I’m adjusting to life without my new three year’s resolution of not starting any new side projects. One of the ripple effects was that I got used to participating in much shorter transactions. I stopped watching movies and kept to TV shows. I mostly 3D printed little one-off models in favour of multi-part projects like helmets. Career-wise, I stopped aiming for bigger jobs and took on less and less responsibility. Now that I’ve taken off the leash, it’s a bit intimidating walking out into the world again. I more or less calmed the compulsive need to work insanely hard to feel worthy, but it’s a bit like learning how to ride a bike again after a collision.

Unsure of how to proceed after the resolution ended, staring into the void, I resolved to wait until I knew what to do. I went to work, slept, tidied the house, hung out with friends. Didn’t take on any major projects like home renovations, finding engineering work, fixing up the car, reading x number of books in y amount of time. I let the dust settle and spent a lot of time laying in bed and breathing deeply. What came of the endeavour was that I now start my days by doing nothing at all.

It’s the first thing on my daily to-do list. You could call it by many different names, like mindfulness, meditation, zen, grounding, containment, solitude. I’ve changed my availability at work so that I don’t start before noon except one day, so most mornings I can take as long as I want for breakfast, workouts, creative work, and doing nothing. This also only works because Carrie is the primary breadwinner now. It’s like my own micro-vacation. I’m in the same mode as laying down by the pool or beach; not a care in the world. There’s no music, no TV, no books, no social media. Only lying in bed and observing what’s happening around me. There’s still a lot of value in packing up and changing countries so your mind can’t be tricked into slipping back into your regular routine, but that also costs money and time. Doing nothing at home feels like I’m coming up for air, and it helps me to adapt to quickly changing needs. Some days call for an audible and throwing out the to-do list entirely, and I can only sense that when I start the day by doing nothing.

Because of my trauma, it takes me a lot longer to chill out compared to the average person, if it happens at all. I have to manually power down. My heightened sense of danger stays on red alert unless I repeat to myself that there’s nothing to worry about. In the past two weeks, I’ve been writing lists of things to look forward to, things to anticipate or prepare for, all just so I can see that there’s nothing urgent to take care of. I have to check with Carrie if I missed anything on my list or if she wants me to add anything for her. I have to sit still and force the chills to run up and down my spine until I feel my body opening up and breathing deeply again. It’s uncomfortable, but if I don’t do it for myself, who will? I don’t know about you, but relaxation is an active process for me.

Doing nothing looks different for everybody. Zooming out, what I mean by "doing nothing" is that I don’t need any special projects to make me feel worthwhile. No losing weight, no starting up a business, no trying to beat Trial of the Sword in Breath of the Wild on Master Mode (so impossible!). It’s fine if some of these things happen as a byproduct, but it can’t be from a unified goal that I set for myself. I unknowingly learned this behaviour of working on the side from my dad because he left a lot of his main responsibilities to start side projects. Instead of staying at home and helping out our family, he was always flying to different countries to take care of other people. Instead of staying focused on his job at the church, he was off doing missionary work for a good chunk of the year, and as I hear, he’s doing more of the same now. The way this pattern looked in my life was when I had bad but passable grades in school, I would find refuge in side quests. I would later use them as excuses for why I wasn’t meeting expectations in my main job, a form of denial and self-fulfilling prophecy. While in university, I had my headphone amplifier project that I was selling online, I was in a long distance relationship with Carrie, I was volunteering several days a week at church, I was the Electrical Engineering Club’s co-president, among other things. These initiatives helped me feel better about my grades. It’s normal and healthy sometimes to work on multiple things at once because only having one job gets pretty boring. I took it too far though by using them to justify my poor performance at my one job, and then it would only get worse as I wrestled more with my self-worth being tied to my output. Lots of people have to work multiple jobs, and they can only carry on this way so long as those jobs don’t interfere with each other. As for me, my main responsibility now is to keep my family going, and that’s all I want to focus on. It’s full-time work keeping the home stocked and running smoothly, and we’re just two people.

The last remnant of this old lifestyle was my lifelong dream of designing products at Apple. I had a warped view of success due to my dad narcissistically manipulating me into being a shinier trophy so he could brag to people. I would weaponize my hobbies to boost my eventual application for the position of hardware engineering intern, which sucked the joy out of my hobbies and proved to be quite toxic for my health. I still enjoy designing and making products on my own, so I’ll keep my 3D printer and soldering iron handy. But as far as pursuing it seriously as a career option, I’m giving that up. I’m sure I could still do it at some point, but I always had the wrong reasons in chasing after it, basing my self-worth in my work. I can hear it now, people saying "Don’t give up, you can do it, you just need to believe in yourself, it can still happen." I don’t disagree, but when I look on the horizon and then at the road immediately in front of me, I can’t really reconcile the two. There are some very obvious and pressing needs that are presenting themselves right now, and it helps my imminent survival if I let go of that pipe dream. If all I ever did was marry Carrie, had kids, and took good care of all of them, I would be proud to live such a life. I no longer look back on my career and think "Don’t use your childhood as an excuse for not achieving your dreams." I know now that privilege plays a real role in people’s development. I’ve accomplished a lot in my short 29 years, but since I started a lot further back than many of my peers, it can look like I’m just humming along. (That’s also why it’s pointless to keep score with your friends.) The lifeforce needed to ramp up my resumé and experience to join Apple engineering within so many years, that’s all energy that would be better used towards taking out the garbage and picking up the dry-cleaning today. Also going dancing and partying all-out once a month with my friends.

I’ve been on a three year mission to escape the frightening, lasting effects of abuse, and the last major pillar of this endeavour was to stop finding side projects to boost my self-esteem. They were distractions that looped back toward a toxic motivation to find self-worth, which choked the life out of me. I can see now how it was a pattern I adopted from my dad, which I don’t want to continue. It’s all I can do to keep my own family going, so I’m giving up my dream of working for Apple engineering so I can focus on my daily chores, which starts with doing nothing. And now all I aspire to do with the rest of my life is taking good care of my family. In other words, nothing.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le