The illusion of control

I am, it must be said, a terrible control freak. Or, if you take the positive view, I am a truly excellent control freak. I am very, very good at it. I like things locked in, nailed down, and spelt out in lists. I have lists of things to buy, broken down by where we need to go to buy them.  I have lists of things to do at work and things to do at home. I have lists of possible gifts for people, and lists of questions I need to ask my boss. All neatly laid out. Nailed to the perch with seriously heavy duty nails.

I have deadlines, external and self-imposed. I have classes to teach, assignments to mark, lesson planning to do, curriculum to innovate, my daughter’s primary school events to be at, yoga classes to attend, and friends to catch up with. All calendarised, listed, and planned.

And I have a virus. It started as a sniffle – annoying, but manageable. I pushed through it. I had things to do. I was a woman with a plan.

It may not surprise you at this point to learn that my virus also had a plan, which involved intensifying into the mother and father of all sinus headaches, and ripping my plan right out from under me.

So here I am, home on sick leave, watching sulfur crested cockatoos career raucously through my local skies. I can’t control the cockies, any more than I can control my virus. There is no magic pill I can take to make it all go away. I can’t schedule a fixed amount of rest time and get better. I just have to rest and wait, and hope it won’t take too long. These things do happen, after all.

Yet it sometimes feels as though we rely on them not happening. We make these plans that have no space built into them for life taking place. We drive ourselves from one busy day to the next, and exclaim that we don’t have time to have lunch,  exercise, take a slower but more pleasant route to work, or have coffee with a friend, because there is too much to do.

We have all these labour saving devices and no time to appreciate them. We are constantly berating ourselves for not doing more, for not achieving more, and for wasting time. We are too busy to be sick. Too busy to allow life to happen.

A friend of mine recently had her hand broken by a stray ball when she was watching her son play soccer. I randomly broke my toe last year running past a couch (they’re dangerous, I tell you!). Viruses, car accidents, heart attacks, injuries, family crises. They happen. And when they do, we handle them.

Because it turns out that we do have time when we really need it. My workplace won’t crumble without me (magnificently indispensable though I like to believe I am). The grass won’t mount an armed takeover if we don’t mow it this weekend. (Although it’s possible there’s an advanced civilization developing under the trampoline – we’re hoping they are a peaceful species.) My students won’t die if their work gets marked a little later, or if the feedback takes an extra day or two to arrive.

We take time when we are forced to, but I can’t help wondering if we’d need less time if we took more time. Maybe this virus wouldn’t have hit me so hard if I made time to be kinder to myself. If my day off, from time to time, was actually a day off, rather than simply a day working at home instead of at school. If my weekends involved more leisurely coffees on the balcony and less hurtling.

Maybe, just maybe, time could be our friend, if we only let it. Maybe we could make it our ally, instead of trying to make it our slave – and winding up slaves ourselves. I’ll think about it. When I have time.

Work-work balance

Anyone who knows me, reads this blog, or makes the mistake of asking me what I do for a living knows that I love my job. I will rave about it endlessly at the slightest opportunity. To be frank, I’ll rave about it even if the opportunity is not presented. I sometimes think I need to wear a warning label when I meet new people. “Caution: do not get me talking about teaching. I never stop. Back away. Don’t make eye contact. Sorry.”

I am aware of the concept of work-life balance, in much the same way as fish are aware of hats. They might know hats exist, but they don’t see the personal relevance.

I am technically half time, but for the last 5 years of my career – my first time teaching in a High School instead of a University – I have used my days off as time for meetings, lesson planning, marking, and creating bold new units that have never been taught before. Chatting with an academic recently about a new Data Science unit I’m planning, he commented that it was fairly ground breaking teaching that sort of stuff at undergraduate level. Teaching it at High School is entirely terra nova. Which is fine, because everything I’ve done so far at my school is terra nova.

And I love that. I really do. It’s thrilling for me, interesting for my students, and a massive sea of opportunities open to us all. It’s a really wild ride. But it takes time, and vast reserves of energy. I could not do so much innovative stuff if I were full time, and even part time I find I am pushing myself to the limit and beyond far too much of the time. I end each term exhausted to the point of illness. I end the year with absolutely nothing in reserve, and deep in energy debt. And I’m not alone in that – I see it all around me in the staff room every December.

I’m becoming aware that I can’t keep working this way. It’s sheer delight having a job that I want to really throw myself into. But I can’t keep flinging myself at it so hard that I smash when I hit the end of term wall. It’s not good for me, and it’s incredibly tough on my family. When I pick my kids up from school I need some energy left for them, and all too often that’s just more than I can manage.

