Rant 42 August 2007: Cut and run

It’s 7:30 am and a strange man’s chest hair is in my face. In fact I’ve paid good money for this.

Despite what you might think, dear reader, this is not the next-day consequence of my love for chocolate martinis. No, for the last several months I’ve become increasingly interested in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), a grappling sport that involves me spending most of the time getting my arm ripped out of its socket or having my ass jammed up my nose. Afterwards, my best girlfriend A and I get together and happily compare bruises. Actually I’m not entirely sure why this is fun. But anyway.

The point is, it’s 7:30 am on a weekday and I’m in a class doing something physical that I enjoy. I’ll do it until 8:30, when I’ll have a quick shower, get on my bike, and cycle 15 minutes to work. I might stop for a Starbucks. They know me by now.

This is a new experience for me because, you see, until early June I was a workaholic wage slave spending nearly 15 hours a week commuting to a workplace in an institution where I fit in about as well as a NASCAR dad at a British finishing school.

For five years after finishing my PhD I’d toiled away towards the Great Academic Dream consisting of a job that would give me even more work for the sole reward of job security. And then one day it kind of hit me. I was trudging towards a goal that I didn’t really want, in a system where I wasn’t really happy; working with other overburdened, stressed-out people who were watching the clock and thinking about how they could take early retirement or stress leave, toiling for the sake of toiling. When we’d get together we’d rarely talk about the cool things we were studying: we’d talk about how stressed out we were, the long hours we were working, and how we’d really like to experience this “weekend” concept. Colleagues were dropping like flies from stress related illnesses. One had a heart attack in front of his students. Overwork became a form of one-upwomanship, almost dick waving: I worked 120 hours last week! I’m teaching 7 courses! Oh yeah, well, I just took a job doing field work in Antarctica! I read student papers with one eyeball while I shower, talk on the phone, and read email with the other eyeball!

We weren’t fun. We weren’t nice to each other. We were paranoid as shit. We were buried in paper and meaningless rituals of bureaucracy. We suffered from impostor syndrome. We were on hamster wheels running towards food pellets dangling just out of our reach. Eventually we got so used to the wheel that our owners just took the pellets away and we didn’t notice. We just kept running, or we fought each other for the last few nuggets.

Our workplace, supposedly a celebration of learning, was being reorganized into a celebration of the corporation. A giant Pepsi banner was tacked up over the doorway to the student centre. Students were referred to as “funding units” or “clients”. I realized at one point, somewhere in between applying for my fourth and fifth grant, that I was spending my paid salary time applying for more money; in other words, the place was paying me money so that I could then work to try and get more money to show I was worth the salary. It was like a perpetual motion machine of paperwork. My coworker, a lovely woman with an MBA, appeared in my office in tears one day after someone accused her of stealing precious paper from the photocopier. You’ve come a long way from the agora, baby.

The itchy little voice in my head started picking away at the cracks in my soul ten years ago, during my comprehensive exams. I loved what I was doing and learning. But the more I learned about the inner workings of the institution, the more my allegiance to its values and practices wiggled loose like a painful baby tooth. Machiavelli started to make a whole lot of sense and not just to the Renaissance literature specialists. The more I learned about the gears of the academic machine, the more I wanted to disinfect my brain for knowing it.

A few years later, during a particularly brutal academic job interview, after being raked over the coals, told that my entire worldview was ridiculous and stupid, and asked to justify my pathetically idiotic and unspectacular existence, the unwelcome thought popped into my brain: If they offered me the job right now I wouldn’t take it. I ignored the thought, and all the rest that followed like a gathering flurry of fat sticky snowflakes as I ratcheted up anxious hours of grading, submitting papers to journals, applying for grants, and generally doing all kinds of pointless busywork. At one point, I applied for a job at a university over 100 km away. I could drive that! It wouldn’t be so bad! Sure, Krista, you jackass, spend your salary on a second car so you can drive 200 km a day on Canada’s busiest highway in a country known for its winters.

Looking back at times I wonder if I lost my mind. (Thank heaven that university didn’t even short list me. That was a serious attack of temporary insanity.)

It wasn’t all bad: I had many wonderful moments with delightful students, I learned many valuable skills, and collaborated in intellectually stimulating ways with clever and interesting people. I talked excitedly with engaged students and faculty about ideas and issues. I asked intriguing questions of myself and others. I had a beautiful view of a little wooded area from my office and over the most recent three years watched a family of rabbits grow up, play, and make other rabbits. I considered naming the squirrels who appeared to have distinct personalities, and eventually got over the heart attack of birds thunking into the window. I published two books.

