Over the past few weeks, I’ve been going through my blog archive, revisiting old posts, contemplating my own writing. It’s interesting to encounter former versions of myself in this way. Sometimes I don’t even recognize my own voice, and other times, I am almost knocked out by how viscerally I captured a particular moment in time. (This is not to say anything of the quality of my writing — but to acknowledge that I gave vent to things that feel still-true, still-raw.) There is some cringing and some tear-dabbing, but mainly, I feel grateful I’ve had the latitude to write to know what I think all these many years.
One of the posts that jumped out at me I published in November 2018. The miles I’ve (and you’ve) come since then…! In November 2018, I was the mother to one, newly pregnant with my second, dwelling in my first (horrifically-cramped) apartment in New York, living very much on heartstrings. I can write about this now, four years later, with the clear-eyedness that comes with time, but I was battling a kind of situational depression at that time. Mr. Magpie and I had recently closed our business and sold — after a protracted, nail-biting sale process — our first and beloved home in Chicago, IL. I felt adrift, scared, still-tender from the fallout. And yet I knew I was at the beginning of many new things: a second child, an imminent move, the next chapter of my professional and creative life. I was a woman fluttering between a major life disappointment and intense new responsibilities. I was a woman shedding multiple exoskeletons at once, the new exterior not yet regenerated, left exposed to the elements. I was a woman, in other words, stretched thin.
I re-read this post and I can feel my nerves vibrating off the page. I am tight as a coil. Everything — even the writing — airtight, pointed as a picket.
Awhile back, I asked you Magpies: “What would you tell your twenty-year-old self?”
I was profoundly moved by how many of us responded (in so many words): “It’s going to be OK; you don’t need to worry.”
This is what I wish I could tell Jen not only in 2004 (at 20) but in 2018 (at 34). I want to hug her. I want to reassure her that everything is going to be OK–better than OK, in fact. Life is going to be unimaginably full of blessings.
But, you know, there’s something meaningful about the way we improvise the tools we need as we need them. I needed to see pressure as a choice at this moment in my life. Now, I feel I’ve become so well-versed in assessing what matters and prioritizing my life accordingly that I haven’t needed to call upon it for some time.
I guess what I’m saying is, first, in case you find yourself in dire straits at the moment: it’s going to be OK. You’ve survived 100% of your bad days; keep going. Gather the tools and footholds you need to get you through, but your 40-year-old self knows you are going to be just fine.
Below, an edited version of the essay I wrote way back when.
On Saturday, Mr. Magpie and I watched an under-the-radar film starring Rose Byrne 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,” 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 work 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 professional life, 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 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 to 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 description, 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 off 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. 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.
+On being an archerfish by design.
+Obsessed with this black cape!
+Found a pair of feather pajamas SUPER similar to my Sleepers for under $75 here.
+Adorable set of pinch bowls — perfect for mise en place, snacks, candy, etc.
+Well this LBD is fabulous.
+These On sneakers are SO popular — I see them all the time! — and they have some really great colors out right now.
+If you’re an email subscriber, Maxwell and Geraldine is offering 40% off this week! I absolutely love their Kate dress. Great winter staple.
+You will never regret having this classic cableknit in your possession. Wear with EVERYTHING. Jeans, trousers, slip skirts, etc.
+This set of felted toys is so cute!
+Love this layered, personalizable necklace situation.
+This sequin dress for a little lady is adorable.
+This sweater would be fun with a black slip skirt. Look for less with this.
+This leave-in conditioner is EXCELLENT. Smells like heaven, too!
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10 thoughts on “Pressure.”
I love your writing! And your self awareness and disclosure . It so often feels like it touches on parts of my life too…..xo
Thank you so much, Molly – I appreciate your generosity in taking the time to write this note. I’m so glad my writing has resonated!
