My Most Important Work

12292857216_da660329c9_z I'm having a realization as I stare at my iPhone's calendar, full of dots that represent meetings, events, obligations, get-togethers, classes, and appointments.

It's a slightly scratchy feeling that gnaws at the spots I can't reach with my arms as I buzz through my days. Days sucked dry with all the waking, walking the dog, ironing, packing lunches and changes of clothes, eating, commuting, teaching, emailing, texting, social media-ing, eating, reading, studying, working out, driving, class-ing, grocery shopping, laundry-ing, and...more eating.

That feeling, I know, originates from my to-do list (my to- do lists, more accurately) and crawls around my skin and at just the right moment, when I've stopped to catch my breath or close my heavy eyelids, I hear it say:

You can't get all of this done.

The worst part?

It's right.

If anyone is need of some space, some margin--it's me. I like to keep telling myself that it's because of grad school, that this is just a season that will be over at some point. However valid or not that reasoning is, the fact remains that I can't, and I won't, get everything done.

As much as that bothers me, as much as I hate the feeling of incomplete tasks and the cackling jeers of unchecked items on my to-do lists, I've come to a place of calm in my chaos. It's not resignation; it's more like fog lights that cut through the morning mist enough to allow me to see just enough to move forward. In this season of plenty-to-do, there's one question I've been asking myself and using as my north star:

What is my most important work?

It's a crucial question for me. For a while now, I've been privileged to not have to deal with the problem of not having work. Instead, I have the challenge of never-ending work. The piles of tasks I have seem to regenerate faster than the rate at which I make them disappear, and a line has formed out the door.

Rather than tackle these tasks the way a restaurant kitchen would handle its food tickets--one at a time, in chronological order--I've spent a lot of time asking myself what's most important, and devote my energy to that first. Why? Because when this season of life is over for me--in six months, a year, two years, or whenever--I don't want to look back and realize that I neglected what actually mattered.

So what is my most important work?

It's taken me years of working through trials and errors, getting lost, chasing the wind, disappointments, heartbreak, selfishness, pride, foolish ambitions, blind optimism and reeling cynicism, sky-high triumphs and rock-bottom failures, abundance and near-poverty, company and loneliness--to realize that my most important work is people.

Achievement can be great. Accolades can be great. Awards and accomplishments and all that jazz can be great.

But God forbid that a student comes into my class in September, leaves in June, and never hears me say, "Good job." Never hears me say, "I believe in you." Never knows what it feels like to have someone who is rooting for them.

God forbid that I lead a group of people and they never know that I am for them. That I care more about who they are than what they can do for me.

God forbid that I arrive in one piece at the end of this season of plenty-to-do and a friend has slowly fallen apart and hasn't heard me once ask, "What is going on with you? What challenges do you have right now? How can I help?"

God forbid that I waste my words trying to promote myself, or criticizing people, or spreading cynicism, when I've been given such power to bring light and hope in what I say and write.

God forbid that I reach some goal of mine, pay off my debts, build my platform, publish my work, improve my students' test scores, speak about some important topic, play some decent music, but have the people who are important to me not know what it's like to experience my love for them.

What a tragedy I'd have on my hands.

What a shame it would be to have missed the forest for the trees.

How long it's taken me to realize what my important work is...and how sad it would be for me to neglect it, knowing what I know.

In this season of plenty-to-do, I will undoubtedly make mistakes. I will allow certain tasks to slip through the cracks. I will disappoint someone at some point. All of this will grieve me to some extent.

But it's nothing compared to the grief I'll feel if I look back and my most important work hasn't been done.

Cutting through the chaos, shining through the fog, singing a melody over the noise, are the beating hearts of the people I care about and am privileged to have in my life.

They are my work.

You are my work.

I hope I get that job done.

What about you? What's your most important work?

