that's a first draft

That’s the first draft of the book, just submitted. I’m leaving the country and the internet for the next two weeks, but I wanted to thank all of you who contributed to this in some way —  by filling out the various burn out surveys, or sending me articles of note, or telling me about your own understanding of your parents’ workaholism. You’ve already made it better, and I truly mean that.

So here’s a few things I’ve read and loved this week — please send me what you read and love over the next two weeks, I can come back to a trove.

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox every week-ish, forward it their way. Otherwise, take some time during this last gasp of summer to resist burnout culture: stare at the wall, lay in the grass, take a walk without your phone, or do nothing, truly nothing, at all.

that pink ring in the toilet bowl is not a moral failure

There’s a general consensus, amongst bourgeois women that I know, that paying for a housecleaner is a relationship saver. Let me add a caveat there: amongst bourgeois women who also work full-time. Without a housecleaner, house cleaning usually goes something like this: both people are working full time, so no one’s doing it during the week. At some point, usually about once a month, someone (almost always the woman) gets fed up with it and decides they should clean. Someone (usually the man) is resentful that he/both of you are spending their ever-dwindling leisure time cleaning. So they come up with a plan: one partner will do the kitchen once a week, the other will do the bathroom once a week. Great. But someone doesn’t really do it without being reminded, which means that the other someone is constantly reminding them and feeling like a giant nag. Cue: the housecleaner conversation.

The women I know don’t think they’re above cleaning or even really hate it that much. I certainly don’t — except the bathtub, that sucks. But when both people in a relationship work full-time, there’s leftover domestic duties, namely, everything performed as part of the full-time job that was historically (and in many cases, still is) filled by the woman. The question, then, is who does that job. The modern, enlightened, proclaimed feminist man will do so some. But as I wrote about last week, in relationships between a man and a woman (I don’t want to presume heterosexual, who knows what people’s sexualities are!) the average labor split remains 65% female / 35% male.

Even doing 50% of the domestic labor is hard, because you’re doing it on top of your other full-time job. (One reason patriarchy endures = men love only having to do one job. Dude, so would I). But 65% or more is exhausting, and builds resentment, and sours a relationship. Take away house cleaning, and the ratio of work might still stay the same, but the amount of work goes down substantially. What can you do with those newly freed hours? Some people just work more. Some people fill it with more time with their kids. But there’s also the option to fill it with what people used to do with those hours, before they were de facto working two jobs: leisure. Not play dates, not scrolling through Twitter, but doing something that feels genuinely restorative, something you just like to do.

And this, I think, is one of the reasons women feel so ambivalent about actually hiring a housecleaner. The first time I found myself in a financial position to pay for one, my partner and I were living in a tiny Brooklyn apartment and saving a good chunk on rent by squeezing in. But the apartment was near the BQE, and it was New York, and everything just seemed filthy all the time. I got a flyer in the mail for Handy, and I tried it. The services were good, but you weren’t actually able to request the same person repeatedly, and this was about when all the stories about what people in the gig economy actually make. So a friend told me about Si Se Puede, a cooperative run and led by immigrant women that ensures everyone gets a living wage and isn’t exposed to harmful chemicals. It was more expensive, but paying someone to do a thorough clean of your house should be somewhat expensive.

But not everywhere has a Si Se Puede. It can be hard to find someone on your own. So that difficulty combines with the feeling that “I should just do this myself” and it doesn’t happen. But again: I think the difficulty in figuring out an ethical pay arrangement is a low barrier, and pretty easily surmounted. If you have the financial means, the feeling that “I should just do it myself” is often the actual barrier. And where does this come from? I know it feels like the answer to questions like this is always “the patriarchy,” but, uh, the patriarchy. Women used to do all of the domestic work and often grow up watching their mothers do all the domestic work and are trained, in a way that most men simply are not, to do that domestic work themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, men are not inculcated to believe that the state of their home is a reflection on themselves. Sure, they might be a little embarrassed. But most don’t see a pink ring around the toilet bowl as a personal indictment. Dog hair on the couch is not a sign that they’re dropping every ball they’re trying to juggle. The fact that they haven’t gotten on their hands and knees to spend an hour scrubbing the kitchen floor doesn’t mean they’re a failure as a person. You might say: well, it doesn’t mean any of those things for women, either. You’re right, it doesn’t, not really. It’s all total bullshit. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve internalized it that way.

