Sunday, March 20, 2011

from the BRG archives: It's not brain surgery

Back in July 2002, my company relocated us from Boston to New York (us as in the Children's Division, Bulfinch Press, International, and Production--42 positions in all). Leading up to the move and afterwards as well we were neck-deep in work and behind all of our schedules because of the move and all that entailed: time off for people to search for apartments, for the actual move, distraction because of all the changes, trying to figure out procedures and who had already done what, because whole departments had to be replaced (of the 42 positions affected, only 12 people made the move) and new people trained. Our submissions piles were sorely overlooked, we were acquiring very few new books, and we all just wanted to make sure that the books that were already on our list were published, and published well.

And then suddenly in the Fall we were down two more people and books were reassigned, even though we were all already overworked. That was a truly stressful time. The first 9 months of moving to NY was a nightmare in terms of work. I would work till 7 or 8 every day (leaving only because I had a significant other waiting at home waiting for me for dinner), would bring work home for me, read manuscripts in bed every night, pile them up under my dusty bed, go into the office almost every weekend. There was a period of a few months that I honestly wondered if I could stay in this job that I had normally loved. And I knew that I had it better than most. My consultant friends and lawyer friends working 60-80 hour weeks, but then again, they were getting paid literally 3 or 4 times as much as I was. I knew I was getting somewhere in my career, but it was all just getting me down. Our concerned and well-meaning HR manager would walk around asking us if we were okay, but we were all so busy that we didn't even want to stop for a moment to answer the question. One day she stopped by my cubicle and asked how I was doing and I just looked at her in a wild, frenzied, "I'm about to cry" way and she said, "Well, remember--it's not brain surgery. Nobody's going to die."

Now, I know she meant well by saying this, but it was the absolute last thing I wanted to hear. I felt that she was denigrading my job, telling me it wasn't important, that nobody would die if I didn't do it. My job WAS important, because so many people's dreams and livelihoods were at stake here. And it was important for me to do a good job, because that's all I knew, that was how I was raised. I hated her at that moment.

But the funny thing is, I say that sentence to myself all the time now. It's not brain surgery. It makes me stress less. (And it made me feel sorry for the real brain surgeons out there.) Nobody is going to die if I don't read this manuscript tonight. Everything can be done tomorrow. Sure, I still get stressed, I still feel guilty if I don't meet my deadlines, I feel bad if I keep an author waiting, or if an agent sends me a snippy email. My job is such a huge, important part of my life, and I feel so blessed to be doing what I do, but it's not worth killing myself over, sacrificing my personal relationships for.

And things got better. I was able to go to my boss and say, "I need to talk to you about my workload" and that was all I needed to say--she knew right away, she was probably wondering what took me so long to complain. "I know. I'm so sorry. We're working on it, we're hiring a new person soon, it will get better." and it did. My new boss now says things like "I don't know how you do all that you do! We need to watch out for signs of burnout with you." When I told my fellow editors from other houses this, they all looked at me, jaws dropped. "I would cry with happiness if my boss said that to me," one said. "Just knowing that she knew what I was going through would make all the difference."

And it does. I know I'm lucky working where I am, doing what I do with the people I work with. I think it every day.

Originally published September 1, 2006


Sangeeta said...

Great post - very inspiring!

Melissa S. said...

Man, way to make me feel guilty for not making the move! :) Many a time I have marveled at all you seem to accomplish in a day - both work AND fun.

MotherReader said...

On another blog, the question asked was the best simple advice you'd ever been given and mine was basically the same as yours. "We're not saving the world here." It's so easy to get caught up in the drama and even the intrinsic Goodness of what we're doing - especially in literature, publishing, and such - that we lose the big picture. Thanks for sharing your experience of it again.