In the past week, I have found myself taking a break from my writing to get my car inspected and shoes repaired; to install a password manager on various computers around the house and help my partner fix her desktop computer; to shop for groceries, fix food and do the dishes; to make medical appointments for myself and my elderly stepfather; to drive my son to his boarding school; to drop off my dry cleaning; to change money I had brought back from Europe; and a myriad other small tasks.
You probably have your own list of chores, and it might well be longer and more onerous than mine. And, like me, you might well find yourself gnashing your teeth when you have to run your errands. Yet over the past week, I have come to embrace the joy of drudgery — the gratification that comes from chores completed, tasks ticked off the to-do list.
This epiphany came to me while I was working on a particularly irksome task — repairing an iMac computer that did not shut down properly. I spent an hour or so trying various fixes that I read about online. Nothing worked. Then I called Apple and spoke for another half-hour with a technician who couldn’t identify the problem either. He suggested I bring it into my local Apple store.
A couple of days later, on Wednesday afternoon, I unplugged the iMac and hauled it to the store in a taxi. The iMac has many fine qualities, I discovered, but portability is not one of them. Lugging it was as awkward as typing with your eyes closed. The technician at the Genius Bar ran a series of tests and went through the lengthy process of reinstalling the operating system. When the process was finished, I logged in to see if I could actually shut the computer down. I held my breath as it powered down. When I saw the blinking white cursor finally disappear from the black screen, I could exhale. Mission accomplished! Then, after more than two hours, I had to do my journey in reverse, hauling the computer home.
I was at first annoyed at the time away from my writing, but then something surprising happened. I found that my frustration at work foregone was more than offset by the feeling of satisfaction I received from having solved a discrete problem. I had the same feeling with many of my other chores. In the process, I discovered a small spark of happiness that often eludes me in my professional activities.
Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do and realize I am supremely lucky to be able to make my living by writing and speaking about the news of the day. I find contentment in the craft of writing and fulfillment in self-expression. But I do sometimes wonder what I am actually accomplishing. Much of my journalism for the past four years has been devoted to critiquing President Trump and opposing the spread of Trumpism. But no matter how many columns or sound bites I produce, he remains in office, acting (as Sharpiegate shows) more erratically than ever. Sure, he’s not terribly popular — but he could still be reelected. I am left to ask if all my work has made any difference.
This is sadly typical of the scribbler’s fate. Irving Kristol was correct to write, “What rules the world is ideas, because ideas define the way reality is perceived.” Even so, those of us in the ideas business seldom have the pleasure of seeing our words translated directly into action. Often the process of writing can feel like spitting into the ocean. And when you do achieve results, the consequences are seldom what you imagined; I think, for example, of my misguided advocacy for the Iraq War.
Chores are much more modest in their impact, but they produce much more measurable results much faster than any piece of writing. The computer works. The dishes are clean. The doctor is seen. Not very significant, perhaps. But strangely satisfying.
Retired Adm. William H. McRaven, the former Special Operations commander, had this insight in mind when he gave a celebrated commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014 extolling the importance of making your bed. “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another,” he said. His conclusion: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
I don’t know if I can ever change the world, but at least I can change the oil in my car. (My next chore.) And maybe, just maybe — I am starting to realize as I turn 50 — that’s good enough.