The Case for Complicating Your Life

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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A few months ago, I spent an evening clearing out some old sports collectibles stashed away in a closet in my parents’ house. My favorite: a well-worn carrying case holding all the baseball cards I collected in the boiling summer of 1980.

Inside, Reggie Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski and Pete Rose had sat undisturbed for more than a quarter century, carefully arranged with their teammates—and all twenty-some teams from that era separated into individual, labeled slots in the case. No mixing of Yankees and Red Sox here! It was a masterpiece of organization and possibly my crowning achievement as a seven year old.

That compulsion for order can be charming in a kid. It’s not always so attractive in an adult. Yet, it was a mindset I refused to surrender.

And nowhere did my obsession with keeping things clean and uncomplicated manifest itself more powerfully than in my career.

Near the end of college, I spent a day visiting several professional journalists in Washington, D.C. I was interested in being a writer and wanted their advice for starting out. They recommended cobbling together a freelance gig here, a part-time job there and always hustling for leads. They worked at prestigious magazines and might have known what they were talking about.

But it all sounded way too messy for Mr. Law & Order. So after graduation, I took a 9-to-5 office job that mostly involved placating a temperamental fax machine. I quickly grew discontented and blamed the job itself.

If I could just find a different job with huge amounts of inherent meaning, I thought, my professional world would be well. I spent the next 10 years in journalism and public relations searching for that Holy Grail—and never found it.

Then one day, about seven years ago, I sat down and did something I’d been threatening to do for years—write a personal essay about faith and prayer. I sent it to an editor of a church newspaper.

He suggested rewriting it. I did. It got published.

My day job still wasn’t all-fulfilling. But I thought about that gap less and less as I worked on my own writing. Some more opportunities came along. I began doing a newspaper column, then wrote a book and launched a blog.

Of course, none of these pursuits paid anything, which is why I still needed my day job as a speechwriter, and my life grew more and more disorderly, with crowded calendars and competing deadlines and a young family, too. But the fact that my primary job wasn’t perfect had gradually ceased to matter. In fact, I began to appreciate it much more—the challenges it offered, the people I met, the steady paycheck it provided.

Old habits die hard, and sometimes I’ll still catch myself thinking—hey, wouldn’t it be great just to write books and blog posts for a living? But that, too, would become an all-consuming job, and soon enough, it would lose its appeal.

So I’m content instead to switch back and forth on these roles in PR, journalism, blogging and bookwriting. The variety keeps me from getting bored. It keeps me from burning out. And unexpected connections are always popping up. My speechwriting work at a leadership institute, for example, wound up strongly informing my book about the prayer life of Trappist monks.

Without question, my life’s way more complicated now. But most days, I’m grateful for the mess.

Stephen Martin is a speechwriter and journalist who blogs at The Messy Quest. His first book, The Messy Quest for Meaning, which explores how to find a calling, was recently released by Sorin Books.

Image by CyberSlayer. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.