We all have our favorite day of the year. It might be a birthday or a particular holiday. For me, it’s Opening Day of the baseball season. For my wife Pat, it’s the Sunday morning each fall when the clocks get turned back and she can get an extra hour of sleep.
But the worst day? For lots of people, it’s today.
Labor Day Tuesday slams the door on summer. The kids are back to school. (Actually, they were probably already back to school last week, but now they’re really back.) For the rest of us, there will be no more summer Friday afternoons when nobody really expects you to be at the office. Office attire suddenly becomes noticeably less casual. Summer vacation seems a distant memory. And, to add a bit of emphasis as we turn the calendar page to September, all those meetings and assignments that we were putting off until after Labor Day – well, I’m afraid to say, it’s now after Labor Day. We are keenly aware that it’s time to get to work, and because we’ve stockpiled our tasks, chances are we’re already behind schedule.
We feel the shock even though summer bears only a passing resemblance to the way it used to be, back when summer was really summer. This is something I realized recently while reading All the Great Prizes, John Taliaferro’s excellent biography of John Hay.
John Hay led an interesting life, to say the least. When he was in his early twenties Hay lived and worked in the White House as Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary. At the end of his life, he served as Secretary of State under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. In between he was a successful businessman, well-known journalist, popular poet, and political kingmaker. He also managed to marry the richest woman in Cleveland, which certainly didn’t limit his opportunities.
I could go on and on about Hay, whose career and experiences were so varied that Taliaferro has joked that he should have named the biography Fifty Shades of Hay. But let me point out a few salient points about Hay’s work schedule that may get your attention.
When Hay was Secretary of State, he shouldered some impressive responsibilities: responding to the Boxer Rebellion in China, helping to prevent German aggression in the Caribbean, working to put the brakes on the Russo-Japanese War, and acquiring the rights, by hook or by crook (well, actually, by crook), to the Isthmus of Panama for the construction of a certain canal. But somehow Hay was always back at his home by 5:00 p.m., at which time he and his best friend Henry Adams would take a long stroll around Washington to sort through the issues of the day.
And as for his summer schedule? In an era when the press tsk-tsks at the dereliction of duty implied by every presidential golf game, it’s worth noting that during his presidency Theodore Roosevelt would spend the first six weeks of summer at his home in Oyster Bay, New York. And once TR returned to Washington at the start of August, Hay would embark for his own vacation home in New Hampshire, where he would stay into October. For several months each year it was as though the federal government required either the President or the Secretary of State, but not both, to be in Washington.
Of course, it’s fair to point out that while John Hay was working short days and taking long vacations, factory workers in this country were putting in 12- and 14-hour days six days a week, and there were few if any laws to protect child laborers. Clearly, the rules ran differently for the elite, and they still do. But indulge me, if you can, and join me in assuming that the job responsibilities of most of us are less consequential than those of John Hay. How many of us quit work at 5:00, never to re-engage with the office until the next morning at 9:00? And how many of us take two-month-long summer vacations? The summer whose passing we’re now mourning probably included only one or two weeks off, and during that time we were probably much more closely tethered to our offices than John Hay ever was when he was in charge of the nation’s foreign policy.
I recognize that 2014 is not 1904. Technology has created an expectation of 24/7 availability, and that’s not going to change. But in the summer our work-life balance does tend to be better. We go on hikes with our significant others, plan fun activities with our children, enjoy events with our aging parents, and go to far-off places and undertake new adventures. We read more books, attend more concerts and movies, meander along rivers in kayaks, and take long bike rides. Summer is special. We take the time and we take our time.
Simply because it’s now September doesn’t mean that all of that should come to a screeching halt. Yes, the days are shorter, the air is cooler, and the demands at work are higher. But in September and November and February, as in July, we benefit from time off and from connecting with others. It’s the long walks and quiet conversations that clear our minds and restore the spirits. It’s the time with books, the weekends with friends, the visits to new cities, and the immersion in the arts or the woods or the seashore that help us be creative, thoughtful, and happy.
So do throw yourself into important projects at the office. Drive yourself to meet your goals and to find great satisfaction in your work. But don’t surrender every waking hour to staying ahead of unimportant emails. Keep in mind what made the past few weeks so pleasant, and try to “summer-ize” your fall. Labor Day does not mean the end of a balanced life. And if you take that attitude, then today might just be your best-ever worst day of the year.
Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.