Two years ago, I moved my life from London to the countryside.
I had a stressful job, and for months, I had sought solace in the idea of green rolling hills; a Sound of Music-style utopia where demands and deadlines had no relevance.
When the leap finally happened, however, I was disorientated.
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I expected that my new life would blitz my stress in a flurry of lavender-hued wisteria.
But all it really did was expose how hard-wired I’d become in playing to a particular script.
The aspirational treadmill
Like millions of other people, I’d come to equate hard graft with success and my career with a status symbol.
I’d spent the whole of my 20s and early 30s slavishly pouring time and energy into my job, drunk on my own cup of ambition (and wine – because, y’know, stress).
I told myself that I deserved to slow things down.
But without a steamroller of pressure urging me on – or people who habitually ask, “What do you do for a living?” – I was stumped, cast adrift in my own daydream.
I had stepped off the aspirational treadmill with nowhere to go.
Separating ambition from work
The problem was, I had been defining ambition all wrong – something that a major life change threw into sharp relief.
Ambition, in my head, was something tied to work: to early starts, an endless to-do list, flat whites on the go and perhaps a book in the making.
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It was entirely external, governed by things like job title and location. I pinballed between tasks so rapidly, it never occurred to me to be ambitious about broader values such as time, relationships and experiences.
And then I read about David Roberts’ Medium Chill concept. In his viral article, Roberts explains how he has chosen to live “the Medium Chill” by actively taking his foot off the career accelerator.
Unlike most of us, Roberts does not emotionally invest in work.
He avoids promotions and instead does a good-enough job.
By rattling along instead of relentlessly striving, he has less money and job kudos, but gets to spend more time with his loved ones. He has chosen to purposely side-step the career ladder, recognising that in doing so, he has more freedom for chilling and doing what he wants.
“There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb,” writes Roberts.
“We [Roberts and his partner] could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice.
“We chose our family and our friends and our place. Like any life ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it’s a good life, we’ve already got it, and we’re damn well going to enjoy it.”
Resisting social proof
This attitude of “good-enough” is an alien concept because it goes against everything we’re conditioned to believe.
Since time began, we have been driven by what Roberts calls “social proof”.
“Status and wealth are comparative; we judge ourselves not by how we’re doing but how we’re doing compared to the Joneses,” he says. “If our peers are buying big houses and second cars, our strong instinct is to want to signal our status by doing the same.”
Social proof is a deeply ingrained quality; a core value that modern society thrives on.
As novelist Matt Haig, in his best-selling book, Reasons to Stay Alive, “Happiness isn’t very good for the economy”.
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“If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?” he writes. “How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything.
” […] To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”
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Perhaps it’s not work per se that’s stressing us out, but the relentless drive to do and achieve; to score brownie points on our social proof.
And, of course, the ubiquity of social media only fuels this compulsion. We’re all so desperate to be seen to have happy lives, we’ve forgotten what it is to actually live them.
Could it be that a degree of our work stress is self-inflicted?
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After all, we choose to play the game and rise through the ranks. We want the rewards: the recognition, the bigger pay packet, the feeling of having made it.
But if we stepped back for a moment – as Roberts has done – we’d realise that external factors like job titles and promotions rarely spark enduring joy.
Slow things down
I’m not suggesting career ambition is a bad thing. It’s great to work hard and aspire to a job that you love. But, contrary to what so many of us think, it’s not the only definition of success.
If you, like me, come up for air after frantically chugging away in your 20s, you may well realise that it’s time for a few changes.
You don’t need to move to the country to grasp this, you just need to slow things down.
Because when you peak above the sand dunes now and again, you come to recognise that ambition (in the traditional sense) is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
You see, work can buy you status and things, both fleeting qualities that others can do bigger and better. It can also buy you experiences (a far more valuable investment than things) and pay your rent.
So we can agree that it’s both useful and vital to have a job, but it can also be massively stressful.
You could spend your life frantically plugging away at a career, feeling forever harried by the search of some elusive, “I’ve arrived” goal.
Or you could stop working so hard. Stop stressing and striving. Accept the good-enough.
Do your job and do it well, but resist the temptation to outperform or get sucked in by a relentless cycle of proving and achieving. Instead, invest more time in chilling and doing the things that you love, with people that you love.
It’s simple, really.