It’s simple enough to plan boundaries and specify ground rules, but they crumple in the face of opportunities. I just can’t say no. If there’s an opportunity for my students I’ll take it, without stopping to think about whether I have time. If a student needs extra help I’ll give it, and around yard duties and only being at school half the time, that sucks up my free time really fast. Being there full time wouldn’t help, though, because then I’d have twice the teaching load.

I guess what it comes down to is that I have to learn to compromise before I am compromised. I have to learn that I can’t do everything all at once, and that as one person I can’t offer everything either. Sometimes that means this year’s students won’t get every opportunity. Sometimes it means the curriculum won’t change as much as I want as soon as I want it to. Sometimes it might have to mean that while help is available in class time, I can’t offer up every one of my lunchtimes.

Balance doesn’t come naturally to me. If my students need help, or want to do something extra, I want to make it possible. So I’m looking for tips. How do you manage balance? How do you avoid burnout in a job you are passionate about? The last thing I want to do is become someone who is just marking time, but there is surely some middle ground I could learn to inhabit. Who has some clues?






What makes you come alive?

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” — attributed to Howard Thurman.

You can spot someone who loves what they do a mile off. When you ask them about their work, they give off an almost blinding light with their incandescent joy. Which is not to say that they never get frustrated, annoyed, or tempted to quit. Someone who is passionate about what they do is quite likely to experience all of those things often, because anything truly engaging, that you believe in with all your heart, is never going to be perfect. There are always going to be things you can’t achieve, and because you are passionate about it, those things are going to really hurt.

Someone who is wholly invested in their job is quite likely to have QFQ days (those days where you find yourself screaming “I QUIT! I F*&^@ing QUIT!”) on a frequent, if not regular, basis. But most of the time, all screaming aside, if you believe in your job with that kind of intensity, quitting is the very last thing you will do, even on those days when you would happily throw your resignation sky high and shout it from the rooftops. Even on those days, when someone asks you what you do, you will probably still glow, even if it is slightly muted.

I know that I do. Even as I am ranting about the things that drive me mad, I remain high as a kite from the sheer exhilaration of the good bits of my job.

Where there is desire there is gonna be a flame
where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get hurt
but just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die
You’ve gotta get up and try and try and try.
–Pink, Try.

The trick with a job you are this passionate about is balance. I have not yet worked out how to care passionately about what I do, yet be able to walk away from the job at the end of the day, knowing I did my best, and not beating myself up over the things I can’t do, can’t fix, or can’t change.

One of the other ways to spot someone who loves what they do is from the exhaustion around their eyes. The occasional dummy spit over simply not being able to do everything. The rare, but deeply felt despair over the problems that simply can’t be solved.

Bob Brown recently said that you can’t change the world from a position of pessimism, yet I’d be astounded if he did not occasionally feel pessimistic, even despairing himself. You can’t fight 24/7/365 without sometimes burning out.

Perhaps the balance is to be found in the overall ratio of exhilaration to despair. I do know one thing though. However close it is to the end of an exhausting year, however many obstacles I have clambered over, only to find bigger ones still in front of me, however loudly I want to scream: Giving everything I have to a job that I believe in with my whole heart is the only way I can be everything I have the potential to be. It’s the only way to live a whole life. Anything else is just marking time.

Balancing Act

Some years ago, when I was leaving my job in academia and wondering what my next career would look like, I did a bunch of questionnaires designed to tell me things about myself. Like many such devices, they were really tools to highlight things that I already knew, but they were remarkably useful. They brought my priorities into sharp relief.

Among other things, the resulting analysis made it clear that I needed to do something I believed in. Something I felt passionate about. Something I knew was going to make the world a better place.

Being of a rather literal turn of mind, I started to do pro-bono work for Oxfam Australia, then worked for the Breastfeeding Association of Australia. Both roles and organisations I felt strongly about, but not jobs where I really experienced flow. Flow, if you haven’t met it before, is the state of complete focus that you achieve when you are doing something you love, something you are good at, and something that you are challenged by – challenged enough that you are stretched and working hard, but not challenged so much that you are frustrated and not achieving.

I believe flow is closely related to mindfulness – in that you are wholly committed to what you are doing in the present moment. Your every sense and faculty is devoted to your task. It’s a great feeling, and I get it when I am teaching – especially when I am teaching content that I know well, that I feel strongly about, and that my students are engaging with and challenging me on.  The greatest moments in my classes are usually when my students argue with me.

You can throw your hands up
You can be the clock
You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name
Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world’s gonna know your name
And you’ll be on the walls of the hall of fame
Hall of Fame, The Script.

While I was still working one day per week with the Breastfeeding Association I got the opportunity to start doing a little bit of curriculum development with my current school, and every time I set foot in a class I experienced the most amazing flow. It was a massive rush. The incredible attraction of the job and the school meant that it wasn’t long before I gave up my other work commitments and devoted myself wholly to teaching.

