I’m in what amounts to the last couple of weeks of my sabbatical, and so am finding myself reflecting a bunch on the goals I’d set for myself at the beginning of the year and the utterly unexpected place in which I now find myself. It’s typical for me, at the end of a break, to look back at what I’ve accomplished and think “not bad, but nowhere near as much as I wanted to get done.”
Actually, it’s not just typical — it’s invariable. There has never, ever been a period of time, during which I was supposed to be focused on my own projects, in which I’ve felt like I’ve accomplished enough.
Until now. Not only do I feel like I’ve done enough, I’ve done more than I expected. This isn’t to say that I’ve accomplished everything on my to-do list — I’m still revising the overdue article on Infinite Summer, and I’ve got a review article that I really ought to have gotten out by now — but I’ve done a lot of things that weren’t on my to-do list, and I’ve taken on some amazing new projects, and I generally feel like I’ve made real progress in a lot of areas. And for this year, that’s enough.
“Enough” is a concept that I need to do some more work on, though, in a bunch of different aspects of my life. It’s a measure that too often has more to do with some invidious comparison with other people than it does with an internally focused sense of who I am and what I want to do. Working in the academy, in particular, has played heavily on a couple of insecurities of mine, and has for years left me feeling as though I were always trailing behind, trying to catch up with the people I considered my peers. It’s as though I’ve spent years in a race — not with myself, but with those around me — and my need to do more, faster, better, has been focused less on my own desires than on what those around me are doing, and what they might think of me. It’s hard, when you turn everything into a competition, to figure out what’s really enough.
And this applies in a bunch of areas of my life, I think. Fitness, for instance: as the archives here will attest, I used to run a fair bit, and there still aren’t any other modes of exercise that combine running’s payoffs with its economy. But the older I’ve gotten, the less fun running has become. Things hurt afterward in ways that make me start dreading going to the gym — and when I dread something like that, I just won’t do it. Even so, I’ve tried all year to really get back to running, and every time I’ve gone to the gym and done something other than run — or worse, every time I’ve skipped going to the gym for two weeks because I couldn’t bear the thought of running — I’ve gotten upset with myself. For not doing enough.
But here too there’s an invidious comparison at work — and this I think is one of the dangers that the so-called “gamification” of everything poses for the ways that we live our lives. I’m surrounded by runners online, many of them younger (some of them a lot younger) and all of them faster and stronger. And I realized the other day that a huge part of what had me pushing myself to run all year was some desire to keep up with those folks, some ingrained sense of competitiveness that was driving me to do more, not so much in order to feel better about myself but in order to feel better about the comparison between myself and others.
The result, of course, is always the same: running hurts. I quit. I feel guilty and inadequate.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been walking on the treadmill at the gym. I walk hard, and fast, and I feel good afterward. It never hurts. But I’m having to work hard on letting that be enough, on pulling myself out of the competition I’ve built.
And I’m now wondering how this sense of enough, of focusing on what I genuinely want to accomplish rather than on how people will see those accomplishments, might affect other parts of my life. How might freeing myself from the need to compete with others change the ways I approach my work? How can I begin figuring out what’s enough for me?