How many times have you caught yourself complaining about how busy you are? Do you find yourself feeling like you are running on a treadmill without much to show for all your effort? If so, you might want to check out this article from the New York Times about “the busy trap,” as the author calls it.

It’s been a little more than a month since I started my internship at the U.S. Embassy, yet despite the relatively short time I have been test-driving a job with the Foreign Service, I have made some disconcerting observations:

  1. Yes, I realise that I am an unpaid intern, and as such, I am mostly there to help fill in the cracks rather than fulfill a full-fledged role in the office, but the majority of the time I have spent at this job so far has consisted of twiddling my thumbs waiting for work to do. Now, before you berate me for not being proactive, I have repeatedly inquired of my colleagues whether they need help with anything, but much of the time, they don’t have anything for me, and when they do, it is usually small tasks like running errands within the embassy or simple phone calls or emails that take a couple of minutes to complete. The other two interns in my office attest to the same experience.
  2. While my coworkers regularly stay past 6:00 and certainly seem occupied most of the time, I still do not know exactly what they are doing to fill all of those hours. Sure, there have been a couple of times when I know that they are out handling visitors in person, but my impression is that while their work may be more sensitive or important than my own, it still consists of sitting at a desk doing a lot of busywork most of the day. One of my colleagues has confided to me that things have changed since she started 30 years ago and that her impression is that in the grand scheme of things, most of what my office does is inconsequential. Of course, that is a personal opinion, but a frank and candid insight, nonetheless.
  3. By the end of the day, despite the fact that I have barely anything to show for my eight hours spent in the office, after the half hour metro ride back to my apartment by 6:30, I feel mentally exhausted from boredom and hardly in the mood to write. Too often, I end up wasting what little free time I have in the evenings by reading articles or checking Facebook until it is time to go to bed and start all over again.

Now, lest I seem like some upstart, entitled, idealistic, naive 20-something who’s suffering from a bad case of “the grass is always greener” syndrome, let me state upfront that I completely understand the value of starting at the bottom and paying your dues, and I have no doubt that there are many jobs in the private sector that are just as dull. However, I have worked three minimum-wage jobs before this one (which is completely unpaid, I might add), all of which were more interesting (except maybe those times when, as a valet, I spent eight hours standing outside in the heat doing nothing, as well). I’m not asking for a position as a CEO, just something meaningful that requires more than my mere presence at work.

I neglected to mention a failed, four-day stint at a fourth job I had one summer, where I worked from 9:00-7:00 in a warehouse for a man who ran his own company selling used and excess computer parts on eBay. I absolutely hated the job, not just because of the menial nature of sorting thousands of pounds of extension cords or computer mice, but because I had absolutely no human interaction whatsoever for nine hours straight. When I left that job unexpectedly early, I felt terrible. My dad raised me with a strong aversion to quitting anything, but I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life from that job: I will gladly take a lesser-paying job doing something that stimulates my extremely active mind rather than a higher-paying one that crushes my spirit.

Courtesy IGN.com

At the risk of sounding conceited, I am tired of playing the role of a Lemming on account of my age and lack of experience; send the easily-mouldable sheep to the cubicles– heaven knows we need people to fill those roles. In my experience, American higher education does little to teach or encourage critical thinking and individual resilience. Instead, we college students dutifully– and unwittingly– practice the same sort of routine which will dictate our adult lives in the work world: passively absorb 50-85% of some kind of information and regurgitate it in a slightly altered manner to prove that you know something or, translated to the work world, are “productive.”

Sure, it’s easy, and I’m certainly grateful that I’m not digging ditches or cleaning restrooms, but humor me for just a moment when I say that I am not your ordinary 21-year-old American. If playing twelve-page Mozart sonatas by memory at the age of 11, or teaching myself French and starting down the road to write four novels at the age of 16, or creating a blog to lay the foundations of my brand at the age of 20 doesn’t set me apart from my peers, I don’t know what will.

What I do know is that I have never been a daredevil, a wild-child, or a risk-taker, and despite my nonconformist, unconventional streak, the thought of diverging from the well-worn, tried-and-true, “safe” path of the world gives me pause. As a young person with no current income, I can’t help but worry about how I am going to at least keep a roof over my head and food on the table, though given my frugal upbringing, I’m not too concerned about squandering my money.

