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What if you just did what you wanted?

[ 8 ] October 28, 2011 |

Answering "why do you do what you do?" at Burning Man 2008. Image by Tony Deifell via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Have you ever loved something so much, you let it take over your whole life?

I do this a lot. Sometimes it’s a romantic relationship. Most recently, it’s been my business.

The problem is, no matter how intensely I feel I’ll never get enough, I always do eventually. I’ve never been able to enjoy making one thing my whole life focus for more than a few months.

It’s a tricky balance: to be really great at something, you need to devote a ton of energy to it. But if you do too much, you burn yourself out. Where do you draw the line?


I was talking to a friend last week about small business ownership. He’s a successful businessperson, and he said something I’ve heard a lot: he works mega-hours, but he doesn’t mind, because it doesn’t feel like work to him.

Lots of people say this, and honestly, I consider it a dangerous idea. Working all the time because I loved it and it didn’t feel like work is exactly how I killed every shred of fondness I ever had for my yarn business.

So I asked him what he meant. He said, well, I do the most important stuff in the morning when I’m fresh, and then I do dumb stuff like email in the afternoon, and when I get tired, I stop.

Whoa! He stops?

It’s sad, but I never even considered stopping when I get tired. This was a completely new idea to me. Frankly, I’m usually tired. I always figured if I stopped working every time I was tired, I would never work at all. But maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe if I rested when I was tired, I wouldn’t be tired all the time.

Everyone says when you start your own business, you will work your ass off. It’s a given. You’ll work harder than you ever have in your life, in the noble quest for freedom and self-determination. It will be hard and scary. You’ll face failure and night sweats. You’ll forsake sleep and forget what your romantic partner looks like.

But if you stick with it and never say die, you’ll triumph! There is no failure, there is only learning! There is no impossibility, there is only working harder and being braver. There are no roadblocks, there are only obstacles to scramble over or run around. There is nothing but kicking ass and taking names.

That’s how I’ve been approaching my business, and it’s paid off bigtime. If I believed in impossibility, I never would have quit my job.

But.

At the risk of sounding like a total small-business wuss (not to mention heretic!), there’s only so long a person can keep that up. I seem to have hit my limit.

I’ve seen this coming for a long time, but I still didn’t believe it would really happen. After all the amazing and seemingly impossible stuff I’ve accomplished in the past year, I started believing I could do anything and nothing would ever go wrong. Then I fell on my face, figuratively speaking. I spent a week solid doing nothing but writing the first draft of my new book, which was awesome, but then I totally hit a wall and could no longer make myself work at all. I think I had kind of a mini nervous breakdown, actually.

And then I fell on my face, literally. I was running in the woods, and I tripped over a root and hit the dirt. One minute I was running, then the next thing I knew, I was sliding on my hands and knees, kicking up a big cloud of dust. In front of two buff guys. Ow.

I’m still enough of a zealous nut that, once I confirmed that I could still walk and wouldn’t need the guys to carry me back to the parking lot, the story I told myself about this was one of triumph. See, self? One of your worst fears about running in the woods came true, and it was still totally fine! The guys were nice, and you still got to enjoy the woods for a mile or so back to the car, and you got home before the endorphins wore off.

Hell yeah, it didn’t kill me, so it made me stronger!

In a way, I think that’s true. But another part of me thinks, have I become so full of shit that I buy it even from myself? Seriously, does everything have to be a triumph with me?

Up to now, I’ve subsisted on deadlines and adrenaline. I’ve set insane goals for myself and wallowed in everyone’s astonishment when I achieved them. But you know what? It’s worn me out.

I quit my job so I could work on stuff I really cared about and do work I love. By being such a psycho about it, I’ve sucked all the pleasure out of it. Instead of enjoying what I’m doing, I’m constantly looking at my huge goals and feeling late, behind, stressed, and inadequate.

I’ve tried many times to be more reasonable about my goals. Take breaks, set a schedule, make time for myself, take care of myself. Yet, every time I’ve done that, within a few days, I was back to doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Over the past week or two, it’s become clear to me that my main struggle is a dilemma between ambition and happiness. I see so many great things I want to do, and I want it all to happen right now! Not to mention, the sooner I get it done, the sooner I’ll have a sustainable income flowing in. When I set audacious goals, it drives me to work harder and achieve more. But doing it at my frantic pace has been making me miserable, and driving myself with fear and “have to”s doesn’t seem to be working any more.

What if I just did what I wanted instead?

This idea captured my attention when Leo Babauta wrote about it in a post suggesting that you throw your to-do list out the window and just do the one thing you’re most excited about each day.

I love the idea. Just do one thing! Just do the thing you’re most excited about! Wouldn’t life be grand!

But then I’ve always dropped back, thinking, “Easy for him to say–he doesn’t have a job, and he already has an established business that supports him.”

Also, “When the hell would the oil get changed if I did that?”

(Clearly, I am not a minimalist.)

Well, this time, I’m going to try it. I’m quitting goals. No more deadlines, no more mania, no more working despite exhaustion. My one and only goal is to live a happy and peaceful life.

Each day, I will do whatever excites me most. Sometimes, this may be sleep or bake pies. Honestly, sometimes it may still be the last few deadlines I have left for Beyond Fear. But overall, I hope most days it will be something like working on my next book or writing a blog post.

