Completionist

When I was in fourth grade, the school music teacher offered to teach violin lessons to any student willing to give up recess once a week. Violins could be rented at a heavy discount. The music teacher visited every fourth grade classroom to encourage us to take this opportunity, measuring our arms for our violin sizes and playing short songs with a salesman-esque bravado. I told my parents that I was interested. I thought I could give it a try.

At the end of the school year, I had learned to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and a few Christmas songs. Despite playing with the rest of the elementary school orchestra at the middle school and receiving celebratory Rita’s Water Ice for our performances, I didn’t feel like continuing past the school year. The instrument felt ungainly on my neck and its sound was shrill and squeaky. The recesses I had spent indoors reading sheet music were dull and too structured in my already very structured days in my regular classroom.

My parents, meanwhile, had decided that I would continue to play violin, and had yelled at me that we were not a family in which we tried things and then dropped them. They told me that I would continue to play violin until I was “finished.” I’m as confused about that statement now as I was then, at nine years old. How could I measure whether I was “finished” with violin? As far as I was concerned at that age, I was finished with that instrument. I was also finished with violin at ten years old. And eleven. And twelve. And every year up through my high school graduation.

My parents were the worst supporters of this forced musicianship (among many other things they had forced me into). By middle school, violin practice wasn’t something I had to fit into my recesses or schedule after school – it was a graded orchestra class. Whenever my grade in that class dipped below A-level, my parents flew into a rage and repeated ad nauseum to practice longer, harder, until I could complete all my pieces perfectly.

As soon as I would begin to ask when I could quit, why did I have to play an instrument, why couldn’t I try something else, they complained twice as much about how they had already spent so much money to pay for the rental for another year, how they had invested so much time and effort driving me to school and helping me prep for seasonal concerts, how I was being ungrateful for this “beautiful skill.”

Things came to a head when I was fourteen and they threatened to destroy my small but cherished (and retrospectively crappy) music collection if I didn’t stop complaining and start playing. For every hour I put bow to string, I’d shut the door, lie in bed, put my headphones on, and pop a CD into my Discman for just as long. Arctic Monkeys, AFI, Green Day, Rise Against – I was not at all subtle about how shitty I thought everything and everyone in my life was, and the music I was drawn to validated the anger and ugliness I wasn’t allowed to express.

My parents’ threat worked, and I took to violin without further protest. They later deluded themselves into thinking that I appreciated it. I made my way from the third violin section to the first. I was asked by the middle school orchestra teacher if I would consider being part of the honors section. Outside of end-of-the-year orchestra concerts, I played at nursing homes during the holidays and at my aunt’s wedding reception. I took private lessons when I hit high school. My parents were worried that my violin skills weren’t strong enough to be part of the high school orchestra, and I didn’t need the heavy time commitment to get in the way of my AP course load or affect my GPA. Still, I wasn’t “finished” with violin by their standards.

It was almost a relief, after my private instructor had invited me to join the community orchestra for a performance of Carmina Burana, for my parents to circle around to the question of their own accord. Didn’t I like the violin? I’d been playing it for so long. Something must have kept me playing for those nine years. The only follow-up I gave after telling them “no” was that my private lessons were on Fridays, and I liked my instructor. I was usually not allowed to spend time with friends, so it made me feel like I was a normal teenager to be out of the house on a Friday night, with Friday night plans, even if my friends were off on their own much more interesting Friday night adventures. It was an unacceptable answer to my parents, but I was leaving for college in a few months and my music was on an iPod. They stood at my bedroom door and yelled at me for what felt like a month and let me quit my private lessons two weeks later.

~

I left my first job over two months ago and can’t help thinking about my experience with the violin. I didn’t realize until I had left that I had hated it for quite some time, and it’s been easy for me to find the parallels between the two situations.

I was raised to be a completionist. Aside from violin, I stuck with things, half-hearted or impassioned, until I hit some level of adequacy. Tango, poetry, pilates, baking, and perfume were things I tried and fell in love with. A B.S. in economics was more difficult to feel motivated about, but I stuck with it anyway. The same goes with business school and geology and running and who knows how many other things I put effort towards unthinkingly, just so I could reach some passable level of skill with it until moving on.

When I left my job, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had no right to leave. I hadn’t even been in that position for a year, and the work I had done was acceptable but far from exceptional.

I didn’t start off hating my position, but I remember hoping in my first week that I would like it more once I got the hang of it. By the end of my first month, I switched to hoping the next few months would go by quickly before I started searching for a new job. It felt like the equivalent of being told to put out twenty different fires every day, and attending to only a few at a time while everyone screams about the fires you’re not putting out.

I came to the office every morning scared of looking at my emails. The bulk of them were requests marked “high importance” that had come in at all hours of the night from international contacts who needed files, approvals, signatures, permission information, all as soon as possible. The rest were some medley of annoyed responses on why someone couldn’t yet provide what I had asked for to complete urgent tasks, questions from my supervisor on whether I had yet handled said urgent tasks, frantic follow-ups on why I hadn’t emailed back within the last few days, hours, minutes. Possibly most disheartening of all were the queries from other departments about whether some stray request they received was something under my territory, because what was it that I did, exactly?

There was no doubt that my department’s work was important, but it was also obscure within the larger scope of the company. I was overwhelmed by my responsibilities, my main tasks were tedious and automatic, and, while I was told to not expect any recognition or gratitude when I accepted the position, it bothered me that all my work was barely understood and rarely thought of when I was working so hard. It was difficult for me, as well, to look at all my accomplishments over the week and not feel proud of the work I did.