I think a lot, for example, about what I do when my mother-in-law comes to visit. It’s like I’ve put on very powerful glasses and can see every single speck of dust, every smudge. It doesn’t matter that she knows and appreciates how much and how hard I work. If the house was dirty, who would that reflect poorly on? Not her son. That’s not her fault; that’s just how we’re still trained to think, and I’m guilty of this too. But it’s not as if women just like things cleaner than men. That’s essentialist ridiculousness. Women know that lack of cleanliness can be wielded in all manner of ways against them.

As I write this parenting burnout chapter, I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of “paranoid” parenting: the idea that a child really needs to be supervised, in some way, at all times, pretty much up until the age of 12, if not until they can drive. It’s ostensibly to protect kids, but it’s also a very recent — we’re talking, the last 15 years — phenomenon. As many women have pointed out, it’s just one of the proliferating parenting compulsions: there’s “the new domesticity,” and the pressure to Pinterest Parent everything, but there’s also seemingly endless ways to parent “better” and “safer.”

Some of this anxiety, like many previous parenting anxieties, is a reaction to nebulous and often unspeakable fears about the future — the decline of America, for one, but also the gradual death of the planet. You can’t control the icebergs melting, but you can make sure your kid is never kidnapped on a playground because your eyes are on him at all times. But some of these compulsions are also a way to curb women’s growing freedoms and resistance to patriarchal ideals. Oh, you’re more powerful outside of the home? Let’s weigh you down with some absurd new parenting standards, unrooted in scientific fact! You’re more confident in resisting the patriarchy? Too bad, puree this baby food or you’re a bad mom!

I know that feels conspiratorial, but patriarchy, like any longstanding governing ideology, is fucking sneaky as hell, otherwise a bunch of organized women would’ve decimated it long ago. And one of its most devious tactics: convincing women to police and shame themselves and others for failing to fulfill the ever-more-demanding ideal, instead of declaring collective resistance. The shittiest thing about patriarchy is second-class citizenship, but the second shittiest part is how it convinces women to direct their contempt towards other women, instead of those who actually benefit from the system itself.

But back to cleaning house. Housecleaners should be paid a living wage. They should be paid enough so that they can take sick days and vacation days if they want it. They should have health insurance and the ability to save for retirement and to refuse to use chemicals that harm them. All outsourced labor should be paid in this way, whether it’s labor in the workplace or in the home, cleaning the home or taking care of a child. But outsourcing labor doesn’t fix the labor division; it just alleviates it. It doesn’t change the fundamental expectation of who’s “naturally” responsible for it. Women. Women who are paid and women who are not paid. I keep returning to this quote from Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage: “Everything we call a sex difference, if you take a different perspective — what’s the power angle on this — often explains things,” neuroscientist Lise Eliot tells Lockman. “It has served men very well to assume that male-female differences are hard-wired.” 

So how do we change this? Does having a housecleaner help, in that it makes it so that children don’t always see mothers doing the work, or does it make children think that things just magically get cleaned while they’re away at school? Does it disappear the problem without addressing it? As with everything, a solution that’s uniquely a solution for bourgeois people isn’t actually a solution. So I think about what I said above: I don’t hate cleaning. I find it kinda therapeutic and mindless. Maybe, if I didn’t feel the need to work so much, and the labor was split in a way where both people actually felt equal responsibility, and no one had to nag, and I’d still have leisure time — maybe it wouldn’t feel like such a shitty weight. Maybe it’d just feel like part of a balanced life.

Some Things I Read and Loved This Week:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and find a linkable, online version) here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to get this thing out every week for free. If you have housecleaner thoughts or recommendations for next week’s “just trust me,” just reply to this email.

parenting burnout

I don’t need to tell you that today sucks. Yesterday sucked too. This morning I was blank and distracted and my boyfriend asked, are you feeling bad about everything? I was, but I think a lot of us have learned to sublimate in order to keep going. I keep scrolling through Twitter and the outrage is the same but there’s a compulsive need to feel it. If you can’t bring yourself to feel it, I think that’s okay. But if you need to, give yourself permission. It’s not meaningless to fight the numbness.

When the rest of the world makes me feel bad I’ve always found that work makes me feel better. This is a fucked up coping mechanism for a broken world — and, I’ve come to understand, says less about me than it does about how helpless we’ve come to feel. The ability to read and write words feels under my control. The continued legislative refusal to acknowledge — let alone confront — white supremacy and gun violence does not. And so.

