Opting out of a career-driven life

Cait Flanders’ new book Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Leading an Intentional Life is a book you can read over and over. I really enjoyed her first book, The Year of Less, and was excited to see what she had in store next. Adventures in Opting Out is about choosing a life that is different than how you have been told you should live. It is about doing things differently than your family and friends, or what is culturally acceptable.

The book is written as a metaphor to a hike—starting out at the base, reaching the first viewpoint, going through the valley, moving up the slope, and finally reaching the summit.

What I love about this book is the honest style. So many books on self improvement are written in this motivational tone of “you can do it, just change your mindset…” As Cait says, we are not doing people any favors through empty sayings about how everything will work out. Rather, this book prepares you for the challenges that you will face. She doesn’t sugarcoat that opting out is really hard.

It’s hard to sum up this book. Everyone who reads it will take different things in relation to what they are opting out from and where they are in life. With this read, I focused on what I could take from the perspective of opting out of a career-driven life, from a focus on ambition and productivity. As I see it, I am at the start of an opt out of what my family and society have told me—that your career and your achievements are the most important things in life.

These were my biggest takeaways from the book:  

The Base

  • Before you start, prepare for the downsides of opting out. What will you miss out on or friends might you lose? By not putting my career first, for example, I’ll miss out on some of the pride and satisfaction that comes from excelling at a tough task. I will have to be okay with turning down opportunities or promotions if they are detrimental to my mental health. In terms of relationships, I may find it hard to connect with friends who continue to be career focused. Complaining about how much we are working can be a huge topic of conversation and bonding.  
  • Another important idea for the beginning of an opt-out it doing “just enough” research. This hit home for me as an over-planner. I thought about starting a blog for almost half a year before I finally went for it. While doing some research is important, don’t get too obsessive planning out every detail. This is my approach with the blog. Each month, I select an area of my life to focus on in my experiment to “unlearn ambition.” I have a long list of ideas, but I haven’t assigned each one to a month yet, and they are not set in stone. I am open to what feels right each month and to adding new ideas along the way. 

The Viewpoint

  • Be open to making new friends. This came up at several points through the book. While being on a journey like this can feel personal, you can always find people who are doing similar things. This can be one of the best parts of opting out. At this early stage, she says, “if you meet people who seem to understand what you are doing or who you are becoming, make time for them.” I have been having a tough time making friends since moving to a new city. I really only meet people through work. They are very nice but are usually following pretty conventional paths. I feel like I don’t have a lot in common with them. This book was a motivation to start making connections with people who share my values. Due to the pandemic, it will probably have to be online, which I have never done before.  I’m thinking this will need to be one my upcoming challenges.

The Valley

  • When we are afraid of change, we tend to self-sabotage. I can see myself doing this towards the middle of my journey. Cait explains that you may be pulled towards your former identity, because it is so familiar and deeply ingrained. I can see myself really struggling to stick with my choice to be less ambitious, because it has been part of my identify for as long as I can remember. It will be important to check in with myself and work through these feelings.
  • People will push back. As Cait writes, when people shame you for opting out, it is often because they want you to live by their rules. They may even want to do the same thing as you but have their own issues holding them back. While it can be hurtful, you should expect it “if you’re living life on your own terms.”  This is something I see already at my workplace and has kept me from pursuing this opt-out. My coworkers complain about people who choose to work part-time, or who successfully enforce boundaries and have a healthy work-life balance. I have already run into a few cases where people have been frustrated when I’m not immediately available to do something. While it wasn’t nearly as big a deal as I thought it would be, it still stung. This is going to be an important part for me to work through. I want to be less of a people-pleaser, to put myself first and not care what co-workers think.

The Slope

  • Once you have gotten through the valley, you find your stride. You commit to go on and you have the confidence to “hike your own hike.” You have a set pace and routine. You know what works for you, what doesn’t, and how to communicate it. Once you are at this point, take time to pause and reflect. This may even mean taking a break. As Cait explains, opting out doesn’t always have to be a struggle. Slow down and proceed intentionally.
  • This is also the time that you may realize you need to let go of relationships that are not working or are holding you back in some way. I loved this part of the book for how honest and raw it was. This is one of the hardest and least talked about parts of opting out. The truth, she says, is that you often will lose friends, or your relationships will change. It may simply be that you don’t have anything in common anymore. It could be that you have different values, or even feel that you can’t be yourself around them anymore. Letting go is going to look different for every relationship. I’m not sure what this will look like for me, but it is helpful to know that it is a real possibility.