My hideaway in the South of France
(Photo credit: Rita Crane Photography)

I also know, after having lived in France among a people famous for their 35-hour workweeks and belle vie lifestyle, that there is more to riches than just money. I have come to the conclusion that having a job that inspires and fulfills you is a type of wealth in itself. I have seen both the good and the bad of the American and French ways of doing things, but it’s hard to argue with the French philosophy of “working to live” rather than “living to work.”

Of course, I would never advocate laziness, and I’m a firm believer in pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps and accepting the consequences of your choices, but surely, there must be a better way than this modern, post-industrial, 40-hour hamster wheel we have created for ourselves.

So, I refuse to buy into this bizarre worldview of busyness just for busyness’ sake. If I can knock out a task in four hours instead of eight, there is no reason to stay in the office for the sake of tradition. If I am being completely honest, my dream is to be able to make a living doing writing of all kinds: nonfiction, freelance, blogging, creative writing. If that makes me pretentious or cocky, so be it, but thanks to the inspiration of countless other writers like Kristen Lamb, Holly Lisle, Matthew Wright, and Bob Mayer, I believe that being an artist is a realistic path, and one worth pursuing, especially with the advent of epublishing.

My internships will end eventually, but after that, I have no idea what will happen. The logical next course of action, then, is to begin generating income from my writing. Even though I will likely have to take a day job of some sort upon my return to the United States, it is high time I began investing in writing as my true occupation.

So, this is a manifesto of sorts, my declaration of independence from the rat race and the trap of “busy.” With this post, I am putting myself out there and shunning the title of “intern” to publicly declare that I am a WRITER.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you fallen into the busy trap yourself? Or do you have a success story about living the writer’s dream? What would you suggest to young (and young at heart) writers looking to support themselves through their craft?

Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

~Langston Hughes
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Comments
  1. Lori DiNardi says:

    Ed, I’m a forty-something, who in my youth, worked at two different government paid jobs. Both of them had very little for me to do, and I was getting paid. It seemed they hired more people than they needed and just handed out one or two things for each job description. When I got to one state job, they had stacks of state hwy accidents that needed input into a computer. When I say stacks, I mean thousands! I had those accidents entered into the computer within the first four months. The person who held the position before me somehow made busy work out of the ONE other task assigned to that job position, so she couldn’t get the accidents entered. I did both and then sat there bored. Perhaps you can get some personal writing done. I used to write my short stories when I worked at that boring job.
    Good luck and blessings to you.

    • Ed says:

      Lori, thank you so much for your insight. Your observation about hiring more than enough people to do the job rings true in my office, as well. I’m still reeling from this realisation, though, because like I said, all of these people seem terribly busy, but for all I know, maybe they are twiddling their thumbs, too. And if they’re not and are actually engaged in work, as the author of the New York Times piece pointed out, there is a difference between being “busy” and being productive.

      I think I am struggling to reconcile my strong work ethic with a realistic sense of what is reasonable to ask of myself. I have been trying to write at work, but as an intern, I often feel this looming pressure to appear busy as well, even though my colleagues know that I’m unengaged most of the time. On the other hand, I’m not getting paid, so I’m not squandering anyone’s money if I write, and it’s the perfect environment to hone the skill of writing on demand, when the Muse is not necessarily up and ready to go.

  2. Congratulations for embracing what truly makes you happy. I found myself nodding through out your post agreeing with your experiences and recognizing my own struggles as you were describing yours.

    I’ve opted to take this “unexpected vacation from work” i.e. unemployment as the perfect time to sit down and polish a manuscript to send to publishers. It’s frustrating when your passion, and the job you’re mean to have, can’t support you. I would love to write full-time but it’s ridiculously hard to earn a living unless you have a bestseller to keep you afloat. Even then it’s no guarantee. My current career is satisfying but it’s a 92% right fit. I know there are 2 other careers out there in the 98% range. I’m working on transitioning to them both (librarian and published author).

    I think the best thing you can do is continue with your job but in those slow times pull out a story you’re working on and write. Don’t feel guilty about it; it’s not like you’re being paid to be at work! If you’re going to do busy work, at least make it enjoyable. It may turn out to be quite profitable one day. It’s amazing how the mind works, you may find it’s the perfect environment to write and I’m sure you can find inspiration in a zillion places.

    Good luck with your dreams, I hope they happen one day. I’m sure the wait the struggle to get there will make them that much better.

