The word that sums up New York is "achieve," says Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. This is based on her Italian friend's theory that every city has one word that describes the thoughts of most of its inhabitants. (Rome's is sex, her friend says.) I think most busy, on-the-go New Yorkers would agree that achieve, a verb, describes us to a T. Is it possible to live in this city and step outside of achieve? These have been my thoughts ever since I left my job at the end of last summer and became a temp.
At 33, I have achieved quite a lot. I've had many successful jobs and worked my way up to increasingly fancier titles. I went from being an intern to having interns. I'm one of the founders of a nonprofit for girls and music, and I've achieved a healthy amount of satisfaction with my own music playing. When I became unemployed in August, I asked myself what I was doing back at a place I thought I had left behind in my early 20s -- the great unknown. Instead of feeling bad about it, as I did back then, I decided to flirt with "unachieve" for awhile, standing still, being no one in particular, doing nothing in particular that would define me during this period of growth and transition. I started to tell people I was "in between" and that has suited me surprisingly well.
I saved up some money to help with this in between period but that eventually ran out so I turned to what I did during those years after college, temping. Temping is a great way to get a paycheck quickly. It is also quite humbling, I discovered, for someone who has achieved a lot.
At my first temp assignment at a large international nonprofit I played the part of Executive Assistant to a senior VP. The phone rang and I answered it. I created telephone logs and learned to make labels on a nifty machine. For the first time in my life, I made coffee for two men. (Did I mention I have a Masters in Women's and Gender Studies?) I also ordered a meatloaf sandwich for my boss and brought him a fork. He thanked me kindly as if I was doing him a favor. Suddenly I had a new identity -- the temp, and I began to question what that meant.
One morning checking in at the security desk downstairs, one guard said to another, "She's just a temp," meaning I wouldn't need a long-term security pass. "Just a temp?" I thought. Clearly I am not just a temp, but then what am I? I didn't see myself as a writer, actor or performer who had an alternative identity and was just temping to make money. This is what I did at the moment. Did that mean it was who I am?
At my next assignment inside corporate America I had the opportunity to explore this further. I was given a new identity complete with a photo ID of myself with the MetLife Building in the background. The woman I was filling in for trained me for a day before her vacation, and left me in tears of dread about the grey office I would return to for two weeks. Her boss, now my boss, was a handful. Suzanne fax this, Suzanne re-do these envelopes, Suzanne do you mind taking these diet Coke cans to the kitchen? He piled on the work and treated me as if I had been there for years, and would continue to be there for years at his beck and call. Didn't he know this was me not achieving but being in between?
An office voodoo doll stared out at me those two weeks from its box on my desk, a gift from a co-worker to the woman whose desk I sat at. I opened it once and felt guilty about even contemplating its application but it somehow brought me comfort. So did the looks of sympathy I received when I told friendly people in the kitchen who I worked for.
I survived this job by not thinking too far ahead, and by appreciating the little things -- the 3pm snacks, for example, that were put out in the kitchen. Fruit and chips or granola bars every day of the week except Friday when there was no fruit, as if that was a special treat.
What is great about temping is that you gain a glimpse of someone else's life at someone else's desk. You get to be someone else for one week or three weeks, and then just in time when you've had enough, they return and you get to be you again. (I have never had more respect for secretaries, administrative assistants and executive assistants than when I did these temp assignments.) Right now I have a fulfilling long-term temporary position that is 3 days/week and allows me the freedom to try out a new persona but break away from that 2 days/week to just be me again.
So I would say, yes, it's possible to step outside of achieve for awhile in this city. People don't really know what to make of you -- they want to classify, label, categorize you -- but if you don't classify, label or categorize yourself, then they will never quite know how to make sense of you. It's fun.
Over these past few months I learned that not only am I not just a temp, I'm also not just the jobs with the fancy titles I've had or will have. I can leave those behind at a moment's notice and still be content with who I am. Similarly, if we define ourselves only by what we are achieving, we set ourselves up for disappointment or dissatisfaction with the moments of life when we are just being.
I think that it would be nice if New Yorkers collectively stood still briefly once in awhile. Perhaps each day at say, 3 p.m. We could shut off our cell phones, blackberries and email, drink a cup of tea, stare out the window and just be for a moment. No need to worry, achieve will be there waiting for us a moment later.
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