The Summit

  • The summit of an opt out is less obvious than the summit of a mountain. It is when the adventure is now a part of your life. You don’t need to think about it because it is how you live. My favorite part of this section was the chapter on “your other lives.” It is about wondering how your life would turn out if you had taken a different path, maybe even the more conventional path. And as Cait writes, you should consider the other paths you could take. Think about the trade-offs. Ultimately, however, you need to let these other lives go. She quotes this beautiful advice from Cheryl Strayed: “I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

I would recommend this book to anyone who is struggling to make a change because you are afraid of what other people will think. I’ve never read a book that approaches this topic in such an honest and approachable helpful way.

I found it super helpful for thinking about opting out of a career-focused life and even picked up a few ideas for my list of areas to focus on. I’m still pondering what to do for February but look out for a post soon!

-M

Why we need to talk more about high functioning anxiety

The term “high functioning anxiety” clicked immediately for me when I first heard it. According to Very Well Mind, high functioning anxiety, while not a recognized diagnosis, is a term used to describe people who live with anxiety but are able to function reasonably well in various parts of their life.

While you might think of an anxious person as someone who skips out on opportunities or fails to follow through on their commitments because of anxiety, for those who consider themselves high functioning, it has the opposite effect.

In my experience, anxiety propels me forward—it pushes me to take on more commitments, to work harder, and to prepare more. Ironically, my anxiety is one of the reasons that I am so successful. It is also the reason that people do not realize I have anxiety—because I continue to perform well, and it makes me work hard to cover up the fact that I am anxious.

Though I have had anxiety my entire life, I had no idea until relatively recently. I continued to lead a successful life. I was a high achiever, so my parents and teachers had no reason to think that there was anything wrong with me. I did not see anything in books or movies that told me what I was feeling was anxiety. I thought that everyone lived in a constant state of nervousness and worry, but that you were supposed to keep that inside and not talk about it.

There is comparatively little recognition or support for high functioning anxiety because it is generally an invisible mental illness and because people who suffer from it continue to benefit those around them.

I was listening recently to an episode of Self Helpless, one of my favorite podcasts in the mental health space, and Taylor Tomlinson mentioned how it feels like no one cares about your mental health until you are fully breaking down. As long as you are still working and benefiting them, you are not going to get a break, even if you say that you are not doing well!  

I had never heard someone verbalize this, but it is how I have felt my entire life. A few times, I have even caught myself wishing that something terrible would happen in my life just so that people would stop expecting so much from me and I could take some time off without guilt.

Any time that I have sought professional help or talked to friends and family when I am feeling particularly anxious, they have said that I seem to be doing fine. Because I am doing well at school or work, staying organized, and keeping up with my relationships, nothing is wrong.

When I first went to therapy in college after going through a traumatic experience., my sessions were ended after only a few weeks. My therapist told me that I was doing very well in my classes and was even keeping up with my numerous extracurricular activities. She thought I didn’t need any more help. In truth, I was using school to escape my problems.

Then, in grad school, I was facing a larger workload and was feeling more stressed than normal. I remember talking to some of my extended family members about how my anxiety was pretty bad. They basically told me that anxiety is a part of life, so I better get used to it. One of them also said that people in our family cope with stress by drinking…yeah, not so helpful advice.

My anxiety continued to build and towards the end of grad school, I sought professional help as I started to experience severe anxiety, panic attacks, and what I now realize was burnout. I saw a number of different psychologists and psychiatrists who gave me different diagnoses and medications. What ultimately “worked” was leaving my program, moving back home, and recuperating for a few months (along with some strong anti-anxiety medication).

It is still astounding to me that so many medical professionals were stumped by my problems. I still clearly remember the most dismissive and frankly traumatizing thing that was said to me during this time: “people like you aren’t supposed to be here.”

We cannot treat certain mental health issues as not real, simply because the people suffering continue to function as productive members of society. If someone says that something is wrong, we need to believe them. As I heard recently on another great mental health podcast called High Functioning, your struggles are valid and legitimate, regardless of your level of productivity.  

As someone with high functioning anxiety, I now realize that no one at work or in my life is going to give me break. It’s not because they are terrible people but simply because they cannot tell that anything is wrong with me. This was a powerful realization because it helped me understand that I am the only one who can give myself a break.

While I hope that the stigma around mental health will be further broken down, and that we can recognize high functioning anxiety as a real issue, understanding this has given me the power to take control and do what I need to do for myself. I am not going to wait for anyone else to recognize that I am suffering.