I divided my book leave into two parts: first, read everything; then, write everything. I’ve enjoyed it much more than the schedule for my last book, which was to read everything related to one chapter/female celebrity (say, Melissa McCartney) and then write, and then do the same thing for the next nine chapters. That strategy kept the details of the specific research more in immediate mind; my current strategy has allowed me to integrate and synthesize a much bigger, historically rooted understanding of burnout and what’s exacerbating it.

It also allows reading, and stats, and arguments to simmer for weeks — until they become something like a thick reduction sauce of themselves, pungent and salty. That’s what’s happened with piles of reading I’ve done on parenting burnout, and the resilient uneven division of labor that fuels it. Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed and Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun are recent “classics” of the “this shit is absurd” genre, but the best book I’ve read (by far) is Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage: Women, Men, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, which was released earlier this year.

Instead of the “problem that has no name,” famously described in Betty Friedan’s landmark 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, this problem has a name, and that name is burnout. It’s a result of numerous cultural shifts, developing over the last four decades, but the most significant seem to be: 1) society is still structured as if every family has a caretaker who stays home, even as fewer and fewer families are arranged that way; 2) women have been “liberated” from many explicit forms of subjugation and sexism, but others are sublimated into the ideology of contemporary womanhood, in which women are expected to gracefully manage and maintain her high-pressure job, motherhood, a relationship, a domestic space, and her body. She is “free” to be pressured to be everything to everyone at all times, save herself.

I keep thinking back to a line from All Joy and No Fun, highlighting the shift in expectations post-feminine mystique: “It was a woman in Minnesota who clarified this shift for me,” Senior writes. “She pointed out that her mother called herself a housewife. She, on the other hand, called herself a stay-at-home mom. The change in nomenclature reflects the shift in cultural emphasis: the pressures on women have gone from keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom.”

At least your house has a discrete amount of space: you can, in fact, finish cleaning it. But motherhood, like our contemporary understanding of work, cannibalizes every part of your life. There are few (if any?) configurations in which a mother is not, first and foremost, a mother. Working mother, hot mama, fit mom: the adjective modifies the primary mode of identification. Being a woman within our current patriarchal framework is already exhausting; being a mother, for so many reasons beyond the actions of actual children, is even more so.

Which is why I find books like Mommy Burnout, written by a psychologist and family therapist, or Girl, Stop Apologizing, written by Rachel Hollis, to be so unhelpful: they address the symptoms of that exhaustion (You don’t have to be perfect! Ditch the mom guilt!) and avoid the larger, structural causes of that exhaustion. You know why you’re doing all the work? Because you’ve internalized that you should always put everyone else first, but also because our current parental leave structure sets it up that way. Indeed, as Lockman very convincingly demonstrates, drawing on a wealth of global data, the only thing that really sets a family up for an equal distribution of labor is when the non-birth parent takes significant leave on their own. But that takes policy changes and societal changes, and that’s something a psychologist (who operates on the level of the individual) or Rachel F-ing Hollis ,whose understanding of the world can be boiled down to “You, after all, are the only one in control of how your life goes,” refuse to acknowledge, let alone address.

You can’t fix burnout by making time for bible study or journaling in the morning, as Jessica Turner suggests in Fringe Hours, or by learning how to fight like an adult, as Jancee Turner argues in How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. Those things might help, but there has to be a clear-eyed acknowledgment of what’s actually fucking with your life: patriarchy (responsible for the impossible have-it-all/do-it-all ideal) and our current form of capitalism (responsible for (over)work conditions and economic realities and loan payments that making doing-it-all even more impossible).

The problem with patriarchy is that everyone, even the people ostensibly empowered by it, suffer. In a 2015 editorial in the Washington Post, therapist Samantha Rodman tried to explain why men don’t complain about parenting quite like women do. She wonders: “Is it possible dads are the new Supermoms, with all the attendant guilt, self-imposed high standards, and societal disapproval for admitting anything less than rapture and delight with parenting?” In other words: dads suffer under patriarchy and capitalism too.

I agree, but I think most moms and dads would agree that the self-imposed high standards of motherhood are simply on another level. Just because everyone suffers in some way doesn’t mean they suffer equally. (White supremacy is toxic to white people too, but compare that toxicity to what white supremacy actually enacts on people who are not white).

