selfie preservation #016
Tell me about something at work that you are good at
My hips are a desk. From my ears hang chains of paper clips. Rubber bands form my hair. My breasts are wells of mimeograph ink. My feet bear casters. Buzz. Click. My head is a badly organized file. My head is a switchboard where crossed lines crackle. My head is a wastebasket of worn ideas. Press my fingers and in my eyes appear credit and debit. Zing. Tinkle. My navel is a reject button. From my mouth issue canceled reams. Swollen, heavy, rectangular I am about to be delivered of a baby xerox machine. File me under W because I wonce was a woman.
This month officially marks 10 years as a full time professional. I have a lot of successes under my belt, large and small. I have a quite a few failures, too. I’ve let go of A LOT of my ambition in the last few years (for more on this, please see this, this, this, this, this, and this).
It will not be a surprise to hear I was one of those suburban white girls who excelled within the traditional structures of American public school, university, and the workplace, particularly the federal government, which is the only company for which I’ve ever worked. I was one of those girls invited to “Gifted and Talented” programs, “Math and Science Conference for Girls” (I grew up pre-STEM, baby!!!), those Presidential Summer in Washington programs, honor societies, exchange programs, college prep bootcamps, PSAT reviews, etc. etc. etc. etc. I almost never participated in them, because they were scams for affluent white parents to pay $6,000 to send their kid to DC for four weeks, or to China for two. Even if my mother could afford it, that kind of money to me, as a kid, felt unfathomable. Instead, I went to journalism camp at the local college for free, one time. I spent exactly 1 Saturday at a “girls math and science conference.” I won the middle school spelling bee, but did not place at regionals. I never took a SAT or ACT prep course, I never had an unpaid internship, hell, I didn’t even visit the colleges I applied to — I had literally never spent a day in Ann Arbor until I went to orientation! 2 When I got to college, I applied the same approach of diligence, detail-orientation, and rubric-following that had gotten me there in the first place. I apply this same approach in my working life and it has, so far, served me well enough.
As I have gotten older, I have gotten more and more uncomfortable with the ways in which I have been successful professionally; so much of it is wrapped up in the performance of traditional gender roles. I am reverential to authority (often male, but not always); I do my homework (prepping for meetings and presentations, in the working world); I take notes; I am polite; I have exquisite soft skills; I work in a predominantly female field. I’ve tried to tamper a lifetime of socialization to be the one to clean up the birthday lunches, volunteer to bring a dish to pass, to take the meeting notes. I suggest that we send flowers to a colleague after a surgery, but I do not offer to collect money or make the order.
My success professionally is driven by skills I do not necessarily see as difficult or especially valuable: I pay attention. I am extremely competent. I am nice. I do not see myself as someone who has useful technical skills or scientific expertise in anything. I can’t build a website, analyze statistical data, translate anything into another language, start an IV, make a pivot table in Excel, write scripts, work in the command line, or design a poster. People like me exist in the workplace because the folks who can do all those things are not necessarily very good at running a meeting or writing an effective email. And they don’t need to be! They can do real work!
Something at work that I’m good at? I’m good at following directions. I’m good at recreating well done and useful work someone else has developed. I write excellent workflow documentation. I am particularly good at running meetings (folks have literally complimented me on this), and following up with notes and action items. I am TENACIOUS about emailing to keep things on track. I no longer get emotionally invested in anything professionally, if I can help it. I am not ashamed to ask clarifying or seemingly stupid questions. I Google things I don’t know how to do.
But something I am proud of at work has been setting boundaries. Doing so invokes privilege, both because of the type of person I am (a college educated white woman in a field of predominantly college educated white women) and because I work in an industry and professional field that operates, generally, in a standard 9-to-5 environment. But it is also because I have a track record of success at work; colleagues trust me to get things done and to get them done (relatively) well, and to be congenial along the way.
What I mean when I say “boundaries” are the ones between expectation and execution of work. I personally take this really seriously, and I try my best to practice the following:
I take a full hour lunch break when I can, which usually means taking a walk away from my desk.
I take a TWO WEEK VACATION when possible — not two weeks around the holidays to visit your family, but an honest-to-God out of office, out of range vacation in the woods or a very different time zone.
I am available 8am to 5pm on workdays as scheduled. Not before or after, unless a special circumstance arises like a conference call with folks in Europe or teaching an evening graduate course.
If my out of office reply is on, I am not looking at my email (this was the hardest habit to develop). I will deal with the deluge when I get back, and I will block time on my calendar to do so. I am diligent about setting an ooo.
If there is an emergency, everyone has my cell phone number; there is almost never an emergency.
Finally, I have this mantra of, “Its PR not ER.” I truly believe in the importance of the work I do, I am proud of the work I do, but I’m not an ICU nurse intubating COVID patients or a truck driver delivering shipments of groceries.
Those of us who are office professionals have been “working from home” more or less full time for 17 months. I think the phrase “working from home” diminishes the personal and professional stress we’ve all been pushing through day after day, week after week month after month. It feels hard even for me, someone employed full time, the entire time, with no dependents, except for Celine. In so many ways that feel confusing and even shameful, the last 17 months haven’t been that hard for me. But they have.
I know these types of boundaries can feel impossible or inappropriate, depending on a myriad of factors. But I think one of the things we have learned over the last year is that our work isn’t the most important part of our lives. Or at least it’s something I have learned. Your mileage may vary.
One person who has really helped me separate my self-worth from my productivity has been Anne Helen Petersen, whose work on work I cannot recommend enough
This adaptation! Do not disappoint me!
Way ahead of this curve, lol (Costco whole milk 4 eva)
The unbearable (high)lightness of being a pop star
“White feminism’s refusal to disaggregate whiteness—and its colonialist and oppressive associations—from feminism meant that the blueprint for empowerment was acting, by and large, like white women.”
My cousin started college this week and this does not surprise me in the least
I guarantee this will be the next vehicle I drive, whether I like it or not
The last orientation offered that summer, so all the classes were full; an orientation where my mother assumed they would provide bedding and didn’t; an orientation in a city my mom felt she instinctively knew because she used to visit my dad there 25 years prior; an orientation where I was, of course, late.