This Is Us

Contemplating My Professional Development During the End of the World

Society is on pause, but my compulsion to keep hustling won’t quit

A woman in white jeans and a yellow sweater sitting on the bed in a yoga pose in front of a laptop and a cup of coffee.
A woman in white jeans and a yellow sweater sitting on the bed in a yoga pose in front of a laptop and a cup of coffee.
Fiordaliso/Getty Images

I’m thinking of paying three grand for an online hypnotherapist training course. “Sucker!” My husband says. But he doesn’t get it. See, I believe in the power of “visualization with intent.”

Once I complete the course, I will get a diploma that will allow me to become a professional hypnotherapist. I will become the best hypnotherapist in all the land. I will make a decent living — maybe even become rich — helping people by telling them, “Your eyelids are getting heavy. You are getting sleepier and sleepier. And when you wake up, you will be living the life of your dreams.”

But then there’s the creative writing MFA program that’s wooing my wallet, too. This one’s more costly — more than $20,000 more costly — than the three-week-long hypnotist training course. But I’m already a professional writer, so with the MFA, I figure I can increase my odds of becoming a famous bestselling author. And if that doesn’t pan out, at least I’ll have the option of earning back the price of the course fees by teaching English at a neighborhood school for the next 10 years.

Another option is the PhD in journalism. If I combine the title of professor with my already impressive portfolio of published news articles, I’m sure the New York Times will hire me in a heartbeat.

Oh, but wait, there’s also yoga teacher training, and if I don’t sign up for that right now, I’ll be an old woman by the time I’ve accumulated enough teaching hours, and who the hell wants to do downward dog with an arthritic instructor? Plus, if I sign up now, I’m eligible for the early bird discount and a free yoga mat.

With the world in lockdown or slowdown, and everyone spending more time than usual indoors, I find myself under the spell of an alter ego who reminds me of my college guidance counselor — always nudging me to explore ways that I can grow professionally. I’ve nicknamed this alter ego Potentiality.

Potentiality likes to tell me “You can do it!” à la Rob Schneider in The Waterboy. The moment I go online, he’ll go, “Pssst, check this out. This is perfect for you. I think you should sign up for it. Too expensive? Pfff, no it’s not. It’s an investment in your future. Finance it with a bank loan. Think of this as insurance. Go on — you can do it!” He tells me: “With the world changing as quickly it is these days, you really should consider a second career.” Or he might quote Sun Tzu — “In the midst of crisis there is opportunity,” he’ll say in his sage-like voice.

I listen to Potentiality for a few minutes, and I’m ready to drop a couple grand in order to move one step closer to manifesting my destiny.

If I don’t comply with his suggestions, he’ll take another tack: “What if you get Covid and die? Don’t you at least want to have one last go at getting that dream job or dream life before it’s all over for you? Are you really, truly happy doing what you’re doing right now? I don’t think you are. Do you feel safe in your job? Well, you shouldn’t. Don’t be complacent. You can do so much more, be so much more. Carpe diem, Michele! Take life by the balls. Go on, you can do it! The best possible version of yourself is out there, and the time to find her is now. You can do it!”

These are the kinds of things Potentiality likes to tell me. Academic consultants and online education marketers have nothing on him. I listen to Potentiality for a few minutes, and I’m ready to drop a couple grand in order to move one step closer to manifesting my destiny—or at least move one step ahead of any bad luck that might be trying to catch up with me.

But last week, I discovered that my relationship with Potentiality isn’t exactly exclusive. He’s been whispering sweet nothings into ears other than mine.

I learned that my cousin Cara recently enrolled in a short course on sustainable enterprise with Columbia University’s Distance Learning Department and that my husband’s colleague has just signed up for an online MBA program. My neighbor Pam wants to give me a free Pilates class because she needs “pretend clients” to complete her training hours, and my friend Brian is finally learning UX design via Coursera.

I’m guessing that Covid-19 (and its accompanying social-distancing, furlough, and work-from-home measures) has something to do with Potentiality’s increased presence in our lives. I see three reasons for his frequent visits.

The first is that online learning makes education much more accessible for those who want to learn but don’t have the time or energy (because of work or family obligations) to commute to stick-and-brick schools to do so.

