Both of my bosses are trying to help us survive this month – in very different ways. As 9 out of 10 Americans practice social distancing, my two worlds have collided. During this surreal moment I’m looking for guidance from women you are seeing on TV everyday, and who I report to regularly, on how to stay healthy and sane.
One of the women I work for, Dr. Deborah Birx, is currently the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. Normally she runs the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program where I work on HIV prevention and women’s health issues. We are used to operating at full speed for her to design and support HIV/AIDS programs around the world, racing to end the AIDS epidemic. Until last month, only those of us in the global health world knew she was a force to be reckoned with. Now she is on TV everyday so everyone in America is starting to see that as well — or can at least recognize her as the blond woman with the scarves. Even my mother finally started staying inside two weeks ago because “Dr. Birx said so.”
My other boss, Marie Kondo, has gained fame over the last several years for sparking joy around world through books, television and Internet folding memes. She became a household name seemingly overnight in 2019 as her Netflix hit “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” swept the nation. Since 2016 I’ve been one of Marie’s 700+ certified KonMari consultants spread around the world, helping individuals and companies use her method to bring order into closets and corporate spaces throughout the Washington, D.C. area. This week, her newest book, “Joy at Work,” is being released at a moment when work has been reimagined for most people seemingly overnight thanks to quarantine orders, mass lay-offs and the narrowing of what it means to be “essential” in today’s economy. Marie’s website says that the book, co-authored with Scott Sonenshein, “offers stories, studies and strategies to help you eliminate clutter and make space for work that really matters.”
What normally would have been a natural vehicle in which Marie can teach her loyal fans how to apply the magic of tidying up to their professional lives is appearing during a two-week period that has seen 10 million Americans apply for unemployment. This has skyrocketed of course in part because of the social distancing guidelines Dr. Birx has put in place thanks to a virus that spreads easily and silently throughout our workplaces, communities and everywhere else we would normally find joy around other people. Marie couldn’t have anticipated how differently work would look today while writing her book any more than I could have expected two fashion Instagram accounts highlighting what Dr. Birx wears during press briefings to appear. What can we say: pandemics have a way of changing everything about our lives.
So, can we still find joy at work when everything about most jobs have just changed? I’ve been thinking a lot more recently about what I’ve learned about work from these women, both leaders in their fields, over the last few years of trying to find joy in the jobs I do for them simultaneously.
When I took a break from working for PEPFAR in 2016 to become a certified KonMari consultant, lots of people wondered what I was thinking. The need to declutter my career had overwhelmed me, and nothing seemed more soothing than getting paid to create orderly spaces for people in their homes. So I said goodbye to the intensity and frustration from 15+ years of working on HIV prevention programs for a little while so I could bask in the soft-boss energy put out by Marie Kondo. I didn’t know how I could fit my training and interest in public health and home organizing together and for a while, they didn’t. I felt like I was always torn between contributing to a hugely meaningful global health response and helping people one-on-one in their homes to find peace and order. In an effort to put off deciding if one was better for me than the other, I’ve spent the last two years splitting my weeks up: half the week I work for Dr. Birx at the PEPFAR office, and half the week I see KonMari methodTM clients through my company, Declutter DC.
Being two people every other day was draining, thinking I had to constantly pick only one of their missions to support at a time. Eventually I realized keeping these interests artificially separated was the problem – I just had to take the bigger lessons I was getting from each of them and go from there. Like when I was visiting a hospital in Ndola, Zambia in June last year to see how a PEPFAR cervical cancer activity was progressing. I walked into the filing room and saw overflowing cabinets of patients records, theoretically organized by date and last name and yet as I stood there and watched one of the nurses search for ten minutes for a specific chart for their program I knew that their work was being made more difficult because of all the extra, old and unused items stuffed into antiquated filing systems. It took me back to the floor of a client’s home in D.C. who wept as we weeded through old marriage photos and mementos from a relationship that had long since ended, the stacks of which weighed her down even though the partner had long since left. These things we pile up around us keep us from moving forward in our work, in our relationships, no matter what the context.
In September I gave a lunch-time presentation on the KonMari method to my colleagues at our PEPFAR office in a State Department annex. We talked about how to use Marie Kondo’s method to clear out the clutter at home, but also how to apply it to the work we do for Dr. Birx so that we can prioritize our energy and our actions when everything feels like an emergency and our to-do lists are cluttered with meetings and data sets to analyze. Everyone felt torn about how to keep up with the AIDS epidemic while taking care of ourselves and our families.
This month feels like that day. We are all grasping for anything that will help us feel in control while we try to balancesurviving a pandemic with carving out some semblance of normalcy in our personal spaces. Working for Dr. Birx has meant an unwavering commitment to the vision that an end to the AIDS epidemic is possible if you use the right data, find the correct interventions and partner with the best people to move forward. The beauty of Marie’s “Joy at Work” message is that you don’t have to give up caring about weighty, complicated issues like coronavirus or AIDS or America’s broken healthcare system to also care about your own future. You use the joy that your bigger vision offers you, like being able to walk outside in June and hug your friends, and you let that guide your next step. Allocating time for focusing on job applications. Calling your legislators to advocate for unemployment benefits for your neighbors. Keeping your vision of a better future in mind within the hours that mark your days.
I’ve been listening to my bosses this week on the news, in every major paper, thinking about how what they say today relates to what they’ve been telling me for years. Dr. Birx is setting guidelines about social distancing that will literally save our lives, while Marie is giving us a structure to imagine our futures. Dr. Birx wants us to establish physical boundaries between one another to flatten the curve of this pandemic, while Marie teaches the importance of setting spiritual connections to manifest a more joyful future. No one leader ever offers everything, but together these two can teach us important lessons on how to move forward, together (six feet apart), so that once it is safe to get back outside and into our workplaces again we haven’t completely forgotten what joy feels like.