Do you worry a lot about work? About your livelihood, about the intellectual integrity you bring to the job, about the state of your very soul?
I sure do, and I think a lot of that worry is productive. It drives me to work hard and reliably, it makes me bring rigor to every last Twitter tweet, it forces me to respond to the feelings I feel when I do what I do.
Don't worry, be happy? That nonsense had all the staying power of those Baby On Board signs.
But sometimes I worry about things that could never happen.
I should worry about becoming unemployed for a number of reasons, but
not because the last time I was unemployed, all I did was smoke
cigarettes, build plastic model airplanes and watch Cubs games on WGN. I'm no longer 21, I don't smoke, I don't build plastic model airplanes and Harry Carey is dead.
I should worry about doing corporate writing because it takes time from other writing, not because it will immediately transform me into a hack. I've done corporate writing; I have not become a hack.
And I realized recently that I have for years been worried, constantly but almost subconsciously that I would one day become Hal Mattel (name changed to protect the unwitting).
Hal was the first freelance writer I ever knew. He was an old guy with a hawk's beak who visited Chicago once a year. Larry Ragan would shake his hand and give us 20-something editors the corporate credit card and tell us to take Hal to lunch. He would hint that maybe it would be good if we found a story that Hal could do for one of the newsletters. And, more generous with his money than with his time, he would send us on our way.
At lunch, Hal would make small talk for awhile. And Hal could really make small talk. Once somebody ordered French salad dressing, and Hal said, "Salad dressing. That reminds me of a story …." Hal was a nice fellow, but he was terribly boring. And not, we eventually learned, much more interesting in print than in person.
Eventually, he would get around to asking us what our editorial needs were, and whether we had any call for some freelance stuff. And if we could think of anything—he covered the PRSA conference for The Ragan Report once—we'd throw him a bone, knowing that Larry would be glad to pay a couple hundred dollars to do our part keep Hal's dull freelance career chugging along in its sad, mediocre, pointless way.
I realized a while ago that I have long feared becoming Hal Mattel. That fear prevented me from going freelance for awhile. You can't go freelance, because Hal Mattel is a freelancer, and you don't want to end up like Hal Mattel. And it probably makes me overly cautious and deferential in my dealings with writing clients to this day. Without this client, I could wind up like Hal Mattel, going hat-in-hand to every one of my LinkedIn contacts, making up yarns about salad dressing.
There's a lot for writer types to fear these days. Oh, for example, the utter collapse of the writing market. And I'm sure there's a lot for me, specifically to worry about. But becoming Hal Mattel isn't one of them. Before becoming Hal Mattel, I would do any of the following things: find a corporate job … invent something totally awesome … become a greens keeper at a golf course … rob banks … or kill myself.
Any number of those things might be miserable. But they won't have anything to do with becoming Hal Mattel, a perfectly nice man who was built with different materials and by different methods and in a different era than David Murray.
So while worrying isn't stupid, worrying about becoming Hal Mattel is stupid. It's as stupid as Hal Mattel worrying about becoming me.
What do you worry about that's truly stupid? Let's get it out—right here, and right now, in public, in front of everybody—and let's start worrying about the right things once again.