On Saturday, Mr. Magpie and I watched an under-the-radar film starring Rose Byrne (whose long bob I have taken to countless hair stylists for inspiration) and Ethan Hawke called “Juliet, Naked.” It was a lopsided film: the plot tenuous and lazily-written, the acting superb (Ethan Hawke!), and the script teetering between cloyingly cute and take-your-breath-away memorable. I stopped in my tracks when Hawke’s character says, in a throwaway line that trots by unremarked and unremembered within the confines of the film:
“Pressure is a choice.”
Pressure is a choice! Pressure is a choice. My thoughts gathered like storm-clouds, and I momentarily suspended my attention from the film to digest.
Aside from my stint as an entrepreneur, I would not describe my career as “high-pressure.” I do not litigate. I do not track down terrorists and, in the words of my friend who is an FBI agent and has passed afternoons in courses like “evasive driving” (I KID YOU NOT), other assorted “bad dudes” as a deputy of public safety. I do not perform emergent, life-saving surgeries. I do not sell on a trading floor. I have brave and exhausted friends who do all of these things on a daily basis. But I do not.
And though I have had my fair share of heartbreaks and disappointments and tragedies, my life has by and by been marked by good fortune, privilege, and a circle of loving, nurturing family and friends. I have not suffered serious trauma. I would never describe my home life as “high-pressure” or “intense.” My childhood was borderline idyllic.
In short, I look at my life and I think: “You have had it easy.”
And yet —
I have always lived my life under a kind of pressure. I can’t think of a time where I have sat back and laisser les bon temps rouler for more than a day or two at a time. I was serious and competitive as a child when it came to academics; I killed myself for As. In high school and college, I struggled with body image issues that stemmed, I believe, from a kind of ruthless competitiveness, a drive, an ambition I couldn’t quite channel anywhere else. In my first corporate job after college, most of my colleagues — all recent college graduates themselves — lollygagged and rolled their eyes at “the joke” of the jobs in front of us. I did not. I took my job seriously and was recognized quickly for it. The thought of doing something half-assed, or of not putting the full weight of my abilities into my job, was simply unthinkable for me. “Just do enough to get by,” said one of my friends over drinks after work one day. The thought had never occurred to me. And I remember wondering how I would even go about scaling back — what were the demarcation points when it came to “getting by” versus “excelling”? The notion that I could “shift gears” and lower my output of effort was alien to me.
In graduate school, I was disappointed to find that many of my colleagues whined about the workload and cheated their way through some of the longer reading assignments. Their complaints baffled and frankly annoyed me. Were we not paying to be there? Were we not facing the tremendous privilege of reading for a profession versus the bland and meaningless data management I had been handling in my previous job? And yet, it was not easy. The reading was burdensome to the point that I took a two-year hiatus from reading after graduating. I felt over-saturated, unable to enjoy reading for the sake of reading. I had pushed myself into a kind of academic asceticism where I would never permit myself a slip-up, a skipped assignment, a missed reading.
In my career as a non-profit executive, I worked long hours and put my heart on the line every single day, even when colleagues and bosses made it difficult to see the value in what I was doing. “Why should I care?” I remember ranting to Mr. Magpie. And yet I showed up every single day and put my everything into it.
And with our business, too — the many nights of sleeplessness. The heart palpitations, the breathlessness. The gut-wrenching stress of pouring life savings into a dream, of putting ourselves out there to try something new. The panicked pace of our lives for so many months.
Pressure, pressure, pressure.
And in tiny, quotidian ways and more philosophical ones, too, I find myself struggling beneath self-imposed stress: I feel itchy when dishes are left in the sink, or the laundry is left in the dryer, or the bed remains unmade. Though I now feel more at peace with not knowing what the future holds, I am generally predisposed toward the next thing, the new new. I am a planner by nature, hastily moving from one rung to the next.
Mr. Magpie once described me as having “a bias towards action.” If you lift the curtain behind this genteel rendition (thank you for your restraint, my love), you see a gal who is impatient with things half-done, who leans into responsibility, who puts tremendous pressure on herself and those around her to get.things.done.
The foregoing is not intended as a panegyric. I recognize there are many faults in the way I have lived my life: often burning the candle at both ends, occasionally pointlessly harried, frequently unable to properly prioritize. Mr. Magpie once drew me Eisenhower’s urgent/important grid, which fellow MBAs likely remember:
Good CEOs and well-adjusted, successful people navigate this matrix with aplomb: they focus on quadrant one today (items with a deadline, crises), schedule work for quadrant two (strategic planning, relationships, new opportunities), delegate quadrant three (most phone calls and emails), and ignore quadrant four (busy work, some calls/emails). If I am honest, I would say I spend half my time in quadrant one (putting out perceived fires) and then the rest in quadrant four, doing meaningless busy-work. I am an inbox zero gal. I like to knock the easy things of my to-do list first and then let myself wrap my arms around meatier work. The problem is that I am so preoccupied with the nitty gritty that I often run out of time for the bigger ticket items, and then stay up too late worrying about them. To make matters more challenging, I am horrible at delegating, in part because I like things done the way I like things done. (A smart CEO once told me: “If someone else can do something 80% as well as you could, delegate it.” I nodded eagerly and then recklessly ignored the adage, unable to relinquish control.)
