The Right/Wrong Time
by HAFSA ARAIN
I certainly did not know two years ago that leaving school would be just as harrowing an experience as entering it in the first place. When I started graduate school as a rather insecure 25-year-old, I found the first semester to be one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I remember a conversation with my mother a few weeks in, in which she lamented the loss of my presence at home, and in which I lamented the loss in my confidence and ability to speak my mind. Through her tears and my discomfort, I communicated what I could not say to her in person: that I wanted more than anything to come home and be comforted.
My parents, who have learned how to be supportive of me and my choice to study the humanities, sent me to California with the sense that I would relearn who I was and return to them a reformed and renewed person. This is true, although I never went back to Chicago. I relearned who I was in graduate school — rebuilt what I had deconstructed in undergrad — and now I need to relearn how to be a whole new person. One who does things instead of thinks things, one whose identity is connected intimately to whom one works for.
This is because we pretend it is a choice who we work for and why — have we not been directed through life’s strange twists and turns to end up in a place if only because chance made it so? That you met so-and-so doing something connected to what you do, or that your friend introduced you to someone who happens to have some money set aside for an intern — these are the ways we get jobs, not because we actively search for something that fulfills our identity. This is the way I have gotten jobs — only because I have proven myself to the right/wrong people at the right/wrong time.
It is a strange thing, then, that we place so much value in where someone chooses to make their living. We ask about it at parties, or assume that it must be announced like a calling card on social media. It must go after my name in every email I send out — I am inextricably connected to what I do. Even after I am much older, should I ever decide to leave what I do even though it is fulfilling, it will live on my resume as a stamp of my life as a 27-year-old. You did “x” for “x number of years” and that’s how we will define you.
The only act in connection to work that has ever proven my identity is leaving a job — ceremoniously and at a young, impressionable age. The leaving was the act of being myself. The leaving is what led to everything that came afterwards. The leaving was the key to my success. When I tell some relative much later in life how to feel alive, I will tell them to quit their job in the way I did: without any regard to the consequences. Quit when you know you can’t take it anymore, and then revel in your poverty, for it was your own choosing.
Of course, I could never imagine giving such advice now — not when I know too deeply and too recently what it feels like to see bright red numbers and an unfortunately placed “-” on my bank statement.
Unlike my sister, who works as an accountant, I have found that the kinds of jobs I’ve had expect me to envelope myself in them. In most cases, I have not minded this expectation. I am accustomed to enveloping myself in things — it is how I exist best. In college, it was maybe listening to certain kinds of music or reading certain books. In graduate school, it was my research and exploration of young Muslim women living in Pakistan.
Such a life is only worth living if you believe in what you envelope yourself in. And such was my perception of crisis in my transition from student to worker that I met with my thesis advisor at first notice to go over the potential PhD programs to which I should apply. In recent conversations with him, I have confessed my own doubt and apprehension in my work. To this he replied: what is your project?
And to that, I thought, I have too many.
Having been raised to be creatively-focused, I find the most challenging aspect of my job is not the expectation of bringing ideas forward or challenging my bosses, but rather the expectation of hyper-productivity. I had never judged myself before on how much work I could accomplish in a day, only the quality of said work. To be judged on both now is a challenge I have never encountered before. As much as I try to welcome such a challenge with open arms, I find that I am often seeing my own flaws in a way that makes me resent what I used to do and who I used to be. That I could have spent all that time learning how to be better at what I do now and didn’t — that I had wasted so much of my life not being a good enough or fast enough worker.
I resent those who are able to work in the creative field even more than I resent myself. I recall especially a talk I attended a year ago with Zadie Smith, a much beloved author, who said that she could spend at maximum about four hours per day writing. What I actually resent is not that she requires only four hours per day to write amazing works of literature, but rather her financial ability to live her life comfortably while working however many hours she chooses to.
When my mother turned 50 — a few years ago now — she told me over the phone that everything she thought she knew about herself was so little compared to what she knew now in her middle age. Her role as a mother, as an immigrant, as a woman – all of these things made such little sense to her when she was my age. Even in my struggle for instant satisfaction as a millennial, I hold very closely onto this notion. That one day, I too will be a slightly wrinkled 50-year-old woman who will look back on my life with the solid understanding of where I have been and where I will be then.
Hafsa Arain is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her twitter here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her childhood.
Paintings by Kate Shaw.
“Actually” – Rozi Plain (mp3)
“Best Team” – Rozi Plain (mp3)