what's the value of nothing - midlife intermission - jessica petty

What’s the value of nothing?

This week I found myself sitting across the table from a new acquaintance, a woman in the same role working for a different nonprofit…

My intention when I proposed the lunch was to follow-up from a shared workshop experience and hopefully begin to establish a new professional network in this unfamiliar world of work – that just happens to do good.

To my surprise in the month that had elapsed since our initial meeting over PowerPoints and leadership exercises, she had seen several signs that she was in the wrong place professionally and she declared, “Guess what? I gave my notice on Monday – July 16th is my last day. Oh, and I have no idea what I want to do next”.

Had I just traveled in time back to 2017? Was this some weird glitch in the Matrix?

As I listened to this kindred spirit oozing her A-type energy all over the chips and salsa, I tried to figure out what to say to her without projecting my own story and my own journey onto hers. Mid-life transition is personal, it’s heady work, it’s unique and lacks an exact path to discovery.

What would I say if she asked for my advice?

In the final months of the sabbatical I became even more introspective. I wrote more in my journal and very little on the blog, I talked less about my plans, and spent more time quietly analyzing the experience. With the end drawing near, I wanted to make sure I got it all, saw it all clearly and that it was fully absorbed. I needed to be a sponge and soak up every life-giving moment and realization because my biggest fear was (is) that I’d just had a really fun year but not too far into the future, I’d be back to my old ways of over-productivity on the path to a mediocre life of too much stress and not enough sparkle.

The words of a sales manager (not his own but ones he preached fervently) from early in my career kept coming up… “Price is only an issue in the absence of value”.

In those introspective moments, I realized that the value I had given to activity far exceeded the value I attached to rest or personal investment, further fueling my price objection.

“Of course, I love reading but let’s get real – I can’t justify that indulgence outside of vacation because I’m way too busy. There are weeds and dust and emails to get to and reading is a luxury I can’t afford”.

Even though bookstores and libraries are some of my favorite places to be in the entire world, I rarely went before my sabbatical. And even though in those bookstores, I bought books like Thrive written by the once exhausted executive Arianna Huffington, who preached about meditation and self-care and the much sought after – but elusive – quality sleep and I logically understood the value being touted, I couldn’t make the commitment. I’d put the idea into the cart but I wasn’t ready to hit ‘buy’.

What I couldn’t figure out was if the cost of things like long walks and reading really great nonfiction in a comfy chair in my favorite room of the house and meditation in a yoga class with a community of really wonderful but equally, perfectly flawed women actually fit into my budget. What was the return on my investment?

When we reached the point in the conversation where she asked for my advice on her pause and pivot in life, I first asked her a question… “Do you have a list of things you’d like to do on your time off?” I knew the answer of course. Predictively, clean closets and an organized house that Martha would envy were on there. I had that list tucked away somewhere too.

“What’s the value of having those things? Are there other things you could do – or not do – that may possibly have value too?”

Universally, we all say similar things about practicing more altruism, being happier, finding more connection and realizing our purpose in life.

What I learned about myself is that to get more connection, more clarity, more peace of mind, I had to stop. I had to decrease my appraisal of what being busy and productive gave me and increase the value I place on doing nothing.

Because connection with others is so often not about what we say or do, it’s about listening. It’s about saying nothing.

If we want more connection with our inner voice and desires, we have to stop spinning. When we sit and force ourselves into the uncomfortable space of silence (for me this was particularly painful in the beginning), it means we remove expectations. Productivity in this scenario is measured merely on the ability to do nothing. To just be.

For me, having a happy life means I still need to feed my A-type tendencies and slay those to-do lists on a regular basis. The value I see in a job well done and drive for success is still incredibly high.

What I learned on my sabbatical is that the value of rest is just as high and at certain points in life, even higher.

The glitch in the Matrix didn’t change me into someone who is stripped of ambition or a genuine – perhaps sick – love of completing to-do lists. It just means that my life’s list now includes time to rest.

My advice at lunch this week? “Add ‘regularly do nothing’ to your list.”

2 Comments
  • Jiggy
    Posted at 18:31h, 08 July Reply

    Jess, your intraspection on your sabbatical as well as your ability to explain it to us that follow you is awesome! Mad respect girl!

    • Jess Petty
      Posted at 19:23h, 08 July Reply

      Sir Smith – I think you and I had a reminder not too long ago about the speed of life and the importance of leaving it on all on the table. I am thankful for friends like you and appreciate the kind words so much!

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