Until we actually name, interrogate, and work to rectify the causes of suffering, it’ll continue to metastasize as we all, mom or dad, parent or not, slowly collapse under its weight. Parenting has never been easy. But it’s also never been this particularly complicated and deceptive kind of difficult.

I’d love to hear about your personal experiences with parenting burnout. Moms, Dads, Single Moms, Single Dads, Co-Parenters, Grandparent Parenters, Sibling Parenters, Moms Parenting With Moms and Dads Parenting with Dads — you will make the book better. If I quote you in the book, I’ll send you a free copy. You can find the survey here.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and access an online, shareable version of it) here. You can follow Puppy Steve on Instagram here. Please excuse any typos or weird sentences; inattention to small detail is what allows me to get this thing out for free every week.

what happens when you subtract the internet

The newsletter has been on inadvertent hiatus: I wanted to wait and see whether I’d feel inclined to write while writing so much else for the book, and the answer was no. (I don’t charge for the newsletter in part because I don’t want to feel obligated to do it — not because obligations are bad, but because I didn’t want to turn something that felt fun into something that felt, well, obligatory, and thus sucked the joy from it).

I’ve been writing the burnout for about a month now, and I’m rounding the corner towards the end of the (very messy first draft). A big part of my progress happened last week, when I went to a campsite in the Swan Valley, about an hour from where I live in Montana, with a solar generator, a big tent, and my two dogs (including new puppy Steve, who you can see up there on the left). I could get a very faint cell signal in one corner of the camp, just enough to send a few (very slow) text messages and upload photographs to Instagram. Otherwise it was me, my laptop, my notes, my books, and what felt like luxurious, expansive pools of time.

I woke up in the morning around dawn, when Steve made a few yelps to say he had to pee. Then we cuddled for another two hours. I’d get up, take the dog food down from the bear bag, and we’d go on a walk for an hour. Come back, make coffee, write for two to three hours. Go on a run along here:

Come back, get the dogs, rinse off a bit in the lake, read my book while eating lunch, work around three hours, have one 16 oz. IPA while doing a bit more work, take the dogs on another mile walk along the lake, make dinner, get in tent at 7:45 pm, read for 90 minutes, go to bed. I did that for six days. I wrote 20,000 words.

The number of actual writing hours wasn’t that huge — probably around six to seven a day. The difference is that I spent those six hours actually writing (or editing). And before you say that 20,000 is a ridiculous number of words, also keep in mind that a lot of this was just fleshing out outlines that I’d already put together that were chocked full of quotes, or narrativizing other people’s stories about their personal work/burnout experience. 20,000 words of this sort of writing is not the same difficulty level as 20,000 words of, say, fiction. (I’ll also say that my style of writing is barfing: I write it all, then spend significant amounts of time whipping it into shape, and it ultimately takes just as much time as people who write far slower but each paragraph is near-perfect when it hits the page).

But I have ambivalent feelings about writing that much, because what it really shows me is just how poorly — and inefficiently — I’ve been writing at home, when I’ve told myself all sorts of stories to keep the internet on, to keep Twitter refreshed. When I was camping and my mind wandered, sometimes I’d look at the “Stats,” or pull up my calendar to count, for the 27th time, how many days I have until the first draft is due. But most of the time I stared at something, pet one of the dogs, and returned to work — instead of doing all of the things that lead me into whatever weird, half-distracted digital corner at home. I wasn’t deeply focused so much as just plain old, internet-subtracted focused.

Of course, I was also able to write like that because of all of the things that accompany a writing retreat, no matter where it is or if there’s electricity. I didn’t have to care for any children. I didn’t have to talk to anyone except the occasional greetings to the nice retired couple in the next campsite. My food needs were minimal. I didn’t commute, or have to clean, save the daily excavation of pine needs from the tent. I didn’t have laundry. I didn’t have to shower or worry about my clothes. My work email is on an out of office auto-responder. I was getting nine hours of sleep a night, and had time to exercise, and even give my brain space from the book while reading fiction. The only thing I really had to worry about was whether or not my solar panel was in the sun.

Life was incredibly simple, and that simplicity allowed me to use the available pats of my brain — the parts that are usually allocated to thinking about all of those other things — to figure out how best to synthesize some of the most complicated ideas of the book.

