This is the fifth in a series of essays. You can access the rest here, though it’s not necessary to read them all or in order.
“To me, the only habit worth ‘designing for’ is the habit of questioning one’s habitual ways of seeing”
-Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing
“We have to fight for this world, but we also have to fight for our ability to experience this world more fully. We have to rediscover how to embrace each day. We have to learn how to embrace the imperfection of the present moment and accept the wide range of experiences that fall between happiness and sadness, success and failure, true love and hatred, popularity and invisibility. But in order to do that, we have to examine and deconstruct the reductive solutions and the magical thinking that we’ve been fed since birth.”
-Heather Havrilesky, What if This Were Enough
Since my not-so-near-death experience, I’ve been in a really reflective place, doing a lot of thinking about how I want to live and experience the rest of my life and the kind of person I want to be in the world. As you can imagine from what I’ve written, I want to jump off the treadmill of want, reprogram myself from the cult of productivity, and reject the culture of achievement. Here are some of my goals going forward:
I want to cultivate a sense of gratitude and enoughness. I have a fantastic life surrounded by people I love and work that I usually find fulfilling. I am extremely privileged and I’ve enjoyed a lot of success. I would rather focus on all I have than what I don’t. I doubt I’ll ever be free of want, but I definitely don’t feel the empty, cavernous, hungry sense of want (and lacking) I used to feel.
I want to find the happy medium between cultivating inner calm and being complacent. Mindfulness can be used as a tool to get people to accept situations or structures that are detrimental to them or downright toxic. It has totally been co-opted by corporate America in order to make workers complacent in the face of toxic structural issues and exploitation (and I wonder if Silicon Valley has embraced mindfulness so they can feel peace in the face of all the bad many of them are doing in the world). I want to be more at-peace with myself and my life, but I don’t want to stand silently by when awful things are going on.
I’m working to recognize that I’m not an object that needs to be fixed. I cannot be optimized, hacked, or perfected. I am good just as I am. I am loving the exercising I’ve been doing, but I don’t want to be obsessive about it or do it with particular number goals in mind (clothing size, steps, calories, pounds). I do it to feel good. The thing I struggle with accepting most is my social anxiety. I spent an awkward couple of hours trying to make small talk with neighbors I like a great deal at a block party recently and felt totally out-of-place and uncomfortable. I then spent the next several days perseverating over what I should have done and said. I hate that my anxiety makes me not fit in, which only further fuels my anxiety, which makes me want to hide in my house. I don’t know what a happy medium between holing myself up at home and forcing myself to do social things (that, really, I want to do) looks like. This is something I
want need to work on because it’s paralyzing, but I also don’t want to beat myself up for being who I am. I’m not quite sure how to live that contradiction.
I don’t want to define myself by my work. I am so much more than a librarian. I want to find a healthy distance from it, while still being passionate about supporting students. Still puzzling out what that looks like. I want to leave work at work (says the woman who had to stay up late the other night to write down an idea that suddenly popped into her head for an activity in Biology 101 before she forgot it).
I need to remember that people’s screw-ups and emergencies are not my emergencies. I want to stop feeling like I have to fix everything. I have a nasty habit of feeling responsible for things that aren’t actually my responsibility and end up doing work that other people were supposed to have done because they dropped the ball and I know it won’t get done otherwise. I need to be ok with those things not getting done (or getting done late) and to let go of the mental energy it takes to keep track of all that stuff. I think being out of leadership roles will help, but I also need to feel like it’s not always my responsibility to bail people out. This pressure to always react quickly and fix things is also a symptom of my anxiety and I’m recognizing how anxiety has shaped many of my maladaptive traits.
I want to feel like I can be my whole self in each part of my life. I don’t want to feel like I have to shrink and shape shift all the time to make myself palatable to others. And I want to spend more time with the people with whom I feel like I can be totally myself.
I will own my achievements. I have accomplished a lot, both professionally and personally, and I worked hard for those accomplishments. They’re mine and I want to own them — not always chalk them up to luck. I’m a good writer. I have good ideas. I work damn hard. I’m a team player. I’ve put good things into our profession and my workplaces. I deserve good things.
I recognize there are ways to resist the attention economy without becoming a hermit. I’ve removed all notifications from my phone and watch other than those that I really want and value and just that has made me feel so much more peaceful in my daily life. Now that I’m back at work after a summer off, I will try to not check Facebook and Twitter when I get home from work. I need to find other ways to help me reclaim my attention. Any suggestions?
