May 21, 2015

Be less to be more

Do your best.

It was a mantra repeated to me again and again throughout my upbringing. Before piano recitals and exams (and I had many), my mom would smile encouragingly and say, “Just do your best!”

I remember asking my mom one time, “What would happen if I got a B on my report card?” I peered over at her with wide eyes, trying to gauge her reaction.

“As long as you did your best, that’s fine,” she said matter of factly.

“Really?! What if I got… a C?!”

“As long as you did your best, that’s fine.”

“So, if I came home with a D, you wouldn’t be mad?” I pushed.

“If you really did your best, then no. But I also know what you’re capable of and it’s usually better than a D, so if that happened then maybe you didn’t do your best.”

I sat, pondering this silently.

I can’t say I’ve always lived it out. By high school, I was the do-what-you-need-to-get-the-A student, and that oftentimes took a lot less than my best. When it came to things I really cared about, though–a basketball game, preparing a presentation in front of peers, leading a club–I gave it my all, my 100%. It was like I didn’t know how to slack off or tone it down when it came to these things, and I often pushed myself long and hard into the night to make sure everything was done in excellence.

In college, I slacked off as much as I could in most of my classes, skipping classes and cramming for tests the nights before, doing only what was necessary to make the grade. But after college, when I started my teaching program, I was a completely different student, because now I really cared. I read my textbooks ahead of time— because I found the content fascinating– and I spent hours and hours preparing lesson plans so I could be the best for my students. I did extra research online and bought extra books on Amazon that seemed useful for my craft.

By the time I got my first teaching job, there was no stopping me. Sure, I was contracted to work from about 7:45-3:00pm, but those were just the hours I spent with the students. The first months of teaching found me making preparations in my classroom well before the sun was out, and working away long after it had set. I would teach from 8-3pm, then stay after class to clean up, grade papers, make copies, and lesson-plan like a maniac until the janitor kicked me out at 8 or 9pm. This happened day after day, week after week. I was exhausted, but simply couldn’t imagine feeling prepared for the next day of school any other way. It didn’t help that I was still taking evening classes as I worked towards my Masters, and it didn’t take long for me to feel Completely. Burnt. Out.

But I wanted to give it my all, my 100%, and do my very best. I couldn’t give any less when it was a matter of nurturing and educating the young minds of tomorrow, right???

So each day found me spent, exhausted, hanging on by a thread, clinging to my morning coffee, and increasingly lacking energy and patience. Looking back, it’s clear that this was hardly my best.

This was probably me at my worst.

Especially when I got home. Believe it or not, I still managed to bring work home after clocking in all those hours at the school. The little that my husband saw of me was a pale and sickly wife bent over her work with little energy or love left to offer him. His role as a husband was to care for me, remind me to sleep and care for myself, and worry how long I was going to keep going at this pace.

Before long, I started to crash. This was not sustainable for my work, or for my marriage. I would sit in my car after work thinking, “Is this really how it’s going to be? I miss Ben. How the heck does everyone else get everything done and leave by 3pm?! It must be a first-year thing…”

It must have been mid-October when I finally started breaking down and reevaluating everything. No, this was not sustainable. No, this was not good for my marriage. No, I could not keep this up.

What options did I have, though? It’s not like I could give less than my all to my students, their parents, and my coworkers, right? I wanted to build a solid reputation as an excellent teacher. I couldn’t even imagine how I could get everything I needed to get done done in less time than I was already spending. Unless I was ridiculously subpar. Unless I winged more of my lessons, and unless I graded fewer papers. Unless I didn’t have the day’s lesson plans typed up ahead of time each day, and unless I stopped pursuing my Masters.

I wasn’t willing to go there.

