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Why you’ve got to set some boundaries

When I left my positions as managing editor and lead faculty member of Matador and MatadorU in April, I immediately headed off on a couple of trips.

The trips had been scheduled before I made the decision to resign, but the timing couldn’t have been better. I needed to get offline and get in motion. I needed time to think about my next steps.

During those trips, I met about a dozen travel writers and bloggers who are considered top in their respective fields. In several cases–more than I’d care to actually count– these folks started their blogs yesterday. I jest, of course, but in the online world, a year can confer the kind of credibility that other settings/jobs only accrue over a decade.

It was by listening to them that I realized how much I’d traded off while I was working for Matador. By clocking what was effectively the equivalent of two full-time jobs, I’d largely neglected my own blogs and my own print and online freelance writing, not to mention the rest of my life. While I was helping build a company’s brand, these folks were building theirbrand.

I want to make two clear statements before I move on to my key point:

1. I don’t begrudge a single one of the writers or bloggers their success. They’ve worked hard, their accomplishments were earned, and I am thrilled for their achievements, not the least reason being because one of my most closely held beliefs is that there’s room for everyone to do the work they feel passionate about; as I’ve said before, life, work, and success are not a pizza pie.

2. I don’t view my time at Matador as time spent poorly. I’ve always believed–and still do–that every experience provides us with context, tools, and skills that we can apply in other settings and on future projects.

But I have to admit that I wondered–and not without a hint of resignation– how far along I’d be in my own writing goals and in my own “brand building” had I set better boundaries with Matador.

I believed in what we were building at Matador, and I was, over and over again, willingly swept up into the passion and enthusiasm of my colleagues. Matador was a labor of love we were building together not because we hoped we’d get rich (though, hey, that would have been nice), but because we were convinced what we were creating filled a void that needed to be filled. As a result, I was working long hours, being paid considerably below market rate, and frequently volunteering to pinch hit, take on new projects, and generally do whatever it took for us to keep our foothold and climb higher.

In the process, though, I shortchanged a lot of other aspects of my life. My husband and daughter became too accustomed to my pleas for “just five more minutes” or “just one more hour” of work. For long stretches of time, I didn’t pitch my own article ideas to other publications (and as my editorial responsibilities expanded and involved less writing, the more I really needed my freelance outlets to satisfy my need to write). I stopped or dramatically scaled back activities I’d once really loved, like cooking. The concept of “weekend = leisure” was lost entirely.

No one was forcing me–consciously or otherwise– to make these kinds of sacrifices, though many other staff members were similarly stretched thin. I was making them voluntarily. I’d set no boundaries.

How could I possibly expect that anyone would set them for me?

This week, I started a new part-time consulting job.

For most of my 20 hours of work each week, I can do what I need to do from home. For a few hours each week, I’m expected to make an office appearance. The culture of the organization feels all too familiar: some staff members stay at work until 10 PM and put in time on the weekends, too. There’s a strong sense of urgency and importance, and the amount of work to be done is massive. The temptation to throw myself fully into that fray was strong… for about 20 minutes. Here was a company that aimed to do something amazing! Didn’t I want to be in on the ground floor as we rode the elevator to the top? Didn’t I want to help build something important?

Sure I did.

But more than that, I knew that I want to be fully present and most invested in my own life– the part of it that doesn’t involve work, the part of it that will remain after this company folds or is acquired or changes its tack completely and becomes something new and, in doing so, lets me go to find someone who’s willing to give her life away to make it all happen.

And so, when I said I was leaving at 4 PM, I meant it. I packed my bag, went to the elevator, rode it down, and walked home.


20 responses »

  1. And Elvis left the building. 🙂

    You are absolutely right about boundaries and balance. We only have so many waking hours, and so much energy. They are things to be spent thoughtfully on the things that matter most to us, if we aren’t to end up as the skilled equivalent of a dog chasing a car.

