Keeping your head down

Is there balance in our work and life?

I was scrolling social media the other day and about slammed my head on the desk. I was already feeling overwhelmed from life and became envious of a few people who seem to exclusively live a life of extravagance and travel. You ever look at someone and wonder how they do it? Do they even work? Do they also struggle to balance ordinary things like car repair or keeping up with friends in the chaos? Some people, life seems only like fun and games with complete disregard for the future.

This feeling comes up from time to time and I always need to remind myself of a chat I had with a friend. Someone I was once introduced to and respected professionally. I was using the time to feverishly chip away at a backlog of burning questions that occupied my headspace for some time. This was at a particular point in life where I was feeling lost. If memory serves, I was working a full shift, racing to night classes for my bachelor’s degree, and shoving homework and socialization in during the weekend. I was exhausted and life, quite honestly, was not enjoyable.

They say when you’re using someone’s time you should be clear and concise with your asks. Midst my frustration, all I could muster out was: “How do you do it?” How do you lead a massive organization, live a fulfilling life, and somehow still make time for some random introduction with a bozo you had never heard of? I want to be out boating on the weekend like my peers, I wanted to be partying at the bar every other weeknight, I wanted to travel to some extravagant place every few months!

And for some reason, he took my ask extremely seriously and offered the best advice I didn’t know I needed: “Keep your head down, the rest will come.”

I’ve always battled to keep my head down. There is an innumerable number of experiences I deferred because I was busy plugging away at my career or goals. I need to remind myself that these sacrifices have afforded me a lot– I can travel to visit my family when I like, I’m challenging myself intellectually, and I can sustain a lifestyle that I’m happy with. To be frank, it can be hard to watch others live grandiose lives around me when I know they put half of the effort or heart into it. I make a conscious effort to treat everyone with kindness and respect, I try to love my neighbor, I keep my head down and work feverishly towards the future.

When do I get my cut? When do I get to live large?

I know this sounds petty but it’s true. There are some days I log on at 6-7am and don’t sign off until 1-2am. I tell people I’m busy but I don’t think they believe me and it’s getting harder to justify to my friends & family that I’m tied up. There are days – if not weeks or months – where I consider tossing in the towel on my dreams and instead enlist myself at some big company with some ordinary title, taking a healthy salary and considerable PTO package and working 20 hour weeks. Is that the good life?

Keeping your head down is not all that different from what James Carse considers playing an infinite game. The opposite – what I battle with so much – are finite games.

“Finite players have to parade around their wealth and status. They need to display the markers of winning they have accumulated so that other players know whom they are dealing with. Carse argues that these players spend their time in the past, because that’s where their winning is.”
(from Finite and Infinite Games: Two Ways to Play the Game of Life)

Things have gotten pretty weird since I was younger. It feels like people are infinitely more vain than they used to be: people obsess over their looks and their status and often forgo what I think really matters– their family, their future, and their goals. They claw at attention by virtue of likes and shares. What the hell happened to just doing things because you wanted to? Packy McCormick asserts that we’re all playing The Great Online Game – a world where we’re all fighting for social capital and status online – but there are an even greater number of people playing The Great Game. A game where every action they take is a direct effort to signal or seek out greater status. Remind yourself of this when you’re keeping your head down but struggling with envy.

This all reminds me of a quote from Louis C.K: “The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them.” Looking in your neighbor’s bowl is a losing scenario. When I scroll social, I should just hope that those individuals are living a life that is truly worth living – one that makes them proud. The good life, to me at least, is living a life that makes you proud. No one else.

That definition of success is entirely up to you. When the weight of the world feels particularly heavy, or I’ve taken on entirely too much, I remind myself that I’m spending my time exactly as I set out to. When you live a life entirely in line with your goals and values as a person, spending a single minute fantasizing about throwing in the towel feels like a poor use of time. Don’t get me wrong– working intensely to lead a life worth living is not mutually exclusive with enjoying yourself. I think the issue comes down to whether or not you’re playing a finite or an infinite game. Whether you are truly in touch with what you want or whether you are parading status.

Any impressive person I’ve ever met hardly spends their time fishing for attention or taking trips exclusively to level up their status to their peers. Anyone that has ever been impressive to me has a focus either or both of two things: building a world worth living in or loving their family. The rest is secondary.

We all look into our neighbor’s bowl every once and awhile. That’s a losing proposition. Keep your head down, focus on the future, and the rest will come.

Wishing you and yours the good life,