Last year, I was working a job in midtown Manhattan that made me dread 40 hours of each week. I wished time away. I felt hollow and anxious. The feelings followed me home even when the work didn’t.
But three times a week, I chiseled out time for something sane and gratifying. Those were the days I’d wake up at 5:30 am and make the hour-long commute to an ice rink—all so I could go skating before work.
Once I invited my partner, Cameron, to come along with me on my morning trips. He laughed as we finally got to the rink. “I’m sorry, but this can’t be worth it,” he said. “Not with waking up so early, or the two trains it takes to get here.”
I told him to think about drumming, or playing video games, or any of the other things that make him become so absorbed he loses track of time. I think that helped him get it. Skating makes me feel fast and alive. As it turned out, making room in my life for an activity that brought me joy helped me find my way to a job that made me happier during the work day, too.
Ruled by the day job
Roughly half of Americans say they are “very satisfied” with their jobs. That leaves tens of millions who cannot say the same. Many of us hold down salaried jobs not because we care about the work, but for the sake of a steady paycheck to support ourselves and our families. And all the while we try to fit our passions in on the side.
There’s nothing wrong with having a job you don’t love. In fact, as Miya Tokumitsu writes in an insightful essay for Jacobin, there is real value in the unglamorous labor upon which our society relies. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that an unfulfilling job can take a psychological toll. That’s partially because we too often find ourselves unable to pursue the activities that nurture our hearts and minds.
As a kid, I’d gone figure-skating six times a week and dreamed of making it to the Olympics. As I got older, skating stayed a part of my life, but school took priority. When I graduated college, my passion officially took a back seat as money came first. Skating was expensive—an indulgence. And it wasn’t like skating was going to get me a job.
My first post-college gig was working the cheese counter and deli at a gourmet food shop. After longing to be around others who loved books, I left to work as a paid intern at a top publishing house, then as a paid intern at an indie publisher. Finally I got my first position as an editorial assistant. Most weeks, I worked more than 40 hours to get ahead and brought work home with me. A few months in, I crashed. I was tired all the time, and I worried that skating would only make me even more drained. So I stopped doing it entirely.
Looking back, I see that I kept making the same mistakes in my effort to become a responsible adult. I thought I had to be monogamous with the work that paid me.
I was wrong.
At first I attributed the heavy feeling I carried around to inactivity. After all, exercise releases feel-good neurotransmitters, combats stress, and can even transform the way your brain takes in the world around you. But my problem wasn’t just about fitness. It was about spending each work day counting down to the weekend, when I’d finally have time for the activities I felt excited about. It was as if I had sliced away a part of my soul and set it aside.
A funny thing happens when a job is the only thing you put your energy into: It becomes the only thing you have. I tried doing little things to bring my old feelings of lightness and joy back—a Groupon to a dance class, a night out with friends. But it wasn’t until I was laid off that I was able to regain some clarity about my emotions.
While applying for jobs online, I typed “figure skating instructor” into Craigslist—simply out of curiosity. I wound up with a seasonal position teaching kids at the same rink where I’d grown up skating.
I loved teaching kids that it was okay to fall—that even Olympic skaters do it. I loved seeing their faces light up when a move they thought would be impossible worked for the first time. And I also found skating for myself again. I had missed being on the ice. I started going to the rink once a week, just for myself. One of the coaches in the lobby recognized me from my youthful skating days and smiled: “Looks like someone has the skating bug again.”
When my seasonal ice-skating position ended, I once again returned to publishing—another steady job I dreaded in midtown Manhattan. But this time, I made a promise to myself that I’d keep skating, too. As it turned out, waking up early and skating didn’t leave me feeling drained. Instead it gave me more energy.
There are lots of people who do the same thing. High-school kids wake up even earlier than I did to skate the first freestyle session of the day at 6 AM. My mom and dad both skate. There is a 92-year-old federal judge who finds time to hit the rink, as do countless college students and other working folk. As someone once told me in the locker room: “The way I see it, once I make it through an ice dance lesson, I can take on anything.”
And it does feel that way some days. In the year since I’ve been back on the ice, I’ve been able to test and pass two silver-level ice dances: the Rocker Foxtrot and the American Waltz. Even after 20 years of skating, it’s exciting to know I still have room to grow. The fact that I went back to ice-skating as an adult has not stunted my dedication. If anything, I’ve heard the opposite from the coaches I knew growing up: “Why didn’t you work this hard when you were a kid?”
So many of us drop our favorite activities as we transition into adulthood. I think the reason comes down to one simple fact: No one will make us do the things we love. There’s no taskmaster demanding that we pick up the paintbrush or play the cello or write a poem. The realities of life do demand that we earn a living. And after we come home from work, it’s always going to be easier to stay in, crack open a beer, and let a screen entertain us.
But it’s precisely because instant fulfillment is always at our fingertips that we need to purposefully carve out time for the things we love. In my case, it helped to make a contract with myself to go skating every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. That meant not only scheduling an activity, but sticking with it—even on days I felt too tired to go.
Forking over money for a class or making an appointment that can’t be canceled can also force you to make time for your passions. Peer pressure is useful too. A lot of people I know sign up for activities they love with a friend or as part of a team. That way, if they back out, they’ll be letting down someone besides themselves. And I’ve heard many well-respected people–including writer Toni Morrison–discuss their commitment to fitting in their creative pursuits before the sun comes up.
In my case, making the decision to prioritize skating in my off hours wound up turning the activity I love into my main job. Now I teach skating year-round. I get paid by the hour, and there’s no paid time off. But I’m able to do something that makes me happy and earn a living at the same time.
These days, I wake up at 6:30 AM to get to the rink, three times a week. Skating gives me the energy I need to write, teach, and be closer to the best version of myself.
Most mornings, it’s still dark when my alarm goes off. My first instinct is often to hit the snooze button. But then I think of what my day would be like without time on the ice—and I know it’s time to get moving.