    • Ed says:

      Thank you for the encouragement! I’m glad to hear that you’re making use of the lemons life has handed you by using your unexpected free time to write, though I know that hunting for a job is a full-time job in itself, too.

      Funny you should mention being a librarian: my first job was actually in a library, and I would often go back during breaks to substitute for people wanting vacation. It was just a little community library, but it holds a dear place in my heart as the place where I started working and the family of coworkers I built up there who would always take me back. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t seem terribly important, and it could be pretty dull a lot of the time, too, but at least I was surrounded by books and people I enjoyed being around, always learning something new as material passed under my nose, and making connections with the regular patrons.

      The world says it would be insanity to return to your high school workplace, but there are some days when I really miss my little library.

      I hope you achieve your dreams as well! There is a bright side to this disappointing story and that is that I get to live in Paris, which has been a major life goal of mine forever. I visited Les Deux Magots yeterday and channeled a bit of Hemingway and Voltaire. Now, I need to get back to work on the short story I’m supposed to have finished for my writing partner by Wednesday!

      Good luck and happy writing to you!

  3. Rachael says:

    You’ve learned something that it takes some folks years to learn. Congratulations and keep searching the YOUR way of life. The work world leaves a lot to be desired. Some people work for 40 years and are never happy or fulfilled. You hit the nail on the head. I truly hope you find something good from the internships and find exactly what you want to do for your 40 years.

  4. My chosen field of work (tradesperson) comes with a few different options that lay out like this:

    Maintenance: sometimes there is downtime, but other times you find yourself in an ultra-stressful situation where production is threatened and there are 50 different people screaming down your throat to ‘FIX IT NOW!’

    Construction: less of the ‘screaming down your throat’ part, but you’ll always be busy trying to get things finished, which can be very wearing, and often you’ll be given one particular type of task to do over and over and over, which can be boring in a way you never imagined

    Commissioning: until construction finishes their work, this can involve a hell of a lot of sitting around twiddling your thumbs, and even when you do get your work you’re expected to do it very slowly, taking extra special care to do it right, which can make the day go by very slowly.

    I’ve done the maintenance and the commissioning side, my husband maintenance and construction. Each has their downfalls. With maintenance you’re busy but stressed, with construction you’re busy but bored and unfulfilled, and with commissioning you have zero stress but are bored most of the time.

    With writing, there are periods of stress and boredom, but I’ve found that most the time I’m having fun, feeling excited, and enjoying myself in general. I’ve done some pretty interesting things during my career as a tradesperson, but I’ve never felt more accomplished and fulfilled as when I typed out the last sentence of the first novel I’ve ever finished, beginning to end. That’s a special feeling, and if you can make a living doing it, all the better. I’m a little too conservative to quit my current position to devote myself entirely to writing, but don’t think I wouldn’t do it in an instant if I didn’t have to worry about paying the bills. :)

  5. befferkins says:

    So much of this reminds me of what I’d gone through. In the past year since graduating college I learned:
    1) Taking a job for the sake of having a job is not always the best thing for you to do.
    2) Moving back in with your parents isn’t so horrible if it will keep you from worrying about money and/or keep you from having to do #1.
    3) If, for whatever reason, you have to do #1, don’t let fatigue keep you from doing what you want. You’ll be happier knowing you’re doing what you like at least some of the time.
    4) Pray.
    5) Don’t panic—or do, if that gets you jazzed up. ;D

    That fatigue happens whether you have a part- or full-time job. I had it when working part-time, and some of my immediate family members feel a little dumb when coming home from their 9-to-5. As soon as I was fired from the second post-college job (I also learned retail isn’t for me) I began looking for writing-related jobs. Most of these were in corporate locations. As I was getting books from the library about cover letter and resumes, I also checked out books regarding escaping the very world I was trying to enter. I decided it’s in my health’s best interest to be very picky about what I choose to do. In the meantime, I’m in a safe home while I find work and have fun writing novels.

    Oh, and thanks for the Lemming picture. That took me back!

  6. “What say you, dear reader?” Haha, too great.
    I say… you’re awesome. I thoroughly enjoy reading anything you write, and (from what you told me about one of your novels and from merely reading this blog and hearing you speak) I think you would be/are a fantastic writer! I’m glad you’ve declared it, too. My roomie, Devin, always told me that she needed to declare things so that she would actually do them. So, this is me holding you accountable. BE A WRITER. Don’t quit like you did that one menial job :P

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