Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Joburg ate my work/life balance (and a long ramble about consumerism)

Today is just one of those days where I feel absolutely shattered. I worked until midnight last night to finish a story for deadline today. I sat down at about 7pm and wrote 2 400 words in one sitting on a controversial and complicated subject. And today the work continues. I have another deadline on Friday, along with routine work for my retainer clients that needs to be completed this week.

My brain is numb.

I don't think I'm the only one. I think October in Johannesburg is one of the most frustrating times of year. The sun is out, the flowers are blooming and life beckons us to enjoy the gardens and parks, but the end of the year is near and there's so much work to be done before then that we are all holed up at our desks, working (or in TSC's case studying for exams) and hating it.

I know that people are working hard everywhere, but to me, having lived in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, Johannesburg is worse because life really is a rat race up here. Having chatted to folks who've just moved here from other places, it's something that crops up in conversations often. "Everything moves so fast here", "I've never worked so hard in my life" or "People don't seem to take lunch breaks here" are comments I've frequently heard. It makes me understand why some of our medical aids offer special plans with lower premiums for people who live on the coast.

I know that people work hard elsewhere in South Africa, but to me they don't seem so driven, so hellbent on trying to get up the next step on the corporate ladder (although more often than not, it seems more like a status ladder in Joburg). Ask someone from Joburg how life is and the chances are fairly high they'll say "busy!" It's the standard answer. In fact, if you're not busy in Joburg, people might think there's something wrong with you. Busyness and stress are worn as badges of honour here. The busier and more strung out you are, the more successful you must be.

I have friends working their backsides off in Cape Town. But after work they'll all meet up for a drink at the pub or go for a walk on the beach, because it gets dark much later there than here in summer. In fact, when TSC and I led a small group for our church in Cape Town, whenever we hosted a social, our numbers would double or even treble. People would come out of the woodwork. In Joburg, when we have a small group social, our numbers actually halve. People say, "Sorry - if it's just a social, I think I'll skip it and get some work done." I kid you not.

In Joburg, life is all about money and career success. People judge you on the car you drive, the suburb you live in, the brands you wear, the restaurants you eat at and the bling you can show off. It doesn't seem as obvious as that, of course. People from Joburg are some of the friendliest you'll ever meet and I have come to know wonderful friends here that I treasure with my whole heart. But, here in South Africa's smallest of the nine provinces, which produces roughly 35% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), we don't have a huge variety of free entertainment available. No mountains, beaches or winelands... We have shopping malls. Lots of them.

And what are the hard-working folk of Joburg going to do with the money they earn aside from spending it? Weekends see shopping malls, restaurants, entertainment destinations and even car dealerships packed to the max with people, cash and, of course, credit cards. In this widely accepted consumer culture, it's difficult not to get swept up into thinking, "I need a better car / house / wardrobe / lounge suite /whatever else".

TSC and I chatted about it the other day. When we were living and working in Cape Town, we were barely scraping by. We lived in a tiny flat in a really dodgy area, drove second-hand cars that were nothing special, couldn't afford insurance and once in a blue moon we ate at a cheapish restaurant and then had to re-budget for the whole month. We dreamed of one day having a slightly bigger place with a little garden and of TSC being able to own a bakkie (ute / pick-up / light commercial vehicle).

Now, in Joburg, we live in a house that is three times the size of that flat, in a lovely area, with a beautiful garden, and TSC drives his bakkie, which he got brand new, out the box. All our Cape Town dreams have come true.

But we often catch ourselves saying, "Did you see X's new Audi? Wouldn't it be nice to own one of those?" or "We need a swimming pool! We could fit one in the garden if we took out that bit of lawn". Now there's nothing wrong with dreaming and there's nothing wrong with doing the best you can for yourself and your family. To me, there's just a fine line between that and making money everything. I want to keep on the right side of the line. I want to be able to dream and plan, but to be happy with where I am now and with what I have rather than never being satisfied and always chasing after more.

Maybe it's not so much that people in Joburg judge you on what you drive or wear etc. Maybe it's that living in Joburg, surrounded by this incredible wealth, we start to judge ourselves. We compare what our friends or colleagues have with what we have, and we want more.

What can we do about it?

Sometimes I dream of leaving the rat race completely and going to live in a little cottage in the countryside where I can plant a huge veggie garden and be fairly self sufficient. But I love people and I love the city and I would probably curl up and die if I couldn't engage with people on a regular basis. So that's not an option.

Personally, I think part of the solution for surviving the rat race is to stop looking at what everyone else has and count my own blessings. When I start listing those, I am humbled and grateful. Suddenly, having the latest laptop or this season's fashion acessories doesn't seem like such a priority anymore.

Secondly, I think it's important to give. Whether it's time, money or stuff, giving things away stops you getting over-attached to material goods. Engaging with people who have less than you do, and doing something to help them, is a great way to remind yourself of how lucky you are and how privileged.

Thirdly, surviving the rat race is much easier when you're surrounded by like-minded people who keep you grounded. My family are great like this - although my folks have done well in life, they are sensible with their money and very down to earth. TSC and I also cultivate friendships with people who value the same things we do and recognise that there is more to life than being on trend.

