Monday, December 07, 2020

Living through the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Year Okay

I took months off writing. I wished I could say it was purposeful. Instead, it was like a stumble that turned into a topple. It started when I took a single morning off my long time practice of writing for ½ hour when I first woke up. I didn’t even mean to. I just didn’t do it. Like when you step on the back of your shoe, rather than untie and retie the shoe, the back of the shoe is never quite the same. Practices only need to be broken once to be compromised. 

Stopping blogging was also the beginning of my slow decline into burnout. I knew the signs, and yet, the uncompromising culture of 2020 meant there was nothing I could do, but watch it overcome me like a wave. The tsunami of burnout was taking down many people in this field. Every tweet I was reading, every meeting I was attending, everyone I knew--we were all drowning in work and worry. 

My smoldering lack of creativity and productivity went into full flame of emotional trash fire when I let some criticism get to me. Listen, it’s not that I haven’t been criticized. (And, I’d assert criticism and critique are wholly different.) In the year since I took on the awesome task of writing this blog, I’ve often been told I’m not measuring up to Nina. And, hey, she is taller. Mostly, I took that as it was--the truth. We’re different. And, that’s okay. But this year, criticism hurt in ways I hadn’t imagined. 

It’s not surprising. Everything felt amplified, personalized. You might also feel that way. It’s because in the world before the epidemic, you had work and your personal life. You might have been the person who said yes to hobbies and a social life also. Your full life was a combination of personal conditions and personal choices. This year, that fairly full life got a surprise addition--doom. I’m going to mix metaphors, as I so often do. We were like servers, balancing a tray of expensive champagne. We were doing well enough. Then the owner, a person we rarely thought of, decided to add a dozen glass Christmas ornaments, unwieldy and unpredictable, on our tray. Hard, eh? That’s a bit like the way we’ve had to take on the extra mental load of the pandemic. But, then this owner decided, it really is better for everyone if you did this serving thing on skates. (I mean, IG is full of hot chicks on skates.) That is the level up we’ve all had to do with the cultural and economic changes that resulted from the pandemic. Basically, we’re loaded up, then the load gets harder to keep in the air, and then the method of keeping it up hits a snag. We’re doing more, with less, and under harder circumstances. 

The worst thing is that our society sets us up for challenges. Before this pandemic, the world was more productivity, more success, more everything and right now. We weren’t mentally prepared for this crash, skates, glasses, and all into the wall. So we all feel bad for not doing what we did before or think we should do. 

In the weeks that I didn’t blog, I thought of the hundreds of followers of the blog and of Nina. I felt incredibly guilty. I felt like a fraud. I also went into my coping skills. I forgot about you. I ignored museum twitter. And, then the guilt came back. I wondered how I could possibly start again. I feared starting. Then I felt guilty. 

I’m telling you this because I think sharing my struggle might remind everyone their personal struggles are okay. We’re humans in a pretty inhumane society with a human rights problem.

One of my steps back was a comment from someone. They asked me why someone’s negative comment would make me question myself. I really wished I’d written down the person's name who said that. They really jogged me out of my deep hole. I realized for me critique is essential. Plenty of people tell me I’m wrong, incorrect, or plain off the mark. Those people are talking about my work. And, my work isn’t me. The people instead who use their meanness and pettiness, well, those folks shouldn’t matter to me. I mean, we’re dealing with the worst health crisis in a century. We’re looking out for a future where things could be better. I have too much to think of. And I needed to decide those haters just aren’t my priority; they can keep their negativity at their house.  

How did I get to this point where I started feeling a bit more like myself? First, I noticed I was losing it. That comment I mentioned helped. I also had to spend a bit of time thinking about my feelings. I realized that I was a sponge so sopping wet no more liquid to be absorbed. I had to wait until some of the liquid evaporated. I needed time. Then I chipped away at things. I played with ideas. I read and thought. In other words, I filled my personal reserves. Then I reached out. For me, that means, my Museum Computer Network friends. But, we all have the people it feels good to interact with. (If you need those folks, you might consider MCN.)

Then I looked ahead for the next few months. I made a goal that I would take some time away in December. Since much of my time, as a manager, is related to the time of my colleagues, I also tried to set up work to wane in December. After all, I can’t enjoy my relaxation while my colleagues are overwhelmed. My premise was that we were taxed by the constant decision-making since the rate of change was constant. So we tried to get many of our decisions made early or set up systems where we had A or B plans ready. We also canceled many meetings for this month. Another stress was a lack of time for our own labors as well as an inability to get into a personal flow.  For managers particularly, WFH has meant more meetings probably, since you can’t just run into folks. Finally, we also gave us less work. We chose to take a week off social. We decided to pick the easiest way to solve certain problems. 

Now, the choice to do less was hard for me. I like to do more. And, I’m not sure for me, I’d stick to do less year-round. Some people, like me, have a motor in their minds. Doing less feels stressful. So, I’d caution anyone from feeling bad if you read the do less/ productivity is death literature. If it isn’t you, that’s okay. But, even those who feel they need to do a lot at work, need time off. 

This weekend, I asked people how they were feeling:

The overwhelming response was negative.

We’re in a terrible moment as a society. But many museums aren't meeting the needs of their teams:

If you have the chance as a manager or leader to advocate for decreases, I’d suggest it. For the number crunchers, I’d suggest a slow down across the board would lead to more work long-term. Work slowdowns can’t happen by accident though. You have to plan for them. You have to do the work ahead, sometimes, or decrease the work that needs to happen. Then you all need to commit to this. You need to discuss it. I have been talking about our “No decisions December” for months. I’ve had to keep myself from suggesting things that might be “cool” which is also management speak for time-consuming. I had to remind myself that my staff might all feel like oversoaked sponges. I've had to remind myself long-term success is better served by sanity in the short term.

2020 is the terrible, horrible, no good year for everyone. If your organization does a bit less in December and early January, I bet your patrons won’t notice. I also bet your staff will not only notice but thrive after some time away.

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