On my mom’s last visit to Utah, we hiked while my mom shared her plans and wishes for her retirement. Since my father passed last July, my mom found herself needing to re-envision where she wanted to live and how she wanted to spend her time, as she’d now be doing that on her own. A community in the Pacific Northwest had caught her eye; however, in recent years, it’d evidently caught the eyes of other retirees, too, as the housing prices had begun to skyrocket. She lamented that she’d only be able to afford the least expensive, least nice home in an otherwise expensive area. She admitted her own concerns about appearances in this community, particularly what it would mean to make friendships and host wealthier new friends in a humbler abode.
As we continued on this topic, I remarked to my mom, “Isn’t it challenging to be happy with who we are and what we have when there are so many forces pushing us to feel inadequate?” We both agreed, noting that consumer marketing and external social pressures often make us feel like we’re not quite enough in many aspects of our lives.
I’ve revisited this question several times since my mom left, and have thought about it within the context of my own life. My current faculty position is a slight shift in sub-fields for me, and is located at a teaching-focused institution. Once I announced my acceptance of this position two years ago, I fielded subtle and not-so-subtle comments from professional colleagues who suggested that this choice would ultimately be a mistake due to various factors, e.g. that my current university is of lower status than others at which I was offered positions, that I would squander my writing talent by spending most of my time teaching, and so on.
These comments were thoughtful, and they came from well-meaning individuals with well-meaning intentions who wanted to ensure that I maximized my opportunities and continued to challenge myself. I appreciate that perspective, as I often have subscribed to the mantra of do your best at everything.
But what if doing my best isn’t what’s actually best for me?
I’ve been a chronic overachiever and over-committer for most of my teenage and adult life. At some point, I began to mistake the notion of quality–do your best within this one endeavor–with quantity – do your best at everything you do, and do as much of it as you can. I am someone who has always had a diverse range of interests, skills, and talents, so this quantity perspective led me to push myself really hard. Too hard, in fact.
In college, I served as co-editor of our newspaper, engaged in several other extracurriculars alongside Greek life, and held down two majors. My mom was hip to my drive and annual stress cycle; she knew that what goes up must also come down. She readied herself with Vitamin C supplements, soup, and tissues, knowing that I’d return home for the summer in late May, and would immediately crash into illness and need to sleep off my semester for a week or so.
Self-imposed stress aside, I do have fond memories of much of my college experience. The semester I lived in Mexico is easily the period of time I reflect upon most fondly. A part of this fondness is a typical outcome of a study abroad experience: I refined my Spanish as I lived with an awesome family, and I explored the Yucatan peninsula with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and known in my life. However, another part of this fondness relates to the fact that studying abroad was literally the only thing on my agenda that semester. For once, I had time to nurture friendships and engage in experiences without having to divide my time and attention across fifty other obligations.
Did I learn my lesson after that semester? No. This realization came years later.
I maintained this stressful pace post-college and as I established my career. I gave teaching and my students my all during the day, and my graduate work my all in the evenings. I was determined to learn everything there was to know about teaching new languages, so I volunteered for state-level curriculum projects and begged my principal to send me to every conference on my radar. This opened doors to new opportunities, new learning…and new commitments on my time.
My constant pursuit of doing my best underscored my own struggle with feeling inadequate, as though nothing in the moment was quite enough, and anything I produced could and should be improved or expanded upon. I was stuck in the trees, and had lost sight of the forest, of a balanced life. Who was I without my work?
The better part of a decade later, after I lost my state-level dream job to a political takeover, the façade began to crack. I had become a largely uni-dimensional person as a result of the energy I’d poured into my career; thus, along with the job loss came a loss of identity in many respects. This shift initially shook me to my core, but later brought with it the eye-opening realization that I had an awesome opportunity to re-define my identity.
This isn’t to say that life instantly changed in some dramatic way–I was still four years shy of completing my Ph.D., and had committed to that pursuit–but I began to take the concept of work-life balance more seriously. My “best work” became about fit within our broader family life, about meaningfulness and enrichment, and it had to content with my personal interests and hobbies. Recasting “best work” in this light made it easier to say no to obligations that didn’t align with our current priorities.
I began to realize that balance = adequacy. I had to learn to embrace being adequate, having done enough, in order to restore harmony to my life and indulge my multifaceted interests and skills again. Some might define adequacy as synonymous with complacency, but I don’t see it that way. Instead, I think that adequacy and being comfortable with being enough allows us to establish practical limits to our pursuits in any dimension of our lives. I can still challenge myself within any life dimension without letting it spill into other areas. Framed another way, I have given myself permission to say, “Good work for today. Let’s take a break and get after it again tomorrow.” That’s adequacy to me.
In the past two years, I’ve become a firm defender of adequacy. My renewed commitment to balance was a major reason why I took my current faculty position. When I interviewed, I saw colleagues who liked each other, who collaborated well, and who worked hard while they were on campus…and who made time for a range of other interests outside of campus. I wanted this, too, and I’ve found it–or, rather, I made it happen for me.
I still challenge myself to improve as a teacher and an academic every day. But, I challenge myself to grow in several other areas, too: as a wife, as a community advocate, as a writer, and as a trail runner. Oddly enough, indulging this range of other pursuits and interests makes me better at my work, too. Adequacy allows me to shift focus to being my best, rather than just doing my best.
In the end, maybe I’m not working up to my potential. Maybe none of us are. But, I’m okay with that now.