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Imani McGee-Stafford on What the Pandemic Taught Her About Hustle Culture

You can’t wait until things are perfect or less hard to be happy, to choose joy.

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Imani McGee-Stafford

I am currently writing this on a yacht in Greece. It sounds extravagant, I know. While here, I have attended summer classes for law school. I have also written a petition for readmission after being academically disqualified. I have sat on this boat in paradise and exhausted my network for letters of support, asking them to professionally vouch for me and my ability to finish this JD program. I sold my home, so that I could have less financial burden, because law school is expensive. I have yet to decide where I am going to live, mainly because I am waiting to see if I will be readmitted and allowed the opportunity to finish my last year of law school in person. But in the meantime, I am experiencing Greece. I am having a once in a lifetime experience with people that care about me. I am drinking champagne as if the life I will return to is not in shambles.

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Imani McGee-Stafford

My family and my agent were upset that I chose to go on this trip. They thought that it would send a message that I wasn’t invested, or that I was being flippant about the very real possibility that I may be permanently kicked out of law school. Also, for reference, this was a free trip with a close friend—not that it matters. After a conversation with one of my school’s deans when I initially learned of my academic disqualification (a conversation that did not go well), I called my friend and told her I wasn’t going to come. But after she calmed me down, I realized staying behind would not change the outcome of my school’s decision. Did I need to post that I was sad and in distress for them to believe I take law school seriously? Did I need to visibly struggle to be worthy of an opportunity or second chance? For a slight moment, I believed the answer to that was “yes”. But then I realized that ultimately, their decision was out of my control and life would keep going. Quite frankly, struggle no longer needs to be a part of my origin story. So here I am, my life arguably in shambles, but enjoying it, nonetheless. 

My first draft of this article was quite terrible, but that was because I was trying to avoid talking about this. I am embarrassed that I was not able to seamlessly complete this task like I’ve done so many before. I am a bit sad that I was not above the very system I know and critique, that it still proved to be a barrier for me. I am worried and nervous that all I risked for this dream to become a lawyer was not worth it, because I’ll be academically disqualified and forced to start over, or return to basketball without my JD. 

Struggle does not have to be a part of your origin story. You do not have to fail and fight and scrap to deserve opportunity. We are all deserving of the opportunity and chance to both dream and pursue those dreams, despite the systems and propaganda that tell us otherwise. We may not all be able to accomplish those dreams, but we deserve the chance. You do not have to grovel or cry or have some sad story to make you deserving. You do not have to visibly struggle for others to think you are worthy of opportunity. You deserve to enjoy this life. You are playing against the house, the goalposts will continually move, and you will have missed out on moments trying to prove you are worthy of something that should have been afforded to you, regardless.

I challenge you to think of life as more than a series of accomplishments and a mission to garner as much as you can before you leave. I challenge you to live, to be here with me in this moment, and every moment after this. 

Impact Over Influence

We are taught to strive for positions and titles, born with this inherent competitiveness. For people of color, that means we are consistently told that our good isn’t good enough. We are told we have to be twice as good, to be considered for even half of the opportunities of our fairer skin counterparts. There is no try, only do. And if you refuse to listen, or subscribe to this belief, failure is surely around the corner. But I want us to think of success differently. 

I have lived or visited over 15 countries and the US is the only country I’ve experienced thus far that glorifies work in this way. I am not saying that other countries don’t work hard, quite the contrary. I am saying other countries do not define themselves by their work or their need to work. They understand that there is more to life than work, than hustling, than striving for the next milestone or promotion. I want us to live this way too. 

I am not built for labor. I’m sure you are not either. I believe and embody this. I do have to work for a living and to pay my bills and live in such a way that I can take care of myself. However, my work will not kill me. It will not consume me. It will not take my joy or my passion. If we have learned anything during this pandemic, it is that our time is precious. It is that these companies and corporations will still survive with or without us. They will grow while we struggle. They will profit while escaping taxes and not paying us our worth; to be very clear, your worth will never be encompassed by a position or salary. 

What if we understood and quantified success by the impact we make on those around us instead of the arbitrary titles we strive to reach. What if we told our children no title or accomplishment could make them more worthy or enough than they were merely by being themselves? You will die one day, hopefully far from now, but you won’t be able to take your titles or accolades or accomplishments with you. When people gather, I doubt you want them to state how neat your paperwork was or how you never missed a deadline or always showed up to work on time. Maybe you will be okay with your life fitting into three or four cardboard filing boxes, encompassing your desk or office, but I challenge you to want more, to view your experience here as more than the sum of your work.

imani mcgee stafford poem
Imani McGee-Stafford

Choose Joy Even in the Midst of Struggle

I have recently been wondering what good all of the accolades, accomplishments and milestones are if you have no one to bring them home to, if you have no time to enjoy the fruit of your labor. There will always be another assignment, goal, task to complete, but the days will continue ticking down. You can’t wait until things are perfect or less hard to be happy, to choose joy. I think that is something I’ve learned while traveling. Outside of mental illness of course, happiness is a choice. I have been to the wealthiest of homes in western Africa, and to slums in eastern Africa; I have been to volunteer in Singapore and high-rises in Taiwan, but the circumstances do not dictate joy. I don’t think we as Americans understand that concept enough. There will always be reasons to be unhappy, circumstances hindering your daily pursuits. But you can choose joy.

It’s not about winning the battle every day; it’s just about putting up a good fight—acknowledging that, today, in this moment, you will not be defeated. The victory is in perseverance. Things will never be easy, for most of us at least. However, I have seen people with so much less than me enjoy and love and live. It is humbling to say the least, when we think of the people with bigger problems than our own, and their ability to persist. This is not to discount our experiences, but I have lived a life riddled with pain and hurt, and these days, I choose joy. 

I’m a very anxious person. Stillness has often been hard for me. I’m a planner. A woman of a thousand dreams and a thousand lives to live. Often too busy worrying about yesterday or planning tomorrow to truly embrace and experience today. However, the pandemic, among other things, has forced me to be still, for better or for worse. I have begun repeating to myself: “Yesterday brought its own set of worries, tomorrow will surely bring more. So today, if only for this moment, I will enjoy,” in an effort to slow down and truly be present. I hope this helps you value today and all the moments in between now and forever. There are so many good things outside of and before the goal or destination. Remember that. 

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