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.
+The chic pea in the top snap is wearing Mansur Gavriel. A great addition to my list of bags for everyday adventures. These will never go out of style.
+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.
+The dotted lines between work and life.
+If the Emu slippers I’ve been blathering on about are still a little pricey for something so ridiculous, these get solid reviews and cost half the price.
+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.
+So Gucci, but at a fraction of the price.
+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!)
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29 thoughts on “Pressure Is a Choice.”
Chiming in on the late side as another fellow Type A personality — this speaks to my soul. I’ve always put tremendous pressure on myself — academically, in work, and in life in general — and in turn, am generally quite hard on myself. Years of therapy have helped me turn down the pressure, and I agree with the commenter below who mentioned self-care rituals as very important to relieving self-induced pressure … I know they’re critically important for keeping myself sane. xo
P.S. I have that exact MG bucket bag and looooove it! I love it even more than the smaller crimson calf-leather version that I carry more frequently in the winter 🙂
Came to this article through a link on Grace’s ( The Stripe) blog. I also recognize myself. It is definitely a personality thing and it is really hard to change that about oneself. As I have gotten older, I have however started with ‘little’ things… the ones that over time, I realized no one else noticed but me…. this was family related. I used to kill myself finding the perfect Christmas gifts for everyone and realized in the last few years that no one else did the same thing. I finally stopped. Then I went from there…. stop saying yes to all the in-law demands that ere making me miserable. Are they upset? sure but everyone is still alive and I am happier for it. I keep telling myself that this is all about baby steps!
Love this – you are so right. Little things first; they ladder up to a big change in perspective. xoxo
I’m contemplating sending this to my husband, just to help him understand why I am the way I am a little more. Thank you for articulating some of the finer points of what it’s like to live inside my head (I still remember my righteous indignation when a classmate asked to copy my homework assignment in the 6th grade!).
Also, a few years ago, I read somewhere that, “The pressure is a privilege”. That short phrase has stuck with me ever since. How lucky I am to have my career, my family, my health, and a safe, warm home where I can obsess over dishes in the sink and carpets that need to be vacuumed, and to be able to focus my time and efforts on those things.
Hi Kristen! Sounds like we are two peas in a pod. I actually had also heard that “pressure is a privilege” at some point — the phrase occurred to me as I was writing this post. It’s true, too, and implicit, now that I think about it, in the sentiment that pressure is a decision. Thanks for the reminder 🙂 xo
Oh yes, all the questions I am asking myself. But god forbid if they advent calendar isn’t stuffed with goodies on November 30 and all the holiday plans are set with hostess gifts perfectly wrapped. It’s all so silly when I take a step back but seems so urgent in the moment. Sometimes I think it’s the “work” part of me, who was always trying to achieve the next thing, that doesn’t want to get lost in the motherhood part?
That could definitely be part of it — a kind of hangover from the go-go-go of being a “career woman”? A fight against the perception that SAHM don’t “do” anything? (Ha!) Really interesting point…xo
I sent this to my husband — his response “This describes you very accurately.”
He and I had a discussion on this very topic over lunch last week. Where does all the pressure I put on myself come from? Is it necessary to a) my happiness or b) my success on an empirical level?
I may never know – but this post fleshed out my thought process (and poignantly identified my love of scratching the easy things off my to-do-list before addressing the more important activities). Thank you!!!
So glad this resonated! I truly don’t know where it comes from — is it the way we were raised? How our parents acted (both of mine are highly disciplined themselves come to think of it!)? Innate? And I also don’t know what impact it has on how we “perform.” But I can say I spend a lot of time worrying about things I shouldn’t…
This post SPOKE to me. My job is somewhat high pressure (M&A attorney) and it attracts people who are extremely type A and hard on themselves. It’s difficult to keep perspective when all your colleagues are nuts too!
My favorite detergent is the “Baby” scent by The Laundress. I bought it when I had my first baby and now I use it on all my clothes and household linens too! It’s spendy, but you only need a little and you can buy a massive pump container that lasts forever. I stocked up with then holiday discount codes this weekend. They also do a linen spray (I think it’s called Fabric Fresh) that is divine.
OMG – so you are actually entitled to the claim of “high pressure life” with your profession! Hope you can still apply the sentiment of control to some sectors of your life.
Thanks also for the tip of Laundress! I swear by all of their other stuff but haven’t tried the baby detergent!
so so much yes to this!!!! I am the exact same and found myself nodding to myself the whole way through. xx
So glad I am not alone in this!! xoxo
Yes to this!! Took a therapist to point this out for me but once you realize pressure is a choice, it’s life changing. I’ve found that taking a min to decide if something is really important (before stressing) and finding ways to relax, for me massages, manicures and reading, are essential to relieve the pressure.
Ooh — that’s an interesting side of the equation: doing things to temper the pressure. Love that. xo
I love the Diva laundry detergent. I just pour in a little in addition to my Tide Free and Clear unscented detergent…I think it would be way too strong otherwise. It lasts a lot longer too!
Hi Sandi — Ooh, what a clever idea! What does it smell like? The descriptions are so vague. Some commenters said “patchouli,” which is definitely not my vibe. Thanks for writing in! xo
There must be a variety of scents. “Diva” is the one I use. I definitely don’t smell patchouli…I’m not a fan either!
Thank you! I’ll test the diva first. Thanks!! xo
I love this post – you could have been describing me! I’m going to seriously consider how to de-pressurize my life after reading this.
Hi Allison (Allicamalli!) — Thanks so much for letting me know. You’ll have to let me know if it pays off next time I see you. Even just being able to identify that the pressure we put on ourselves is in some measure self-inflicted has been reassuring to me. xoxo
Thank you so much for this post! Your words spoke to me in so many ways. I feel like I live my life the exact same way…always have. We went away for Thanksgiving and I realized how rested I felt when we returned. I mentioned to my husband last night that I wish I could bottle up this feeling and hold on to it. He said I can, I have a choice!
Hi Sylvie! We are twins in this, it seems. So funny and timely your husband expressed the same sentiment just the other day! Here’s hoping these reminders that have materialized at the same time brings us a little more peace! xo
Are you and I the same person- ha!? This describes me to a T, and it’s liberating to think of pressure as a choice. Thank you!
Hi Betsy! So glad this reached you and that I’m not alone in this frame of mind…hoping this message brings us both a little calm in the midst of our self-imposed chaos. Ha! xo