Lessons from 2020

2020 taught me 2 things…

If 2020 hadn’t been the year I became a mother and worked from home full time (from mid-March until December), I may not have been excited about FIRE. I admit, when I first learned of FIRE, I liked the idea. I thought that the retirement aspect would appeal to my husband, who often daydreams about working for himself, being a full-time entrepreneur. His ideal day starts with waking up whenever he wants to, taking mid-day naps, and filling in the rest of the day however he damn well pleases. I thrive with a daily consistent schedule, as a natural early bird, also called a lark, I like to wake up early in the morning and go to sleep early. I perform best when I have somewhere to be. I never considered working from home because I find it nearly impossible to do work stuff when not at work. I like to be in front of people, dressed to impress for a busy day. Work is how I get my social needs met, it is there that I feel like I have purpose and that my time is used to make my community a better place. At work I am a productive citizen. That’s how it’s always been. 

COVID-19 Taught Me to Rethink How I Work

As soon as mid-March 2020 came around, my employer told us that all of our work would go from 0% to 100% virtual, we would all be working from home full-time. I’d never worked from home a day in my life besides taking work home after the work day, or doing work on weekends and holidays which is more workaholicism (made that word up) than it is truly working from home. My first fear was that I would not be able to be productive. Within a week, this fear was cast to the side, and I began to use my physical planner  and my Google calendar just like if I had been working at my job site. 

[By the way, I am a planner fanatic, I have tried many planners and done lots of research, this planner is my favorite of all time, I’ve been repurchasing it every year for the past 3 years. I also am very very particular with the types of pens I use in my planner, I’ve only written with these pens for all my writing needs for the past 5 years. I’m serious, I have solely used these pens because of their vibrant colors, longevity, and smooth writing on the page for the past 5 years.]

By the next month, I was effectively balancing school work and home life. Scheduling my lunch breaks, eating mindfully, and taking daily walks. An unexpected benefit of working from home was my ability to focus on eating lunch, instead of rushing to eat while working. On site, it was difficult for me to get away from work to take a walk. This was a daily goal for me but it rarely happened. Now, being at home afforded me that privilege. If I didn’t feel like going outside or it was rainy, I could use my treadmill. Quickly, I began to love working from home. I stopped eating so much junk food. I attribute this mostly to the fact that I was a lot less stressed. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was less stressed, but I was. In the middle of a pandemic, I was experiencing less stress. Eventually, I realized the reason for this. I wasn’t the extrovert I’d thought I was. 

Over the years, I’ve taken introversion/extraversion quizzes several times. I’d scored higher on the extraversion scale consistently, but I also had significant levels of introversion. About a year ago I took a Myers Briggs personality quiz and it scored me as 52% extraversion and 48% intraversion. I was only a little surprised that my scores were so evenly split. Soon it made sense. I love socializing in contexts where I am comfortable. I prefer deep conversations, but I loathe small talk. I hate networking for the sake of networking. I feel very comfortable speaking to a large audience of people. On the weekends I like staying at home or doing activities with my family. I do not like parties, bars (I don’t drink so go figure), or clubs. I will walk up to a stranger and give them a compliment. I have learned that these things aren’t contradictory. They are a sign that I am an ambivert. 

Being an ambivert explains why I loved to work at home. Being an ambivert also explains why I felt less stress working from home. I began to question my desire to work in a large, crowded, and busy work environment. Each day I am surrounded by 500 people at a time, that’s a lot of energy to absorb. I have lots of obligatory small talk. I work under bright fluorescent lights even though I prefer natural light. I never realized how draining that is for me until I had the opportunity to try something different.

Maybe I won’t always be this way. I know that for now, this is where I’m at. I prefer solitude at the moment. I enjoy going days only seeing my dog, daughter, and husband. I also love my job. Soon, I will return to working in a buzzing busy space, and I am okay with that. I will look back on this time with deep gratitude in the calm that I cultivated. Of course, I’m not grateful for COVID-19, which has killed so many. I am just grateful for the opportunity to work from home, an opportunity I probably never would have tried out because of my limited beliefs about my needs and wants. 

Second, Becoming a Mom Taught me to Rethink My Values 

Before 2020, I’ve always defined myself through my work. This comes from my upbringing in a high-achieving household. I come from a single mother and we were low-income. When I was born, my mother worked cleaning bathrooms. As of now, my mother is a nurse practitioner. She is the only one of her 14 siblings to attend school after high school, and she is one of the few to graduate high school. She put a lot of pressure on my sister and I to do well in school. I would do the same in her situation. She was fighting for survival, and she taught us to fight for something better in our lives so that not only would we survive, we would thrive. My mother’s approach was successful. My sister is a nurse, and I have had success in education leadership. We are thriving, and our children have resources and opportunities that my mother could only dream when she was young. My mother is proud. One of my biggest privileges in life is that I was raised by her.

One unintended consequence of being raised to be the best is that I defined myself by what I accomplished. I wanted all of the awards and accolades. If one of my peers scored higher than me on a test, I was angry and jealous. I felt that I was always in competition, if someone did well, there was less prosperity left for me, one less opportunity for me to succeed. This competitiveness, combined with ambition, stuck with me as I started my working career. As an adult, I defined my self worth by how productive I was, how good I was at my job, how others around me perceived my performance. If a direct report criticized one of my leadership moves, I would take it personally, because work was personal for me, work was me. I could not, and would not, try to imagine a life without me climbing to the top of the organizational hierarchy. I wanted to strive with every fiber of my being, and if it meant helping people while I did it, that was a win-win. 

I see things differently now. When my daughter was born, I feared that I would be impatient in returning to work. After all, work defined me, so who was I without it? On maternity leave I found the answer. I am a mother, a learner, a leader, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend,  a good person, a researcher, and a  home chef. I am a wonderful being full of light and love and wisdom. I am all these things and so much more. I have worth and a life outside of work, and the time I spent making sure my sweet baby had all of my attention for her first months proves that. I have freed myself from the need to clamor up the professional ladder. Although I still include work in my calibration, I define success by factors outside of work as well. I have a more holistic view, and so I am able to put work into perspective. Little things at work aren’t such a big deal to me anymore. I used to treat every little thing like life and death, and this made it hard for me to enjoy the people I work with and for. Now, due to lower stress and rebalancing of priorities, I am able to lighten up. I think this has made me better at my job, and more relatable and approachable.

I now know that success is infinite, and that just like wealth, another person’s prosperity does not diminish my own. There’s enough for everyone. I know that there is joy, accomplishment, and fulfillment outside of work. My career is not the most important thing in my life anymore, my family is. That is liberating. I learned all of this in 2020. So when the concept of FIRE came into my life, I was ready. I was ready to consider life beyond working. I knew that I could be trusted to work at home with my family by my side. I knew I wanted to be more present for my daughter than my normal work schedule allows. Before 2020, the concept of FIRE would have turned me off. I needed to achieve standards set by other people to feel good. Now I know better, and am committed to doing better. I appreciate that financial independence will allow me to continue growing and developing while holding true to my core values: family, excellence, and travel.

I know it’s popular to trash 2020, personifying a span of time as evil, terrible, and worthless. I choose not to do that. I thank 2020 for the lessons it taught me. I hope to learn even more about myself in 2021. 

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