A Few Thoughts on a Week Away

Thanks to everyone who held down the TPM fort while I was away. I published a few posts over the last couple days. But I only got back to New York this evening. I was away for a few days longer than expected for unforeseen reasons.

Everyone needs time away from work, if for nothing else than to be productive at the work that they do. Not everyone has this luxury. But it is even more so, or it takes on a different dimension when your life is your work. I don’t say this to imply that I have no work/life balance, though that’s debatable. (I’m working on it.) I mean it in the sense that I’ve been blessed to make a living and support a family and have some level of professional success doing what I’d likely be doing if no one paid me at all. This is such an immense blessing that it’s hard for me to conceive a different life.

I’ve always had some basic inability to live a regular adult or professional life. After I graduated from college I stayed in town to live with my then girlfriend who graduated a year after me. Mainly I needed to take a year off to apply to graduate school because only with my completed senior year of college grades did I have any hope of getting into a good history PhD program. To support myself that year I took a job working as a paralegal at a big law firm in Newark, New Jersey, making about $18,000 a year.

It was soul-conqueringly boring. My memory of it is limited and a bit hazy. Indeed there’s not much to remember since I lasted such a short time. I would get up in the morning in Princeton, get on the commuter train, arrive at work 90 minutes or so later, work or rather sit around and not really do anything because they didn’t seem to have any work for me yet and then do the same 90 minutes back home. I did this for like a week and sometime over that week I had an ephiphany of sorts: I was getting up at the crack of dawn, commuting to work, working (notionally working), commuting back and arriving mid-evening beyond exhausted, watching a couple shows with my girlfriend and going to sleep. In other words, I was working all day at my soul-crushing job for a salary that allowed me to have a place to sleep during the part of the day when I wasn’t at my soul-crushing job.

This didn’t make sense to me.

Maybe ten days in I realized I couldn’t do this and I quit. This was irresponsible and immature. Now, I certainly know now and I mainly knew then that my epiphany was what is most accurately called ‘life’. There was just something temperamentally off about me that made this difficult beyond compare. The other problem with my plan was that I had made my way through school on loans, had no savings and now no income. I managed to string together work tutoring (and a couple other odd jobs) and then later in the year I actually taught biology at a local prep school. The next year I was off to graduate school in Rhode Island.

I’m not lazy. Most people who know me would likely say I’m closer to a workaholic. Both qualities are rooted in life history and genetics which are beyond the scope of this post. But I gravitated toward things I could throw myself into entirely because I felt driven to do them, so that I could commit to them entirely. These are generally unrealistic expectations of life unless you’re lucky.

This kind of all-pervasive involvement in work is hard to disengage from. It mainly means doing nothing, spending time with my family and doing the one thing I do most days which has nothing to do with work, which is reading history. This last week I mainly spent my time reading histories of ancient China, between swimming and drinking. My real goal was to get sufficient distance from TPM and the news to get some perspective on how to be more focused about what we are trying to accomplish as an organization. What are the things, the few things, we can do uniquely and better than any other news organization? This is a challenge because we are a very small organization with very small budgets and we compete with outfits vastly larger. Still, I believe we are a critical part of the political and policy and investigative news ecosystem. I feel refreshed and clarified in how to approach this goal.

So thank you to all the readers who’ve made possible (or rather workable and sustainable) my mix of impatience and workaholism and shared with me the interest in the kinds of stories we follow here at TPM.

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