I’ll tell you the truth: I’m terrified this won’t work at all and I’ll just lie around eating bonbons all day, until I run out of savings and end up in a van by the river. But everything I’ve done so far has been toward growing, triumphing over fear, stretching the boundaries of possibility. Why stop when it’s just getting good?

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (8)

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  1. Cara, if I can be so bold: The world is awash with people doing what they want. I’m not being coy, think about it. Everyone (almost) you see is doing what they want. Go out anytime of the day and observe the human heard responding to their whims. Observe it and see, and please let me know your thoughts once you do.

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

    • Cara Stein says:

      Interesting take, Jonathan! Thanks for writing!

      Honestly, most people I see seem to be doing what they don’t want, but feel they have to do. But maybe I see that because that’s what I’ve been doing.

      Even then, we must be getting some reward out of doing that stuff, or we’d stop, but I don’t know if that’s the same as wanting to do it.

      Also, I guess I see whims on a different level than what I was talking about here, but maybe it’s a false distinction. I hope that what I want to do is still worthy and interesting work, just without putting all this pressure on myself or working constantly like I have been doing. I suppose it may turn out that what I really want to do is get drunk every night, watch reality TV, and eat chicken McNuggets, but since I’ve never wanted to do that before, I think it’s a reasonably safe experiment. If I end up totally useless, I can always go back to insane goal-setting. :)

      • Most people do seem to be doing things they don’t want. But people are rarely honest with themselves. And I’m afraid the truth goes against everything we believe.

        You hit it, reward. The old carrot and the stick, more carrot less stick is what we want. Notice that word again want, we want… So we do…

        Whims are desires born mostley out of our escape centric mind. If we could only face things as they are, no escape, then we would find that the significance of our reality is changed, a real revolution. 

        Cara your work will be what you are envisioning it to be, interesting and worthy, check. Experiments are always so exciting. Have fun.

        • Cara Stein says:

          If we could only face things as they are, no escape, then we would find that the significance of our reality is changed, a real revolution.

          I love this! A true challenge, to be sure.

          I have to say I’ve been pondering your last comment all day. What do we really want? If we say we want to get in shape but in the moment we want dessert more and choose that, which one is what we really wanted? Or are they both? (I tend to give my higher self more credit and discount the things I wouldn’t choose to want.)

          Anyway, thanks for your insights and encouragement!

  2. There’s something to be said about doing what you love, on a whim, whenever you want; but there’s also something to be said about sticking with something long enough to see valuable results.

    Like the gymnast who’s been tumbling since she was 9, but then gets a little tired at 12, but decides to push through the rut – and then find she’s in the Olympics at age 16. etc, etc…

    Thomas Edison once said that he’s no smarter than anyone else. It’s just that he’s stuck with something long enough, and failed enough, to make some progress.

    I’m so much like you, however. It’s hard for me to stick with something. What I HAVE however stuck with always has been music and blogging. Those are my steady mates. :)

    • Cara Stein says:

      Good call about sticking with things!

      For me, honestly, I don’t want to give up my work. In fact, every time I declare that I’m taking a day off, all I want to do is work on my new book. This is mainly an attempt to make it all feel voluntary again.

      I have dropped a lot of things, but lately, the things that I stick with best seem to be the things where I’m not putting a lot of pressure on myself. For instance, I’ve tried running before, always trying to train for a particular 5k race. I never stuck with it. But now I’m into it again. I don’t have a race in mind, don’t care if I ever any particular distance without stopping. I’m just enjoying it, and this is the longest I’ve ever stuck with running.

      I hope that by applying a similar approach to my work, I’ll save myself from burnout.

      Good for you with music and blogging as constants in your lives! I do feel a little weird that the only thing I’ve stuck with my entire adult life is my car. But that’s something, anyway. :)

  3. Jenny Blake says:

    Cara — I absolutely LOVED this post. Thank you for your honesty and transparency — I could relate to every single word. It’s such a gift that you give to your readers to share at this level. I used to be much worse about not letting myself take breaks until I realized that I was actually ADDICTED to work and it was a habit I needed to break. Now I’ve probably skewed too far in the other direction (find myself unmotivated/lazy more often than I’d like!) but it’s all in the name of learning and long-term sustainability.

    THANK YOU for such a great post, and kudos to you for starting to listen to your inner voice even more.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Jenny! I really appreciate the feedback.

      Interesting idea about being addicted to work–I never thought about it that way. I was convinced that if anything, I was addicted to accomplishment, but as I tried to argue this point, my arguments seemed pretty weak.

      I have to say, the mental shift feels great so far. I can’t believe how much I’m sleeping. It’s making me a little nervous, to tell you the truth. I’m accomplishing a bit less, but I can’t believe how much better I feel. I was all nerved up all the time, constantly racing the clock to try to get things done on some impossible schedule I had set for myself. Now, even when I do the same things on a tight deadline, I’m calm about it. This is the life I wanted.

      Good for you for making time for learning and long-term sustainability! I think it’s really hard for all of us new entrepreneurs to find a balance, but we’ll get there. :) I really appreciate hearing that I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

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