Jacob Heric

I prefer not to

What would you do with three months?

What would you do if you were given three months off to do whatever it was you wanted to do? What if you were allowed to hit the pause button on your career, take a break from work during your prime earning years, and just do whatever it was you wanted to do?

Well, I can’t really answer that truthfully as I didn’t write up a list of priorities and then hit the pause button and start checking things off. But, I am wrapping up three months away from work and I thought it would be a good time to list what it was I did, why I did it and why I think it was important.

First, a little context. As I mentioned earlier (apologies in advance for the recapitulation, but it bears repeating), the primary impetus for hitting the pause button in the first place was that my daughter (my four year old) fractured both her tibias in a very halloween appropriate accident in the fantastic Evergreen Cemetery near our house. Long story short, she scurried away from her mother (who was occupied chasing down our one year old) and tried to climb a tombstone. It toppled on her legs and fractured both her tibias and she spent a night in the hospital and seven weeks in casts. Though it was mortifying (pun intended and only possible in light of her full recovery…read on) and horrifying for her and us, she was chipper throughout and handled the ordeal with grace and is now %100 recuperated and back in pre-school and running and jumping like never before.

So, I never really made a decision to pause my career. The decision was made for me by her accident. And because of that, I am grateful for the accident. This sounds weird I know. But I assure you, I wish the accident never happened and I would go back and undo it if I could. But I can’t. I have no choice but to consider it in conjunction with all of its effects and repercussions and process it and asses it thus.
Anyway, my daughter broke her legs and I quit my job to take care of her. She was in casts for seven weeks and during that time I was with her almost all day almost every day and we did a whole bunch of stuff together (puzzles, books, games, movies, cooking and lots and lots of trips to the bathroom). I am really glad I did this. It was more fun than I thought. It was a lot more work than I thought. But it was fun and rewarding and I got to know my daughter really well at an important time. Lots of important things are happening when you’re four. You’re starting to piece together your words and numbers, you’re chiseling out a personality, you’re curious as hell about the world and capable and willing to speculate on anything and everything going on around you. You’ve got enough questions to drive any reasonable adult absolutely insane. It’s wonderful. I’m thankful that I did it. Which brings me the first thing I did with my three months and my first priority in life: family.

Wait you say! Absolutely everybody’s first priority in life is family. Saying that family is your number one priority is a bromide and a platitude. And when the chips are down it means almost nothing. I know, I know. We put our kids in daycare and send them to school and they spend more time with these “strangers” than they do with us and we stuff them full of snacks and stick them in front of the television and we end up being, out of apparent economic necessity, parental proxy units whose job number one is to “provide” for our children. And by “providing” I mean spending as little time as possible with them while earning as much money as possible in order to purchase these aforementioned luxury parental proxy services.

If it sounds like I’ve just gotten all self-righteous and smarmy and holier-than-thou, well I haven’t (ok, I admit that last bit was pretty smarmy). I’m aiming that last language squarely at myself. I’ve been guilty of this for the first years of my kids’ lives and I almost certainly would have continued to be guilty of it if this freak accident didn’t happen and force my hand. Circumstance forced my hand. I was presented with a set of unappealing cards. I was terrified of choosing. I dreaded choosing. But, in the end I chose one and it was the right one and I am proud that I chose it. The benefits of the choice were immediately obvious. I had this wonderful time with my daughter and I will take from it a measure of contentment in having made the choice and a promise to myself and my younger daughter that I will do the same for her. Having been through this experience, I believe it’s a promise I can now keep.

Ok, so that’s a long winded way of saying that I spent some nice time with my daughter and that family is important to me. That’s that.

Onto work and art and education (hint: those are the other three priorities, if you’re bored, those are an adequate summary and you can take your leave knowing the essentials).

I discussed my somewhat complicated relationship to work already. The official motto of my blog (and alternate domain name iprefernotto.org), “I prefer not to”, speaks directly to this sentiment. (If you haven’t read Melville’s Bartley: The Scrivener, go read it now). Work, if you like it or feel it is important, will nourish. If work is just something you do. If work is merely that thing that goads you to action. Then work will starve you (spoiler alert). You’ll proceed prodded through life like an unhappy cow and die that way. Or, like the Scrivener, you will put your foot down and do nothing at all and at least have the dignity of dying as a man, if an unhappy one.

