Self-employed! | Thinking Out Loud No. 34

Profound tiredness, Barack Obama’s face, and Write of Passage 

Hi everyone,

That’s it! Friday was my last day at work. I am now a feral free agent — or at least I have begun the process of becoming one.

In this issue I talk about:

  • why I am so exhausted right now — and different kinds of chronic stress

  • Barack Obama’s face

  • some news involving me and Write of Passage

It’s about a 5 minute read.

I am profoundly tired right now

I wrote last week that this experience might be like a ‘beat drop’ in electronic music, the moment where accumulated emotional tension suddenly releases. It’s only been two days, but I think the frame was right. 

The actual experience of the drop, so far, has been an experience of a profound tiredness. I’m going to talk a little about acute stress and different types of chronic stress to explore what’s going on here. 

From a human biology perspective, acute stress might be a few minutes of seeing and escaping a predator. This brings about a certain set of physiological states, like cortisol and resting heart rate going up while resources allocated to digestion and cellular repair go down. Once the external stressor is removed, the biological state returns to its unstressed baseline.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is the persistent exposure to stressors that keeps our bodies in stress-response mode, and is something we likely all experience these days, particularly during a pandemic. In a way, exposure to chronic stress changes the position of our baseline such that we could experience acute stress and then return not to an unstressed baseline, but to an existing chronic stress baseline.

That’s a switch from acute stress to chronic stress, but what about different levels of chronic stress?

You’ll all know the experience of getting through an extended stressful period, something like a tough project at work or looking after very sick relatives. The feeling of being in that experience will be familiar, but what happens when the stressor goes away? Is life suddenly sunshine and rainbows?

No, you probably get extremely tired and maybe even sick as the physiological state that was keeping you awake and suppressing your immune response dissolves. Maybe the sunshine and rainbows come later, if you don’t get stressed again.

The thing is, what I think I’m about to appreciate at an embodied level is that the transition from ‘crazy project at work’ to ‘regular life’ is not a switch from chronic stress to unstressed, but from one level of chronic stress to another. 

These different levels of chronic stress illustrate what’s probably happening to me right now. We live in a world where chronic stress is so normalised that it’s part of the ‘this is water’ of life. But, actually, existing entirely in structures where you are expected to be in a certain place, at a certain time, to do certain tasks that are assigned to you and in a certain kind of way can itself be stressful to many people. 

I am one of these people.

I have never existed outside of such structures: school -> university -> work. Holidays from school, university and work don’t count, precisely because they are holidays from school, university or work. To ‘take a break’ from the structure is to assert that you are constrained by the structure (see my essay on Total Work here for more on this).

I should add that this is all a matter of perspective. Where I feel constrained by the structure, others will feel supported by it, even though the structure itself may be the same. This is a reflection of my own personality — I’m not saying that having a job is inherently bad or that everyone who has a job experiences chronic stress.

What is happening in me right now is not just a switch from medium chronic stress to lower chronic stress, but from the chronic stress that I have never experienced life without to a level of unstressed that has probably never been available. The closest I can relate to unstressed is my state at the end of a three week backpacking trip across Mexico… but that still had the thought of “yes, but there’s work on Monday”.

This guy was pretty relaxed (Tulum, 29 Jan 2019)

I can only recognise that I am in uncharted waters, but waters that are at least similar to waters I’ve navigated before. As it never works to fight the fatigue at the end of a big project, so it won’t work to fight the fatigue at the end of decades of chronic stress.

N.B. I also recognise that I am very fortunate in being able to consider not having a job to be ‘unstressful’. What we each consider stressful depends both on our circumstances and our perception of them.

Barack Obama’s face

I’ve been told by people who have gone through transitions like this that there is often an accompanying release of chronic stress stored in the muscles, particularly in the face.

Here’s an example of Barack Obama as he started his presidency and as he ended it (shared by my friend Visa). 

DAMN. That is a lot of ageing for seven years.

But what’s really interesting is this photo of him some time after his presidency ended:

THE MAN AGED BACKWARDS. Whatever chronic stress he was in was clearly having a major impact on his body, but much of it appears to have been reversible. 

I’m noticing something similar in myself already — particularly around my eyes. Some tight creases between my eyes that I thought were part of my ageing process were just gone this morning. It’s been two days. I’m taking selfies every day for a few weeks (before, during and after the transition) to see if I can spot stuff like this. 

And I will be sure to let you all know if you I end up looking more youthful and attractive as a result of quitting my job. Please let me know if you want access to my future online course “how to look ten years younger by quitting your job”.

I will be an alumni mentor for Write of Passage Cohort 6 🙂

Some of you will know that Write of Passage is an online course that I took in August 2019. That’s where this newsletter started (go see how cute Thinking Out Loud 1 was).

It’s no overstatement to say that Write of Passage was one of the most transformational experiences of my life. It’s what put me on the path to cultivate an online presence, to become a much more confident creator and ultimately to leave a decade long career.

So I am thrilled that I will be an alumni mentor for the next cohort starting in February. I will be running weekly writing sessions, hanging out in the forum and helping students who select me as their mentor as much as time allows. 

And I’ll be going through the course again myself — much upgraded since I took it — which I expect will help me take my writing skills to the next level.

Thanks for reading this far. Until next time.

Michael