What’s the matter with being busy?

Arar_55C4912 5x7 6-6-14Everybody seems busy these days. Last month, as three close girlfriends and I tried to pick a date for my birthday dinner, we ran out of options that were within a week before or after the actual date. One person dropped out to make the selection easier. Then another almost did, but chose to come instead of joining her husband and his visiting brother for another dinner. A miscommunication or two later, I arrived at the Japanese restaurant with my husband in tow, to find one friend out for a walk around the block, and the other running 20 minutes late. (She eventually arrived on Uber X.)

This, mind you, is a typical effort at finding a ‘date night’ for the four of us. Our attempts to schedule regularly hit the 100 or so emails that is the limit for a single thread in Gmail. This is not because any of us thinks we are so important. We each lead relatively straightforward lives: employed, and paired with no children. We have engaging jobs and we have thrown ourselves into them: one as a specialist in organizational development, another as a retail-focused venture capitalist, and another as a product manager at Google. Each of us travels, each of us works early and ends late in our various pursuits (both career-related and extracurricular), each of us is pretty darn busy. And, I have never seen any of us happier than where we are now.

I’m not sure if we are the exception or the rule to the phenomenon I have heard called “yuppie kvetching”: moaning about how one is so busy and has no time to do what one really wants to do. In our ten years of friendship, which began as members of an Asian American women’s mentoring and leadership non-profit in Boston, we have only become yuppier. We now somehow all live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, each having earned top MBAs. And as we approach our mid-30s, talk of children and homebuying have trickled in to our once every other month or so gatherings. Our partners (is what we tend to call our male others) tend to have advanced degrees, as we do, and work as our counterparts in status, pay, or both.

But we don’t do a lot of kvetching.

I can certainly recall times when one or the other of us has complained about something that the others counsel her through. They tend to revolve around a tension between broad life aspirations and immediate choices. To stay in a job that isn’t rewarding or to take a leap into the unknown; to stick around in a relationship that doesn’t work or to break away and look for one that is more right; to take a job that is more sexy or more of a fit – these are what our conversations center around. There isn’t a lot of time for kvetching; we are busy pursuing what we want our lives to be about.

I don’t mean to turn the notion of yuppie kvetching on its head; I just really appreciate this other type of busy that I see among my girlfriends. I believe in industry over sloth, busy over idle. It seems patently obvious that if I am going to be industrious or busy, it should be in service of something that I want in life: some sort of accomplishment, a purpose greater than myself, or something otherwise gratifying. Being busy while having lost sight of its meaning – well that seems worthy of serious examination, not kvetching.

As a woman of a certain age, I observe that gendered conversations about being busy verge on talk of an elusive good called “balance.” Frankly, the focus on “balance” in a woman’s life strikes a discordant tone. “Balance” does not feel very useful in itself. As far as I can recall, it’s a lack of balance that allows a mere human to achieve beyond what is as expected, or in the mean. Extraordinary achievements are fueled by incredible dedication and service to what one is trying to get done. And since nobody is Wonder Woman or Superman, that often means not doing as much of the other stuff that one also likes.

Some people call this lack of balance a sacrifice. I call it a tradeoff, or perhaps just choice. The inflection is probably a reflection on how one feels about the tradeoff. For example, my mother would likely call my decision to not have children (yet) a sort of sacrifice. Or perhaps a ‘delay.’ But thanks to norms in my peer group, which has yet to have children in large numbers, I don’t feel behind or delayed. I like that I was able to devote all of my 20s to developing and honing my skills as a manager, and that an opportunity to lead a mid-sized turnaround company presented itself in my early 30s. I would like to end my 30s continuing along this path. And, I would like to make the adjustments that enable me to partake of the joys of motherhood.

In looking back at my post-high school years, I’m aware of what I did not choose ‘for’; I do not think I chose ‘against’ those paths per se. At 23, I leapt at an opportunity to work for a CEO whose life work I admired and wanted to aid and learn from. It led me away from a different opportunity to contribute to the business canon – a book about the history of American department stores. As I went to graduate school at 26, I recognized that I was crossing the average age of marriage for American women. I had been blessed with an opportunity to choose the marriage path some months prior, but I chose ‘for’ business school instead. Both paths are well trod, as in the classic American Frost poem where two paths diverge in a wood. I chose the one that I wanted more, and it has led me down other paths of tremendous busyness, and also crushing downtime.

Right now, I am in a busy time. Today, as I briskly navigated the extra-long terminal B at Denver’s airport on a layover, I wished I could somehow tie my rolley bag handle to my waist so I could check email on my phone while walking. I looked for the most caloric salad I could buy at the takeaway deli, so I could land at LaGuardia, fetch my rental car, and get on the road to Williamsport without having to stop at McDonald’s. Turning around a once-troubled company that contributes a meaningful service to society – this is the life I have signed up for. It’s busy as hell and I love it.

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