I didn’t plan to come to D.C. I didn’t plan to stay a decade, much less at the same workplace. I didn’t plan on anything in 2009 other than moving to a populated area for an editing job that wasn’t print-dependent. I got lucky — in the recession I found a place that needed copy editors, would pay more and had a growing, profitable revenue stream.

Today is 10 years since I started that job right after moving to D.C. We were in a different building, but still on 11th St. NW, and my co-worker and fellow copy editor El (for Eleanor) took me to the Potbelly down the street that’s still there. I’d barely spent time in D.C. before, much less been to a Potbelly, and it was exciting! Potbelly is just another lunch place today, but I hope I haven’t lost my joy at being in this awe-inspiring, busy and ridiculous city.

I have had a full decade. Many accomplishments, many mistakes. Met many people, built relationships with a lot, screwed up a few of those and even got burned by a couple of them. Lived in a few apartments, and somehow pay $1,000 a month more than I did for like an extra 200 square feet. Metro is always simultaneously a godsend and a functional disaster. I had a car, and now I haven’t driven one for 3.5 years. I was single. Now I’m not.

The constant has been having this job where I help put together emails for people in random niches — emails that seem to be popular with readers and advertisers even though no one would ever mistake them for literature.

The less constant part has been figuring out what exactly I was supposed to doing with my life as an adult. And by “figuring out,” I also mean I didn’t or couldn’t address this for a long time.

When I was 7 years old, I wanted to work in newspapers (I had two other goals; we’ll get there). I had some kind of software program for my Commodore 64 or whatever we replaced that with where I would mock up news pages. For fun. I wrote a paper about the 1993 Mississippi River floods, and it wasn’t even for school! I just wanted to dig as much into this ongoing, huge yet distant story as I could. This was what I was excited about.

Then I spent a lot of years getting really lucky. Despite the disintegration of seemingly everything around me in high school, I was able to hang in there in class, do well enough with sports to compete in college and get my Eagle Award despite switching troops halfway through.

In college, I was fortunate enough to find people who got me, belatedly, into the school paper and a class just so taught by one of the pre-eminent copy editors in the US. That got me a great internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune right before the newspaper bubble burst (seriously, summer 2005 was, I believe, the 20th consecutive year of circulation growth there) and then a full-time copy editing and pagination job at a daily newspaper that fall.

Was I really just running out the clock, as I like to joke?

Here is where my intellectual dilemma began: I’d done the three things I wanted to do at 7, and I was 22 with nothing left to accomplish. Not really true, and a bit silly, but this was the shock to the system. Luckily, I had this job to learn and grow in and a daily battle against the recession and fading print interest and every other challenge the evening shift at a paper presents.

So what have I done with the last 10 years? Work. A lot. But I’ve also had to learn to figure out what else I wanted in life. Was I really just running out the clock, as I like to joke? Should I really be bouncing between apathy and aggravation so frequently? Why was I being different versions of myself for different people and situations?

I haven’t quite figured all this out. But over the past few years I had to start reconstructing my values system, if only for my own clarity. The most obvious realization was that I was running away from those early life goals, even if it was for a good reason. Those childhood aspirations hinted at a few things that do bring out the best in me:

  • Getting people information they need: I like talking and I like sharing things. But, having facts and things inside my head isn’t that rewarding. It’s the sharing that I enjoy. At its best, this is an act of service. Sure, I might like being the person informing people, but ultimately I only succeed if they do. (Also, this isn’t the same as information they want — I’m sometimes nudging them past their comfort or existing knowledge) Luckily, working in journalism and then email has been a natural conduit for this passion.
  • Being a college athlete. This is more selfish, sure. But it also was a laser focus for figuring out what I could be good enough at, setting a goal, working hard and learning everything I could about it. I never loved running, but I was pretty good at it, trusted and learned from my coaches, had great teammates and found an excellent community. By working hard I could test my limits, be part of a group and give back. Finding something to devote myself to has been more challenging — there’s a lot of investment and risk involved.
  • Being an Eagle Scout. The Scouts have had problems, I know. But I greatly benefited from the Scouting value system. I needed its close-knit group of support, its emphasis on thinking through values and acting on them, and the reminder that those choices and values were never in isolation from others. Additionally, I was usually one of the older Scouts those last few years, and it was a great and wonderful responsibility to help the younger kids find their way. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever abandoned those values, but I didn’t always put the work in (or have the mental energy to do so).

So, if I’m having a good day at work, I’m helping others be informed. I’m practicing my craft the best I can so I can contribute toward my goals and aid my co-workers and our clients/customers. In doing that, I can also get to know them, and them to know me. We can build trust and maybe friendship that can help us weather when things don’t go well or when hard decisions have to be made.

And, hopefully, in doing all of this, I’m thinking beyond myself in what I say, think and do. I’m not shying away from the right thing because it’s difficult, awkward or inconvenient. I don’t feel the need to jump in just to have an opinion. And when I don’t know something, I can be OK with that (and, in most cases, learning more).

If I can live those values at work, then I’m being the best I can be, and I can live with the results. And if I can live those values at work, then for damn sure I can strive to live those values outside of work. I don’t have to partition those two worlds, or pretend that I have to be two personalities (or want to be). And — and! — then I’m not just running out the clock.

How am I doing? Ask me each day, the answer might change! But I do think that I’ve been slowly trudging in the right direction.

If nothing else, I’ve learned that, for me, work’s the relatively easy part! It’s the other 16 hours a day, give or take, that are the challenge.

One thought on “Work is the easy part of life (for me)

  1. I appreciate this insightful self-reflection, James. I wonder if it’s not so much “running away” from early goals as more of an evolution. As you said, though, they do give you a frame of reference that will probably always help you orient yourself. I wish you much clarity as you make progress toward figuring it out.

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