience. For example, after I’ve extracted myself from an untenable situation – job, relationship, home space, whatever – life invariably offers up another remarkably similar situation in short order. I’ve come to understand this as a cosmic placement test. Am I really done with that, or do I have to go another round before I’m ready for the next level?
With all of the above in mind, I firmly decided against pursuing professional blogging. But once I’d given myself permission to reject a possible opportunity, even one that seemed like a good match for my skills and experience, a funny thing happened. I changed my mind.
Why? Because I don’t have a better plan right now, and I need to be doing something. Not just because my income is drying up in a couple of weeks, but because I just feel it’s that time, you know? Sometimes you need to make a move, and it doesn’t really matter which direction, because the thing life is setting you up for is going to come out of left field anyway. This feels like one of those times.
Therefore, starting today, I’m embarking upon a self-guided “get started as a freelance blogger” course, which has the following virtues:
1). The structure. You get an email telling you to do one thing each day for a month. I like the sound of that.
2). It’s affordable.
3). The woman who put it together reminds me a little of me 30 years ago.
I don’t know if I’m really sensing impending synchronicity, or just telling myself a story because, for some unfathomable reason, I DO need another round of “almost.”
Time (of which we were speaking) will tell.
See, the post really is about time :)
This post has a great title, doesn’t it? I wish I could take credit for it, but being an honest woman, I confess that I stole it.
How to Live on 24 Hours a Day is the title of a short book first published in 1910 by prolific British novelist and self-help author, Arnold Bennett. It’s the early 20th century equivalent of an e-book – entertaining, sprinkled with insights, but ultimately not delivering on the promise of its catchy title.
And how could it, since Bennett hadn’t had much experience with the life of his salaryman target audience? He worked briefly in his father’s business, and then as a clerk, but by the age of 22 he was a professional writer (journalist), and had quit working for other people to pursue his already lucrative career as an author before he was 30.
Upon close examination, the book seems more of a tongue-in-cheek satire on notions of self-improvement than a serious guide to anything. If you want to check it out, you can read it here, or listen to it here.