Feature photo ©2014 Ingrid Eulenfan | Flickr

The Michelada and the Dream Myth

After a morning in which I slept in and then recklessly mauled his neck with a set of hair clippers, my friend and I arrived hopelessly late to a popular brunch spot in Manhattan's Lower East Side which turned us down at 1:00 p.m. even though it closed at 6:00. This led to us finding Fonda, a Mexican spot down the street, and me having a showdown with a drink that I saw dancing a bit on the page of the menu:


The Michelada: Your choice of beer mixed with lime juice, hot sauce and chile rim.

My eyes gleamed with the flame of adventure. I looked at my friend and said, "I have to try this."

The waiter set down a glass of swirling crimson liquid with chile that lined the rim like glowing embers. He poured a bottle of Pacifico into the hot sauce, and the volcanic mix foamed its way to the top of the glass. A smile of thirsty wonder and fear grew on my face.


The Michelada is now filed under Decisions I Don't Regret but Will Never Do Again. It joins a large company of other decisions I've made, though none quite so...burn-y.

That chile-laced decision came this past Saturday, not too long after a conversation I had with some friends about dreams. More than one of my friends expressed that they didn't really have a dream. The dream. The one that keeps them up at night. The one they doodled about in their 5th grade notebook or tattooed on their ankle during a missions trip to Mexico.

They're still searching for that rare breed of dream that seems more myth than reality. When you reach a certain age, it seems like we should have this figured out by now, right? Something that Bob Goff wrote in his book Love Does about doing and not just dreaming got me thinking: Maybe we don't find our dreams; maybe our dreams find us.

We can spend years, most of our lives, fretting over what our dreams could or should be. We stare at the article about clean water in Africa and try to suck the passion out of the screen and into our hearts. We think about TOMS Shoes and wish we would have thought of that idea first. We want to convince ourselves we should sell all of our stuff and live in the slums of India. Then we get honest with ourselves and think, I just don't want to do that.

In the meantime, we do nothing. We're too scared to step out into any endeavor because we don't have the proper passion, vision, or dream to justify it. What if I take that job, move to that place, volunteer for this organization, meet up with those people, and discover it's not the stuff dreams are made of?

We need to learn to simply do and be okay with the fact that it might not be our dream. In fact, we might hate it. But now we know it's something we don't want to do, and that's one step closer to clarity. On the other hand, we may discover we love it, but we have to take the chance to risk in the first place.

After moving to Philadelphia, I decided to teach in the inner city--not because of some mystical calling or childhood dream to be Sidney Poitier or Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank. I simply wanted to see what it was like. By the end of the year, I had experienced a class that had no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, mice crawling around the rafters, flying cockroaches, emotionally disturbed students who never took their meds and didn't have the proper support, broken kids from broken homes, but beautiful kids who somehow made me smile as much as they made me yell.

Ultimately, at the end of the year, I realized it wasn't for me. I don't regret that time at all--it was one more adjustment to the lenses of my life. I could see a bit clearer.

When we stop stalling in life while we wait on a magical phone call from Destiny or a telegram from the Dream Factory and we simply do something, we move in a positive direction. Even when we end up hating the thing we do. We scratch it off the list, we readjust, and we take the next step with one more piece of valuable knowledge under our belts.

Maybe we need to reframe how we think about dreams. Too many people I know have stumbled into their dreams rather than chased them down. This happens with jobs, relationships, and passions. It leads me to think that dreams are less a white whale that eludes us as we frantically search to capture and club it into submission. Dreams are more the aroma that rises and fills our nostrils while we cook something in our very own kitchen. They bubble up around us as we do the things we do.

We simply need the courage to step out and try something new every once in a while and the courage to walk away if we realize it's not for us. Slowly but surely, or perhaps out of nowhere one day, our dreams will find us even in places we didn't expect to meet.


The Michelada will haunt me for years to come, I suspect. I'll wake in the middle of the night fearing that my mouth and my entire digestive system are set ablaze. But I will not regret the decision to try it. The next time we go to Fonda, I'll have eleven drinks to choose from instead of twelve.

I like those odds.


I'd love to hear your stories of what you'd file under Decisions I Don't Regret but Will Never Do Again, or how you've come to discover what is or is not your dream.

What do ya got?