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My paradox: being responsible ... and hating it

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

My paradox: being responsible ... and hating it

Stephen H. Provost

Most people see me as responsible. Dependable. I excelled in school. I’ve always met my deadlines, and in the years before I got laid off, I consistently got great performance reviews at work.

But here’s the thing you might not realize: Just because someone is responsible, it doesn’t mean they like responsibility. Actually, it might be just the opposite, as it is with me, and I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one who feels this way.

It sounds like a paradox, but it’s not.

I’ve never been ambitious. I’ve never gone out of my way to seek more responsibility. I’ve done just the opposite: I meet (and usually beat) deadlines because I wanted to get that crap out of the way, so I could get to the good stuff.

That’s not to say I did a half-assed job. My fear of failure ensured that wouldn’t happen. I just figured out how to do the best possible job in the least amount of time. I worked out a system, fine-tuned it and became successful.

This probably explains why I never got into upper management. I saw all the bullshit that goes on there, and I couldn’t figure out a system to beat that, so I settled for middle management, which suited me just fine.

My own boss

What suited me better, though, was being my own boss. This has happened a couple of times, when I ran the sports department in Tulare and when I worked as managing editor in Cambria. Each time, supervisors thought I was doing a good job and took a hands-off approach. It was only when the corporate ownership or climate changed, and new chefs were brought in to reheat the stew, that I stopped enjoying it.

That meant more oversight, more micromanaging, less freedom. Here’s what it comes down to: When people watch me work, they invariably try to make me adopt their system. Remember junior high? Remember that teacher who deducted points even if you got the right answer, because you didn’t “show your work”? It’s like that.

If I’m allowed to work in peace, folks are usually pleased with the result. But if those folks insist on looking over my shoulder, I won’t meet their standards. Either I will refuse to follow their system, which pisses them off, or I’ll try to do so and won’t be as good at it as they are – even if I practice for a long time, because it’s not my system. It might come naturally to them, but not to me.

Some might think I’m being stubborn and inflexible, but I disagree. I observe the world around me, listen to others’ ideas and improve my system by incorporating what fits. But I’m not about to scrap my entire way of doing things and start from scratch. Nope. Sorry.

I’m my own boss now, and I might seem ambitious. I’ve released had six books released in the past 12 months, and I’m nearly done with No. 7. But that’s not because I’m being responsible or ambitious or any of that. It’s because I enjoy what I’m doing. I like to write, so I do that. I’m not doing it to “get it over with.” It’s the place I was trying to get to all these years.

The layoff

So why did last spring’s layoff hit me so hard? There’s a simple answer to that, and it goes back to how I approach responsibility.

I’ve always saved the best for last. When I was eating Thanksgiving dinner, I’d eat the turkey first, because I liked it the least, then work my way through the mashed potatoes, then the yams, and finish off with my favorite, the stuffing! Oh, and then there was the ultimate reward: pumpkin pie.

I applied the same principle to homework. I came home and got it done so I could turn my attention to what was more important to me. My time. I didn’t crack the books because I “valued a good education.” It was a means to an end. (Don’t get me wrong: I do love learning things. But I like doing so on my terms: Even though I graduated summa cum laude, I’ve learned a lot more through my own observation and independent research than I ever did in school).

Some of this independence doubtless stems from the fact that I’m an only child. Working alone has always been more comfortable for me than collaboration. Hence, my perfectionism: If I could “get it right” on my own, no one would have any excuse to throw their meddling monkey wrenches into my system.

Delayed gratification

But when I got laid off, however, that was one huge monkey wrench. My system had been set up to work until I was 65 (or older) and then enjoy the fruits of my labor. When I was laid off, I faced with the prospect of looking for a job in a moribund industry, or retraining myself for an entirely different field. Creating a new system from scratch.

I applied for a few jobs, didn’t get anywhere, and decided maybe that was for the best.

I don’t need a conventional job, so why should I go out of my way to pursue one? Certainly not because I’m craving responsibility. Fortunately, I had the ability to retire early and do what I always wanted to do: write books.

That was my original plan, anyway. I would earn a steady paycheck as a journalist while working as an author on the side.

But then I got lazy. I enjoyed journalism more than I thought I would and developed a system that worked, at least for 32 years. During that time, I’d put in an eight- or 10- or 12-hour day, after which I didn’t have much energy left to write for myself. I worked on precisely one book, which took me 10 years to finish, and that was it. (The result was my two-volume opus on the development of Western religion, “The Phoenix Principle.”)

Other than that, I put off my dream of becoming an author until the journalism industry started tanking and I got laid off the first time. I caught on with another newspaper a year later, and that gig lasted six more years before I got laid off again. Both times, I lost my job before I was ready: before my plan said I should.

But both times it gave me the opportunity to start writing more, so I did.

Now, I don’t have any excuse to delay my dream. I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. I’m not going to get laid off again, and the sky’s the limit. So maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I always wanted to end up: Free of responsibility but working like hell ... because I like it.

Funny how things work out sometimes.

Moral of the story: Enjoy that pumpkin pie while you can. If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, it won’t be on the table at all.