Another reason is that a large segment of the global population — pilots, tour guides, theme park employees, hoteliers, cruise workers, and school bus drivers, for instance — have had their workloads significantly reduced. Those who aren’t presently overworked because they are in crisis management mode, and those who haven’t yet been bludgeoned by unemployment, are in a state of professional limbo and feel as if they have to work harder to justify keeping their jobs. This subset of the population — many of whom are working from home — have more free time on their hands now, so learning new skills to increase their employability and stay relevant seems like a rational and mature response.

Finally, most of us aren’t comfortable with having free time because we’re so used to being consistently engaged in goal-oriented tasks. Take me for instance. These days, half of my regular clients have gone quiet, so while I am grateful that I have savings and am still earning enough to get by, I am not breaking a sweat juggling multiple deadlines like I did before Covid-19. This leaves me feeling not only antsy but bored and even a little depressed; as a 21st-century information worker, I’ve been relying on the mania of a busy schedule to feel healthy and well-adjusted. I am most comfortable living with a certain amount of stress.

Feeling stressed equals feeling healthy and normal, and education is a wonderful stress inducer. Learning — with its insistence on focused attention, information retention and recall, and its deadlines and examination pressure — is the perfect anecdote for too much leisure time. Learning provides me with the mental activity needed to bring my adrenaline and cortisol levels up to what I’m accustomed to.

But beyond these three reasons, I think my increased interest in professional development during lockdown could be driven by the need to create a locus of control amid this volatile milieu of disease, discord, and disruption.

As I sit with my mouse hovering over the “Pay Now” button that will (hey, presto!) transform me from “professional writer uncertain about whether or not she will be able to pay rent five months from today” to “soon-to-be professional hypnotherapist who could possibly charge $200 an hour for her services,” a memory from childhood comes to me.

When I was nine years old, I was hell-bent on getting a python as a pet. I had visited the Singapore Zoological Gardens, and at the KidzWorld petting zoo, I went into a zookeeper-manned Polaroid booth to get my photo taken with a fat, 11-foot-long python draped around my neck and arms.

I had thought I would be scared of holding a big snake, but I wasn’t. I had been completely fearless in a situation where I had assumed I would feel fear, and my souvenir Polaroid with the cold-blooded monster was proof of this. With the peculiar logic of a child, I decided that the snake was the source of my courage. So I told my parents I wanted a pet snake. My parents said, “No way!” But that didn’t deter me, so I called up the zoo and asked them if I could buy one from them. They told me I’d need a license to own a snake and that I had to be at least 21 years old to apply for this license. So I surrendered that unfeasible fantasy and instead began pestering my parents for a cockatoo, which I also did not get.

If I could just manage that python — or hypnotize people and make them do what I say — then I could immunize myself against the terror of chaos and uncertainty.

Looking back on that episode from childhood, I see parallels between my obsession with professional development and my desire to own a snake.

A python is a dangerous and deadly animal, but if I could safely wrap one around my body and not get strangled by it, that meant that — unlike all the other kids who were too chickenshit to even pick it up — I had control over the serpent, control over my fears, and control over the course of my life. If I could just manage that python — or hypnotize people and make them do what I say — then I could immunize myself against the terror of chaos and uncertainty.

Perhaps my dream of having a second career or a better career is like my fantasy about getting a pet snake. I imagine that if I am more skilled tomorrow than I am today, I’ll be free from the fear of trying to eke out a living in dire economic conditions. Potentiality tells me that if I can secure new streams of income as a hypnotist and/or a yoga teacher and/or a more successful, higher-earning writer, then I’ll be able to counterbalance an economic downturn by gaining ascendancy over everyone else fighting for a slice of the shrinking pie. Potentiality tells me that if I have enough Plan B’s in my life raft, I might just be able to survive a future that’s looking frighteningly bleak.

But what Potentiality doesn’t know is this: Dreams, like exotic pets, require big investments both in terms of time and money, and the returns can be disappointingly low. Like pythons, perhaps some dreams are best enjoyed during a visit to the zoo and not to be taken home. I think I’ll wait till tomorrow before deciding on hypnotherapist training.

Journo | Copywriter | Short Fiction Author | | Author of “Without:Stories of lack and longing”

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