The Saturday Pact

Dustin Moskovitz recently wrote an article about workaholism in Silicon Valley and its detriment to both workers’ happiness and productivity. As I’ve learned at Stanford, the issue doesn’t affect just full-timers but college students too. Here’s one struggle for work-life balance.

On Saturday, February 14th, the sun is shining over Stanford. The grass is green, the flowers in bloom. Love, and the garlicky odors of our campus cafe CoHo, are in the air.

On Saturday, February 14th, I spent two hours crying on the side of a road about half a mile off Stanford’s campus, unaccompanied, unfed, and three-days unshowered.

While I cry, I’m completely aware it’s Valentine’s Day, and the fact I am where I am while the rest of the world’s eating chocolate and getting laid makes me cry even more. My only shoulder to lean on is the shoulder of this gravel road, full of dust, debris and other dead things. Life is a Nicholas Sparks romance.

Winter is considered the most challenging quarter of the Stanford schoolyear because the temperature drops a whopping 5 degrees and a bouquet of unappealing courses rears its ugly head to the world. For that reason, students often equate winter quarter with death, an uncomfortable comparison given the ableism and the privilege inherent to a Stanford education. People would “die” to go here.

From an outsider’s perspective, winter quarter was actually a good quarter for me. Very, very good. The photoseries I’d started to celebrate women in tech Women of Silicon Valley was exploding mere weeks into its existence, and I was on Fortune, CNN, Buzzfeed and Italy’s national publication Corriere della Sera all before my 22nd birthday. My network expanded to people I’d only dreamed of meeting before.

On the outset, winter quarter was one of the best times for my career. But it was one of the worst times for me as a human.

When I wasn’t juggling massive coding projects, I spent all my free time either interviewing women for the blog or emailing, emailing, emailing. I became the textbook example for sleep deprivation and bragged deliriously about it to classmates: “I didn’t go to bed until 6 AM last night. Or I suppose this morning! Ha!” To make up for lost sleep I ingested a shameful amount of coffee and suffered migraines for anything less than 4 cups/day. I cried about things that didn’t usually make me cry, got angry about things that didn’t usually make me angry.

I became so adept at emailing I was consistently responding to multiple threads at once, all while ducking in and out of classroom discussion to feign enough participation for my grade. I walked through Stanford’s beautiful campus, aware of nothing but my phone.

I had mastered the art of being there without really being there.

I had mastered life on auto-pilot — doing without thinking — and it was one of the most unfulfilling sensations of my young life.

In late January, I was contacted by a Fortune editor to write about my experience as a female Computer Science major. I did, and the reception was viral, if not for the most part supportive. But having led a rather simple existence, one in which the only drama may or may not have entailed a $1 hike in Chipotle’s guacamole prices, I found myself suddenly bombarded with angry, virtual commentary.

I’d never read Sarah Adler’s “Never Read the Comments,” so I read them all. And I learned the painful way that people on the Internet, secure and shrouded in anonymity behind their keyboards, are mean.

Comments ranged from the borderline comical…

Give this man a mic.

…to not very comical at all.

And despite the overwhelming support I received from friends and family, having all my trials and tribulations, including my sexual harassment, reduced to me simply being a “young, whiney bitch” still hurt. I couldn’t handle it. So I ignored my feelings away, reassumed auto-pilot, and let all the inadequacies I’d read about myself on the Internet fester beneath the surface.

Which brings me to Valentine’s Day. More than ever, confronted by feelings and humanity and expressions of love all around me, I felt the crushing weight of my robotic life — and finally, I couldn’t carry it anymore. I hiked up to the top of the Dish, sat in a ditch and just cried.

Although there’s probably some shame in a Valentine’s Day spent crying, I’m not ashamed. 2/14/2015 held a significance no romantic date ever could because it was the turning point in a very challenging and formative period of my life.

It was the realization that mental and physical health matter, and they’re as much a personal obligation as any homework or e-mail, actually more — because on a purely economic level, if I’m not healthy I’m not producing my best work. If I’m not healthy, I’m not being the best sister / daughter / friend I can be. And more selfishly, if I’m not healthy I’m not happy.

I picked up the pieces, took a goddamn shower, and began scheduling time everyday for something I looked forward to. I traded meals with my phone for meals with friends. I took up floral photography and began walking around campus a lot more, something that’s made me happy since freshman year.

When I left for Florence to study abroad, it was even easier to find things outside work that fulfilled me. Living in a society far removed from Silicon Valley I found there’s much more to life than making your next million. There’s non-electronic communication and really, really good food.

I’d finally found an inherent value in my self and my world that was not based on my market value. I found the clarity of mind to see how unhealthy I’d been. And with sadness, I found that many people back home were still mired in an endless winter quarter: stretching themselves thin, letting unresolved feelings boil over, and sacrificing their few opportunities for leisure, recuperation and emotional maintenance for more work.

When I left Italy I made a pact with myself to never have a quarter like winter quarter again.

More specifically, I made a pact to “unplug” from work every Saturday.

No e-mails, no coding, no Facebook on my personal Shabbat. The only time I touch my phone is to call family/friends.

Perhaps you’ll find me next Saturday crouched over my laptop in the dark recesses of some Stanford library, possessed gleam in eyes, smuggled Chipotle in hand. But I prefer to think you’ll find me cooking or hiking or catching up with old friends in the City. I like to think next Valentine’s Day I won’t be alone, but in the company of good friends.

Or at least showered. I really need to shower.