I need to figure out how to use social media productively as well as sparingly. There are people I love with whom I only keep in touch via social media. I do actually learn a great deal from social media. I like encouraging and supporting colleagues and friends online. But I don’t know how to live in such a problematic space. I can’t do the numbing mindless scroll. I can’t do the pile on, the hot take, the snarky retort. And I’m just not sure how to be in those spaces in a way that I find fulfilling or that at least doesn’t diminish me.
I want to focus on consuming online content that is long-form and grounded in a context (rather than the contextless and atomized stream of Twitter/FB/Instagram thoughts). Long form essays and blog posts. Podcasts (which I’ve become super-into over the past year). Newsletters. I feel satisfied and informed when I consume this kind of content. I don’t get that from social media.
I want to find better ways to connect with, share ideas with, and learn from other librarians. I want to have deeper interactions than what you can get in 280 characters. Maybe I need to find other instruction librarians at mid-career who want to meet online periodically in a virtual discussion group. Or library workers who want to explore mindfulness at work and successfully navigating the attention economy. Or some other topic of common interest. Hit me up if you’re interested. I want to have interactions that are more meaningful than what I get out of Twitter. I’d rather have real connection with a few than weak connections with many.
I want to listen more. As Jenny Odell writes in her book, “the platforms that we use to communicate with each other do not encourage listening. Instead they reward shouting and oversimple reaction: of having a ‘take’ after having read a single headline.” I want to slow down and spend more time listening and reflecting than I do speaking and responding. No more knee-jerk reactions and “hot takes.”
At work, I want to be a better follower. I realized recently that I’ve conceived of and led/managed projects every single year that I have been in this profession. I’m ready for a break from being a leader; I’m exhausted. But I also want to support someone else’s vision. I want to help others be awesome leaders. Being a good follower is as much an art as being a good leader and it is one I want to cultivate. My colleague Allie sometimes calls me “tiny Dean” because I always feel like I have to step up and manage situations or take the lead on things that don’t have leaders. I don’t. I really don’t. I took steps in the Spring to let go of a leadership position I’m currently in and asking my colleagues to support that was a huge deal for me. This coming academic year, I’m going to share that role with another colleague and next year I will have let go of all my leadership positions (including the end of my three-year ACRL-Oregon leadership). I struggle to imagine and can’t wait for the dolce far niente I’m going to experience then. Bring. It. On.
At work, I also want to focus on the things that are most important to me — my teaching and my relationships with students, faculty, and my library colleagues. Those are rarely the visible achievements that will get you a pat on the back or an award, but they are, without question, the most rewarding aspects of my job. I don’t need to do THE BIG THING that will get me the award/recognition/pat-on-the-back to feel like a good librarian.
I want to be a good ancestor and support others. My ambitions have changed. Like the always wise Mita Williams and Kendra Levine (my fellow travelers in mid-careerdom), my focus has moved more toward things that support others in the profession. That has always been my focus to some extent, but I don’t feel like I’m looking anymore for the pat on the back. And there’s something tremendously freeing about that. I love being a mentor to early-career librarians. I love using my privilege to call attention to other awesome people (especially women and non-binary folks) and to help others get opportunities to shine. I want to continue to use my privilege to support others. Professionally, I’m in a position where I can speak out against injustice or for positive change and have people listen to me. I hate that people are this way — that people judge ideas based on who is sharing them — but knowing I have this privileged place in our profession gives me an opportunity to show up for people.
In terms of how I use my outside-of-work time, I want to focus more on taking care of myself, spending real quality time alone with my husband, and real quality time with my son. I love being outside. I love exercising. I want to steer clear of things that distract me from all this.
I want to help my son navigate this messed up society. I already see him struggling under the weight of achievement culture and the cult of productivity and I’m struggling to know how to best help him. He is so like me in so many ways and I want to keep him from feeling like he constantly needs to seek out external validation. I want him to not feel like he needs to compare himself to others all the time or care what people think who, in the end, really mean very little to him. I want him to be ok with quitting when it’s the best thing for him and failing when he tried his best. I want him to have his own wants. I don’t want my son to live this kind of hypercompetitive life, but I also know that his school and the values of our community are working against this goal. I also want to remember that my son’s successes are not my achievements and acting like they are a measuring stick of my parenting is toxic for both of us. I just want him to be happy and healthy, whatever that happens to look like for him.