Despite how unrewarding my job was, it pained me to think that I could leave what I was doing without at least getting better at it first. In place of my parents, I felt more of a duty to prove myself. That I could do my job well even if I could barely stand it. I wanted to “finish” my first job and end on a strong note. The threats this time didn’t stem from a patronizing demand to pursue a vague and loveless skill, but rather from my own fears of unemployment, of being unable to pay rent, of failure.

I went to readings and other literary events after work. Although I was and still am part of the book publishing world, nothing that I did between 9AM and 5PM at my first job felt connected to books. After leaving well past 5, often closer to 7, I would go to book launches and lectures and anything that would feel stimulating and less distant than how I felt during the day. I’d arrive back at my apartment too tired to stand, then wake up dreading the day’s tasks and wondering how I would reward myself for getting through one more day. I had out-grown my previous music taste and the de-stressing effect they had on me. I went to these panel discussions and fundraising parties instead.

“Doesn’t it seem like all Monique does is party?” a past professor of mine asked my friend at AWP17. I posted pictures every other day of which book events I had been to, and over time my social media presence seemed exclusively comprised of book events. My professor was worried that I was going out too much and not spending any of my time writing. She was concerned that I wasn’t improving my skills, and she was right. I hated being alone with myself and thinking about all the work I wasn’t getting done. I tried desperately for weeks to write a page before leaving for work or once I got home, but I was too drained to do anything else. And, as always, I kept returning to the feeling that I should instead be using that time to get just a bit better at my job.

I was stuck in a mindset in which I thought I could set aside my feelings, work hard, and, no matter whether I cared about what I was doing or not, get good at doing it. To me, this felt like a normal thing that many people already did. My boss had said that he had wanted to become something else in the industry, didn’t make it, and just landed where he is now. I had followed many blogs in the past run by single mothers who didn’t care about their jobs at all but continued to do so for the sake of their kids. Similar blogs I followed mentioned how classist the notion of “doing what you love” was. If these other people could continue the jobs they didn’t enjoy, couldn’t I?

After all, violin and my job weren’t always bad all the time. I met other students at school who were being forced to play the violin against their wills and befriended them. Similarly, I treasured the times I ran into friendly coworkers in the hallway and we talked about how busy we were and what we were doing after work. I traveled with my middle school orchestra to Dorney Park at the end of the school year, and my company threw an incredible holiday party at the end of 2016. Couldn’t these small moments of reprieve be enough for me to get through the day?

Eventually, I got to a point where I was dreading every hour of every day of my job. It took me a while to realize, but I had been equating “working hard” with “suffering and stressed beyond belief” and “feeling guilty all the time.”

At this point, my job search had already been underway for a few weeks, but there was still a part of me that wasn’t sure if there wasn’t some possible way I could end on a high note, show everyone and myself that I wasn’t as incompetent as I felt. Once I accepted a new job offer, however, I looked back on all the times I had texted my boyfriend early in the morning, asking if I had to go to work that day, that I felt terrible, that I wasn’t sick or otherwise feeling ill but that I could call in a personal day and couldn’t stomach the thought of coming to the office. I had had so many conversations with friends that started with me listing off all my work troubles and ending near tears.

~

I guess I’ve always seen my completionism as a point of pride. I could prove that I had put effort into something, even be somewhat good at it, even if it wasn’t for me. Perhaps it was because I learned it early on through violin, but it’s often very difficult to think of myself in these situations and how slogging through things I don’t like affect me mentally and physically.

The first week at my new job brought along all the accumulated apprehension that came with the memories of how I started at my previous one. Were the mistakes I was making new-hire mistakes or idiotic ones? Did my new boss like my work ethic, and, separately, did she like me as a person? Could I see myself here in a year? What level of apology should I prepare myself for if I’m still messing up a month in?

I’d be lying if the anxiety from my first job didn’t affect how I started my current one in both my nervousness and my stiff first impressions. But all my initial fears melted away almost immediately. My new office is huge for our small, 15-person company, and, while I’m sure to be on time and try to be both efficient and fast at my daily responsibilities, the atmosphere is incredibly laid back.

Last Friday, a few coworkers and I got lunch together and it ended up being a two-and-a-half-hour-long affair. My new boss is patient and generous with reminders. My department is supportive and doesn’t speak in eyerolls, as my last one did. The rest of the company makes me feel included – I’ve been invited to birthday parties, offered extra tickets to dance parties, given help on my apartment-search, run through a flash flood for free margaritas with them, drank with them during Wine Fridays (which are every Friday before the work day ends). We frequently check up on each other and how we’re all doing. It was such a bizarre experience for me to go from such a high-stress, corporate position in which you had to prove your commitment to your job to this new one in which we behave like a group of friends and trust each other’s work and skill.

modigliani

My new office has a Modigliani in the ladies’ room.

I came into this position wondering if I “deserved” to have this much fun and have this many benefits as an entry-level person at the company. It’s so telling that this was how I started off at my new job, that I had hurt myself so much by sticking with my old job for so long and then felt that I had to bear some sort of terrible burden first and prove myself before I could enjoy what I was doing.

I’m writing more now (this post is evidence of that). My friends and my boyfriend have noticed that I no longer seem drained from work and on-edge all the time. Everyone else I work with has rich lives outside of the company, and we get pumped when we hear about each other’s vacations and successes, such as mine when I got accepted into a summer writing retreat I’ve been dreaming about for years.

icon

This icon in our kitchen is 800 years old.

I’m still getting used to the fact that yes, this is fine, this is how life should be, enjoyable, happy, enough stress to keep me focused on my own professional and personal goals but not so much that it’s overwhelming. The completionist in me is going to stick around for a while. But I’ve definitely come a long way from just accepting life as it is if it’s currently making me miserable, and the small steps along the way that led me away from that mindset have been invaluable. I have to keep reminding myself to assess how I’m doing in relation to what I’m doing, but it’s been getting easier to do so day by day. 

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