work work work (or, THP: Chapter Three)

(This is part three in a series about The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin.  To start at the beginning, click here. )

After boosting her energy and loving better, Gretchen addressed the topic of work.  She had recently gone through a change in career that made her more happy, so she had to find other ways to increase her happiness in her current state.  She did so by challenging herself (creating a blog), enjoying the fun of failure, asking for help (she formed a small ‘writers’ group), working smart (by being more efficient with her time) and enjoying ‘now.’

It’s interesting that I’m writing about work at a time in which I’m unemployed.  

In the nine years since I left the military, I’ve worked part-time at a library, gone back to school full-time to complete a bachelor’s degree and internship in nutrition, provided nutritional counseling part-time on a college campus, worked part-time at a hospital and full-time, most recently, at a long-term care facility.  Since 2011 I’ve been writing for our local paper, The East Aurora Advertiser, first as a freelancer in general news and since 2015 as a monthly columnist.  That was also the year I started this blog, first as ‘TheFrozenPineapple,’ when we decided to move to Buffalo.  The blog has experienced ebbs and flows as my time has allowed.  While I’ve never planned for the blog to grow into a source of income, I also struggle with its purpose as a communication tool and my own creative outlet.  I do lead weekly spin classes at my gym and do some volunteer work, and manage to be legitimately busy all day, ever yday.

All that to say, I’m a writer-turned-dietitian who isn’t currently working in her field (or at all, really) and is starting to really wonder what she’s going to do ‘when she grows up.’  How can I apply this chapter to my own life, if I don’t have any real ‘work?’

I think, for me, this chapter is the first step toward my future in freelance writing.

There, I said it.

I’ve really been a writer since I could hold a pen to paper.  I may not do a lot of writing in my ‘free’ time (something Andrew uses as proof that I’m not a real writer), but I think that’s more a function of my inability to do anything even remotely ‘leisurely’ until ALL. WORK. IS. DONE.  And when the heck is all the housework EVER done?!  It’s simply easier at the end of every day to collapse on the couch and half-watch whatever Andrew has on television, than grab the computer and try to use my brain.

Back to being a writer.  Nothing made me happier as a child than to read books, write stories and draw.  One of my dreams as a child was to write a book.  (Not a cookbook.  I have never wanted to write a cookbook.  Not then, and not now.)  Apparently, I was way more artsy than I remembered, which is manifesting itself in various ‘art’ and redecorating projects all over the house recently.

I think I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer.  I majored in Journalism in college, then went back to school for a nutrition degree to be a food WRITER, and have always seen myself working in a ‘flexible’ capacity.  I think the biggest aspect of the job I just left, and the impetus for me to pursue another career was the lack of flexibility in my schedule.  Andrew and I love to travel, and I need to be home more than I’m not.  Freelancing, or some form of it, would allow me to have a flexible schedule, and–therefore–increased happiness in my work.

However, Gretchen’s chapter on work also convicted me.  I haven’t been pursuing this so-called passion of mine, so was it really something I’m passionate about?   She was, apparently, writing a book IN HER FREE TIME.  (What free time?  She has two children!) What was I doing in my free time?  It wasn’t writing, or at least not much.  It made me second-guess something about myself that I’d always considered truth.

(The truth is that I often view writing as a purely selfish, leisurely activity that benefits no one but myself at the moment, as it does not produce an income.  Hence, the lack of time carved out to actually write.)

I also struggled, and continue to struggle, with some of the same things Gretchen mentioned.  She left a career in law and is very ambitious; she said she worried about whether her future endeavor would be ‘legitimate.’  I worry about that, too.  There is something comforting and easy about working in a hospital as a dietitian.  I have credentials, I put in the hours and I get a paycheck–easy, peasy.  Freelancing, opening your own practice–now those things are hard, and ‘success’ isn’t measured as easily.

I guess the biggest question is, ‘Who am I?’  Don’t we all wonder that, at some point?  Who is Holly, and what does she REALLY want to do for the rest of her life?  Do I even know?

Gretchen’s research shows happiness in ones’ work is crucial.  It almost seems cyclical; the more you enjoy your work, the more time you spend working (even in your free time), the happier you’ll be and the more willing to help others, which will add to your happiness, and on and on it goes.

My most recent job certainly showed me that I didn’t want to work full-time, and that working in a traditional role (i.e. in an acute care setting) didn’t provide a flexible enough schedule.  While I enjoy the clinical aspect of dietetics, it wasn’t enough to overcome the stress of  that position. I decided to take the summer off and I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking, which has led to a lot of self-evaluation.  I’ve been able focus on house projects and travel, which has been great.  But, with only two months left before the leaves start to turn, I feel I need to start thinking about my next steps.


