I come from a family of hustlers.
My siblings and I were pushed to do our best and be on the lookout for the next great achievement we could conquer. This manifests differently in each of us: as an occupational therapist, my sister picks up extra shifts or side gigs while also pursuing brand-new avenues in the field in her “free time” (used extremely loosely here). My brother, a teacher, has now coached just about every sport his school offers, in addition to a full-time teaching load and running the wrestling program top to bottom. As for me, I’ve had a nonstop stream of nighttime writing gigs since I graduated: tutoring, teaching at libraries, teaching at colleges, editing manuscripts, proofreading clinical trials, web copy for authors…plus deep involvement in politics running a podcast: taping, editing, all the social media.
And, somewhere in there, I’m supposed to be writing a novel.
The three of us have this inherent drive to work, to produce, to find new ways to secure our bag. To take every opportunity we’re given. To always say yes. For the most part, this is a beneficial, at times virtuous, instinct to have. But with this ambition comes a desire to best each other, too. I used to think the sense of competition I felt among us was imagined, that I was putting pressure on myself to “beat” them for no reason. But one day, after an interview for a position at Yale, my grandmother casually said if I landed the job I would move up in the grandchild rankings. “But your sister still wins,” she reminded me, “since she makes the most money.” (I miss that lady and her unflinching frankness.)
That confirmed it: it’s in my blood to compete and keep an eye out for the next big thing. While this has motivated me my entire life and helped me get where I am now, there’s a new toxicity leaching in that I need to eradicate.
I fear my hustle is out of control.
Ambition is a wonderful thing, and it’s something I’ll never be able to shake; give me any online Harry Potter sorting quiz on the planet, and I come up Slytherin, every time. But I recently looked around and wondered if any of the hustling I was doing was moving me in the right direction.
When I earned my MFA in 2013, I hit the ground running in an attempt to pay my dues. I had a full-time job in something that wasn’t my true passion, so I knew I would have to build up a decent side-gig game to improve my resume and get the experience I needed to move into more writerly spaces. At the time, I thought I wanted to work in publishing, since I loved editing and proofreading and giving critiques. I took on proofreading gigs for experience and cash in hopes of building my editing business.
I soon learned that almost everyone in my program had the same idea. Personal websites and Facebook pages popped up weekly. We received emails and DM’s from cohorts and alumni, all trying to solicit us to use them as our book editors when the time came.
I also thought teaching creative writing in college would be another dream job, so I put out applications to every college within 2 hours of me to build up adjunct cred, in the hopes of being noticed and promoted to a full-time professor by putting in the time.
I soon learned cobbling together adjunct teaching opportunities wouldn’t come close to a full-time salary, and there were no benefits, and adjuncting without a published book pretty much never led to a tenure-track position.
Even after these lessons sank in, I kept hustling.
I recently started feeling really anxious and restless. I was completely exhausted by the time I got home at 5:30, with nothing left to give besides outbursts of frustration in the wrong direction. I had full emotional breakdowns - 2 in 2 weeks. During one of those crying spirals, I realized why I’d felt so uncomfortable and angry and distracted. It was simple:
“I have too much shit going on, and most of it isn’t serving me at all.”
I was on autopilot, doing the same side gigs that I had needed in 2013: for the money and the experience. But I didn’t need them anymore. The amount of time they took during my off-work hours was no longer worth the pittance. I’m now a professional editor and proofreader with no need or interest to do more of the same when I’m out of work. Somewhere along the way, these projects had become unhelpful and inconvenient. They loomed behind any other aspect of my life I tried to focus on. There was always something due, something else I should have been doing besides writing the book, spending time with my wife, taking care of our home, breathing for a moment. I would crumble under the weight of expectations and
All of this productivity was actually making me unproductive - and unhappy. So I decided to stop. I emailed the small presses that sent me proofing work. I wound down a copywriting project. And I’m in the process of finishing out a college teaching course. I know that where I really want to go in life, I need to have a published book. So instead of cluttering my time with short-term paying gigs, I’m finally going to focus on a long-term goal, for the first time in forever. (And it just so happens that November is National Novel Writing Month, so my October meltdowns were a perfect preamble!)
This is a very long way of saying: I’m finally clearing the decks to focus on what matters instead of on being perpetually busy. It’s only been a few days since I took the first steps to refocus my life, and I already feel so much better. In the words of Ron Swanson: it’s time to whole-ass one thing for a change. Let’s see where it takes me.