When Work No Longer Works

June 20, 2017

Valerie gordon work web when work no longer works

Like many women I know, I am wired to work.

Driven, I would describe myself.

Committed, I’ve been called.

Ambitious, I’ve heard them say, sometimes in a way that makes it sound less like a positive quality and more of a character flaw. (Ambition is NOT a dirty word!)

No matter, I had a work ethic and an energy that was indefatigable!

I’ve loved to work, ever since my first job in high school serving customers and filling cannoli at a little coffee shop on Mamaroneck Avenue. My grandfather would stop by for a pastry and a cup of coffee and leave a $20 bill on the table. He didn’t know we had to pool our tips.

Later, I worked for free, serving a number of unpaid internships while in college, the route to a “real” job in television. After graduation, I worked as a production assistant logging tapes for $400 a week, with no benefits. I typed quickly so was the best at it. When other PAs got opportunities to go out on field shoots, I was asked to stay behind to keep logging. I had to walk away from that job otherwise I’d still be there today, 80 words per minute.

Hard work pays off. I spent a decade traveling the country, working around the clock, producing my own stories.

Nagano when work no longer works

And then, over the next decade, climbing the corporate ladder to some semblance of upper-middle management where I could hear the groans from the trenches and represent them in higher-level meetings but not actually do anything to quell them.

And yet, I loved and took pride in my work. So much pride that I made sure to prioritize it around the rest of my life – a husband, two kids, two cats, a dog. A mortgage. The occasional evening out with friends. The (less) occasional 5k. Laundry. Always lots of laundry.

I made my work work because I never stopped working.

I worked at the pediatrician’s waiting room, absorbed in an email while a clearly better mother glared at me and my bleary-eyed daughter from across the room. “But I’m here, aren’t I?” I assured myself, defensively.  “I’m here,” as I touched my daughter’s warm forehead, wondering if I could dose her up with Tylenol and get to the office in time for that 11 am meeting.

And because work is so portable these days, on little devices, I could really work from anywhere.

I worked weekends at the soccer field, ducking when a fellow spectator alarmed a ball was flying towards my head. I worked evenings during Little League games, always seeming to be looking down at my phone when my son made the catch.

The understanding moms would offer the play-by-play in great detail, so I could pretend to have seen it. The others would speak disdainfully of me out of earshot. That mom who’s always on her phone. I learned to tell the difference.

I worked over breakfast, through lunch, and while out to dinner with my husband. When he banned the phone from the restaurant table, I snuck it into a stall in the ladies’ room and did my work there as quickly as possible so as not to arouse suspicion.

I worked on the chairlift while chaperoning my son’s ski trip, careful my frozen fingers didn’t drop my phone to the slopes below.

I worked, sending emails while in the middle of my annual Pap smear (every guy I’ve ever worked with who is reading this is cringing right now – yes, it probably was you I was emailing).

I worked under the covers at 3:30 am, having told the producer in the all-night edit that of course, I would be available whenever needed, just text me when the piece is ready for review and I’d sign off well before its 7 a.m. debut. There’s something about sneaking work next to your sleeping husband that feels like infidelity.

I did what needed to be done to get the work done. 

I worked on vacation – my family skiing on the mountain while I sat in the car in the parking lot, the only place I could get a WiFi signal strong enough.

I checked emails compulsively – dozens of times daily – just before going to sleep, first thing after opening my eyes in the morning, at red lights on my way to the office, and immediately upon parking the car.

I even worked in meetings and during conference calls, doing work other than the work at hand, occasionally getting tripped up by my multi-tasking. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?  My phone must have cut out…”

The goal of all this work, of course, was to achieve higher-level work.

And so, I didn’t think I could miss a beat.

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Then came that particularly busy day several years ago when my heart skipped a beat. Strange palpitations and lightheadedness accompanied me on my drive to the office. I called my doctor, who told me to go to an urgent care facility where they hooked me up to an EKG and then hurriedly called an ambulance.

I spent the entire day undergoing tests in the hospital, iPhone uncharged and unusable, before being declared fine and discharged with a diagnosis of “stress.”

This should be the moment of epiphany from which great changes are made, right? But I hadn’t suffered a heart attack. I only had “stress.” And an extra-large co-pay for the ambulance ride and hospital stay.

And so, I went to work the next morning. Embarrassed to have wasted the day, I felt I had so much to catch up on.

Were there times I thought, “This is crazy”? Of course. But I wanted to make it work. And I suppose I did, in a way.

After all, I was driven and committed and ambitious!  Even indefatigable!

Until I wasn’t.

I developed a bad case of Frowny Work Face.

I began to ponder what the work was getting me other than more work.  A manager suggested I wasn’t doing enough. In order to prove myself, I had to work harder.

And, all I could think was, “No.”  An inner voice spoke for me.

No. I’m done doing that.

It’s not working for me.

Like a power cord that had taken on too big of an electrical surge, I had fizzled out. My nerves felt like frayed wires. I felt like a light switch I couldn’t flip back on again.

There was nothing left.

And so I left.

For anyone reading who thinks I’m suggesting you, too, leave your work, on the contrary. I can only advise you don’t overwork. Especially to the point at which the best option – the only option – is to walk away.

You’d think it would be easy to walk away, to leave work behind. To no longer be at the beck and call of a pinging device. To eat a meal without interruption or sleep through the night. To be attentive in the waiting room, watch the baseball game, enjoy the view on the chairlift. Even make small talk with the OB-GYN.

But I’m out of practice. There’s an Unbearable Freedom to all that free time.

Now the real work begins.

What does life look like without work? What type of work allows a life?

Figuring this out, I realize, is my life’s work.

I’m not very good at it yet, I know. It will take the same kind of drive and commitment and ambition I’d previously given to the job. I will need to once again be indefatigable in my proof – to myself – I can do it.

Clearly, I have my work cut out for me.

Valerie gordon old headshot when work no longer works

Valerie Gordon is an award-winning television producer, lifelong storyteller, and founder of Commander-in-She, LLC. She helps high-achieving women with communication tools and storytelling strategies to create a stand-out career. Follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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