by Jennifer Sey
I had surgery on my mangled ankle about three weeks ago. The doctor went in and removed some trouble-causing bone chips and a boatload of scar tissue in the hopes that injections of magic (into a clean joint) would ease my discomfort enough to get me through a decade without an ankle replacement. I wasn't nervous about the surgery. I'm pretty darned good with pain as evidenced by my ability to walk around and even exercise with grade 4 arthritis for the last ten years.
So it's not the pain of the surgery – the two incisions, the lack of range of motion, the inability to put weight on it – that has me off my game. Somehow I just can't seem to get my mojo back. And by mojo I mean desire to work. To put in the effort. To try really hard to improve at the things I care about.
It's not that I haven't been working in the traditional sense. In fact, I was insistent on getting right back to my day job. I came home after the surgery, slept most of the afternoon and then went into the office the next day. I hobbled in on crutches and tried not to drink too much water because the bathroom is pretty far from my office. It took me a good 10 minutes to get there and boy were my arms tired by the time I did. I had crutches several times as a kid and I don't remember it being so exhausting. But then again, I was a teenager and I weighed about thirty five pounds less than I do now. And I could do 40 pull-ups without blinking so you could say I was pretty strong. Swinging around on crutches was relatively easy compared to hurling myself around the uneven parallel bars. I was often training a day or so after a broken bone, doing what I could do – conditioning exercises and even simple moves with a spotter on the bars. I generally had my cast removed in about half the recommended time so that I could get back to business. But that's why I'm in the situation I'm in now. I have the left ankle joint of an 80 year old. So patience, perhaps, is in order.
This is something I'm not terribly good at.
Despite the fact that I went back to work immediately, I have not been my manic, maniacally hard working self. And it's affecting my mood. My brain is foggy, I'm tired (healing is hard, apparently) and I'm generally less motivated than usual. I haven't written a column in weeks so this is an exercise in sheer force of will. Please bear with me.
General anesthesia can take days to leave the body. I'll chalk the initial cloudiness up to that. My tongue refused to make audible sense of the slightly jumbled but relatively coherent thoughts in my head. My workmates were kind enough. “What am I talking about? I'm sorry!” I'd apologize when trying to participate in the conversation. “You're fine. We get it. Don't be so hard on yourself.” But I swear I saw some “who's the cuckoo?” eye-rolling.
I stopped taking any pain meds about two days in assuming that added to my unintelligibility and general lethargy. Still, I faltered. But kept at it. And now, three weeks later, I am reasonably lucid. But my mojo has not returned. I am blah. Unmotivated.
For me, work is life. That sounds extreme. And of course I value many other things in life besides work. I love my children so much that it sometimes feels like my heart is exposed and beating on the outside of my body. I enjoy my friends. I like to have a good time as much as the next girl. But I take great pride in WORK. And I don't mean going to work every day and sitting in an office. I mean accomplishing. I thrive from the challenge of pushing through the hard stuff to get to the realization of potential. Once completed, I like to hold it up and look at it, shiny and resplendent, from all sides. To say to myself: I did that. There is joy, for me, in that. Perhaps satisfaction is a better word. And for me, satisfaction is paramount, more worthy than joy.
Work comes in all forms. Writing. My job. Helping my kids learn to read. Or do fractions. Even cleaning the house. I never shy away from hard work. The more daunting the better. Writing a book can entail misery in some regard. There's the icky part when you can't get the words to say what you want them to say. When everything on paper sounds like total shit. Rather than give up, I iterate and iterate until they form something close to what I'm hoping to communicate. That's when I get to the shiny, resplendent thing.
I'd always imagined that discipline and a willingness to work hard - really hard like the kind that makes you a little nuts hard - were the pathway to, not only achievement, but personal fulfillment. Talent is merely a gift, given to the recipient without asking, without earning. There's no pride in that. And as a girl, I watched many talented athletes fail to make the most of their gifts due to a giant LACK of the impetus to work to hone their skills. I was certainly not the most talented gymnast. But I have every confidence that I made the most of the talents I did possess.
For me, the joy is in the working at it. I may not become the best or even close to it, but I will reach my fullest potential if time is put in. And therein lies the satisfaction. Not being able to work in the manner that I relish during these last few weeks is the mojo-sapper. This black hole of sloth is brutally frustrating. Work begets satisfaction. Satisfaction begets mojo. And I've got none of it right now. Great. Now, in addition to feeling under-worked and unfulfilled, I am having to face the fact that I'm obsessive and crazy to boot.
Then I read a book review in the New York Times for The Genius in All of Us , by David Shenk. It asserts that everything we know about talent is hooey. That discipline, not giftedness, is what creates greatness. Shenk writes that “few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our 'unactualized potential'.” Research cited supports the fact that there are no genetic windfalls. Or fixed genetic limits. There is a continuous and unfolding interaction between nature. And nurture. Furthermore new research suggests that ability is not a rare and magical bequeathment to a talented few. Rather it is the result of highly concentrated effort. The reviewer writes of Shenk's book: “we should think of talent not as something we have, but as something we do.” Ok maybe I'm not crazy.
The way to get back to whole is to DO. For me anyway. I'm too old to be different now. I'm not a Buddhist and I never will be. If work brings enlightened well-being, actualization and a measure of attainment, then so be it. And so today, I'm dragging my ass off the couch. I'm putting down the remote. And I'm writing this column. It isn't perfect. It is hardly shiny and resplendent. But if I just start, and then keep at it – like those singularly accomplished individuals that Shenk writes of, including Ted Williams, Michael Jordan, Mozart, who worked tirelessly to hone their skills – perhaps I'll get better. I doubt I'll be the writing equivalent of Michael Jordan. But I will improve. And that, in and of itself, brings satisfaction.