What matters and why it matters

Pumpkin-like berries growing outside my window: (a) from life; (b) distilled



I’ve always viewed money as an enabler. ‘Mum,’ I would reason as a teenager, ‘I want to get a job, so I can buy a guitar and get lessons.’ My mum would tell me to stop worshipping money and that I could start guitar when I ‘finished’ piano (my mum is not a musician). Of course, there are always ways around not having money, and my resourceful younger self managed to borrow a very lovely guitar from my uncle when he went away for a month, and to seek instruction from kids at school. I took it from there. Essentially, lack of money frequently stood in the way of my doing things as a child, and I have thus always viewed having money as the prime means of doing things, if you want to do them properly. Borrowing will only get you so far.

On leaving university rather recently I had the vague notion that I would sell myself in some mildly obnoxious manner to obtain vast quantities of money, perhaps for four years, saving furiously, and that I would then take myself to Europe, rent a sparse inner-city altbau apartment with ceiling-high windows streaming cold sunlight in, and that I would commence my creative career in financial security. I am certainly not the type of artist who thrives on the smell of piss, hates bathing, or prefers graffiti on my walls, and I saw this looming in my future unless I took specific measures to counter it. This plan fell through. I ‘worked for a year’ (this is how I will bracket off this unfortunate period, dusted under the rug to be forgotten like my other year of toil prior to university), but decided I could not sell my time in this manner, no matter how high the salary.

I now buy back my time by working roughly three days a week in my old area of expertise—waitressing. I work harder now and I earn half as much, but that concept doesn’t hurt as much as it used to. It is simply the price that must be paid to keep some precious hours for your own work. No, what’s bothering me now is that I have to keep a part-time job at all, when I have far more important things to do. Two days does not permit much of anything, especially when you take five classes per week and study three languages at home (and are still trying to ‘finish’ piano).

I’ve always admired people that ‘do too much.’ I don’t know many personally, but I read about them from time to time and know that although I must be crazy, I’m bound to be successful through sheer dedication. Maria Popova,* curator of the brilliant site Brain Pickings, manages to pull it off. Working four jobs throughout university, ‘working for a year’ upon being unexpectedly sent home to Bulgaria from America, and finally taking a lousy job to be able to return to America, Maria must have felt frustrated by time-theft and by the need to work to support a basic existence. Now, as the sole curator of her incredibly intelligent and thoughtful blog, her schedule is no less tight—she absorbs enough information to produce three articles daily—but is no longer peppered with dead chunks of sold-off time, never to be recovered and doomed to be spent on below-capacity tasks.

This is what most frustrates me about my otherwise happy existence: I see my unimpeded future self working at my most productive every moment of every day, producing high-quality content and thinking deeply about meaningful things and adhering to my schedule in a pleasingly strict fashion. I ought to be an employer’s dream, but employers seem unwilling to demand work of this calibre, a point that makes me certain that I am bound for an autonomous career. Instead, I commit to memory whether a person prefers multigrain or white bread, and how much butter they take. This practical work is undeniably useful in keeping people sustained, and rewarding in being directly connected with the results of my labours, and even pleasant in bringing about cheerful communications with my fellow-beings. But challenging and in my field it is not.

Becoming so precious about one’s time leads to dangerous pastimes like avoiding one’s friends a la Benjamin Franklin (via Maria Popova):**

[Franklin] drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ … If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: ‘Perform without fail what you resolve.

This is where we come back to Maria Popova’s adage for selecting content on Brain Pickings: Maria seeks to distil ‘what matters and why it matters.’* Broadly speaking, to meet all the demands placed on us, both those facilitated by money and those required to obtain money, we need to evaluate the worth of each undertaking—including spending solid time with our friends—and remind ourselves why we have committed so much to them. If each has it’s place, we’ll just have to keep at it, reminding ourselves that we’ve already achieved so much in not electing tv, owning a house and amassing truckloads of money above the things that make us hungry for life.

Brazil Cherry © Samantha Groenestyn

* Listen to an enlightening interview with Maria Popova on Design Matters with Debbie Millman, at Design Observer.

** Popova discusses this quote from the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister.


6 thoughts on “What matters and why it matters

  1. Perhaps if we view the loads of work as a journey to the end, it could help ease the burden a little. Everything you do brings you closer to your goals. To make it more ‘digestible’, you separate your work into small fractions. I find it easier that way. If you have five things to do, forget the rest and focus on number one. Once that is done, then proceed to number two. Perhaps that is how Maria Popova does it. After finishing one article, then she thinks about the second. After finishing the second, then the third.

    • I guess what I’m saying is that each has its segment of time, such as a three-hour class, or an eight-hour shift. There’s no ‘done,’ only scheduled blocks of time, some of which I would like to do without, such as the eight-hour shifts, but can’t, because I need money to live. But I agree, when working on a big project like a thesis it’s easier to break it down into component parts or stages and chip away and tick off achievements along the way.

  2. I so very much enjoy your articulate musings, which often mirror things about which I’m thinking, and the illustrations presented with them. I don’t have a solution to the time question, having not even managed to find a “my field” (more’s the pity, and not for lack of trying), but I do chafe at it as well, and try hard to balance non-icky work that supports a cause in which I believe with free time pursuits that keep me engaged and feeling productive. Sometimes work has that same satisfaction (a puzzle well solved, a good hire, a successful event). And usually I’m fine with that.

    • Thank you! It’s a fine line between living a full life and taking on too much, but if it’s worth it, it’s worth it. Having had a thoughtful Sunday I’m happy that all the things in my life have a place and that I’m going the right way. I hope you find yourself getting a little closer too. And you’re right, the non-icky work can just plain be enjoyable and give a sense of satisfaction! I think this is because it rewards us for certain talents, even if those talents are making a damn fine coffee. Now to be rewarded for our favourite talents!

  3. “Two days does not permit much of anything, especially when you take five classes per week and study three languages at home (and are still trying to ‘finish’ piano).”

    Good grief! – but surely committing to all these things in tiny chunks spreads you a bit thin no?

    Also how do you fit friends in? Daily chores? And how do you focus on doing one thing at a time? Instead of 8 things sporadically? Or do you divide your hours militantly and are good at that sort of thing.

    • Hehe, I certainly could do some more chores than I currently do! And I do neglect my friends–though I invite them to dinner all the time (they are too busy too). Some things you can break up into smaller stuff, but some things you just need to sit down for a few hours and work solidly. I think the best way is to work out what things you do best when–maybe you write best at night, or prefer to read while you wake up over breakfast. Then you can get the most out of your time. And sometimes you’ve got to toss it all in and go lounge about at your friend’s house.

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