Friday, March 30, 2012

When you have too much to do to do what you really want to do

Have you discovered that one of the best antidotes to creative block of any kind is to have a high-priority task loom? Case in point: I have an unexpected freelance editing assignment due Monday. Suddenly, clothing designs bombard me. Blog topics assail me. Spring sights in my garden present themselves for snapping. And I can't act on any of them until I get the editing done! It's the universe's way of sticking its tongue out at me. Maybe it's also winking. Hard to tell with those shades on.

That's a picture of my puto fail up there. Puto is a steamed rice cake in Filipino cuisine. It's delish, trust me, despite what it looks like right now. I was testing for doneness when the thing made like a little volcano and spewed. Yet another affirmation of my decision not to ever blog about food. Sheesh. But, as I told my sister regarding a not-altogether-unrelated subject, a few things come easy to me, while many other things don't. Even a fail like that offers a takeaway: a little photo editing, and voila! A blog illustration.

But back to prioritizing. I used to work with a very dear fella who has since passed away. His name was Hobart. He said something I remember well: "This isn't important." I was flabbergasted. Hobart was trying to tell me that the job I held at the time, and the speechwriting deadline I was on that day, wasn’t what was important. Not in the long run. I wasn’t ready to hear it. It would be more than a decade before I understood:

Never let today's urgencies rob you of today's chance to seed your future.

I spent every workday for 20 years focused on whipping out the work with which I was tasked. Promotional pieces, rah-rah-rouse the workers speeches, letters of congratulations, sympathy, apology and advocacy, op-eds, event scripts, blah blah blah. I took pride in not only beating deadlines but pulverizing them. I thought I was on track. I thought I was building something that would last. A reputation for excellent work done discreetly. The last statement is an oxymoron containing the words "reputation" and "discreetly," as the only two people who ever knew my work were my immediate supervisor and the head honcho who used my words.

In the meantime, social media was brewing. Print media was gasping. Public educational institutions were losing funding. The bottom was falling out. My head was too close to the grindstone to look at the horizon. Eventually the head honcho retired. New administration brought in middle management who was unfamiliar with my record. I knew the end was near when a temporary VP commented, "But all you do is write." She denied my request for a three percent cost-of-living raise. A paltry three percent, and still she wouldn't grant it.

I won't recount the complete story of my career meltdown here. It's enough to say that had I heeded Hobart's warning, I might have diversified my skills sooner. I might have put my ear to the ground and listened for hiring trends in my area of expertise. I might, for instance, have volunteered to take on the responsibility to create and manage my company's Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts. That may have trained upper management to view me as more than "just a writer."

Instead it took job loss for me to take stock. The upside is that I've had all day every day the last two and a half years to learn as much as I can about everything that has since caught my interest: photography, blogging, social media, clothing design, fabric art, small business.

So if you have children, or you're about to graduate and begin building a career, or you are laying the foundation for the rest of your life, I will break from my rule never to dispense advice and say it again:

Never let today's urgencies rob you of today's chance to seed your future.

Urgency-induced myopia is a dangerous thing. Spend 80% of your time putting out fires, if you must. But invest 20% of your energy toward something with potential to bloom for you five, perhaps 10 years hence. Adjust those percentages and timeframes to suit your own needs.

That editing assignment due Monday? It's bringing in immediate income, and I gave my word. It will get done on time. But it won't cost me today's chance to seed my future. I'm still taking a block of time to keep up this blog. This evening I'll still be teaching dance, because I see this passion carrying into my later years. In fact, dance was a seed I planted five years ago when I was still putting in full days at my desk job.

I planted these johnny jump-ups last fall so they could have a full season to establish their roots. Luckily we had a mild winter. I look at them from my front porch and remember the exact day I set them in the ground: the day my appendix burst. I had a four-hour break from the abdominal pain that had started the day before, and I wasted no time getting out there and digging. Only later did I learn that not having pain meant my body was already being flooded with toxins from a burst appendix. 

An extreme example of "Never let today's urgencies rob you of today's chance to seed your future."

Do as I say, not as I do. ; )