I also keep learning to take pleasure in the simple things in life. Smelling my first roses blooming for the season, picking fresh strawberries from my veggie patch, cuddling with my kitties, having a glass of wine on the veranda with TSC, enjoying a great coffee with a special friend or laughing hysterically at my headhunter pal's list of funny CV errors are all things worth enjoying to the full. It makes me realise that my life is filled with opportunities for joy and that there is very little that I actually 'need' aside from what I have.

TSC and I have realised that the mystical work/life balance is something we have to continually work at and that sometimes it might mean turning down an opportunity or more money for the sake of that balance. To give you a simple example, I turned down a potentially lucrative freelance project last week because I already have a lot (too much) work on my plate and I knew that if I said yes, it would mean missing out on our small group social this evening, supper club on Friday, a church event on Saturday and having to work solidly through two weekends in a row. The money would have been nice, but having a few hours of quality time with TSC and with our friends is worth more.

So, after that very long ramble, let me try to get to the point... While October in Joburg may be frustrating, and while Joburg may be a hell of a rat race, there is so much good in my life here and I am thankful for the opportunities this city provides. It's sometimes hard to keep grounded here, but it is possible and I'm going to keep trying.


Hardspear said...

Everywhere I go Black labourers/security guards/truck drivers want to buy my 11 year old car. What I regard as a dated model and a plain boring car is an object of desire to somebody else. I laugh my butt off at this. I know people who would be terrible embarassed had it been them. I don't even mind if someone measure my worth by the car I drive. I refuse to make myself unhappy trying to drive/wear something expensive. But... you are right. One need to watch it... If you do not, you will fall into the trap... and yes it is sometimes hard to keep yourself grounded, and yes... one need to remind yourself to be thankfull.. (says I with a whole blog full of complaints!)

Sorry this comment is a post on it's own

po said...

I like this post very much. I could never survive in a rat race place like Joburg or London. Well, maybe I could if I live like you suggest. But for me balance is the most important thing. I love a 9-5 job that allows me to do other stuff.

Hardspear said...

Oh yes, and who said... 'you may win the rat race, but you still remain a rat!'

Anonymous said...

This is soo true Tamara. Just the other day I was havinf "the chat" with my manager and I told her straight up that money actually does not motivate me. I need a certain amount to provide for Nicola and I and anything above that is a bonus. What does motivate me is having enough free time to be there while my baby grows up and seeing her turn into a little person. She said that she wished she had felt that way when her kids were tiny, because they've grown up without her and they're practically strangers to her.

Tamara said...

Hardspear: You should know by now that I don't mind long comments ;-) I think the whole attitude I'm talking about of money being everything is probably more prevalent in the northern suburbs than Joburg South. What do you think?

Po: I love my work, so having to work longer is not a problem. But without the "other stuff", there's no point. It's the friends, family, adventures and experiences that are what we remember when looking back, rather than work projects.

Hardspear: Exactly ;-)

Louisa: that's awful that your boss feels that way. I'm glad you've got your head right though.

Helen said...

It is a rat race and the October blues are definitely setting in. right now we're all panicking that we want to graduate and we're not far away from having to reregister next year. Actually most of us are going to have to find the ridiculous registration fee and stick around.

My motivation is having a 9-5 job that I can go ome from and not have to worry about, to go out and not feel guilty for 'wasting' work time.

To tell the truth, money doesn't motivate it because I've never earned a real salary. Numbers like 'half a million' are too big for me to understand.

It would be nice if I could go for more than 2 months without my car breaking down though, eventually P1 might get tired of rescuing me from the side of the road...

Tara said...

I stand firmly by my opinion that I could never happily live in Jhb. The pace of life you guys deal with up there is insane. I take my hat off to you; and quitely question your sanity.

But seriously. Hang in there. It will all turn out ok in the end...

Shannon said...

Put Jhb on steroids and you have NYC. My friends in New York get to work at 9 in the morning and they're generally there till 11 or midnight, oftentimes 7 days a week. I stopped calling my best friend on her cell, I only call her office line because she's always there. Seems like an awful way to live to me.

Where did you go to church in CPT? I'm looking for a church.

Shrinky said...

We were every bit as caught up in that same running race, we were the golden couple, high achiever's unable to help wanting more. London is a ripe breeding ground for running yourself on that treadmill.

Life threw me a curve-ball. A disabled child. I gave up my career, and we moved to a tiny little island. My husband still works from London, every other week. Me? I've found paradise. Oddly enough, several families from Joberg hae also found their way here (it's not such a tiny isle that it doesn't have a private educational option). I know from them, the pace you keep over there, and I don't envy you.

Tamara said...

Helen: October blues. I must admit, it's the first I've heard of it, but it makes sense. And yes, having a working car in Jhb would be nice.

Tara: And I don't know if I could ever survive in a small town. I hate the stress of bug city life, but I love the bustle and the fact that there's always something going on. I guess every situation has its pros and cons, hey?

Shannon: I think I would die in NYC. The competition is vicious. I dropped you a link to the church on your blog.

Shrinky: Really, there's Joburgers on your island? I can understand why. I think London's probably worse thank Jhb though. Maybe one day I'll come live in your part of the world. It looks lovely.

Marcia (123 blog) said...

I so love this post.

I've just stumbled onto your blog and I agree 150% with everything you said.

I think I may just have to post because I always have TONS of things to say :)

Nice to meet you, I'll be back.