Putting my feet on the ground

I’m eight days into a ten-day break from work. It has been a great and much-needed relief. I haven’t gone away on holiday anywhere, or spent time visiting any relatives or friends. I just decided, given we have two long weekends in a row here in Queensland, to take off the four working days in between as annual leave, as an elongated rest from work.

As far as breaks go, 10 days is a “short” break, and I’m yearning for the day when I can take a 3- or 4-week overseas holiday again (as I was supposed to last year before a certain virus ruined my travel plans). Ten days isn’t really enough to properly forget about work—those intrusive thoughts about the things I have to attend to when I get back kept interrupting my relaxation (although less and less so as the days passed)—but it’s enough to dissociate myself from it for a while, and unwind.

I’ve taken two trips to the beach (catching the last of the good weather before the temperature starts to drop), I’ve sat in caf├ęs losing myself in good books, I’ve caught up with friends and eaten at an exceptionally good steak restaurant, I’ve consumed a generous quantity of alcohol, and yesterday I went on a secondhand book-buying spree at my alma mater’s annual Book Fair (always a fun day of nerdy retail therapy). It’s not been a super eventful break, but it’s been a restorative and satisfying one. Despite some of the headaches and stresses I know are waiting for me when I return to work on Tuesday, I think I will come back recharged and refreshed, ready to take on another couple of months of full-time work.

I was at a drinks party on Thursday evening for someone who was retiring. I was making idle conversation with someone there I knew vaguely, and, when he mentioned how busy he was at work, I said I was glad I took the week off. He nodded approvingly and said it’s important to put your feet on the ground once in a while, otherwise you burn out and lose perspective.

Angus (that was his name) phrased perfectly something that I can’t help reflecting on every time I’m able to take a break from work: “put your feet on the ground”. Putting your feet on the ground means regaining your perspective about what’s important in life, and what isn’t. It means putting the things that cause you stress and anxiety at work in perspective, and remembering that those things are not real life, and real life matters so much more than that. I think it’s especially important for people in my profession, the legal profession, which involves (at times) very stressful and demanding work, and boasts high incidences of burnout and work-related mental health issues, and their attendant addiction and family breakdown problems.

Every time I take a break from work, I’m able to dissociate myself from my work, take a look around me, and remember what really matters—what life is about. Life is not about satisfying clients and resolving other people’s petty problems, albeit that doing those things well allows you to earn the money to help you live a better life. Life is about how you spend your very limited period of consciousness and health and vigour on the planet Earth. Life is about loving and being loved. Life is about living to the fullest, and not wasting a second, because when it’s over, nothing will matter except whether you spent your life well. As Matt Smith put it in possibly my all-time favourite Doctor Who quote: “We’re all stories in the end, just make it a good one, eh?”

Reflecting on these things really puts the things I worry about at work in perspective. It does help me approach my work with a healthier attitude. I approach my work as a means to allow me to live a happier, more comfortable, more fulfilling life, rather than as life itself, which is how I think many (particularly in my profession) who don’t put their feet on the ground enough approach work, and suffer as a consequence. And I’m lucky that I work for a firm which very much encourages its people to approach work this way (our bosses certainly do). It helps me to think of the clients we’re so anxious to please, laying on the beach in their board shorts, soaking up the Summer sun, building sandcastles with their kids, maybe tucking into some fish and chips and a schooner of lager at the surf club afterwards. Because I know that’s absolutely where we’d both rather be.

For me, what matters in life is seeing as much of our beautiful and diverse world as possible, enjoying my youth doing the things that are best done when you’re young, loving and being loved, learning and stimulating my mind with interesting ideas and great literature, pursuing my talents and interests, consuming quality music, film and television, tasting great food and drink, strengthening friendships and relationships and building new ones, having new experiences, and, one day, raising a happy family. For me, these are the elements of a fulfilling, worthwhile life.

Career also matters to me, of course. Given that I’ll be spending the majority of my conscious hours for the next 40-50 years working, I’d like to spend them achieving things I will be proud of. But I think the point of “putting your feet on the ground” is that you give yourself the time and the space to think about what matters most to you. I think career matters a lot to me—because of my education and background, probably more than to the average person—but it’s not the thing that matters to me more than anything else, and if I lived my life as if it were, I think I’d be miserable.

Don’t be miserable, friends: make sure you put your feet on the ground, and work out what’s important to you in life.