I know that thousands of people can and do write with many, many distractions, and women especially have done this for as long as women have been writing. But it also clarifies why it’s long been easier for rich people and male people to have more opportunities to write: those other concerns, those immediate, quotidian complications vying for attention in their minds, are largely absent. The writing becomes the thing; not the thing fighting for a corner of the mind amidst the day’s schedule of obligations.

And yes! This is the central argument of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”! Give women freedom from poverty and familial obligations! And just IMAGINE what that woman would do if you also gave her a room where she didn’t have internet, or cell service, but she was also confident that whoever was temporarily in charge of her responsibilities (including children) wouldn’t fuck them up!

Fittingly, I’m processing the fact of the amount of writing I was able to do without the internet or obligations as I prepare to write this next chapter, on how our phones (and the internet) exacerbate the conditions of burnout. I think part of my problem is I still expect myself to perform at the level of an internet-free writer’s retreat even when I’m mired in distraction/obligations, some of them of my own making, others outside of my control. I expect myself to write however many good words a day and be funny on Slack and post good things on Twitter and keep the house clean and cook a fun new recipe and keep my body healthy and text message my friends to ask appropriate questions about their growing children and check-in with my mom and grow tomatoes and walk the dogs and post a picture of that walk on Instagram and shower and put on cute clothes for that 30 minute Skype call and and and and

Of course, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: the more I try to handle it all, the more I attempt to multi-task, switching between work and tasks and social media and the hellmouth of the news….and the less effective I become, which makes me even more anxious to try and juggle all of the above. Plus juggling all of the above exhausts me, which means I can’t find the energy to pick up an actual book, which means I just scroll through Instagram for seventeen lost minutes instead of reading an actual book for seventeen minutes that would, in all likelihood, actually clear my head in a meaningful and therapeutic way.

Burnout is so difficult to climb out of — and our desire to be all things to all people while fulfilling all responsibilities AND doing our jobs like they’re the only things in our worlds makes it all the more difficult. The internet hasn’t “made our lives easier”; it’s simply made “doing it all” mandatory.

If you have thoughts, however rambling, about how technology has contributed (or alleviated!) your burnout, I’d love to hear them — just reply to this email or email me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com. Please tell me how you’d like to be identified in the book (first name, pseudonym, whatever). If I include your thoughts, I’ll send you a copy of the finished book.

If you’re interested in the specifics of my solar set-up, which kept my laptop and phone fully charged the entire time with very little effort, everything I had was from Goal Zero (a very good and helpful company), specifically, the Yeti 400 and the Boulder 100.

I’m not reading much on the internet, but a few things I did read and love over the last few weeks:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can find a shareable link to it (and subscribe) here. You can follow Steve the Puppy on my Instagram here. Please forgive any weird sentences or typos; as I said above, my inattention to perfection is part of what makes this not feel like a slog and keeps me doing it. And a huge thank you to Man Repeller, which put this newsletter at #1 in their newsletter recommendation list earlier this week. There are so many good suggestions on this list, all of which are, as the headline puts it, “truly worth opening.”

oh no all my earnestness in one place

This weekend I gave the commencement address to the Film Studies graduates at the University of Oregon, where I received my MA way back in 2006. It was wonderful, and not just because I miss that sweet sweet Eugene hippy food — but because the people who invited me back are a compilation of the teachers who most influenced my young academic self + one of my classmates, a brilliant guy who managed to do what I was always working towards: getting the elusive job at the school that matters most to you.

What follows is my attempt at an earnest and honest and quasi-inspirational twelve minute send-off — which, as you’ll see, is clearly inflected by everything I’ve been thinking and reading about for the last six months.


I’m so honored to be here today — because like you, this campus, and these professors, have all been pivotal to the person that I’ve become today. A person who loves thinking critically about the media that surrounds me, whose Twitter avatar is the biggest Hollywood star of 1927, who loves going to the actual movie theater but loves going to the actual movie theater alone most of all.

Some of those tendencies started in childhood; some came from my undergrad education. But they didn’t really bloom until I came here: until I sat down in a classroom not far from this one to learn about “star theory” — the idea that you can look closely at a celebrity’s image and BOOM all the different ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman or a straight person or a mother or a black person or a teenager come rushing out. There weren’t a lot of guys in that class, but there was one tall guy with red hair who had a lot of opinions, most of them very smart. Today, that guy is one of your professors.