    • Rich-

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. I always admired the way you worked at Matador- producing incredible, important, and meaningful articles, but never (at least it seemed to me) giving your own life away.

  2. Agreed on all counts and have been recently setting a few myself. I remember, when you left your position, you said something about not working for less than market rate anymore. That really sticks with me.

    • Karen-

      Not working for below market rate has been a struggle- I should blog about that!- but overall, I’ve been proud that I’ve (mostly) stuck to my guns on that goal. We’re overdue for a catch up. 🙂

  3. Good for you, Julie! It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of “big plans.” I’ve done it myself. I suppose that some of these end up going all the way to the top, but I also think that many more of them sort of sputter out along the way, and though the ride is an interesting, educational and worthwhile one. The one I was involved in left me disappointed, a bit angry and frustrated that I’d invested so much in something that didn’t do anything for me personally.

    Enjoy the cooking!

    • JoAnna-

      It really helps to know that others are setting boundaries, too; it helps me get off that hamster wheel of wanting to please. Thanks for reading and for your comment and support.

  4. So, so pleased to read this post, and that you are putting yourself and your family first, Julie. Was always amazed, and humbled, by how much you managed to put in to Matador, and it’s no surprise the rest of your life suffered.

    Glad to hear there is LAM! Good luck with your own projects, the cooking, the playing…

  5. Thanks so much for this article. I am now in a similar position to the one it seems you were in; I work for an organisation I love and respect but also feel like I am on a treadmill set to a steep incline. There is an end date set on this and when that day comes this time next year I think I will feel an odd mixture of sadness but also relief.

    I am not the sort of girl that collects quotes but there is one I do love – ‘I may only be scraping a living but at least this is a life worth scraping’ (Mickey Smith – Surf Photog). I think the crunch comes when you realise that you are just scraping and have stopped living! Well done for stepping off the treadmill and thank you for all you did in your time at MatadorU, I for one benefitted a lot.

  6. Julie, as a reader I could tell that you surely helped to build that business from what it was into something great. Believe it or not, in that work you have started to build a brand for yourself. In life and in work we just have to make sure that we are always “building the brand” that we want to. I am about to start a series on writing your own manifesto and goal setting if you want to check it out. And I could always use an editor 😉 Hope that isn’t too obvious in my unedited flow of consciousness posts… Much love to you and yours, you have always been a big inspiration to me.

  7. This really strikes a chord. It’s easy to be swept up by the aspiration that oozes from a start-up business, even when it’s not your own (and you have no equity), I’ve been there, you feel valued and part of something noble.

    I spent the last few years in this position, working all hours for low rates believing that the big pay day would one day come, all the while neglecting my own business/brand.

    The experience has helped me learn the importance of setting boundaries, valuing your time, focusing on you, and avoiding the common pitfall of giving away precious time to build someone else’s dream for very little in return.

    Thanks for writing about this, Julie.

  8. How true this is – boundaries! I completely identify. Some of us are just so passionate about what we do that we easily give and give more to others. No experience is ever lost as you said, and I’m happy for you that you are re-prioritizing! Onwards and upwards. 🙂

  9. Great post. I like the title of your blog. “Inedito” is one of my favorite words in Spanish — both uncensored and unprecedented! I’ve worked for a number of startups at less than a fair market rate, and I’ve justified this in my own head by looking at the company’s stage of development and the country in which I’m working. I’m currently re-doing my website to be more explicit about my unusual experience and what I have to offer, in hopes that this will make it easier for me to draw boundaries. Kudos to you for being honest and transparent. Saludos desde Chile!

    • Yay- so glad you “got” the allusions in “inedito.” Thanks for the feedback and sharing your own experiences. Y saludame a Chile! 🙂

  10. Thanks – this is definitely something I’ve been pondering myself. I’m a full time editor focused on growing a website (and you know how all consuming that can be), but I’m planning to take time off to travel in the coming year or two and building a strong personal brand will, hopefully, be helpful during that time and beyond.


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