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Tell Me Again: What Is the New Normal and Why Do I Have to Get Used to It?

February 2, 2010

There is more to life than increasing its speed. • Mahatma Gandhi

“It’s the new normal and we need to get used to it,” a speaker said recently about the increased expectations and intensification of work, and while I know that there are things I need to get used to because I’m not likely to be able to change them, I also know that I cannot allow my entire life to be overtaken by the demands of whatever it is that is laying claim to my time. I must preserve something for myself.

When you’re in school, you are held hostage to demands on your time, but you also know that you’re giving in to these demands for a purpose and that their hold will soon be loosened as you graduate and move on to your “real” life. Unfortunately, it’s easy to carry these patterns of intense expectation into that real life. That’s why I encourage my students to indulge just a little bit in things that relax them and send them back to their schoolwork refreshed. If you can maintain a balanced connection with your inner self while you’re in school, you’re more likely to approach your career after school in sensible ways. At least that’s my hope. As for me, I sustain myself with pursuits as a poet and artist, with activities that renew my spirit and cannot be purchased for any amount of money.

In September 2001, I was staying at the home of the creative director of Hewlett-Packard’s Santa Barbara facility where I’d been interviewing staff about the kinds of leadership that nurture creativity. I was up early on September 11, going over notes and looking through books in preparation for a brief talk I’d be giving later that day. As I looked through David Whyte’s (2000) Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, I wrote the following excerpt from the book in my journal, wanting to use these words as I talked about the balance of creative and pragmatic demands at work. Whyte is a poet and a Fortune 500 consultant who understands these challenges of integration well:

To preserve a sense of freedom even in the midst of rules and regulations is to preserve a part of our identities free from the strictures and responsibilities of success, career, and corporation. The measure of our continuing individuality in any work is the refusal to be swallowed by our goals, our ambitions, or our company no matter how marvelous they may be. In order to live happily within outer laws, we must have a part of us that goes its own way, that is blessedly outlaw no matter the outward conditions or rewards. A part of us that belongs to a larger world than that defined by our career goals or our retirement accounts. (p. 156)

I’d just finished writing this when my host knocked on the door and yelled, “Get out here! The world is falling apart.” I never gave that talk. For the rest of the day, I watched events unfold on the television and visited with my host after she returned from dismissing staff for the day. We talked about how quickly the world can change and how important it is to be authentically yourself in a world that often seems to wish that you were something else or were doing something else or were prioritizing your life in other ways.

The new normal is insidious. Life becomes overwhelming even as we think we are simply being “normal.” Like the frog dropped into cold water that is slowly heating to boiling we get used to each degree of more until we are near to perishing. This is not normal.

What things do you want to be a normal part of your life, no matter how busy you might be?

I’ve switched the order of things. I used to do my work first and figure I’d do my personal stuff after. I used to call my best girlfriend after I finished my work. Now I’ve reprioritized. I make the call to the people I love, I spend the time with the people I love, and then I do my chores. The amazing thing is, it all gets done anyway.
• Rita Rivest, owner of Sage Hill Spa in Ojai, California, about her post-9/11 epiphany

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