recently, i have been having a lot of thoughts about the ways in which finding and committing yourself to work you love is like romantic love and commitment. here are some of them.
for me, this spring and summer were full of striking moments when i made big realizations about myself and i suddenly became more sure of major decisions about the future. they were the moments when i just knew, when my lingering doubts about going to grad school dissipated. there was a moment last semester when i felt this sense of clarity regarding the fact that there was nothing i would rather be doing than economics research. it’s not like that moment came out of nowhere — i’ve been course 14 since sophomore year, and i’ve liked the classes i’ve taken and books i’ve read enough to stay in the department, but i never felt totally sure about it. i would think about the other things i enjoyed, worry that i was giving up on other dreams, or i would just avoid thinking about the future altogether.
but as i came up with ideas for my thesis and thought about professors i might want to work with over that summer, i had more and more moments where i allowed myself to be blown away and thoroughly impressed by the work i was learning about. i had time to appreciate the sheer coolness of the UROP that i had done that year, which i hadn’t thought about before because i was so focused on just getting work done. i’m so profoundly grateful that this field of study even exists, that i get to do work where i think about discrimination and machine learning and lagrange multipliers in the same breath, where i get read and write (at various levels of technical-ness) and think about inequality and psychology but also do math and code and think about game theory and optimization. what a rush.
this has been one of those weeks when lots of things feel at risk of going terribly wrong and i feel nervous about the future and mit is a minefield of tight deadlines and unexpected obstacles, but even this week, i’m grateful that i get to be here, doing the things i’m doing.
sometimes there are those beautiful moments when everything seems to line up perfectly and you know exactly why you you’re doing what you’re doing. it’s like those moments in romantic relationships and even in friendships when you look over at the other person and all the stars align and you understand how and why you are perfect for each other, and you feel a deep sense of gratitude that you’re in each other’s lives. like, sometimes i look at my best friend and feel so happy that she exists. those moments.
sometimes, it just feels right, and you just know, and sometimes you remain committed to that cause or job or person for the rest of your life, and sometimes, well, you make it work for as long as you can, but at some point you decide it’s not right anymore, and you end up making a big career change or transferring schools or getting a divorce or breaking up. and it’s scary and uncertain while it’s happening, but then you figure out a new way of living your life that makes you happy, and you get through the terror and can look back on it and smile. for now and hopefully for a long time, for me, it is right.
but most moments aren’t like that — most days are just regular days full of work and play and joy and weariness and wakefulness and sleep and all the other tiny ups and downs that fill the hours. most days, i wake up under a cloud of mild anxiety and look at my to-do list and my calendar and try to avoid missing deadlines. most days i also laugh and sigh and see friends and go to classes and meetings and sometimes concerts and other events. last night i went to a poetry reading for a class; last weekend i went to the MFA, danced, worked, panicked.
most days are just days. most days, the stars don’t align; they’re just stars. i love my work but sometimes i hate doing my work. sometimes you have to deal with a lot of crap, but you gotta remember that you would rather be dealing with this crap than any other crap from all the other sources of crap in the world. as the semester gets busier and more overwhelming, i try to make sure i remember this every single day. for the most part, everything that makes me busy this semester is something i want to be doing, and i’m grateful for that.
i watched a lot of bojack horseman this summer. season 4 came out last month–it’s my favorite season of the show yet. marital/relationship strife is one of the central themes of the season, and in the middle of episode 6 there is this beautiful quote about commitment and marriage:
“Well, all weddings are lies, right? You’re making this big declaration about how you’re gonna stay with this person forever, but you don’t actually know that. You’re just saying it. The whole thing is a farce…But it’s a lie based on truth. Like, at the center of the farce there’s this nugget of something real and pure. And that strange beautiful something is why you put up with everything else, right? And sometimes it’s hard to remember that pure, shining thing because it’s been painted over with so many arguments and compromises and disappointments. But you have to believe it’s still down there somewhere, even if you can’t see it. And maybe even the belief in it is more important than the thing itself, but only as long as you still believe it.”
i think it’s kind of like that when you’re making any sort of big commitment–that’s what my relationship with mit is like, except that i’m only here for four years, not forever–i love mit for everything it represented before i came here, but some days, it is just so hard, and i have certainly had to repeatedly make compromises in my view of what life here is like. this has been one of those weeks, but i know that every semester i get through these weeks and am impressed with all that i was able to accomplish. (ihtfp)
it’s also what my relationship with my academic loves is like–with math and economics, i understand in principle why i find these fields intriguing and worth spending time on, and some days my work feels fascinating and beautiful. but on equally many days i struggle and bash my head against a (metaphorical!!) wall and concern myself with deadlines and grades and whatever pile of work i’ve allocated to that day.
a song i’ve been listening to that’s vaguely about making compromises and growing older:
work & life
i grew up around academics who are invigorated by their work and center their lives around it. it wasn’t until i came to mit (ironic, since this is campus of workaholics) that i came to understand that it’s also ok to have a job that’s just a job, that isn’t a calling, a job that doesn’t make you loathe the thought of going to work but also isn’t something you would do if money weren’t an issue. this is certainly a campus of workaholics who value their work highly and try to turn their dreams into jobs, but it’s also a campus full of people who juggle lots of other responsibilities and commitments and hobbies without any promise of recognition or reward.
in labor economics, we learn about trading consumption (i.e. spending time working to earn wages so that you can consume more goods) for leisure. growing up, i always had the sense that the work was supposed to be the leisure, and it stressed me out when my work didn’t feel fun. i felt a lot of pressure to find my passion, as though doing work i loved and achieving professional success was the only way i was ever going to be happy. and while i’ve been tremendously grateful that there actually does exist work that i love, i also wish that i had realized that i was not going to find my passion by deliberately stressing about it — and also that i could also be fine and perfectly happy with doing work that did not occupy my entire life.
i feel less, i dunno, existential dread about doing work i don’t like now. i remember that i’m a person fulfilling a commitment that happens to be not-fun and that finding my work temporarily unenjoyable doesn’t mean i’m on the wrong track, and even if it turns out that i am on the wrong track, well, i think i’ll be able to deal with it.
ok phoebe, but what’s your point
there’s this idea that finding your calling involves holding up a mirror and searching deep in yourself for the thing you are passionate about, as though it’s a tiny flame or a shard of glass lodged in your heart or bones or foot or something. it’s like when people talk about searching the world for a soulmate that is everything they think they want, when people (me, tbh) try to plan things, like falling in love with a person or cause or profession, that almost never happen as planned. i’m relishing the feeling of (finally) really, really liking my work, but i also understand better now that work is not everything, that loving an academic field does not solve my problems any more than romantic love does.