As Jenny Odell wrote in that quote I have at the top of this post, I want to challenge the ways I have of seeing things. I’ve been trying to be more conscious of what is me and what is my programming. But getting off the treadmill of your programming is difficult too. How do you know you’re choosing to do something for the love of it and not because you’re chasing some achievement or approval? I often can’t even really articulate the reasons for saying yes to some of the opportunities I’ve accepted. I just want to be more aware of what is behind my thinking and try to make choices that are mindful of what I really want to be doing. It will require slowing down, something I’ve never been good at.
I want to learn without an explicit goal. I want to nurture my curiosity and not just spend all my free time learning about things that will explicitly make me better at my job. One of the nicest things about Jenny Odell’s book is how she models a sort of stream of consciousness learning and curiosity. Her book is full of quotes, information, and facts that feel both random and focused. I feel like the explorations I’ve done this summer around the topics I’ve written about here are a great example of how I want to explore in the future. One thing has led to another and another.
So I guess the moral of this extremely long story is that I still do have a lot of want — I’m just focusing it more now on sustaining and nurturing me than on trying to become something/someone else. I am enough. I know that deep down. I just need to try and live like I know it. You are enough too. Don’t ever forget that.
I’m sending love to all of my fellow mid-career librarians. The struggle is real, but so is the privilege we have at this moment. We have so many more possibilities open to us, even if we’re not shiny and new and filled with unending oceans of want (and energy!) any more. In so many ways, that’s actually a good thing. We can chart a new course or recommit ourselves to an existing one.
For those of you at mid-career, what are you working towards? What sustains you? Excites you? What advice would you have for early-career librarians so they don’t burn out?
Here are some books and podcasts I’ve read and listened to over the past few months that really got me thinking about these issues (in addition to the many articles I’ve cited in these essays). Maybe you’ll find them helpful too!
How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell
Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives by David Levy
Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
What if This Were Enough by Heather Havrilesky (I’ll fully admit that I HATED the deep negativity and cynicism in some of the chapters and then absolutely loved her keen observations in others. Definitely a mixed bag.)
Double Bind: Women on Ambition by Robin Romm
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski (written for women, sorry guys)
Call Your Girlfriend
Going Through It
Hidden Brain podcast’s You 2.0 series is quite good.
Yes! I’ve listened to a few episodes and I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me initially to add it to the list. I especially loved the one about the impact of being in nature and the impact of not having trees and grass around on crime.
Meredith, I can relate to much of what you’re saying here, both professionally and personally. I’ve been wanting to step back from leading, just a little, so that I can allow myself to focus inward, rather than always feeling responsible for everything but often feeling less than, somehow, at the same time. Our son is ten, and I struggle with all the same things you mentioned about helping him to survive in – and resist a little – our culture of expectations and comparisons and achievement tallies. I’m definitely interested in an online discussion group for mid-career instruction librarians, so here I am, hitting you up! 🙂 – Jamie
I relate to so much of what you’re saying both professionally and personally. I’ve been a librarian for 17 years now, and am just now moving towards an information literacy and online learning focus. I’d be interested in a mid-career instruction group if you start one up. Things I’ve done to reset – took a sabbatical last fall and gave away all collection areas/responsibilities for 6 months (which allowed me to see what I actually wanted to take back), asked for and switched to a 9 month contract, started choosing taskforces/new responsibilities where I could actually make a difference, and started taking advantage of the yoga class at work. I’m also taking into much more consideration what’s important to me, rather than worrying about visible achievements and recognitions.
Best of luck to you in your journey!
If mid-career former librarians can play, I’d be interested. Thanks for writing these. 🙂
You might like some of Ben Grosser’s demetrification plugins. I like the idea of un-doing some of the manipulation engines when in Twitter, FB etc.
Ironically, a rabbit hole led me here after reading an article you wrote. I’m trying to decide an area of focus for a MLIS and what you wrote spoke to me. I’ve been mid-career in libraryworld for a while without the degree – even left for a year but returned. Your post makes me wonder if I should’ve just kept searching…perhaps leading isn’t the magic solution. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
Meredith, I love you. 🙂 Your wants are very noble and I suspect you’ll find ways to turn them into more personal/professional strengths. I’m glad you can mentor those newer to librarianship, as well as learn from them and your peers. Hopefully some of us who are semi and fully retired from the field can also contribute to the discussion. As for parenting, I personally believe the best we can do for our kids is to try to maximize their unique potential, and at least avoid damaging that potential. Warmest wishes for continued joy in both your personal and professional lives.
I forgot to add in my previous message that I had been a librarian for almost 42 years! Also that all of my professional life I spent in Port Elizabeth, South Africa!
But just know even though retired and a digital immigrant, I admire you from afar!