-M

Book Review of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less

This month, I read a great book on rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Thoroughly researched while still easy to read, it challenges the notion that working more leads to better results. Rather, “deliberate rest” is a necessary part of a productive, creative life.

First off, this is ultimately a productivity book. It argues that rest is important because it makes us better workers. I understand the reason that he frames it this way, and I agree with his conclusions.

However, for us perfectionist, over-workers, it is dangerous to think this way. It can lead us to treat rest like just another life hack, obsessively planning it out and getting upset if we do not do it perfectly. How can we truly relax if we see it as a productivity technique?

Still, I think there are a lot of valuable insights in this book. I found it particularly relevant to the goal that I set for the month of January—setting boundaries around my time.

The book starts with an introduction on the history and science of rest, and then dives into six strategies for stimulating creativity— spending four hours on deep work, working in the morning, walking, napping, stopping work at a strategic point, and sleeping. The second part transitions to focus on four ways to sustain creativity— recovery, exercise, deep play, and sabbaticals.

One thing I noticed is that this book has a lot of similarities to Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Interestingly, both books were published in 2016. I am also a HUGE fan of Cal’s work, though I would recommend Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, which focuses on lifestyle rather than only work.

Both books discuss how you should only spend four hours a day in deep or creative work. Both talk about the importance of either working fully or resting all out. Do not mix the two! As Soojung-Kim Pang writes, even for people who are passionate about their work, “having clear boundaries between periods of work and rest allows them to get more from each.”

He suggests starting your day early so that you can enjoy your rest later in the day, guilt free. I completely agree with this approach.

I start early and jump into my most challenging tasks first thing while I have the most energy. I save administrative tasks for later in the day, and try to end completely at 3:30 p.m.

This month, I set the goal of completely logging off and transitioning from work to rest at this time. I hit some stumbling blocks with this, but it is becoming a little bit easier each day. Stay tuned to the blog for a full update at the end of the month.

In Rest, I found the chapter on recovery especially helpful. In it, he discusses the cost of skipping vacation. He also challenges the common notion that long vacations translate to greater happiness. In fact, research has shown that happiness typically peaks on the eighth day. And when people return to the office, the benefits of their vacation only last a few weeks.

Therefore, he argues, we need to reassess the roles of breaks and the rhythm of vacations in our lives.  He advocates for “regularly and decisively breaking from our jobs, disconnecting from the office in the evenings and on weekends, and choosing to do things that are relaxing, mentally absorbing, and physically challenging.”

Detachment, or putting work completely out of our minds, is critical for mental and physical recovery.

Overall, this book effectively challenges the notion that working more means you are more productive. In America, we respect people who overwork even though it is counterproductive. We are urged to be so passionate about our work that we remove the boundary between work and life.

We are sold the idea that working more will get us more out of life, more meaning and fulfillment. As anyone who has fallen prey to this myth has discovered, it is simply not true.  

What this book leaves out, however, is how to deal with the pressure from your boss, your coworkers, even your family and friends on how to implement these lessons. Even when we know how important rest is, how can we do it more in a society that values overwork?

This is something that I hope to provide insight on through this blog. It is also why I have picked my next book: Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Leading an Intentional Life by Cait Flanders.

Look for a book review in the next few weeks! And let me know if you have any other good book recommendations.

-M

January 2021—Starting small with setting and maintaining boundaries

This blog is all about my year of unlearning ambition.

At the beginning of each month, I will pick one area of my life to focus on. I’ll post about what I hope to accomplish at the beginning of the month and will check in a few times throughout the month to let you know how it is going.

I’ll also post reviews of books I am reading and on ideas that I want to share about ambition and productivity culture.

The goals that I set each month come from books, article, blogs, podcasts, conversations—anything that people on similar journeys have suggested. If there is something that has worked well for you, please let me know, and I may add it to the list!

One last thing to note. I am trying to unlearn ambition and challenge productivity, but I am not trying to lose my job. I still want to be a good employee and person. This is not a free for all year of laziness. What this means is that you will hear about the real challenges I face and tricky situations that I must navigate.


I decided for January to start small. I know this entire year is going to be hard. It is going to involve breaking a lot of deeply ingrained habits. It is going to involve tough conversations as well as deep introspection. To start with something manageable for this first month, I decided to focus on setting boundaries with my time.

