The old man danced in the cafe and appeared to have no worries in life. Alice doesn’t know that her story stuck with me. I don’t remember her exact words. I don’t remember what she said that he said. I do remember making the decision: Yes, I want to be eighty four years young, dancing in a cafe. That’s my dream age, and sometimes, that’s how I choose to act.
When I stated my goals of my sabbatical, one intention included:
Work (doing) is a distraction from life (being), and I am pursuing a different awareness of my preferred balance.
The balance is a hot pursuit. Taking a sabbatical has largely been an experiment in retirement. Well-known graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister speaks about his own sabbatical philosophy: taking the first five years of retirement and distributing one year of retirement every seven years of his career. His idea stuck with me after the second time I watched his talk. I’ve observed my grandparents in their different forms of retirement, and I recognize that if I want to be at peace with that lifestyle someday, I need to start now. The me who loves to get things done will suffer immensely if I feel my being is insignificant at an age when it is perhaps my most – or my only – significance.
The balance of doing and being ebbs and flows. I’m naturally a do-er. My Enneagram personality type 3 description aptly explains that:
“Threes know how good it feels to develop themselves and contribute their abilities to the world, and also enjoy motivating others to greater personal achievements than others thought they were capable of.”THE ACHIEVER, Enneagram Type Three, Enneagram Institute
My personality hyper-focuses on getting things “done”, on gauging my worth by my productivity, and on human doing instead of human being. To make matters harder, my drive is largely about the “done” and less about the act of “doing.” It’s about the destination, not the journey. In the past three-and-a-half months, my effort, my exertion has tended toward shifting the mentality and slowing down. I am focused on operating at a lower speed and enjoying the thrill of deceleration, acceleration, and everything in between. Maybe you know the feeling of braking? The body leans forward to counterbalance the shifting momentum. I’m slowing from a run to a walk, tapping the brake pedal while driving a car, pulling the brakes to bring a bike to a surprise stop sign. It costs energy to slow down, to lean against the forces of the world, and I want to enjoy the experience when I spend energy. I want to be in balance instead of in opposition with the world. I am practicing what New York Times columnist Bonnie Tsui calls “fallow time” in her summer op-ed: You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything. I am practicing the act of slowing down, of speeding up, of moving with awareness of my speed.
Awareness of being is also a critical aspect of yoga philosophy. While some modern yoga forms focus heavily on achieving a specific shape, the ancient philosophy also emphasizes the process of finding the shape. Furthermore, the shapes of yoga (the asana) are vessels for the mind to calm and for me to start observing myself. Being in a human body necessitates being aware, of the physical body, the mind body, the breath, and many more aspects. Part of yoga entails the process of becoming aware: the process – not the achievement – of awareness.
Despite the fact that I don’t go to work, I wake up every morning around 6 or 7, write two or three pages in my journal, sometimes meditate, and often practice yoga for anywhere between 5 and 90 minutes. The whole routine takes between one and three hours. Are you impressed? I made myself a poster of goals, separated by today, this week, and upcoming. I needed this structure. I started logging my to-do list in the beloved Asana software system that I learned to love in my work at Formlabs. Are you impressed? I try to make plans to socialize or meet with at least one friend or acquaintance every day. Some days, I swim, bike, or run. One day a few weeks ago, I wrote a short yoga sequence, then biked 45 miles through the forests north of Berlin, came home, relaxed (shocking, I know!), and talked to two close friends on the phone, for an hour each. Are you impressed?
I eat at least two scoops of ice cream every day. Now are you impressed? 😉
“Look at me. I’m impressive. I’m developing myself.” The gut-wrenching truth of being a “three” is that I want to be affirmed, to distinguish myself from others, to have attention, to be admired, and to impress others. The motivation to achieve is innate to my being. Being a three isn’t enough; I need to constantly prove myself by doing. If my truth sounds harsh, I recognize that other personalities are motivated by: incessantly righting injustice, (over)extending altruism to be helpful, ensuring their own originality, knowing and understanding, creating only secure relationships, creating constant happiness, maintaining strength and power, or stabilizing peace.
I recognize that I shouldn’t change who I inherently am, and in this recognition, I want to fully embody myself. If I’m driven to get things done, at least I want to enjoy the doing by having awareness of my being. My to-do list has become a curation of the experiences I want to have, rather than the tasks I want to say I’ve done.
When I talk about my sabbatical, many people admire my courage and even express jealousy. This isn’t what I ask for, but it’s what I see. Everyone wants a sabbatical and “fun”employment. Tongue-in-cheek “fun,” if the verbal sarcasm is not obvious.
My truth is that moments of self-doubt pepper between every one of my daily achievements. The Enneagram also describes:
“Threes want success because they are afraid of disappearing into a chasm of emptiness and worthlessness: without the increased attention and feeling of accomplishment which success usually brings, Threes fear that they are nobody and have no value.”
Even though I told her, I’m not sure whether Adriana – an Italian – knows what her words meant when we snacked on pastries on Sunday: “I don’t like when people describe themselves by what they do. ‘I am a graphic designer.’ No. I am working as a graphic designer, but graphic design is not who I am. I am a person with a personality. Who I am is not what I do. I’m fine to talk about what I do, but it’s not the first thing I will say when someone asks me to describe myself.”
I wish this post had a visual. I want to unfold the thoughts that pass through my brain. A picture might speak a thousand words, but I’m afraid that even a thousand words can’t explain the challenge that an achievement-oriented person experiences in separating their value from their achievement. I think this mentality is ubiquitous in the United States, and I’m taking a different perspective.
I am more than my accomplishments. I am enough for my being. I remind myself this almost every day, sometimes multiple times. And I think that it’s slowly starting to work. I’m peeling away my attachment to my achievements. This band-aid requires a slow peel. There’s no high-speed route to calming the mind that feeds on business.
I challenge you – next time you think to ask “what are you doing?,” “what do you do?,” “what did you do today?,” or any semblance of creating value by evaluating someone’s productivity – instead ask “how are you feeling?,” “what is your way of being,” “how did you feel today?,” “how do you want to feel on your vacation?,” “what does it feel like to be you?”… and be ready to answer in return. Yes, these questions sound like nonsense to a mind that struggles to be. And if you catch yourself neigh saying, chances are high that you’re like me, ripe for the challenge. It’s not easy being human, is it?
Hence why I’m practicing to be 84.