“2010th” is what my 4-year-old daughter calls the new year, so I hope that clarifies the title for you. Are you with me?
This year, contrary to resolution advice from the experts, I’m aiming too high. Rather than pinpointing a specific, achievable goal (“Whittle down the number of pasta dishes I eat per week to 2.5″), I’m using this resolution to try to bring order to a jumble of ideas that have been rattling around in my brain for most of last year. I can justify aiming too high by turning to other experts who say that being guided by an internal raison d’etre will help you stick to a resolution. So I’m listening to those experts.
For 2010th, I want to make a resolution about something that will make my life saner and more organized: alignment. I want alignment. I know that sounds like a really vague resolution, but think of it as a “thematic” approach to the year, like the Year of Living Dangerously or the Year of Flossing. This year will be the Year of Alignment. And I’ll spend the next few months figuring out how to do it.
Here’s what I know so far: Alignment means gathering up all my skills and passions and actual labor (writing, currently), and having them all move in lockstep toward the same vision. Maybe not everything can move in lockstep. I mean, I’m not completely naive about this. Nobody’s life fits together like a tidy puzzle, even if it looks that way from the outside.
I suppose what I want is to align what I do with what I care about. I want for who I am to dictate what I do, and the other way around. As it is, I move from one disparate activity to the next throughout the day — altering myself to match each task — rather than working toward one big idea. It may partly be a function of freelancing — I’m a hired gun who absolutely must bend and change in order to succeed. But I know that not all freelancers are working this way. (I’ll tell you about one of them later.)
Maybe this is a better way to describe it: It’s like I’m navigating a day using five different maps. Each day I take the necessary steps to successfully reach five different points on the five different maps. I always get there, wherever “there” is, but it seems likely that the maps are leading me to points on entirely different continents, and that some of those continents are a really bad choice for me, like maybe one or two of them are Antarctica.
A 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. work day for me might look like this: write a story about sugar silos, peruse communications listings on SimplyHired, scan newspapers for B2B newsletter fodder, write a grant application for my daughters’ school garden, research summer camps, dash off email to friends to see if anyone has a parenting anecdote I can use for a monthly parenting column, work with a classroom in the school garden, buy eight bags of topsoil, process emails to keep projects and my social life moving forward.
(For proof of my scattered life, look no further than this blog, which jumps from posts about being gracious on Twitter to one about catching a mouse.)
Does that sound crazy? Let me tell you, it feels crazy. For half of those tasks, I’m using my skills as a writer to do work I get paid for. The other half are things I do because I think they’re incredibly important to do, even if I don’t get paid for them and even if they cut into the time I should be spending on work-for-pay. The first half revolve around the business world. The other half revolve around outdoor education and food justice.
I could tell you that the common thread between the two camps is that I’m using my communication and organizational skills to be successful at whatever I tackle. But the truth is that I don’t feel any sense of commonality, not on the average day. These two forces are fighting for my time and focus, which are limited.
I know this: If I’m going to be good — really good — at something, I need to put in a lot of time doing that thing. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that to shine, you need to put in 10,000 hours honing your skill. Of course, I want to be really good at something. I also want that something to reflect who I am. To put in 10,000 hours, I will have to pick and choose, rather than jumping from one disparate activity to the next indefinitely. I’ll need align my work and the rest of my life.
Two initial steps I’ll need to take, as I muddle through this Year of Alignment:
1. I’ll try to discover my true voice. You could also call this authenticity, which everybody seems to want, whether they’re a CEO or a free agent. The idea here is that when you speak, people recognize your voice. Other people grow to expect a certain sort of expertise from you. They also know they can believe you, because you’re being authentic and because you’ve now established yourself as a bit of an expert.
Any successful blog has a focus, and there’s a reason for that: People are drawn to a strong, consistent voice. And that happens in real life, too.
After eight years of researching and writing about dozens of topics, I’m not sure where my voice is anymore.
2. I’ll doggedly follow my interests, even if I don’t get paid. Take my fabulous friend Tish, who writes a blog called A Femme d’un Certain Age and who first taught me how not to look like an idiot. A long-time fashion writer, an ardent lover of and resident of Paris, and a “femme d’un certain age” herself, she has merged her passions in a blog. Rare is the person who gets rich penning a blog, of course, but such things can and do lead to other professional opportunities, which has been the case for Tish. Remember the freelancer I mentioned earlier? The one working toward one big idea? This is the one. And I’ll also say this: The fact that Tish writes about something she’s passionate about — you can hear it in her smart, tart voice, can’t you? — makes the internets a better place.
Another acquaintance of mine, Mark, who is a communications/marketing guy, works for a local coffee-bean roaster. He also donates significant time as a volunteer to the local Slow Food convivium, writing their newsletter, organizing and promoting events, etc. — the perfect blend of expertise and passion. That’s beautiful, alignment-wise.
Back to my point, though: If you start a work/life alignment exercise by thinking about whether something’s going to be lucrative, you might not start the exercise at all.
So my challenge for the moment is to forget about getting paid, and think about what I’m interested in. Because to follow your interests, you first need to figure out what those interests are. Does that sound silly? Like you wouldn’t know what your own interests are — ha! And yet people sidestep their interests all the time and choose to do something else. As Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project says, “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.”