Ten Things I Learned In The Past Decade

New years eve 2010
Image by adamjackson1984 via Flickr

I hope your 2010, and the decade to come, is filled with good things.

Here are a few of the life lessons that hit me upside the head these past few years, some more gently than others:

1) Young ‘uns rule. If you’re older than 35, 45, let alone 50, it’s a good time to get to know, and understand the thinking and relationships and behaviors of, people unrelated to you who are smart, talented, ambitious — and under 30. Maybe not if you’re a civil servant or tenured professor, but in the media, I think so. Even as a manager, it’s your job now to figure out how differently they think and deal effectively with it, whether the use of technology or some radically different ideas of what work is.

My two best professional opportunities arose this past year thanks to meeting two young women, both of them barely out of graduate school, who were working with high-level people they introduced me to. Had I been dismissive or skeptical of their interest, which many older, experienced workers can be, or could have been pre-recession, I’d have missed out.

One of them is fellow Canadian-jock-in-NY, T/S’s Katie Drummond, who heard me speak to her grad school class at NYU, snagged me, and is now one of my under-30 bosses. Reporting to people so much younger than is a little funky at times, but work — now more than ever — is less about titles and degrees and what you’ve done for the past 20 or 30 years, but about collegiality, mutual respect, enthusiasm, shared values.

Some of us older folk also share the “new” values of Gen Y, such as a way to make a living that also allows us the time and energy to enjoy our life. And there’s no way past the ugly truth that age discrimination is thriving. If you’re out of work, sneak in under the skirts of someone fresh(er)-faced.

2) Techno-sabbaths will keep you and your relationships healthy. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, but I admire their strict Sabbath. In an era of cool, sexy, portable toys that buzz, beep, blink, ring, whine and suck us into their orbits 24/7, turn ’em all off! One full day every single week. Very, very few of us need to be available 24/7, to anyone. It’s ego, addiction, boredom. Your kids, partner, co-workers and others — like wait-staff and retail associates trying to serve lots of other people at the same time — will like you more.

Read the fantastic book on this issue, “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson. Then go stare into the sky or at nature, night or day, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes. We are not meant to spend all our days reacting and responding to machinery, no matter how alluring its form.

3) Take gentle, consistent, grateful care of your body. In January 2000, mine started teaching me a lesson I had no interest in learning — it has limits. Excuse me? I’m not invulnerable?

That’s when I had a right knee arthroscopy to remove torn cartilage (the result of playing three squash games a week). December 2001, I had left knee arthroscopy for the same problem. May 2008 offered right shoulder surgery. By December 2009, the left shoulder needed months of physical therapy to avoid another surgery. November 2009, stress fracture of my left foot.

I’m now on a first-name basis with a whole pile of physical therapists, whose praises I sang in a piece for The New York Times. Not exactly what I had in mind.

In the past decade, I’ve also watched more than a dozen people I cared for die, one at 17 of cancer, another at 49, of cancer, one murdered the day after he retired. Life and health are to be treasured.

If you’re young — under 30, say — you’re certain you’ve got your whole life, probably 80+ years’ worth, to eat junk, sleep 4 hours a night, ride a bike without a helmet, binge-drink, have weird/complicated relationships with food, smoke, take all kinds of drugs or share prescription medications with friends. All you need is one bad accident, surgery or months-long injury to get it and get smart(er.)

Women, especially, are socialized to care for everyone but themselves and to focus endless, tedious, narcissistic attention on the size and shape of their bodies. Focus instead on your blood sugar/pressure, heart health, cancer risks, mental health, wearing a facial moisturizer with SPF every single day.

We live, in the U.S. in one of the most brutal and bare-knuckled of capitalist countries: no paid sick leave, little or no paid vacation, 1/3 of the workforce now working freelance or temp or contract — i.e. no paid sick days or vacation, people terrified to disappoint their boss(es) and get fired. Don’t let this larger world shorten your life, as it can and will.

I worked myself, in March 2007, into three days on an IV in a hospital bed with pneumonia. Don’t ever be(come) that person. Save several months’ expenses so when you are ill you can take enough time off, in most cases, to fully recover.

Respect your body for its strengths and be gentle with its weak(er) bits.

4) Mentor and volunteer, wisely. Everyone needs help, at 17, 28, 39, 54. Whenever. Don’t be a doormat and beware of users, but make it a point to help others trying to achieve a goal you admire and share. It’s fun and it builds good karma.

I answered an email about six years ago from a younger writer in D.C. asking advice. Unlike most people who shamelessly ask to “pick my brain”, he immediately offered several extremely valuable, hard-t0-get editor contacts. Which was kind, classy and made me reply right away. He wasn’t, as so many hungry wannabe’s, out to grab and run.

We have since — still never having met face to face — become good friends and colleagues, acting as valuable sounding boards for one another. The book he was then trying to sell became a best-seller. Cool!

I also serve on the board of the 1,400 member American Society of Journalists and Authors and am a trustee for the Writers’ Emergency Assistance Fund, which gives grants of $5,000 quickly to qualified writers in need.

Find a cause, or several, that matter deeply to you and make a commitment to giving back.

