In Defense of Not Doing Your Best

This post is part missive against overworking and part belated Boston Marathon race report. As the title suggests, I’m encouraging folks to be more chill about mediocrity.

As a teacher and parent, I see a lot of overworked young people: students working full time, taking a heavy course load, doing several extracurriculars, and having allergic reactions to not earning As on their work. When I asked college students what superpower they’d like, most wanted to clone themselves or be in two places at once. Their kryptonite is wanting to do too much–and expecting to be excellent at all of it.

Overdoing things has been my kryptonite, too…but I’m (still) trying to reform. Like the Supreme Court failing to define obscenity, I don’t have a precise definition of overworking. Instead of “I know it when I see it,” for me it’s “I know it when I feel it.” When overworked, I’m chronically rushed and often grumpy. I’m doing the “thing” but not enjoying the thing. I’ve often been caught in a machine of my own making instead of reallocating my time to reflect my values. Pushing things off my plate and lowering some standards has been crucial.

Speaking of lower standards, I ran the 2023 Boston Marathon. When I signed up for the race, I said that I wouldn’t try for a personal record; I would run to enjoy the experience. Despite running my slowest marathon time yet on a cold, rainy day, I had a good time at the race! I sang along to music on the course and waved at folks. The memorable, fun experience was more important than hours, minutes, and seconds. For the record, I finished with a time of 3:41:11, in place 15,233–nearly dead center of the field of 30,000ish runners. Happily mediocre.

Even though I wasn’t shooting for a PR, marathon training is a needy beast. This 40-something-year-old body shuffled through 20-milers. These hard-working feet developed triple blisters. (I have blister photos for posterity, but I won’t share them here.) This working mom even ran a two-a-day to squeeze in the weekly mileage.

Honestly, about 80% of the training was fun and fulfilling. The other 20% was tedious. By committing to train for the marathon, I was inherently overdoing it. Running is ideally a meditative, healthy escape for me; it shouldn’t be a chore.

And that’s exactly what overworking can do: leach joy out of the things we love. The tough part is, we often don’t know there’s a problem until we’re in too deep.

Everything came crashing down on me in fall of 2022. The death of my friend conspired with chronic stress to inform me that the life I was trying to lead was impossible. I couldn’t see it myself, so my body screamed it at me. I’ve written about burnout before. This feeling was different. It was full-bodied. For nearly two weeks, I cried throughout the day. At the bus stop. On a video call. Before teaching. In the grocery store. In my bed at 3am. It was the Green Eggs and Ham of weeping.

I couldn’t do it all. I had to let things go. That letting go included volunteer work in which I consistently overrode my boundaries. That letting go included research projects that no longer excited me. That letting go included marathon PRs. I found a therapist to help me through it.

(Side note from pot to kettle: If you think you’re too busy for therapy, that’s a sign you might be overworked.)

I still have a ways to go when rebalancing my meaningful life. Two friends recently shared helpful resources related to balance at work: This Working Life and The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work.

The No Club describes NPTs (non-promotable tasks) at work, why women are likely to take them on, and how to fight against that impulse. The holistic look at NPTs provides valuable backbone reinforcement. Women’s dead-end work is a systemic problem to tackle; it’s not a personal failing.

This Working Life is both a book and a podcast. I really enjoyed the podcast episode titled, “When Less is Really More: The Power of Anti-Striving.” It wrestles with identity, social comparisons, and generational differences in how we approach work. One point that really struck me is that by stepping off a typically ambitious path, we open up opportunities to stretch different parts of ourselves. Like growth, ambition need not be linear or singular.

To prevent against overworking or overrunning or overdoing anything, I will embrace down time more than ever before, carefully consider new commitments of any kind, and say no to optional work/volunteering that doesn’t fuel me. I’ve tried some of this before, but I need to reaffirm the commitment to self. Writing my plans down here has been helpful.

I’m also more focused on enjoying the journey. Last fall I followed a manageable training plan, met up with friends, and took in the scenery in the Ipswich Ocean View Half Marathon. Smiling at the camera instead of scowling at the watch is my better way to be.

Photo from the 2023 Ocean View Half Marathon in Ipswich, MA.



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