Work to Live: A Cautionary Tale

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I’m a bonehead to admit this, but I live to work.

I became aware of this obsession with work while spending time in the Galápagos. Going there began as an escape from real life—I’d just lost my job—but, once separated from the urban hustle and bustle, I started to miss conveniences like high-speed Internet and access to viral cat videos. I had no distractions or work to hide behind. So, like a junkie, I went into complete withdrawal.

In fact, I’d been running on empty for a long time. It wasn’t until my Darwinian tour in the Galápagos that I had time to slow down and reflect. As I turned inward to face the fumes, it finally hit me that my identity revolved around accomplishment; without it I didn’t know who I was.

An early example of my desire to make it work occurred in high school. A college counselor dissuaded my artistic interest in Advanced Placement Art; a college level course that didn’t yet exist in our school. If I passed the AP course exam, it would become transferable credit and cut my future college course load and maybe even the price of tuition, but ironically enough, said counselor thought without the class it was a fool’s errand.

I’m not one to go down without a fight, and my culturally* crafted DNA that has one eye on practicality kicked in. I knew I had no chance of attending college without a grant or scholarship, so I did some research and discovered that it was possible to take the AP exam without having taken the class, as long as you submitted a portfolio.

I live for these types of challenges.

Circumnavigating the school system with tacit understanding from an art teacher, I took a sign-making class and, instead of painting banners for the school’s sports games, homecoming and prom, I composed chiaroscuro, perspective and still life drawings. Meanwhile, my father bought me my first camera so I could figure out how to take slides of the artwork to submit.

That year, I was the only student in Woodrow Wilson High to pass the AP Art exam. Granted, I was the only person stubborn enough to take it.

It’s this type of work ethic—not talent, I admit—that has served me well over the years. It invariably manifested itself as a means of validation during my twenties while living in New York. When the Gansevoort Street start-up I worked for snagged a celebrity request to adapt the collection’s patent leather waist belts into guitar straps, I was dispatched to Guitar Center to do research. Then I worked overnight to complete a redesign of the original pattern and collaborated with a leather sample maker to deliver the finished pieces in time for the performance.

I consider this to be my major contribution to the world’s Dixie Chicks.

There were also times at another joint when our team’s life revolved around our design director, who was always coming back on late flights and spewing directions, which consequently led to overnight work loads and many sleepless nights. Although these incidents were filled with excitement and adrenaline-filled moments, they slowly chipped away at my confidence in building a normal, well-balanced life.

Work ran my life so much that I started to dread vacation days. I had no idea what to do with myself since I never cut out time to think about myself; a dangerous mentality for a soon to be 30-year-old.

I was missing the point of work altogether, and my relationships were suffering because of it. I’d multitask while talking to folks and wind up missing key moments in their lives. I wouldn’t be present during conversations with sister and boyfriends because my focus was on work. I even skipped my grandfather’s funeral because of a deadline. I simply didn’t know where I was going, and work became the excuse.

I was pretty burned out by the time I landed on Baltra Island in the Galápagos. I was finally honoring the promise I’d made to myself to explore and see what inspired Charles Darwin’s ode to Survival of the Fittest**, but mostly, I needed an escape.

It turns out Darwin did not have the idea for The Origin of Species until returning to England much later. He spent a mere five weeks in the Galápagos during his five-year world voyage on the Beagle, but I guess it was enough time to influence him deeply. While my circumstances differ from Darwin’s, the islands had a similar effect on me.

While there, I taught English to Spanish kids. Operating on little to no Spanish skills, I took pleasure in seeing their faces light with comprehension and, consequently, unexpected joy. I snorkeled for the first time and picked up swimming (not the other way around) in the middle of the ocean. I celebrated New Years Eve by kissing and dancing with strangers on a soccer field; a night that resulted in some solid, long-distance friendships. I spent many evenings trading stories at Baqueros, a local watering hole, and realized that while we all wander, not everyone is lost.

I learned a lot about myself during that trip, more than I learned about Darwin or the islands themselves. I discovered that I’d been avoiding the fullness of life and using work as an excuse for way too long.

At one point while stationed with a host family on San Cristobal Island, living and interacting among the kindness of strangers, I began to remember how to live and feel again. Taking note from the creatures there—iguanas, pelicans, and sea lions, who all absorb the sun before feeding in the ocean— I finally stopped, stuck my toes in the sand, and enjoyed the feeling of existence.

A wise woman once said: “Life is a movie, but there’ll never be a sequel.” Like a movie, we have no control over what sort of footage will turn up in the dailies, but we do have a say in what the beats will be about. While we have limited time and only one shot to shoot the scenes, it’s our responsibility to narrate our story.

I suppose you think this means I’ve figured it out. Far from it. People are rarely straightforward enough to take one experience and find unwavering truth. I am merely on the next leg of my journey. At times I may lose visibility, detour, and hit a pothole or two, but at least my outlook on work has been redefined.

I haven’t lost my drive or need to work, but I want to allow time to work on myself. I want to be more understanding of others. We work to pay our financial debts—our credit card bills, mortgage, rent, and taxes—but sometimes in the process we forget the people around us and rack up an emotional debt. I want to work so the emotional debts I’ve accumulated with loved ones do not stay in deficit. For what riches of the world am I working for if I don’t take the time to use them?

There is this general perception that there isn’t enough time. If you don’t make time, then you’re a slave to that perception. I don’t want to be a slave any longer, and I hope wherever I may roam, the fullness of life will follow.


*Most Asian parent’s idea of being practical aside from asking, “Is there a cheaper way?” is to become a banker, doctor or lawyer. For ultimately going into fashion, you could say I’m a bit of a black sheep in the family.

**Charles Darwin didn’t coin the term Survival of the Fittest, English philosopher Herbert Spencer is credited with that honor. Darwin agreed with Spencer’s assessment and updated Chapter 4 in the fifth edition of The Origin of Species, replacing Natural Selection with Survival of the Fittest.

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