My parents were on my case, though. They could see that this was wearing me out, and they kept nudging me to take it down a notch. It probably wasn’t until my mom, a veteran teacher of nearly thirty years, insisted that I could work fewer hours and still be an excellent teacher, that I paused to seriously rethink the whole thing. “I know teachers who stay much later than me at school every day, but I am just as good of a teacher as they are!” she exclaimed. And I knew it was true. Her school was in the middle of a notoriously low-income area, and her students oftentimes came in speaking zero English. Yet most of them graduated out of Kindergarten with the ability to read and write as well as many first graders! It was truly impressive.

It was the first time it occurred to me that more effort and time did not necessarily lead to being a better teacher.

As a matter of fact, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that all this hard work was running me to the ground, and that the person I was dragging into class every morning was not the best version of me at all. I was exhausted, bedraggled, and dreading my alarm each morning. I pushed myself through each day, but did not enjoy teaching my students. Teaching was a chore, and not very much a joy. Is that the kind of teacher I wanted to be? Is that the kind of teacher my students would thrive with? Is that the kind of teacher their parents would want to send their children to each day?

More importantly, I was hardly present as a wife. Ben existed to support me, and that was about as much of a “partnership” as we had going on at the time. This was hardly the kind of marriage I had envisioned when were married just a year prior, and this was hardly the kind of wife I had hoped to be. We had little quality time together, and supporting or caring for him was hardly on my radar. This was not right. At what point did I decide that work and teaching was more important than family and home? Hadn’t I always said that my priorities were God, family, friends, school/work…? When did I decide that work came first, and everything else lumped together afterward?

I had never decided that. It just happened. It happened because I thought that’s what it meant to do my best. Because it never occurred to me before that I was simply doing and being my best in just one area– work– but at the expense of my marriage, friendships, and faith. And I began to realize that I may have been giving my all at work, but I was not being my best for anyone, and I was not doing my best at life. I was neglecting the relationships in my life that mattered most, all in pursuit of doing my best at my job.

And then I had this epiphany: If I was giving my 100% at work, then what was left to give after work? There was 0% left to offer as wife and friend. And that’s where I was, doing my very worst at the things that I claimed mattered most. And finally, it clicked. It was okay for me to give less than 100% to my job as a teacher, because I needed to keep some of me to give to my marriage. And if that meant I would be less awesome as a teacher, then so be it. Giving less than 100% at my job would allow me to be better in every other area of my life. I would need to be less awesome… to be more awesome. Maybe I would have to be a B teacher — giving just 80% of myself to work– to have 20% remaining to invest as a wife, friend, or in serving at church.

But that meant something needed to change. A lot of things, actually. After talking things over with Ben, who was wholeheartedly on board with this line of thinking, I made some very concrete decisions. They weren’t easy, and it definitely left me feeling like I was not giving my best to my job. I decided that I should come home from work earlier, with a lofty goal of getting home by 4pm by the end of the school year. This meant I’d have to cut down on and streamline my work somehow. I also decided to put off pursuing my Masters degree for a year. This meant I’d have to submit forms and officially withdraw (*gasp!*) from my classes and admit that I couldn’t do it all. That was actually a serious blow to my pride at the time, and I had to consciously remind myself that my marriage was more important than my pride.

At first, the goal was to leave school by 7pm. When I managed to succeed at that for a week or two, then I rolled the time back to 6pm. That went on for a few more weeks until I felt ready to try 5pm, which stuck for a little longer. But I soon learned where I could change grading practices and also grew more familiar with lesson formats. I learned how to plan with major goals in mind rather than focusing on minute details for each lesson, and I started to loosen up and go with the flow rather than sticking to a detailed lesson plan. Actually, I stopped making those detailed lesson plans, and you know what? My lessons were still pretty great. The students were engaged, and they learned what they needed to learn. A lot of my success simply came with more experience as a teacher, but I wouldn’t have known I could do it if I didn’t force myself to try.