I sat in that same room to watch a DVD of the collected early short films of Thomas Edison, and another one of your professors plaintively asking the class if someone, anyone, recognized the vaguely eerie music that played each time he went back to the DVD menu. It was Ennio Morricone’s theme from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

I remember that moment, I think, because it showed me what it meant to really love film. It’s not just about loving the thing that first got you obsessed with media, whether that thing was Goodfellas or His Girl Friday or Harry Potter or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s about the rabbithole that that thing provides, to a whole labyrinth of history, of reception and production and ideological context. It’s about loving the early Edison films that are basically just YouTube videos of guys flexing and people kissing and a ‘70s film by a reclusive auteur shot almost entirely at the magic hour. It’s about opening yourself up to wonder, about exposing yourself to things that are alienating and then sitting with that alienation and unpacking it, about cultivating the posture that thinking about something doesn’t destroy pleasure, but refines it.

That’s what I really started to develop here at Oregon. That’s what I brought with me to the University of Texas, where I completed my PhD — and taught undergrads who were clearly not as good (or good at football) as all of you. I’d show them Weekend, a 1967 Godard film that is famously, notoriously, deliciously hate-able. It starts with a ten minute tracking shot of a traffic jam in France. But I loved teaching it, because I loved asking students to really think about why the film is so difficult. What does your boredom, or impatience, or disgust say about what you’ve come to expect from a text — and how you react when you don’t get it? Weekend is an absurdist comedy, but it’s also an opportunity, the same way that Beyonce’s Homecoming is an opportunity, or Fleabag is an opportunity, or Old Town Road is an opportunity. An opportunity to think more, not less.

Which, admittedly, isn’t the way that media studies is usually positioned. Even as I was completing my PhD, people of all ages would say, MUST BE NICE, WATCHING MOVIES ALL DAY. Within that statement was the idea that media studies is pleasurable, which it is, but that it’s easy, it’s for lazy people who don’t want to get degrees in something serious like ECON.

But each of you is proof otherwise. You all know that a movie is never “just a movie,” a video game is never “just a video game.” Doing media studies means seeing complexity where others see simplicity. It means running towards difficulty. It means always and forever being the person who watches something and then says “that was good BUT….”   Over the course of your education, you have slowly acquired a pair of glasses that allows you to see the world around you differently. The great and obnoxious reward is that you will never be able to take them off.

It’s increasingly popular to think of the viability of college majors in terms of clear and marketable skills. And while many of you will find employment in a media related field, the major skill that all of you have acquired is how to be a more thoughtful, invested, engaged person in today’s world. That’s hard to put on a resume, and even if you could, I don’t know if employers would value it: somehow “understanding how ideologies of race, sexuality, and gender are encoded in the media that surrounds us and influence our interactions with each other” isn’t as marketable as “Proficient in Excel.”

But this is the point in the speech when I tell you that your resume matters far less than you think it does. It’s very important that all of you worked hard to graduate, but now that you’ve done it, what mattered wasn’t the grade that you earned, but the process of earning it. It’s not what you take away on your transcript, but what you take away — yes, this is super cheesy — in your mind.

It’s cheesy, and feels wrong, because it’s counter the message that your generation, like mine, has spent decades internalizing: that we are the sum total of our GPA, our job prospects, and our Instagram posts. That sounds facetious but I think it’s how many of us judge ourselves and each other — through our ability model a life in which we do work that we personally love, that impresses our parents, and that’s cool enough to tell our friends about.

In a commencement speech in 2005 at Stanford, Steve Jobs set this tone: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life,” he said. “And the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.”

I’ve spent the last few years realizing that this advice is more or less bullshit. Which brings me to the other reason I think I was asked to come speak today: not because I followed the media studies academic path towards its celebratory end, refusing to settle until I ended up in the job I loved. I tried to. But for me, like tens of thousands of others in academia, that path narrowed and narrowed until staying on it became even more mentally and financially harrowing, before disappearing altogether.

I convinced myself that if i just worked hard enough, and long enough, and proved myself more organized and ambitious than everyone else, then the percentages, the stark realities, of what happened after receiving a PhD in media studies — they wouldn’t apply to me. That didn’t work out. I nearly got there, and then I didn’t.

But if I’m really, really honest with myself, I didn’t go to grad school becoming a professor was the only thing I could imagine myself doing. I went because I liked plans — maps that someone else had made for me. I knew I liked and was good at reading and thinking about media — and grad school was the only option with a built-in map of how to find a job doing that.

