Hanging out on the plateaus of ordinary: on reimagining passion, work and the meaning of life

There comes a point in everyone’s career where you start to wonder just what in the world you’re doing, and how on earth you ended up there. We don’t talk a lot about these moments — until after we’ve reached the next milestone, the Next Big Thing, and then we have the liberty to confess our confusion and doubt, since it’s over with.

I’m currently part-way through the confusion and doubt phase, but I had the good fortune to get some huge doses of insight and advice in the last few weeks. Whenever I’ve shared those things with my close friends, they’ve had the same “Holy crap!” moment that I had. So, I thought it might useful for more people if I shared them with a wider audience.

My own story: I’ve been doing social-media-for-social-change for about 5 years now, and consulting in tech and advocacy for 8. I wrote a book, went on a kind of tour for it, came home at the end of last year broke/exhausted, but ready to jump back into the hands-on work of my consulting. Through that two-year period of writing and publicizing, a lot of people asked me, “What are you going to do next?” and “Is another book in the works?” 

The general public answer was, “I’m exploring my options and enjoying being on the front lines again.” 

The answers to friends for each question were, “No idea” and “NO.” 

The private answers were, “Take a nap” and “Dear Lord, are you completely effing crazy? I just FINISHED one.”

I knew I needed some space, both physically and mentally, to sort a few things out. For me, that means getting on a plane and flying 4,000 miles away. (I’m a bit of an extremist with most things.) I spent January - July planning, scheming and saving to be able to spend a month in Berlin. (Why Berlin? The short version is that it reminds me of New York—lots of art and strange people and things to do, but without the razor sharp edge.) I did pretty much nothing but pour myself into every project that came my way, in the name of this trip. There were, of course, a few bumps along the way, but I did it. (And took Izzy with me!)

When I got there, a funny thing happened. I kind of didn’t want to work anymore. This is in part a caveat to any of my clients who might be reading this, but what seemed to emerge while I was away was not that I wasn’t interested in the kind of work that I was doing, but rather a feeling of restlessness, of “I’ve done this.” I had some talks to write for when I got back to the US, and I started thinking, “What else do I have to say about social media and social change? Um, nothing.” On the surface, it sounds like common burnout, but I felt nagged by these feelings on a daily basis. 

One of the things that has come up in general in the last year is that I’ve felt I’ve abandoned other creative pursuits for the sake of this consulting business. I have a past life as a poet, performer and graphic artist (read: I draw cartoons). I haven’t worked on any of those things much since consulting, and worked on them, well, NEVER while working the book. I am grateful beyond belief for the life afforded me by my consulting, and by extension, the book (through getting me higher profile gigs—you don’t actually make money on a book). I hate sounding ungrateful or unappreciative of what those things have provided me. I just miss the other bits.

So, there I was in Berlin, wanting to draw nice pictures and write stories. Throw in some personal stuff going on with my family, and it wasn’t my most work-productive trip. (I’ve been able to pull that off in the past, but not this time). It was amazing in many, many ways—and having that physical and mental space to examine microscopically where I was at was invaluable.

I came home feeling a little scared about reentering my work life. How was I going to pull this off? Part of what makes me good at what I do is the passion that I bring to the table. If it was absent—the fiery, “hell YEAH we’ll get this done!” attitude— I would feel disingenious. I have read enough self-help books and done enough yoga and learned enough meditation and New Age stuff to know that being passionate about work is a requirement for Success And Happiness.

But, well, I also want to draw nice pictures and write stories.

I had a conversation with Ruth Ann Harnisch about this. If you don’t know Ruth Ann, the best way I’ve been able describe her is the “punk rock version of a fairy godmother for the feminist universe." She’s a philanthropist, recovering journalist and coach, which gives her a pretty unique perspective when it comes to solving the problems of, y’know, LIFE.

All of the above came spilling out into our conversation, and she was quiet for a minute. Then she said, “Chubby Checker was on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ last week.”

Not what I was expecting.

"He did ‘The Twist.’"

Still not what I was expecting.

She spoke again. “Do you have any idea how long he has being doing the Twist?”

"I dunno. 50? 60 years?" Looked it up later—Chubby’s version of the Twist came out in 1960.

"Do you think that every time Chubby Checker has done the the Twist over the last half century, he feels amazed and inspired by it?"

Hmmmmmmmm.

"Do you have a Twist that you can do?" 

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

She invited me to read Mastery by George Leonard. It’s a short, direct read and I liked it a lot (plus, some of the 1990s cultural references were kind of hilarious). The ideas come from the author’s practice in aikido and center on the fact that culturally, we place a lot of importance on milestones. We celebrate them, we plan for them, we plan everything around them. But we don’t spend a lot of time in the plateaus in between the milestones, which is where 99% of life happens.

I’m not good with plateaus. I’m a recovering overachiever, and like most people, I’m still caught in the trap of looking for my next big thing. Even from a personal development standpoint, I can’t stand sitting still. It took a long, long time (and the help of a great feminist therapist with Buddhist teachings) for me to understand that sitting with something, especially icky, difficult emotions, wasn’t for the sake of masochism. You do it because something appears on the other side.

Repetition and, by extension, boredom, are some of my biggest fears in life. It’s in part why I became a freelancer, so that I’d never again have to go to an office and do the same tasks over and over. In Mastery, however, Leonard talks about an aikido class where the instructor had the students doing the same series of moves for 2 hours straight. Mind-numbing…and that’s kind of the point. Doing something for its own sake, being in process with it, allows us—on the other side of the frustration, fear and boredom—allows us to find infinite possibility within that one set of moves. That kind of deep dive can open the doors if we’re willing to sit with all the crap that comes up, and go through it.

I’ve only been practicing this frame of reference for a couple weeks now, but it’s already made a huge difference in how I’m approaching my work. I’ve given a couple of talks at colleges, which I had been dreading a little bit. The “saying the same thing over and over” feeling had been eating at me to the point of paralysis, where I couldn’t even start to imagine what something new or exciting in the world of social media for social change might be. Using the deep dive ideas in Mastery, and visualizing Chubby Checker (which also just makes me giggle), I was able to not just find new bits to add to standard talks, but also used those opportunities to ask the students what they wanted to know more about, and what their burning concerns about changing the world were. It was through those interactions that I found some serious juice, and I left each experience seriously jazzed and fulfilled.

But it’s not just the juice-and-jazz that’s the point. We mistake passion for “EVERYTHING MUST FEEL AWESOME ALWAYS.” And then we end up deeply disappointed when it doesn’t, when it just feels average. One of my favorite books is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera explains the title when he points out that sometimes we long to be oppressed emotionally, pulled into the earth, so that we can feel like we’re alive. If we’re livin’ easy, we float away, and our lives and feelings become distant and half-real. It reminds me of this mistaken passion for work. We want to be in the thick of it all the time, and as it turns out, we’re missing a lot of good opportunities there on the plateaus of ordinary.

When I ran this bit by Ruth Ann, she also pointed out that we have to spend sometime considering—and likely changing— what we think is awesome. In the big picture, we didn’t wake up dead (gotta give my pop credit for that phrase), so we’ve already started out ahead. Sometimes that doesn’t feel like much, or it feels like a platitude. But that’s exactly the point Ruth Ann is getting at, I think. Every day actually is awesome. (She says every moment is awesome, and every moment gives us a chance to make another choice about which thoughts to entertain and which thoughts to dismiss. Every moment gives us another choice about what action to take or what action to cease.)  And it might be, on the surface, exactly the same as the last moment, the last hour, the last day. In that sameness, in the ordinary, in the equanimity of average, we are given the opportunity to explore. Up to us to answer the call.