Work-life balance? What’s that in your 20s? I didn’t think I needed it. I didn’t even consider it. Not when I was willing to ditch the States to “make it or break it” overseas.
Emphasis on “break it.”
In June 2011 I sold “Tima,” my beloved 2001 Nissan Altima, shipped most of my belongings home to Virginia and took a one-way trip from Los Angeles to Panama City. My plan was to become fluent in Spanish while teaching English and dance, connect with my mother’s Panamanian heritage … and eat gloriously.
No, I had never been to Panama, taught English, been instructed in Spanish or lived abroad. But an addiction to adventure; a love of words; and years of hip-hop, jazz and ballet training in Virginia, Los Angeles and New York had me feeling pretty prepared for this life of firsts in the Plátano Belt.
Within two weeks, I was helping a few dozen señoras sweat it out to salsa, calypso, samba, hip-hop, dancehall and cumbia in a Zumba-adjacent cardio-dance class at a fitness studio twice per week. That, while studying español at the University of Panama and tending to a handful of private English classes juuuust far enough apart to inspire daily chaos.
Months later, I formed Panamerican Languages and hired four nice, clean, English-as-a-second-language teachers in an effort to attract more luchini. By then I was teaching a total of nine CardioDance and hip-hop dance classes weekly, on top of coaching my personal English students to linguistic greatness. And eating gloriously. Mom and Dad: Proud.
But I didn’t know how to unplug. I offered to do makeup classes on Saturdays and Sundays instead of exploring Panama’s beauty. I was the guy who often opted to stay in the comforting embrace of strong Wi-Fi, reachable by my clients and employees, rather than head to la playa for the weekend to dance, drink Ron Abuelo, and be loud and ultrablack with the homies.
My work-life balance was lopsided as hell. I reasoned, if I wasn’t constantly working, the operation would collapse and there’d be no money for those glorious meals. If you asked me how I was then, I’d say, invariably, “Busy!” Like so many of my peers, I spent years oddly proud about being stretched thin, normalizing and romanticizing overwork and prolonged stress. I was “hustling,” doing what I loved while putting my clients and bills before me.
After about two years, the relentless grind wore me out. Eventually I hated teaching. I lost interest in dancing and growing my business. My health suffered.
When you begin to lose motivation for work and activities that you normally enjoy, and disinterest sets in, it’s time for a change. Escaping to New Orleans for a few months helped me recharge. If falling off the grid isn’t an option for undoing physical and emotional exhaustion or addressing the increasing irritability, detachment and anxiety in your life, consider a few of these pointers for keeping it together when your soul is weary:
Clock out when necessary. Contending with family, work and melanin maintenance can be spiritually taxing, so carving out downtime to recharge is essential. Turning off email and social media notifications on your phone does wonders. Meditate. Take a solo vocation to Brazil. Even St. Damita Jo Jackson takes a break from inspiring R&B wishes and superstar dreams to play UNO with LaToya on occasion.
Embrace the power of “no.” Know that skipping dinner with friends for a quiet night at home doesn’t make you a monster. Whether it’s a baby shower, a project or a trip to the beach on Jackie Washington Day, saying yes to everyone and everything can be draining. You’re one person. You’ll be surprised how few people explode after being told “no.”
Stay in your lane. It’s normal to want to project success and occasionally judge your progress against that of your peers, especially as part of Generation “Bussit Open for a Retweet.” Don’t fret over the accomplishments of others. Pro tip: Playing “Keeping up with the Knowleses for the ’Gram” is a full-time job that pays piss-poor wages. Besides, the struggle may, in fact, be strugglier on the other side.
Develop interests outside of your job, household or relationship. A harmonious balance between responsibility and leisure is key. Get a hobby. Learn a language. Do something not tied to your profession, especially if you regularly take your work home with you. Your sanity will thank you later.
Stop chasing perfection. It’s profoundly futile. You’ll never have enough money saved. You’ll always find something to fix on your résumé, website or face. Itching to lose it? Seek flawlessness and cue the madness. No, seriously—perfectionism can lead to anxiety, workaholism, depression and even suicide. Chill.
It’s important to be bold, take leaps and work hard during these youthful, often unencumbered years. Amid the brand building, the socialiting and the hustle to move Mama out of the hood and flourish Theo Huxtably in the age of Obama, remember: That “They sleep, we grind” mentality will have you looking 45 at 25, burned out at 30 and dropping dead from “exhaustion” by 35. Don’t let the InstaMoguls fool you: It’s totally fine to sit the hell down for the sake of self-preservation.
And drink more water.
Alexander Hardy is an Afro-Panamanian writer, foodie and teacher who divides his time between plotting meals; running his blog, the Colored Boy; and slinging words across internet land on sites like Gawker, Saint Heron and Very Smart Brothas, where he works as a senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.