When I was looking for a job six years ago, I kept in mind the following advice from Thomas Moore’s A Life At Work: “If you like the product or service you are involved in, enjoy the circumstances of your labor, and appreciate the people who work with you, you can safely say that you love your work.”
I landed at New Dream, knowing from the start that I'd like the service piece of the work. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I enjoyed the circumstances and deeply appreciated my colleagues. I can safely say that I loved my job at New Dream. So it was a tough decision to leave this job at the beginning of May.
When I first joined New Dream, my youngest daughter was a toddler. Life as a working mom felt so swirly—like I was always in a mad rush whether I was working or parenting. Even once all three kids were in school full-time, I felt off-kilter. I would drop everyone off at school, race back home and get as much work done as possible before afternoon pick-up, start the homework/dinner prep/bedtime marathon (with a few after-school activities thrown in to make life exciting), then squeeze in a couple more hours of work before collapsing into bed. There was little, if any, time most days for friends or hobbies or rest.
But this is what it means to be an adult, right? Especially a working parent. You do the best you can to be the calm eye in the middle of the swirl. And I felt so fortunate to have a job that allowed me to be available for my kids in the afternoon. So I accepted the off-balance feeling as "normal," and continued to chug along.
But, then, I came across this article by David Sedaris that rattled me. He tells a story of his Australian friend, Pat, giving him a tour of the Australian bush. As they’re driving, Pat asks Sedaris and his partner to picture a four-burner stove. Then, she says: “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.”
The gist, according to Pat, was that, in order to be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. And, in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two. Pat admitted that she had cut off family and health. Sedaris realized he had cut off friends and health. Sedaris’ partner had cut off work.
My first instinct was to quibble with Pat’s framework and the fact that it probably relied on a mainstream definition of success. But I couldn’t deny that, even with my New Dream view of success, my burners were not all on. Friends had been cut off, for certain. And, while I hadn’t totally cut off health, I would describe it as being at a moderate simmer at best. And work was not even on high, since I was not able to dedicate the amount of time needed to truly succeed in this season of my life with youngish kids.
"I couldn’t deny that, even with my New Dream view of success, my burners were not all on. Friends had been cut off, for certain. And, while I hadn’t totally cut off health, I would describe it as being at a moderate simmer at best."
And, to complicate matters further, I wasn’t satisfied with the four-burner model. I wanted one of those fancy stoves that has an extra burner—one dedicated to service. And that burner is nowhere near as high as I'd like it, either.
At first, I thought maybe I could combine burners. I could, for example, do service projects with friends. But since both of those were virtually cut off to begin with, it wasn’t easy to find the time. You would think that, because I worked for New Dream, it would be easy to combine work and service. But, in truth, I spent more of my time writing about community building than participating. I’ve dreamed of hosting an alternative gift fair, for example, but I was too busy pulling together resources for others to successfully host their own fairs.
After my various attempts at combining burners failed, I decided to try going part-time at New Dream. And, while this certainly helped with my health burner in that I didn’t have to stay up late working anymore, it didn’t free up enough time to make much of an impact on my friends and service burners.
I’m not sure that this four-burner framework applies to everyone. Maybe there are some people who are super successful in their jobs, and yet still manage to spend time with friends, exercise, and prioritize family. All I know is that I haven’t been able to do it. I say that I prioritize friends and service in my life, but that’s not what my calendar indicates.
So I’ve decided to leave New Dream and give myself a career “sabbatical.” This was not an easy decision. First, I felt guilty that I was fortunate enough to take time off. I'd followed the Dave Ramsey financial plan years ago, specifically so that I could have more financial freedom in my life if needed. But my “sacrifices” included not eating out, no vacations other than staying with family, no smartphone, and such. I always had plenty to eat and a roof over my head. My frugality was a choice, and not a necessity. So, even though I had worked to have this type of independence, it’s hard not to feel unsettled that so many others don’t have any of the opportunities that I’ve had.
Second, I felt that my need to pause and regroup was a weakness. Everybody else seems to manage to work and have a life. But, if there’s any one thing that I’ve learned during my time at New Dream, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of success. For me, at this time, I need to clear a quiet space for myself, so that I can make room to grow in the areas that I have neglected.
"Everybody else seems to manage to work and have a life. But, if there’s any one thing that I’ve learned during my time at New Dream, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of success."
Cal Newport gives the following career advice: “Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.” And, again, I recognize that not everyone has the privilege to design the life that they want. But I am lucky enough to, and I want a life in which I can serve those who don’t have that privilege. And I also want to be the friend who has time to make and drop off dinner when you’re going through a tough time. I want to be the neighbor who hosts monthly potlucks. And I want to be the community member who organizes Little Free Pantries and alternative gift fairs.
In the next year, I hope to find work that allows me to keep my most important burners lit. Maybe such a job doesn’t exist, but I won’t know if I don’t take the time and space to explore.
Thank you to the New Dream community for inspiring me to go after what matters most in my life. It’s been an honor to work with you and for you over the years, and I’m excited to continue interacting with you as a fellow community member.
Edna Rienzi was Director of Programs at New Dream until May 2018.