5) Publishing a book will not, despite people’s fantasies to the contrary, change your life. Everyone thinks it will. They want it to. You want it to. Your agent or publisher, maybe less so. They’re been around that block many times before. Don’t assume you’ll get on “Oprah” or even get reviewed anywhere.

If you’re lucky, and/or persistent, and the book has some lasting value, you will find a community of its fans. That’s a lovely thing. Nurture them.

If it does change your life in any significant way, say a huge thank you to whatever deity — or non-deity — you pray to. You are extremely fortunate. Now, go help someone else achieve this; see Lesson Number Four.

6) You can find a decent guy/woman on the Internet. In March 2000, a man in Brooklyn saw my profile on aol.com and wrote me a letter.  Like me, he was a workaholic, ambitious career news journalist, someone who lives to eat, drink, listen to music, take photos, travel. We would never ever have met otherwise, even though we both worked for the Times, he staff, me freelance.

I was, officially, writing a story about on-line dating — then declasse, secret, scary — for the now-defunct women’s magazine, Mademoiselle. We’ve been together ever since.

7) Taking risks is essential to growth. The most terrifying choice — of man/woman, job/career, pet(s), kid(s), re-training, new city, town or country, the fellowship or grant you’re sure you’ll never win, leaving the man or woman or boss who abuses you, the athletic challenge that looks impossible — go for it! Be selective and smart about it, but if nothing you’re working on or with ever makes you a little nervous or anxious, in a good way, you’re stagnant.

8) Your dream job/man/woman/home may prove to be a nightmare. You’ll survive.

9) Being broke, (short of losing your home and health), is annoying as hell but it won’t kill you. I am not talking about severe, chronic poverty, but the nasty fiscal dive so many of us have taken in the past two years — and in the recessions of 2003 and 1990. I’ve watched my income plummet by three-quarters on a few occasions. Not fun!

I live near New York City, where simply driving my Mom to the airport in the summer of 2008 snapped my last nerve after paying an insane $13 in tolls and parking for 15 minutes. Not including gas. Enough already!

Live as far below your means as you can tolerate, adding luxury and pleasures when and where they are affordable; read The Millionaire Next Door, published in 1998, for advice and inspiration on avoiding dangerous peer or family pressure to “keep up”.  Health insurance, safe housing and healthy food are necessities. Cable TV, cellphones, a gym membership, new clothes (short of underwear or socks) are not.

Being broke, even for a few weeks or months, offers a powerful, unavoidable opportunity to sort out your priorities and values, let alone prompt a come-to-Jesus conversation with your partner/spouse/family of origin/kids.

Don’t attach your entire ego to your job title, profession or career. If you have to leave them behind, what (else) will provide you with your sense of self-worth and value?

10) A balanced life includes nurturing your mind, body, soul, heart, friends, family and community. It’s not a zero-sum game. Think of yourself not as a two-sided scale, but a multi-faceted gemstone like a diamond, one that needs to gleam.

I weary to nausea of “balance” conversations. It’s life. It’s your life. It’s your only life. If you need someone to do more of, (even some of), their share of the cleaning, grocery shopping, housework, picking up their dirty laundry — delegate. Insist. Insist again.

Little kids, let alone teens, need to learn that Mom (or, less frequently, Dad) doesn’t mean “slave” in some foreign tongue. If you do always feel like a weary slave to your domestic environment, job or location, consider quitting, moving, downscaling and buying/owning fewer things that need care, feeding, dusting, polishing. Your only life is getting shorter by the minute.

Even if you don’t have kids, you likely have a kajillion other commitments, certainly in a lousy economy with little relief in sight. The word “no” is useful, short, easily said. You can still be a generous and giving person and carve out time for yourself. Do you really need everyone to rely on you being indispensable all the time — or could you, even a few nights a week, instead flop into bed at 9:00 pm. and enjoy a full eight hours’ sleep?

If you don’t take deliberate and consistent care of your own needs, whether for privacy, silence, worship, dawdling, doodling, canoodling, doing nothing, you’ll burn out and become a monster. No one likes a martyr.

Make a list, today, of 10 affordable, accessible activities (no, not Paris) that make you really, really happy. How often do you do them?

Have a Happy New Year  — and great decade!

18 thoughts on “Ten Things I Learned In The Past Decade

  1. palavering

    It is easy to proclaim that we should not attach any signifigance to our employment and our self-esteem. But it isn’t a fair recommendation! We all need purpose in our lives. Those among us who are currently not producing (from former CEOs to janitors)have lost some sense of their worth, especially after having sent out 2- to -300 resumes. I am fortunate to be retired lately; I rue those who have lost their jobs, income, savings, spouses, and self-esteem. It is an egregious experience, I am sure. May all of you find productive and satisfying work NOW!

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    No, that’s not what I said, palavering. My point is that anyone — millions of us — who have lost jobs we valued, not just financially, may never get one like it again, or not at that income level or maybe not even in that industry. It’s sad and crazy-making, but that’s my point. If you define yourself only and exclusively, or primarily by your job/title/income/peer status — and lose it and never regain it — your identity crisis is profound.

