My relationship with work has been anything but good.
In high school, I learned that if I worked hard, I could do please those around me. If I worked hard, I could achieve my dreams.
And so I did.
I recall scheduling every minute of my day on my google calendar. I was only 16.
Here’s an image of my week — perfectly optimized. You may wonder what these “work” blocks mean. While I can’t completely remember, I think it roughly approximated to the following things:
- School work
- Studying for my AP tests
- Studying for a neuroscience competition I was planning to enter at the end of COVID
- Studying for the SAT
- Working on a club that I led
- Researching and writing for my blog
Every moment was scheduled. And while the above screenshot doesn’t show the weekends, don’t worry: I was still “working” over 7 hours a day both Saturday and Sunday.
Work was my escape. It was going to be the thing that got me out of my small town in Massachusetts and out into the real world. When I wasn’t “working,” I was researching what test scores I needed to get into a great college or reading reddit posts about how to get into medical school (despite being five years away from the day I would be submitting an application).
Looking at this period of my life, I am grateful for myself. I had a vision. I had a dream. I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. And I didn’t.
Over the next year and a half I got a lot done. However, sneaking into the corners of my mind was a mentality that would leave me feeling anxious and unfilled.
Always working or I’m not enough
I had to be “working” all the time. I put “working” in quotes because I didn’t work for a larger end. I did it to relieve my mind of any anxiety that I wasn’t doing enough.
If you asked me why I worked so hard, I think I could’ve pointed to a larger purpose that motivated my actions. But when you looked at my actions and saw what “work” actually looked like (i.e., anything that made me feel productive), it wasn’t for a larger purpose. It was so I didn’t feel like I was falling behind. If I wasn’t working, I didn’t feel like I was enough. I hated that feeling and would do anything to escape from it.
In Tick, Tick… Boom, the Netflix documentary on the writer of Rent, Jonathan Larson’s (the playwright) best friend asks him a key question that serves as a turning point: are you motivated by fear or love?
Looking back, I can see it was fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be enough when my worth was defined by my work.
I used to have this notion that my self worth was fully in my own hands. In a way, it was. I simply had to work. That was in my control. But when you took a step back and looked at my life, you could see that while the actions were in my own hands, the direction wasn’t. I wasn’t working for an inner necessity to create or change the world — I was working because people told me it was what I should be doing.
I should work hard, get into a good college, get a great job, and keep working. Life was work. After over a year of pushing myself to my limit, this narrative began to fall apart.
You need to guard your time
My junior year of high school was hard, but I remember that there was this one weekend that was the hardest of all. I had two major essays to write. One of these wasn’t supposed to be too long. The expectation was that we spend 1–1.5 hours on it. I easily spent 5x that.
On the comments for my essay, I got some helpful feedback and even some praise. But at the end of the essay, my teacher wrote: “Ben, this is a great essay, and it’s clear you spent a lot of time on it, but you need to learn to guard your time.”
It was a wake up call I needed to hear. My answer to how to live my life was to give more and more of my time to what people asked me to do. I needed to choose how to spend my time for myself.
Steve Jobs: A Love Story
A lot of my friends in college were confused when I shared my love for Steve Jobs. I believe that he had an incredibly positive impact on this world. But, interpersonally, he was an asshole.
Naturally, they were confused. I’m a pretty fun-loving, playful guy. So, why Steve Jobs? It’s because he saved me from my mindset.
Steve Jobs — one of the most impactful humans in history — spent his young years getting terrible grades, taking drugs, and dropping out of college. But this free-flowing way of life gave him something special: a deep understanding of humans and a spark for creativity.
Watching Jobs documentaries provided me the signal I needed so much: often, the most successful people don’t work all the time. They live real lives. They are humans. They read for fun. They go on trips. They explore the world.
Robots — they can do work way better than any human can. But creativity? Humans sit at the apex.
I was going to be creative.
Slowly but surely, I went for more walks. I read more for fun. I stopped scheduling my life so much. I started to create because I loved to create. It’s what I needed.
I’m still healing, today. But I’m much farther along the journey. I’m finding joy in uncertainty, I’m falling in love, and I’m creating. And most importantly, I’m working to believe that I’m enough — independent of the work I do in a day.