So imagine my dumb surprise, my great sadness, when the part of the map with the “happy full-time professor” just….fell off. I was furious — at myself, but also at the system. I was heartbroken. It genuinely felt like I had been broken up with. And while I’m still, in many ways, grieving for what happened — and not just because of the $1000 monthly loan payment — I’ve also found a different path, a wholly unanticipated way to use those stubborn glasses I put on during the same period of my life as you, and look at the world differently.

I tell you this story not because my own path is one to follow — it’s not. When people ask me for advice, I can’t tell them how to get a job at BuzzFeed, or even in journalism. I can give practical advice, like don’t go to grad school unless you can emerge from it with very little debt, and if you do go to grad school, look for one with a strong union, like the University of Oregon.

But most of my advice isn’t what I would’ve wanted to hear, and I know it’s not what people who ask want, either. Like me, they want a map. A well-marked map, if possible, but even a sketched out one will do. I can’t offer that.

What I can offer is this starting point: You are not your job. Your job is a part of your life, but it is not an expression of your value. Working hard is not, in itself, good. Not working hard is not, in itself, bad. And if, for whatever reason, you find yourself in a place where you cannot work in a way that society values — you’re disabled, you decide to stay at home, you care for your parents — that does not make you a bad or less worthy person. You might think you already believe this, but you probably don’t.

You might find a way to do what you love. If you do, recognize that your love for the job — your passion — can, and historically has been used against you. Doing what you love doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid a living wage. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t complain about exploitative work conditions. It doesn’t mean that trying to collaborate with other workers to be treated fairly means you’re ungrateful. Just because you love your work doesn’t mean you aren’t still working.

And if you don’t do what you love, that’s okay too. In fact, that distance from your work will make it all the easier for you to demand fair working conditions: something I never could do after my time here at UO, because I was “doing what I loved” which meant doing it at any cost.

There’s an old union slogan I’ve been thinking about a lot:  8 hours for rest, 8 hours for work, 8 hours to do what you will. What you do with that time “to do what you will” — go outside, read deeply and widely, go to the Bijou every night for popcorn with brewer’s yeast, run for office, go to church, advocate for things that actually matter to you — that is just as much who you are, if not more so, than the time you spend at work. Unions understood and still understand: work is part of life. But only part.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because I’m writing a book on burnout — the result of writing an article on my own burnout that, much to my surprise, eight million people read. Because even after I recreated my own map, I was so scared of the path disappearing that I kept doing the same thing that I’d done: I worked all the time, and valued myself uniquely on the results and feedback from that work. The result wasn’t a flameout, though, so much as a general numbness to the world around me.

I spend every day trying to unlearn that self-conception, to un-numb myself to the world. Some of you may have already steeled yourself against this. But you’ve all been breathing the same ideological air as me. And for various reasons, you’re scared, and exhausted. But you’re also invigorated, and ambitious, and at the beginning of a time when you can say, to yourself and others, it doesn’t have to be this way.

We don’t have to value ourselves and others by the amount of work we can do. We don’t have to think of building a profitable company simply in terms of how little we can pay the people doing the labor that built it. We don’t have to monetize our hobbies.We don’t have to value education for its ability to provide readily marketable skills. We don’t have to be scared of people who aren’t like us. We don’t have to be satisfied with the types of media that are currently available. We don’t have to shut up when people tell us we’re thinking to hard, or too much. We don’t have to submit to the idea that racism and sexism will be with us forever. We don’t have to watch the earth die. Most importantly, we don’t have to act out of fear. Of not having the “right” job, of feeling uncomfortable during that ten minute tracking shot, of failing to accumulate the signifiers of American adulthood at the appropriate time.

You, and your different way of looking at the world, is valuable. Your job might be part of that, it might not. The sum of a person is not, as I thought, their external achievements. It’s what you’re doing in and with your mind. It’s your ability to provide care and compassion, but also context, and consideration, and patience. It’s working hard for others but also working hard on yourself. It’s understanding that these dorky media studies glasses we can’t take off are a gift, one that makes the world frustrating and joyful but never, ever boring. It’s understanding that it’s a slog and a thrill to be alive.

These are the lessons of my own map. My hope is they’ll help you, in some way, as you build your own.


Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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