That’s a little dramatic. But it’s important. There is a difference between good work and bad work and it’s crucial to figure out how to know good work and to do it.

I have been doing software development and related activities for ten years. For the first few years I found it very exciting. I learned new things every day. I built things and felt constructive. And, I saw my work making people’s lives a little better or a little easier (even if just in the infinitesimal ways that software applications can do that). The last few years it began to drag on me. This was partly because software development requires a lot of mental effort and involves the stresses of deadlines and all the other factors associated with burnout. But it was also because I have other interests and other goals and dreams and I saw them falling by the wayside for lack of effort while at the same time I expended huge amounts of energy at work.

Well, the feeling of impending burnout had actually got me started taking corrective steps well before my daughter’s accident. I enrolled in a part time online masters program in education. I had completed a few courses and was on track (and still am) to receive a Masters of Science in Education at the end of 2011. And, I had started writing. By the time of my daughters accident I had managed to churn out the first fifty pages of the long-imagined novel. I did this in the nooks and crannies between work and dinner and bedtime rituals and all the middle of the night ordeals (my youngest is still one).

So, there I was, I knew learning and education were important to me, I knew I dreamt of writing and I managed to articulate that and formulate a plan and I was actually doing them, if only on nights and weekends. But I was still exhausted and unsatisfied and feeling like that cow prodded out of the house every morning.

But then of course the accident happened and I found myself with the time to really dig into my classes and the time to really dig into writing the book and I felt the rejuvenating effects of doing good work. Good work begets more good work. I don’t know how or why but it does. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with relevance and the ability to make simple connections between what you’re working on and things in your life that are important to you. I see it in my courses where I’m learning about development and how kids learn and I see these things playing out before me in my girls. I’m writing fiction, but what I write is a direct expression of things I feel and think every day.

Now I’ve nearly wrapped up the book and I’ve even added a class that has nothing to do with my degree program (yay for philosophy) and I find myself interested in and actually wanting to do (and doing at night now, more on this soon) software development for fun and I feel like there is ample time and I have ample energy to get all this stuff done.

This takes me back to a conversation I had with my boss as I wrapped up my last gig after the accident. We were trying to hammer out an arrangement for me to stay at work while my daughter recovered and he asked me what my priorities were and he wanted to know where work was on that list. And I said:

  1. Family
  2. Education
  3. Work

If I had thought about it longer I may have added writing or art to the list but that is really just work to me. It is the best expression of good work and it is the culmination of cherishing loved ones (family) and learning (education, both formal and informal) and the result of other good work.

Ok, so this has gotten a little feel-goody-oprahesque for my taste. I have just a little more to say on the matter (for now anyway). I get this question a lot: so do you want to be a developer or a teacher? I assert my answer is yes and yes. This is really difficult for people to hear, they want to know precisely what your profession is and they want to know it now. I don’t just mean this as an exercise in cognitive dissonance. I view education as a lifelong endeavor worthy of pursuit always and everywhere (in the kitchen and in college, so to speak). Education to me is not just about deepening expertise in a particular area (e.g. your vocational field), it’s about deepening your understanding of yourself and the world. I will change vocations surely. Vocations will change under me dramatically (don’t get me started on that topic). At the end of 2011, I’ll have a Masters Degree in Education and a certification and will have to choose between being a teacher or being a developer (or choose to be both). In either case I’ll have a tremendous amount of information and expertise to compare across disciplines and bring to bear on either pursuit. When I get there, I’ll be happy to choose and happy to have given myself the choice. Be sure I’ll be choosing good work. Also be sure I’ll be setting myself up to make another choice a few years hence.

So that was my three months: family, education and work. The family and education part were easy, almost inborn. The work part was rejuvenating (is revelatory too strong a word?). I got back to good work. I remembered what it was like to do it. I figured out how to know it. I set myself on a course to do it again for a long time.