And there we go. (I’m even thinking of doing NaNoWriMo this year, but remaining somewhat non-committal at this point.)

The first step I’ve taken is to create a space in my house in which I WANT to write.  To non-writers, this may sound strange.  Just like Andrew leaves in the morning to go to work, writers have to get away from the everyday distractions so they can focus.  Often, writers spend time in local coffeeshops or even rent small spaces in which to work.  Our downstairs desk area, while beautiful and organized, is itself a distraction (just sitting down puts me in e-mail mode) and has me front and center to whatever my dog decides to bark at and thoughts of dishes and laundry.  We have an upstairs office that I’d decorated years ago, but it felt juvenile, claustrophobic  and stale.  I decided it needed a facelift, and that I would surround myself with inspiring things.

In addition to some re-organizing and cleaning, I replaced a cork board covered in decade-old greeting cards with art I liked, switched the lamp out, and bought a scented candle.  (Gretchen bought a candle for her office, too–I’m sure much more expensive as it was Jo Malone–and I thought it was a great idea.  I bought two more of the same to hold in reserve.)

Other than a couple morning devotions, this is the first actual writing (and burning of the candle!) that has been done in my new space.  It’s colorful, warm and filled with things that make me smile: the macaron erasers and running book Emily gave me before my marathon, the sister-wife mug Stacy gave me after I accompanied her to the NYC marathon, the ‘follow your heart’ block Sara gave me, for my birthday, the nutrition-textbook-turned-purse (don’t ask) that the Nyes gave me after I became a dietitian. (Hmm…I think I’m a gift-person, huh?)

I even have a copy of my very first freelance job, an article I wrote for Town&Student back when I was a student at Penn State, as well as the issue of Real Simple in which they printed my response to their monthly question.

Because Gretchen had already changed careers, her happiness project for work didn’t involve re-evaluating her current job.  What she did find in her research is that challenging oneself (apparently the unfamiliar and unexpected can be sources of happiness) and success can lead to great satisfaction.  She decided to launch a blog, and found great happiness in the learning process and surprise in its success.

In my as-yet-un-begun journey to freelancing, I’m going to have to employ all of her work-related tasks in order to succeed, and can hopefully experience happiness along the way.

My ‘challenge’: Begin freelancing.  I’m not going to define this by being published per se, but rather a journey TO freelancing, that will include all sorts of hurdles, such as educating myself on the ‘blogosphere’ and how to improve my own blog, researching who and how to approach for freelance pieces, both online and print.  Plus, what in the world do I even write about??

Enjoy the fun of failure: Oh, there be failure, alright! This will be a good exercise in patience and learning to fail well.  Gretchen notes that despite all the no’s she received along the way, there were many opportunities she had because she was brave enough to try.

Ask for help: Gretchen realized her husband wasn’t the right audience for her writing-related talk.  She formed a small group of like-minded writers to discuss goals and strategy, and said that their interactions ‘exhilarated her.’  I have friends who are both writers and freelancers in other fields, and even picked the brain of a freelance-writer aunt for a school project years ago, and still have my notes!

Work smart: Something that surprised me is that Gretchen found she was actually MORE productive when she had LESS time.  Like Gretchen, I’ve always thought one needed 3-4 hours of uninterrupted time to devote to writing, and that just never seems possible.  When she studied her efficiency, it was actually the opposite!  (It’s in this section of the book she mentions her candle.  “I discovered that there is something nice about working in an office with a candle burning.  It’s like seeing snow falling outside the window…”)  I have the candle, and with the knowledge that even 60 or 90 minutes is enough to accomplish something worthwhile, I feel even more excited to begin.

Enjoy now:  I have a lot of trouble with this one, and not just with work.  I’m one of those all-or-nothing people, so if a project is sitting half-finished somewhere in the house, I can’t ‘enjoy now.’  I can barely enjoy now if we PLAN to do a project!  All too often, we dream so much of the goal, yet forget to enjoy today.  Even the journey–perhaps more so–is worth savoring.  Anticipation is a good thing, and so is contentment, to some extent.  I will strive to enjoy the journey to freelancing, even when it’s hard and scary and people criticize my writing.

Going forward, the biggest change will be PRIORITIZING this task.  Like I said, I always leave writing (right now, mostly the blog) to the end of my to-do list.  If I’m going to get serious about pursuing any sort of writing in a professional sense, I need to set aside time each day/most days.  I’m not sure yet if that will be the same time each day, or if I’ll simply fit it in when I can, but it will be difficult.  Here goes nothing!

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