Being Rather Than Doing

One day in April, just as I arrived back in my driveway after my morning walk, I was startled by a large shadow passing overhead. It was the resident neighborhood red-tail hawk headed for a neighbor’s oak tree.  For a moment, I stopped to watch as he perched on a still-bare branch near the top of the tree swiveling his head in search of prey. 

As I headed inside, I stopped to wonder how many times I had failed to notice the red-tail as he soared overhead. That morning I had been thinking about doing rather than being, a topic that has occupied my mind frequently ever since.  I came inside and jotted the following thought in my irregularly-maintained journal:

Thinking about doing instead of being. Too much of my life has been focused on doing.  Accumulating accomplishments like treasures as if an impressive resume would somehow prove my worth in the world, to the world. I want to do less and be more.

As I’ve thought about my compulsion to chalk up accomplishments, I have realized that it’s a habit rooted in my childhood. Starting at the age of nine, I was active in 4-H Club. 4-H is organized around projects such as dairy cattle, public speaking, clothing, and food and nutrition. 4-Hers receive awards based on the breadth, depth, and frequency of their activity in the project, so competing involves charting your activity in your 4-H Record Book: how many times did you give a speech, show your dairy cow, plan and prepare a meal, make a garment? 

I learned a lot of great life skills in 4-H. I became a fearless and effective public speaker.  I learned the value of practice as I made recipes over and over, gradually improving my cooking skills. When Miss Ruby Nell Jeter, my 4-H agent, scolded me for my sloppy button sewing on an otherwise well-made black shirtdress, demonstrating how quickly and easily those buttons would come off, l learned the value of doing quality work—even where it wouldn’t be seen by a fashion show judge. I learned how to organize my time. I became a self-starter and explored how to assemble a curriculum as I organized educational workshops for younger 4-Hers.  

And yes, I learned the importance of keeping careful records. I took great pride in the heft of my record book, one of the thickest in the county. Through my 4-H work, I internalized a belief that my value was tied up in the length of my list of achievements.

That turned out to be good preparation for an academic career where our productivity and abilities are also charted in a list of achievements—a curriculum vitae.  From the first day of graduate school, I began to accumulate my lists: publications, conference papers, book reviews, courses taught, service in professional associations. When I served on search committees, I was impressed by scholars with 25-or 30-page c.v.’s, and I determined to emulate them. A long c.v. seemed to be an indicator of my value, a perception reinforced by my superiors and many of my peers. Peers would say, “I don’t know how you do all you do” in a tone of admiration (sometimes mixed with perhaps a touch of resentment). Deans and presidents showed me off to trustees and alumnae as the poster child of a fine faculty member. And for many years, all this attention motivated me. 

Until the last couple of years when it didn’t any more. When I realized I had forgotten how to just “be,” how to take pleasure in reading a book, watching television, cooking with my husband, spending time with family and friends, or noticing the red-tail hawk. When I was no longer sure whether the people in my life valued me for just being me instead of my impressive c.v. I'm not blaming anyone else for my distorted focus on building my c.v.  I lost track of what I valued in myself and my life.

This summer, I’m devoting myself to a conscious effort to do a lot more being.  Of course, doing still matters. The world would stand still if none of us DID anything, and certainly I can’t launch Heyday Coaching if I give up doing. But I’m focusing on making fewer lists. As I wrote earlier in June, I’ve given up my “to do” list. I’m also trying to give up my “look what I did” list.

Some days, it’s a struggle not to try to pack in four or five activities that I should “do” in favor of spending a little time just being. Maybe you’ve had a similar epiphany in your life.  If so, I’d love to hear your strategies for learning to enjoy just being.