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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

work-life balance by CJ Q. '23

(without a life)

one. in mit, and undergrad in general i guess, you spend your time hanging out with your classmates. you go to classes with them, work on problem sets and projects with them, live with them, cook with them, play board games with them. you live in a place with a high density of people you’re friends with, because you’re on campus, and all the undergrads are on campus, or near campus.

i spent my time with my classmates. i went to class with them, worked on problem sets and projects with them. on weeknights, i’d play board games, or go to lectures, or eat out. on weekends, there’d always be events: a competition i’m helping run, a program for high school students i’m teaching for, a party i’m attending. there’s always someone to hang out with, always someone available to work next to or play smash with.

i used to think i’d burn out, that by doing everything, i’d end up doing nothing. in practice, i enjoyed having lots to do.

this summer, and my internship, are different in a lot of ways. the bay area is big and all my friends are far away. on weeknights, we get off work too late to do anything. on weekends, when we do meet up, i have to travel. i’ve had saturdays when i’ve spent four hours travelling, and only two hours with other people.

my coworkers are all cool, but it’s different. i don’t feel as comfortable inviting someone to play board games with me after work, and it’s not like people have dorm rooms i can crash and hang out in. sometimes dinner happens, and people eat out together, but more often than not everyone goes home before that. when events do happen, they’re organized. someone gauges interest in, say, a volleyball game, then they send out an invite on google calendar. yes, a google calendar event!

why is it different, then? is it just the culture that makes me feel uncomfortable reaching out to my coworkers to hang out? the age gap that makes me feel reluctant? is it the fear that they’ll say no, because they don’t like the same things i do, or because they need to go home, or because they’re busy, what with families and significant others and whatever grownups do after work?

two. at the company i’m interning for, i feel like there’s no speed limit. i always have a feature to work on, and as soon as one project ended another was already lined up. even when i was waiting for pull reviews, i had a limitless list of tickets to work on, backlogged tasks from a bygone era. when i’m not writing code, i could be reading code, or writing a planning doc, or answering questions on slack.

i like it, sometimes, the feeling that there’s always something to do. that i always had room to become better, at debugging, reading, writing, planning, talking. when i imagine sisyphus being happy, this is the feeling i think of: that i’ll always have my work cut out for me, that i can endlessly sharpen my skills, that there’s always more to learn.

on weeknights, the ones where there aren’t any volleyball games or dinners out, sometimes, i want to work. my excuse is that i like my job, enough that i want to keep doing it after five pm. my cynical side says that it’s a bad habit i picked up from mit, because in college, no one’s going to tell you what times to work or stop working.

why is it so frowned upon to willingly do work outside of work? i get why it’s bad if you’re doing it to make a deadline, or because you’re forced to. but if i tell my friends that i do work after dinner, because i want to, they ask what’s wrong with me. when my roommates spot me with my work laptop on the couch, they tell me to stop working, even when i say i want to. when my mentor sees me replying to a message after hours, she tells me to get off slack, even if i want to.

a friend suggested that maybe it’s because we’re expected to have families, or something similar. a home to tend, a community to take care of. the implication being that if you spend all your time at work, you’re neglecting some other aspect of your life. because that’s what “work-life balance” is about, right? that’s why “get a life” is an insult, right?

as if i have a family to care about. the closest thing i had to that was mit, and i’m not there.

three. it’s this societal expectation of “work-life balance” that leads me to build these walls between my work and the rest of my life. if a thought comes up during work that i think would be interesting to look into on my own time, i’ll draft an email and send it to my personal. or, if during my own time i think about something work related, i send an email to my work account.

or, how i’m not logged into my work google account on my phone. sometimes it’d be convenient if i was, like if i wanted to check my earliest meeting tomorrow, or so i could read documents while commuting. i’ve given in and shared my google calendar to my personal account though, or at least, the free/busy details.

or, how i’m not logged into slack on my phone. well, i wasn’t logged into slack on my phone, for my first two months here. i don’t know when or why i gave in, but i’m logged into slack now. i have it tightly muted so i don’t get much notifications, but it does enable behavior like replying to slack messages at one in the morning.

on those weeknights, the ones where there aren’t any volleyball games or dinners out, the ones where i want to work—i stop myself. i try to do something else. read a book, write a blog post, play a video game. none of that feels interesting. instead, i lie in bed, scroll through twitter, and oversleep.

i’m not sure what i get out of these walls, but i have them anyway. i tell myself that it’s the right thing to do, that this is what work-life balance is about. i tell myself that i’m working at a startup, but i don’t have to succumb to the overworking startup culture. because i should spend time with my family or something, right? or, is it because if i work too much, i’ll burn myself out?

or because i should spend time on the rest of my life. but what is the rest of my life?

four. the things i talk about with coworkers and the things i talk about with my non-work friends aren’t that different, and sometimes i wonder if they should be.

is it acceptable to talk about my past relationships? what about my troubled family history? my depression, my mental health? my sexuality? i learned what nsfw meant long before i started working, but i still don’t know what nsfw is.

one thing that i have talked about, both with coworkers and other friends, is what people do outside of work. the other day there was a picnic for incoming mit students in the bay area, and a handful of current students came, most in the area because of various internships. i remember talking to someone who mentioned that he just didn’t know what to do after work, that he was so bored after coming home. i wanted to say i felt the same. i asked if he wanted to eat dinner that night, and he said maybe. we didn’t.

today at work people asked me about my future plans. i said i didn’t want to go to grad school. someone asked why, when school was so fun. i told her that undergrad was fun, but grad school felt different. she said that she had a lot more free time in undergrad, compared to when she started working full-time.

back in undergrad, she spent a lot of time playing games with her friends. now, she says, she spends her time at home procrastinating on washing the dishes or cleaning up. not doing chores, but not playing games either. that in-between state where by wanting to do everything, you end up doing nothing.