In terms of my boundaries, I want to meet these goals as often as possible:

  • No working in the evenings or on the weekends
  • No checking email while not working

Because of the pandemic, I have been working at home full time. And even after restrictions are lifted and others go back to the office, I plan to work from home four to five days a week. I love the time I have gained from not commuting. I also find myself much less drained at the end of the day.

While I am super excited that I get to work from home going forward, it also means that I need work on setting boundaries around my time. Increased flexibility often leads to blurred lines between work and home. In fact, there have been a number of articles indicating that Americans are actually working more now that they are working from home due to the pandemic.

My plan is to set clear hours on my calendar noting that I am out of office during my lunch break and after my day ends. I am a morning person and typically start work at 6 or 6:30 a.m. I work a full schedule (40 hours a week, 8 hours a day), so this means that if I take a full hour for lunch, my day should end at 3 or 3:30 p.m.

However, sometimes meetings are scheduled after this time, or I get roped into doing tasks past this time. I often feel guilty logging off because I know others are still working, and will keep responding to messages after this time.

My hope is that simply marking these hours on my calendar will be a major step in setting boundaries. My company uses Microsoft Teams, and this is the way that my coworkers most often communicate with me. Teams will note that I am “out of the office” and so they should know not to expect a response from me. They can check my calendar and see that I am not working. 

Additionally, after setting the hours, I want to meet these goals as often as possible:

  • Completely logging off (not checking Teams or email) during lunch and after 3:30 p.m.
  • Not responding to texts outside of those hours
  • Declining meetings that fall outside those hours

I have also noticed one problem that causes me to work longer hours is that meetings go longer than scheduled. This eats into time that I have planned to work on other tasks and ends up lengthening my day. My plan is be more conscious when meetings are running late, and if possible, leave the meeting by noting that I have another commitment.

Another issue is being asked to complete tasks at the last minute. This can lead me to work late when added onto my already-full plate. My goal is to communicate with my boss that I need a certain amount of advanced notice to complete unplanned tasks.

Lastly, I am starting to think through some strategies to prepare for when my boundaries are tested. According to this article in Forbes, an important step in setting boundaries is to prepare for pushback. When people respond negatively to your boundaries, it is a sign that they are working. They recommend visualizing how you will address the situation when it happens. If you don’t enforce the boundaries, then they will consistently be violated.

Further reading: Here are some resources that I referenced to get started. I’ll post more throughout the month!

Protect Your Time at Work by Setting Better Boundaries by Elizabeth Grace Saunders in the Harvard Business Review.

10 Ways To Set Healthy Boundaries At Work by Caroline Castrillon in Forbes.

3 Crucial Ways to Set Boundaries at Work by Jennifer Winter in the Muse.

My unambitious goals for 2021—why I want to be less productive next year

The new year is a natural time to take stock of our lives and set goals or resolutions.

Even though there is nothing special about January 1st (and all the research shows that most people don’t stick to their resolutions), I have always participated in this age-old tradition.

In fact, I love setting and achieving goals. I admit that I don’t only do at the new year—I do it all the time.

Yet, as I have met goals and advanced, particularly in my career, I wouldn’t say that my life has gotten all that much better.

I used to think that achieving big goals at work—doing well on a project, getting a promotion, or even moving to a new job would make me happy.

Time and again, however, I realize that these achievements never bring the fulfilment or happiness that I thought they would. 

The problem, I believe, is focusing on my achievements at the expense of my lifestyle.

It is thinking that my self-worth is tied to my performance and productivity.

It is being a perfectionist, a workaholic, a people-pleaser.

It is my ambition.

I spent my youth, college years, and early professional life being an extremely ambitious person. I chased a high GPA and academic honors in school, and then promotions and high-performance reviews at work.

Each time I reached the next milestone, I thought that I would be happy. When I wasn’t, I figured that I needed to try harder. I moved the goalpost, sought the next shiny reward.

I am clear now that this level of ambition is not healthy and will not lead me to a happier, more fulfilled life.

That is why I started this blog and why I am embarking on a year-long experiment in unlearning ambition and challenging my obsession with productivity.

This year, I am setting goals to be less ambitious and less productive. I want to take more time off without guilt, set better boundaries with my time, and worry less about being perfect at everything—from major projects to simple emails.

I want to spend more time pursuing hobbies, strengthening relationships, and simply relaxing.

Look for another post soon about what I will be focusing on for the month of January.

Feel free to drop a comment or reach out if you also want to be less ambitious. I look forward to connecting!

-M