Turns out, I am a Validation Monster. I crave it, feed off it and sometimes feel like I can’t devour enough. I thrive on in-person communication, collaborating with others and, when I do a good job, someone telling me that my work is good. I appreciate a good nod, a heartening “mmm-hmmm” or even a chuckle from a colleague.
Right now, however, I work alone at my kitchen table, or at the small hand-me-down Pottery Barn desk in the corner of the living room behind the couch, or in the space I have carved out inside the storage closet of my house on a military base. My current solo work lifestyle is dictated by orders the U.S. Navy gives to my spouse. You know the old adage, “Join the Navy, see the inside of a storage closet.”
My previous office was the guest room in our creaky old house in Norfolk, Virginia. The window looked out over the postage stamp-sized backyard. I could see into the neighbors beautiful manicured lawn beyond our back fence, and if I stood up and looked out the window to the left, I could watch squirrels chase each other on the roof of our tipsy once-a-garage-turned-garden-shed and the fig tree dropping fruit on the parking patch. I hardly worked there in earnest, more often I was tucked into the living room couch, glancing over my shoulder watching my son organize his Thomas trains in the formal dining room we had turned into a walk-in toy box.
Before all that I used to work in real offices inside of buildings full of them. At my last office job, I had a desk full of tchotchkes and a dirty coffee cup and a drawer full of high heels for really important meetings. There was an Anne Coulter doll someone ditched on my desk that I re-homed again in a prank on my last day on the job. I was nine-months pregnant at the time, and my husband and I were planning our first military move.
The next part of my story is not entirely unfamiliar to professionals who upset their careers to start a family or support a spouse. There has been plenty written which laments the trials of default parents finding themselves after leaving an organized professional life, and plenty written about the challenges of the nomadic military life. I won’t add a manifesto of my own here, instead I’ll share a few notes.
In one sense, working alone and remote can be freeing, since I can suspend all judgment or self-doubt that might stem from a sour look on someone’s face during an in-person conversation. That sour look could be gas for all I know, but it can keep me questioning. On the other hand, when I don’t have the interactive experience of standing with someone and talking with them, watching them respond positively through their body language and other minor responses, I start to fill in the story myself. It’s starts as a choose-your-own-adventure with plenty of good or bad outcomes, but I almost always select the storyline where I end up marooned on a desert island as the pirates sail away with the lost treasures of Atlantis.
When I worked remotely as the family page editor for CSMonitor.com, I was convinced that someone was reviewing my posts and declining page views in real time in the open bullpen of the newsroom, calling over other colleagues to witness the absolute train wreck unfolding in front of their eyes. Things moved fast, one story to the next, and I didn’t expect anyone to hold my hand and make sure I felt secure. Turns out this freedom to operate without close management terrified me, so much so that I even tried to quit twice, convinced I was single-handedly ruining the page. My senior editor, a friend and a seasoned journalist, gently refused my resignation. He shared that my fears were similar to many others working in the newsroom and that, despite my conviction, I was hanging in just fine amidst the ever-changing model of online news.
Recently, I accepted two projects as a marketing consultant from a new client with a turnaround of less than three business days. I accepted, prepared what I could based on the information I had, and trusted my instincts. I shared my work via Google Docs, and assumed I’d never see direct feedback from the companies for which the projects were designed. I was wrong.
Like a detective watching through a one-way mirror as a mass-murderer makes a detailed confession (“Then I strung her fingernails on a necklace made of hair…”), I watched in horror as a document I created was shared with a team of executives–my client’s client–for edits. The edits were helpful and smart. Smart enough I wish I had thought of them. Why didn’t I think of them?!? Festooned with doubt and a mad case of Monday-morning-quarterbacking, I assumed the worst, closed the document and slunked away from my computer. Now, logic would point out that three days earlier I didn’t know the company even existed, so I should be a little more forgiving. But when the Validation Monster is hungry, logic could be considered as filling as a crudité with hummus (Really people–Ranch–the sauce is always Ranch. I’m not a survivalist.). As I write this, I have yet to hear back on what my client thought of my projects. Perhaps I’ll find out if my invoice doesn’t get paid. That won’t happen, and I know it won’t, but in the meantime I will nervously nibble on a carrot.
To out shout my inner critic after this recent project, I took out my notebook and made a list of lessons I learned at Wilder. Wilder is a running and writing retreat led by Marianne Elliott, a writer and social activist, and Lauren Fleshman, a retired pro-runner and entrepreneur. I gathered with a few dozen other women at an arts center in the Oregon wilderness and for four days we wrote and ran a lot. Through these activities we explored self-doubt and frustration and fear and in the space of the retreat, I re-gained a beautiful confidence I have not felt in some time.
Here are lessons I listed:
- Surround yourself with people seeking the same adventures and experiences. Oftentimes that will be validation enough, to know that your passions and fears are shared.
- Force yourself to listen, and listen more, and stop nodding or mmm hmmm-ing or agreeing or disagreeing with your posture. Just listen with chest wide and eyes open. (This point clearly negates my previously explained position on appreciating in person feedback. Mind blown.)
- Take off your watch, turn off your phone and challenge yourself to go on feel. Do this when you feel you need to stop and listen to your breath. Be confident enough to know it will all be there when you come back.
- Realize that at your most tired you are producing surprisingly good things. Important ideas come out of exhaustion.
- Don’t get starstruck, and don’t be envious. Absolutely everyone is striving for something they wish they weren’t trying so hard for, and everyone is working against the same childish taunts inside that tell them nobody cares.
- Have a childlike trust in the bigger picture. You don’t have to see the final step and where it all leads.
- Take joy in uncertainty, shake up your senses—this can be basic–listen to your breath, think about the weight and motion of a pen in your hand, or consider other simple actions you take for granted.
- Try running on new trails with roots and rocks instead of the same old roads. Know that on those trails, everyone is stubbing their toe on the rocks. You aren’t clumsy, you are real and you are making an impact.
This list was a Philly Cheesesteak for my monster. I don’t think the hunger will subside entirely, I am still too young (ask me again at 90) and when I have more remote work under my belt (hint, cough, cough, I’m open for business), but I plan to keep this list handy and build to it as I learn.