Last night our latest crop of year 12s had their valedictory dinner, and our illustrious leader made a comment about all of us – teachers and students alike – having stepped out of our comfort zone in order to move to our school. For me that was particularly poignant, as my first day at this school was the start of a completely new career. It was a massive step for me. It’s strange, in your late 30s, to feel as young, naive and ignorant as a new graduate, yet there I was. Established in one career, but nonetheless leaping off the deep end into an entirely different one. New workplace. New vocation. New life.

I don’t think I have spent a day inside my comfort zone since I started. And yet that is precisely why I experience flow so often in this job. I love it. I give it everything I have. And I push the boundaries every day. Every year I learn to know and love a new class of students, and every year it breaks my heart to say goodbye to them, even as I am excited and challenged by the next group. Every year I give my students everything I’ve got, and get more in return than I could possibly imagine.

Of course this does raise the question of balance. The problem with doing a job you love and believe in is that it’s very easy to want to do everything all at once. To reach higher, run faster, and do more every day. Sooner or later that doesn’t end well. It’s such a privilege to have a job that gives me astonishing joy, but it comes with a price that I have not yet learned to manage. I struggle to remember to take deep breaths and postpone some tasks until tomorrow, next week, or even next year. A colleague today teasingly implied that I effectively work full time hours for half time pay, and I was somewhat lost for a reply. It’s a lot more true than I’d like it to be.

At the very least, working the hours that I do, I would like to be doing my job better. To be more organised. To be more creative. To just be better at… well… at everything. But even working far more hours than I am supposed to, there just isn’t time.

Today a games developer friend of mine told my students that he has found that late nights mean more bugs. That starting at 9 and finishing at 5:30 ultimately gets the work done faster, and at higher quality, than trying to pull all nighters and work 60 hour weeks. I did a lot of not very subtle nudging of my students and saying “see? see??? more bugs!” and yet it took me all day to realise that I need to heed that lesson at least as much as my students do.

To have a job that fills me with such vivid delight is worth almost any price, but maybe I can negotiate the terms a little. With that in mind, perhaps I will go home on time today. Or at least less late than usual.

Partly working

Ever since I first went part time, returning to work when my baby bear was 11 months old, I have joked that being part time is a mug’s game. In many ways that’s not a joke. Even in these enlightened days most companies don’t handle part time workers very well. Promotions, bonuses, and achievements tend to be calculated based on a full time load. Occasionally it’s possible to get them recalculated to take working hours into account, but you have to fight for it every time. Workloads tend to err on the generous side – generous to your employer, that is. I once had a boss who tried to argue that my workload should be the same, even though I was officially half time.

Meetings are scheduled without regard to working hours. Urgent emails get sent on your “day off” (and you are fully expected to read and respond, day off or no). Work gets more difficult as you try to schedule things into a compressed format. Many workplaces aren’t good at calculating part time workloads, and it can wind up a constant struggle to draw lines around your home life. You have to fight simply to maintain your on-site working hours, never mind the expectations that you will work at home, answer calls and emails, and generally pretend to be working 24/7.

It’s not easy to calculate a fraction of full time work when these days so much full time work flows outside working hours anyway. The 38 hour week is a laughable myth. My full time teacher friends work hard on weekends and in the evenings. They start early, leave late, and work at home, including during those oh-so-generous holidays. What is 0.6 of “always”??

Somedays won’t end ever and somedays pass on by,
I’ll be working here forever, at least until I die.
Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t
I’m supposed to get a raise week, you know damn well I won’t.

Huey Lewis and the News – Workin’ for a living

Sometimes I wonder whether working is actually worth it. I have to admit, being a stay at home mum did not work for me. As an extreme extrovert, there simply wasn’t enough company or mental stimulation in being home with the kids, much as I adore them. I love my job. It is a vocation, with all the passion and intensity that implies. I am incredibly privileged to work in a place that is chock full of people who are passionate about what they do – and the price I pay for that is to work in a place that is chock full of people who are passionate about what they do. It’s a thrilling and stimulating environment but it can, at times, be a roller coaster ride that’s a little short on balance.

Having a vocation is a dangerous thing. If I give myself to it entirely, my family suffers. It can make me a difficult workmate, as I struggle to compromise on what I believe is important – sometimes, I admit, losing perspective in the process. Add being part time and I find myself feeling guilty about working, and guilty about not working. I feel I should be doing more work out of hours, and I feel guilty about time spent working at home when I should be with my family. It’s a tough balance to strike, and on days when I used up all my patience at work and wind up shouting at my girls, I wonder whether I am doing the right thing.

I carefully divide my time between my job and my family, and sometimes I am so busy making sure that no-one gets shortchanged that I leave myself bankrupt. Being part time is a mug’s game. But as my husband said to me last night: “Can you think of anything better?”