33

So far, I’m actually feeling great about 33.

This time last year, I was on the express train to burnout. We had pulled our child back out of daycare, fearing the spike in COVID cases over the holidays. We were taking turns parenting an active almost-two-year-old while I was putting in 10- to 12-hour work days. I was also planning all our meals, ordering weekly grocery deliveries, cooking, doing laundry, and trying to keep our house minimally clean.

I had hefty deliverables at work with ambitious deadlines. Roughly 200 hours went to offloading a major responsibility that our team had outgrown and come to dread. I spent another 200 or more developing materials for a top corporate priority in 2022. I also influenced a busy, important team to contribute to foundational work that has since been used for dozens of spin-off projects—notably, succeeding where another group had failed twice before. All with no material help from anyone else in my department.

In the end, incredibly, I pulled it all off.

And nobody cared.

My manager—with whom I’d always had a great relationship, who saw and appreciated my work without micromanaging, who promoted me while I was on maternity leave—left the company. His replacement didn’t understand my unique role. I had prepared a summary of achievements and metrics, but he didn’t even spare it a glance. He didn’t want to talk about the path to my next promotion or making me a manager, something I’d been asking about for almost two years. In fact, he actively discouraged me from these goals. So I left the team. Then two white men were promoted internally to management, and a third and fourth were hired externally.

There’s more to this story (and I’m all too happy to share), but I don’t want to spend the bulk of this post griping about the past.

In February, as I finalized the move to a new team, I reflected on two lessons learned:

  1. Trying to be a hero isn’t worth it.
  2. Trying to change someone else’s perception of what a leader looks like isn’t worth it, either.

I realized how laughable it was that I had pushed myself so hard at work for this kind of leadership team. I genuinely thought I was earning a promotion, or at least a 5 out of 5 rating in my semiannual employee evaluation. I had gotten a 4 out of 5 the previous evaluation, and this time around I worked much harder for more impressive achievements—so a higher rating seemed logical, even inevitable. Yes, I was delusional.

I happened upon an internal memo explaining various corporate structures and how ours is a slime mold. Sounds unglamorous, but it explained how slime molds can be very intelligent and useful. For example, if you arrange food in the same layout as Japanese cities around Tokyo, a slime mold will grow in the same pattern as Japan’s rail system. With this kind of culture (pun intended), heroics are almost always futile.

It also outlined, like game theory, the risks of juggling multiple concurrent projects and strategies to maximize their success. The main takeaway was that everyone needs to say what they’ll do and do what they said. I thought this was so profound, even though it’s basically a schoolyard adage in the same class as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It wasn’t a novel concept, but given everything else going on in my life at the time, it suddenly made the pieces click together in a meaningful way.

It was applicable to social interactions and relationships outside of work. How often have I tried super hard to be there for someone, only for my efforts to go unreciprocated? Or how often have I failed to help or support a friend? I’m not suggesting that every potential action should be weighed against a ledger of past transactions. Instead, I should assess more thoughtfully whether something is truly going to be appreciated, whether someone truly appreciates my time and me. I understand it isn’t always personal. We all have different social circles and obligations. As with different cross-functional projects at work, we need to communicate and commit at whatever levels are appropriate for our relationships to thrive. And if someone is locked into a certain perception of me, there’s only so far I’m willing to go to change it.

The takeaway was fitting for the battle against viral outbreaks and the COVID-19 pandemic, too. Why have some of us been trying so hard to be responsible with sheltering in place, wearing masks, getting vaccinated, and so on, only for others to scoff at the virus and bring it to endemicity? It’s hard not to feel frustrated or bitter about having done our individual parts and still failed as a collective. Yet this scenario is dissimilar, since the spread vs. eradication of COVID isn’t the only indicator of failure vs. success. As long as my family and I are alive and healthy, we are succeeding—and grateful. Our efforts here aren’t in vain.

With each passing year, I get better at setting and focusing on goals and priorities for my life. This past year in particular, I’ve given more thought to other people around me, what their priorities might be, and whether it’s worth attempting to engage them. It feels weird writing it out this way, but I honestly feel I still have so much to learn (or re-learn?) about being social. It is helpful to approach or frame it as I would a work situation.

In and out of work, I’ve become deeply thankful for frankness, earnestness, and dependability. This is a big deal because I was raised only to value intelligence, and only a narrow definition of it. It’s taken conscious (un)learning to appreciate other types of intelligence and traits such as kindness. This has given me a sort of clarity that makes me more content with my life now than I’ve ever been.

Of course, there’s more to the contentment that I’m feeling these days. Work is much less stressful, yet feels more impactful. Our toddler is such a delight; he is mostly cheery and agreeable, loves to clean and help, is cute and funny, is willing to explore new things, and shows me new ways to view the world around us. I joined a book club at work and have gotten into audiobooks, “reading” all the time while doing chores, going for walks, and driving around. And I think I’m finally ready to start writing more regularly again, which is exciting. For once, not only am I at peace, but I am also optimistic that we can make it last.

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