Yet gradually, the sharp edges of my square peg bumped up against the confines of the round hole. I tried smashing that peg in with a hammer. I tried filing away my corners. I tried several angles of entrance. No dice. As an older and wiser person once said to me, “You can’t polish a turd.”

I felt trapped. What was I qualified to do? Nothing. (This is the problem with knowing more and more: you feel you actually know less and less.) If I left, what would that make me? I’d constructed much of my identity around my job. When people said, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m an academic.” Who would I be?

Then opportunity knocked in the form of a downtown job at an organization I’d have killed (or at least whacked someone a few times with a blunt instrument) to work for. When I was offered the position I nearly peed my pants with excitement. They liked me! They really liked me! Their work practices are sane, even generous. The people are smart and not surprisingly all very relaxed. The work is interesting and valuable – and also not surprisingly, it’s fantastic quality because everyone isn’t frantically putting out fires, busy having panic attacks, or spending 100 hours a week melding their asses with their desk chairs. The commute takes less time than an episode of Robot Chicken.

My father, Professor Pop, worried about me leaving the university. “Surely you have mixed feelings?” he asked. “Nope,” I said, without hesitation. And I quit.

I quit. I fucking quit holyjebushereigoaaaaaiieee!! I shut my eyes and jumped.

Landed on my feet. Started running towards a new, entirely unknown destination. And never looked back.

As coincidence would have it, quitting has been on many people’s minds lately. In his August Function and Fitness newsletter, Jonathan Sabar announced he was quitting to go full time as a trainer. In his latest Aggressive Strength newsletter, Mike Mahler talked about the timing to take action. And just a few days ago, one of my favourite blogs wrote about why you should sometimes think very seriously about giving up.

There is a stigma attached to quitting in our society. We are told to make a commitment, not to change horses in midstream, not to cut and run. Winners never quit! Quitters never win! Hard work is its own reward!

Now often, that’s true. Dedication and effort count for a lot. When I was a little kid, I was a pretty good waterskier. Once I fell down in an icky weedy patch of the lake. I wanted to climb back in the boat. My uncle, the boat driver, said no; get up from there and get back on the skis. I was afraid of leeches and the yicky weeds. I cried. But at his insistence, I sat back down on my skis, poked the tips out of the water, hung on to the ropes, and did it. When I am tempted to quit because things get scary or difficult, most of the time I remember that seven year old self. I poke my skis back up out of the water, and give the thumbs up to the boat driver even though teary snot is running down my chin. (Uncle D is wise.)

But sometimes, quitting is the smartest, bravest thing you can do. If you’re beating your head against a wall, are you really that much of a hero if you just keep on doing it as your cranium turns into a pulpy mess? If quitting means taking a bigger risk than hanging in there, which action takes more courage? I get email from people who keep bench pressing after their shoulder’s been turned into meaty coleslaw; who keep plugging away at activities they hate, wondering why fitness isn’t more fun; women who are gifted with muscular bodies but keep trying to starve them away. What I want to say to these people is: quit. Try something else, whether that’s a new activity or a new way of seeing the world. Don’t be who you aren’t. Find your strengths and play to them. Get off the hamster wheel – whatever that looks like to you.

In July, when I showed up at the BJJ class I’d missed for the winter and spring because I’d been too busy with work, the instructor’s grin of pleased surprise was so wide it almost cracked his face in half. Classmates squealed happy hellos of recognition. (This was a serious warm fuzzy, by the way.)

Over the last few weeks I’ve signed up for morning BJJ lessons. I cycle to work. Piece by piece, the crust of stress that seemed rock-hard has been flaking off me. My butterfly guard is improving (slowly). Before work, my peep A and I hit up the Starbucks; I bought a thermal coffee mug that fits on my bike. After work I meet friends for a half litre of Chilean plonk, spicy shrimp and tomatillo stew, and good conversation in a great Mexican restaurant around the corner from my office. I’m filling recycling boxes with all the crap I hoarded. (My aim is to throw out my filing cabinet.) I’m getting re-acquainted with my garden and the weekend and the kind of focus that comes only from singular attention on one thing for an unhurried, uninterrupted period of time.

Last weekend, me and 150 of my closest friends had the privilege of attending a workshop run by BJ Penn.

Me and OMGBFF A kicking ass and taking names with BJ, or at least in close proximity to him.

Along with his usual spectacular display of athleticism he offered some advice that seems appropriate:

  • Don’t forget your base. Always come back to it.
  • Your objective is to escape any unsafe situation.
  • A movement has to be right for you. If it isn’t, figure out how to make it so. Or don’t do it.
  • If you find it blocked, try something else.
  • If you have to make a risky move, make sure you’re punching as you go.

Who am I to argue with the champ?!