Meanwhile, Mr. Magpie has set up shop in quadrant two. He is the most strategic thinker I know, and he is excellent at living in a kind of thought-filled, information-rich, research-oriented middleground. I am always jumping up and down on the other embankment, eager to just dig in, whether I’ve given something adequate thought or not. So when he says I have “a bias towards action,” he is also saying: “Slow down. Let’s think this through.” He is often right: when I pause and think about where I am exerting my energy, it is rarely in the most efficient place.
And so I burn on, plug plug plugging away, under pressure that, until this past Saturday night, I had never considered to be “a choice.”
A choice! The pressure is a choice! I can turn it off. I can dial it down. But can I? Is this lifelong orientation towards action genetic? Is it so deeply engrained in who I am that I can’t tell myself to loosen my grip a little bit? Would I not be Jen without it?
And yet. It has been liberating to recognize that the pressure I sense in my life is largely (entirely?) self-imposed. No one will die if a blog post goes up an hour late (except for maybe a small piece of my soul — ha). No one will mind if Christmas cards arrive a day after Christmas. No one will care if the bow in mini’s hair does not match her shoes. And so, in the most trivial of ways, I have been tampering with the dials over the last few days. An acquaintance had asked me to attend something I simply couldn’t figure out logistically. I found that old feeling of stress creep in as I began jumping through elaborate hoops to make it work — and then I stopped. Will this person think less of me for not being there if I simply explain I can’t make it? Unlikely. An even tougher version of my internal voice threw out: “No is a full sentence, Jen.” It is OK to say no and not explain. It is OK to be selfish every now and then. Dial it down. Reserve the energy for the important quadrants.
Pressure, it seems, has been a choice.
+You may have noticed that I changed the categories for my blogposts from more idiosyncratic names (“magpie polish,” “magpie nest”) to more legible ones (“beauty,” “home + organization”). I have had a lot of newcomers over the past few months (hi friends! welcome!) and I know my blog can be a little difficult to navigate as a newcomer. I am working to make things more searchable and findable (helloooo my new search button in the top right hand corner!), and re-titling and organizing my blog posts into more understandable categories seemed useful. Let me know if there are other ways to make things easier to read or find.
+Has anyone used Tyler’s Glamorous Wash detergent? I am intrigued by reviews I’ve read. People say it’s the best detergent they’ve ever used — but caveat that it is strongly scented and very expensive. I’m curious enough to try a small 4 oz container to see what I think. I personally like the smell of clean laundry. I use Mrs. Meyers’ detergent right now and find that the scents are pretty subdued.
+It occurred to me over Thanksgiving that the set of china storage covers (<<this is the exact set I have) my mother-in-law gave me as a wedding gift is one of the most underrated, thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. These keep your fine china free from dust and — God forbid — chips and clinks. A really nice and unexpected gift for a new bride. (Don’t forget the dividers.) Williams-Sonoma has a similar house brand set but they are far pricier.
+My mom recently asked me if Santa might be able to put this in her stocking. One of the saddest things of my adult life has been the fact that my mom thoughtfully gathers incredible stocking stuffers for everyone in the family but herself each year — and that, when we were little, we were so preoccupied with the cornucopia of Christmas that we never even noticed that her stocking would be bare or occasionally filled by (sob) herself. And so my sisters and I try to band together to fill hers nowadays — yet she still sends me maudlin notes asking for things like a makeup brush stand. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause, and he (I) will be giving you this makeup brush stand which, incidentally, is kind of genius. (It collapses!) This one also gets good reviews on Amazon, but why are there so many steps to assemble? I’m confused.
+Read these reviews and see if you can prevent yourself from buying this Lululemon-lookalike jacket. UM, PINK PLEASE.
+Off Fifth has a great selection of discounted Aquazzuras right now: you know my thoughts on these and how fun are these? Also, this Free People dress, which I saw on a super-chic woman on the UWS a few days ago, is mysteriously marked down 50% off when it’s full price everywhere else and — I believe — current-season.
+In love with this demure sweater. They do the best knitwear at surprisingly affordable prices. God bless them.
+Now this is a chic way to update a piece of furniture.
+Is this the advice all young women need to hear? (Read comments, too!)