    This is also an issue that is likely more damaging for men, who tend to focus all or most of their identity on their work or source(s) of income.

    This is a country and a culture that places enormous — too-large — emphasis on our fiscal/employment value and not nearly enough on encouraging us all, from childhood onwards, to equally value our social or intellectual or emotional gifts. Then we begin to devalue those as well. Then you lose your job. Then you’re toast because you have placed, and kept, many or all of your ego’s eggs in the basket of work/paid work/employment.

    In a capitalist economy that “sheds” labor like we change our socks, that’s a real error in judgment.

    1. palavering

      Caitlin, where, exactly, do we increase our self-esteem, if not from productive work? Again, you posit that the world should be more than what it really is. Ask yourself: What is self-esteem? And how do I maintain it? The answer is: Self-esteem is derived from being competent to live and worthy of your own existence, isn’t it? So, consider how one feels, sitting at home typing resumes, watching the boob tube, and taking naps. BTW, yer my favorite writer! Yea!

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    palavering, this is such an American viewpoint! Such Puritan values…if we are not “productive” we are truly worthless? No, no and no.

    There are many other cultures where shoving your aged parents into a nursing home — no matter how lavishly paid for by your fancy mega-bucks job — is deemed nasty and heartless, for example. The income matters less than the larger values of how it’s spent, to some others, is my point.

    I’ve been unemployed/job-seeking for many long months at several points in my career so I’m hardly unappreciative of the toll this takes on one’s psyche. It sucks. But it has also taught me that I am much more than the sum of my economic parts. I’ve hit very, very deep depressions when I focused all my “worth” on whether or not I was getting interviews or job offers. That was a mistake I learned from.

    Self-esteem, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If that beholder is a cog within the laissez-faire capitalist system of the U.S., a system in which anyone not working for income (what about stay at home moms?) is supposed to feel ashamed and worthless, yup, your self-esteem is shot if you don’t have a paycheck, title or big fat income. But many of us don’t, right now. I should tap-dance on the window-ledge because I am not a fully functioning economic unit?! I’m still paying taxes, funny thing.

    I grew up in another culture and have lived in three beyond the U.S. and Canada, so have a different POV on this.

    Glad to hear I’m still your fave. And naps rule…:-)

    1. palavering

      Caitlin, you seem critical of the American way of life. If it weren’t for the American producers Canadians wouldn’t be living so well. Of course, we are not without fault, but we live better than any other nation. If not, why are you here?
      Moreover, having a job and being economically sound are two different subjects. One can work for minimum wage and still keep one’s self-esteem in tact. Stay-at-home moms are VERY productive.
      Gotta go, Caitlin–it’s nap time. Bill

  4. jcalton

    “Caitlin, where, exactly, do we increase our self-esteem, if not from productive work?”

    Why not just kill oneself now and have one’s tombstone affixed with name, date, and occupation, since that encompasses the whole of one’s life?

    Make a New Year’s resolution: Don’t ask anyone in 2010 “What do you do?” [Make it a little early and try it with strangers at that NYE party.]

    See how long you can make it and likewise how crazy it drives you; see just how much you can learn about a person without knowing their vocation. Whether you fail at that resolution quickly or after several months, then maybe you will be able to admit just how much overemphasis you’ve placed on work as life.

    For one year, I tried to only ask people I’d just met “Do you enjoy what you do?” (Without first asking what they did.) I learned a LOT more about the people from that question. They probably learned quite a bit about me, as well.

    I’ve since stopped inquiring about work at all of people I’ve just met, and I’m much happier for it.

  5. “work — now more than ever — is less about titles and degrees and what you’ve done for the past 20 or 30 years, but about collegiality, mutual respect, enthusiasm, shared values.”

    True that (I hope)! Happy New Year!

    1. palavering

      Katie, mutual respect doesn’t produce much, save perhaps a sexual encounter–and babies. Collegiality doesn’t produce anything, either. All that you mentioned produces nothing but potential–which by itself is empty.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    jcalton, thankyou! Anyone who’s lived outside the U.S. knows you can go through an entire social event without ever once discussing what your interlocutor(s) do for a living. Why is it SO important and interesting? It’s not! It’s also a declasse question if someone is out of work and uncomfortable about that.

    If someone starts perseverating (as they often do) in NY and other workaholic places about their bloody job/title/income, I very quickly ask: “So, what do you do for fun?” I want to know what they eat, drink, listen to, read, value – not who signs their paychecks.

    We recently had a couple over for dinner, both of whom are fellow journos, but he’s French and she lived there for years. Not once (yay) did we discuss work.

  7. Caitlin, this is such a nice list. I feel heartier, more optimistic, and yes, more balanced for having read it! I’m stealing your idea of a techno-sabbath. My online trigger finger has gotten so automatic that when I wake up between dreams in the middle of the night I check my email!

  8. Pingback: Tweets that mention Ten Things I Learned In The Past Decade - Caitlin Kelly - Broadside - True/Slant -- Topsy.com

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    Gina, thanks. Time for an intervention, for sure! I admit to checking my T/S site on an Iphone at 3:00 a.m. so this is something I have to try as well.

    Fruzsina, thanks for the kind words.

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