I can relate. I have always been the same way – I frequently find myself overworked, only to realize that I’ve taken on a lot of extra responsibilities I could’ve easily delegated or simply put off for a day or two. For me, some of it is a control issue, but I think it’s a lot of “nurture.” I’m grateful for the fact that my parents always pushed me to excel and give 100%. The only downside is that I sometimes struggle to step back and relax. Regardless, I’d much rather be self-motivated and difficult to wind down than the opposite, so I’m content with this aspect of my personality.
Interestingly, “pressure is a choice” has been an important motto for me in law school. My first semester, I got so caught up in the competition of it all that I often worked myself into a tizzy over grades, rankings, etc. and I think that it definitely hindered success. Now, halfway done (!!!) I can confidently say that I have had the best results when I put myself above the noise and just focus on myself. It’s a difficult but important lesson!
I’m so glad that phrase has helped you keep an even keel / sense of calm in a tense and high stakes academic setting! Wow. Wish I’d had the same poise in earlier phases of my life.
Interesting note about nurture. I have always pushed myself to excel / not let any balls drop / etc and I think it’s partly being an older sister / having that older sister role since I was little. I have always been conscientious, determined, responsible. Interesting to think about how birth order plays in…
I’m also fascinated by birth order in this context. I think the oldest sister archetype is so strong here – I don’t think I’ve ever met an oldest sister who doesn’t match your description! I’m the youngest, but I only have an older brother, so I guess by default I’m the oldest daughter, but I don’t think that quite fits here, haha. While I am generally very motivated in academics, my professional life, and more serious matters, I am a true free spirit and adventurer in most other aspects of my life, which I notice that my older brother is most definitely not. Maybe this is a birth order thing!
So fascinating. I am also really intrigued by birth order in large families. Like, I am one of five, but only some of my younger siblings have “younger sibling” traits? Some are more like “older sisters” in the stereotypical sense.
Oldest sister here, and as I read this I found myself laughing at how similar our personality types are, Jen, so in this case I guess birth order has something to say? Studying for my Master in Public Policy taught me to slow down and consider somewhat but it’s now been some time since graduation and I now live that start-up life and yes, I’ve forgotten how to do that now.
The song ‘Surface Pressure’ from Encanto often sums it up for me. I think, despite my age (40 is visible) I am stuck in a similar vibe to the 2018 you outlined, and I’m trying to work out how to get out of it (as quickly as possible obviously). I am also grieving currently and no doubt the discomfort of that is driving those emotions also. Right now none of it feels like a choice but a lot is, of course. Just have to work out what…!
Here’s to a more settled 2023 for all of us, one where past lessons help.
Hi Hayley — My heart goes out to you; I’m sorry for your loss. Grief can be a kind of haze that touches everything and so I would just say to give yourself grace. Your note reminded me that some phases of life are JUST going to be crazy, over-full, and no matter your mindset, it can feel like a lot / too much. I definitely felt that way when my children were tiny tiny. I was a spinning top!
Anyhow, I think it’s amazing that you are so self-aware / in touch with yourself about how you’re feeling vs how you’d like to feel w/r/t the pressures in your life. That awareness is so key to making changes over time. Maybe small changes at first, like saying no to one thing a month (just one!) or forcing yourself into bed at 10 P.M. sharp or some other way to arbitrarily get yourself a bit of slack.
Your posts always strike the right chord with me. This year as you probably guessed for me has been tremendously challenging as have the past 3. Yet there are so many good things on the horizon. And it’s a good time to reflect and just be kind to myself. Like your post on don’t talk to my best friend that way. And on how we all are going f through things even if it’s not apparent. I read the book Tiny Little Things which brought comfort in that I’m not alone in my struggles.
As for Juliet, Naked I went back to what I rated it and I too didn’t think much of it and it was not the best in my opinion too. It’s so validating to hear that someone else agrees.
I look forward to continuing to read your posts and insights and see what fabulous finds you discover. And i love the recipes too.
Thank you SO much, Michelle — I’m so glad my thoughts have brought comfort, or solidarity, or any measure of relief for you!
Thinking of you, and wishing you calmer seas in 2023 —