By March, I was clocking out at 3:30pm and enjoying warm afternoons where I could think about groceries and dinner instead of stressing about my job. I knew what needed to be done for the next day, and what I could leave for another day (or never). My marriage became a blissful place where Ben and I enjoyed unprecedented hours of relaxing together. We’d take long walks, have long chats over dinner, or watch cooking shows together. We lived walking distance to a grocery store, so it became a hobby of ours to watch a chef make something tantalizing on TV, and then try to recreate it with the evening hours we had. It was truly luxurious. Our marriage thrived, and it turns out I didn’t have to be a bad teacher for it. I just needed to push myself to find ways to streamline my work more and work efficiently to get more “bang for my buck.” It turns out that with much intentionality, I was able to do pretty well at both.

Even if that wasn’t that case, and if less time at work meant I wouldn’t be as great of a teacher, that’s a sacrifice that I decided I was willing to make. I’m glad that my increased experience more than made up for the decrease in my hours spent at work, but I would have pushed forward in this decision even if that had not been the case.

I suppose when it comes down to it, this post is about priorities. We all have them. But sometimes I wonder how often we really take a hard look at them and see if we’re really living in a way that lines up with what we say our priorities are. In the Bay Area where I live, I imagine a lot of people would say they prioritized family over work, yet there seems to be a disconnect between that ideal and the reality of their lives. They work hard to pursue and gain promotions, which usually leads to more time in the office. They work to advance their careers, which frequently leads to less flexibility to be with their families in everyday life.

I don’t doubt that a lot of these workers are doing this for their families, and I also recognize that a lot of people simply don’t have the option to do less in order to get by. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about people who could get by with less, but who have maybe gotten caught up in ambition and The Race. Maybe they, like me, have fallen into the assumption that we’re always supposed to give and do our very best at work, without realizing that sometimes this very directly takes away from our ability to give and do our very best at the rest of life: our marriages, our children, our families, our friends, and serving and loving others.

I often think of my dad, who declined a number of promotions at his workplace in favor of keeping the flexibility and time he needed to be a #1 family man. Because of his choices, though, he always had time and energy after work to take me to the basketball courts, and frequently left work early to come cheer me on at my games. It meant the world to me that he was always there, and I never felt like he prioritized his work over our family.

My husband learned from my father’s example, choosing a number of times to remain at his stable job instead of taking offers from other companies that were much more interesting, exciting, higher-paying, and desirable. Each time, it was a conscious sacrifice on his part. What person doesn’t want to make an upward move like that? Yet it always came down to a matter of our priorities for our family. Taking the job would mean more hours at work, and less time at home with me (and later, our daughter too). It meant less energy and time after work to spend preparing for teaching Sunday school. It meant more demand and stress overall, which would result in a more stressed version of him after he left work, too.

These changes would not be in line with our shared goals of valuing family over work, so again and again, he declined these tempting opportunities in favor of saving the best of himself for me, for our family, and to serve others. It means the world to me that he would make that sacrifice for us, and I am always grateful to have a spouse that loves his family more than his own ambitions.

It’s a lesson that we’ve revisited again and again in our years of marriage, and one I know we will continue to encounter in the years to come. I don’t know your situation or your priorities, but I’m sure you also have times when you feel that somehow, things aren’t quite playing out the way you had envisioned or hoped. It might take some very real sacrifices and some practical and difficult decisions, but I think being intentional about making sacrifices for the things that really matter is always a worthwhile endeavor. Sometimes, it takes a conscious decision to be less in some ways, in order to be more!

14 responses to “Be Less to Be More”

  1. Nancy Zhang says:

    Personal and inspiring post. Thank you 🙂 <3

  2. S.K. says:

    just read this again and found it to be a helpful reminder! both for myself (try not to burn out by giving 100% to being “mom”) and for B (to prioritize family over career). I think B successfully made his decision and followed through, but I’m still working on being less to be more!

    • joellen says:

      So glad to hear this could be helpful to you! Not always easy to follow through, but such a good goal to have. Thanks for sharing!