On Performance Reviews, Mindfulness and Redefining What It Means to ‘Make It’

Is the Present Not Perfect?

The first sunrise of a three-day weekend cheers up a company man like few others. I was in that hopeful glow with my wife this past July 3, a Saturday, just after 9 a.m., having already walked four miles with our son in the stroller, having shared a coffee and a chocolate chip scone, having imagined what it would be like to live in that house or maybe even that house over there, when I opened my phone to see a work email with a subject line: “Your Review Is Now Available.”

My company’s human resources team says they’ve studied the optimal time to send performance reviews. They say that this—the blessed dawn of a three-day weekend—is the most empathetic. Being a practitioner of empathy, I tried to see down the crooked road to their point.

The logic is that employees can receive their reviews, which consist of critiques from peers and bosses, as well as self-critiques, on their own time in their own space, without being surrounded by co-workers. I get that: Nobody wants to read that they meet expectations with Ms. Sets a New Standard to their left or Mr. Needs Improvement to the right. 

Still I imagined my workmates sitting at home, coffee in hand, quiche in the oven—or worse on a beach—reading their reviews while the waves brought the salty tide up to their untanned toes. 

The evaluation exercise is important, I know, in the way that yearly physicals can find a worrisome tumor or a car inspection can save the Earth a few coughs of greenhouse gasses. But every half-decent writer I know is motivated by impostor syndrome anyway, so I’m not sure there’s a lot more to evaluate. This tension is what keeps us good, I suppose, or at least good and drunk.

I’ve never been much of a corporate person, but the drama intrigues me. Three years ago I was working for myself and living a good and simple life, making enough money to live, exploring enough to be alive. 

Then my dad died. A few weeks later the owner of a local startup media outlet asked me to help him build out a team there. I did, and we did. Then that work got blessed in December 2020 when a big and fast-growing company bought our small and fast-growing company.

All that’s to say, in two years I went from throwing office Christmas parties for myself to having an HR department. And meetings. And schedules. And bosses. It’s a terrific company, as far as companies go, with brilliant minds everywhere, along with perks and benefits and stability and honest leadership. Still the independent part of me wonders where that old freelancer went missing, and when the heck I became someone who writes about benefits and stability.

I un-velcroed my son’s baby sandals.

I picked him up and made a goofy laugh in his face, which caused him to laugh in my face. “Who wants a BANANA?” I said, and as we went upstairs with the performance review on the device in my pocket, I wondered whether he’d share a bite with me. Doubtful.

George is 16 months old and evaluates my performance daily through his actions.

He copies most of what my wife Laura and I do. He waves when we wave. He kisses with an open mouth. He’s affectionate, thoughtful, hopeful and learning things at a dizzying rate. When I’m on our exercise bike downstairs grunting through a workout session, I can hear him upstairs mimicking my grunts. Each morning when I take the dog out, George points to his shoes to let me know he’d like to come, too. 

The older I get, the less I’m certain of. But there’s one thing I know: My son’s reviews will keep coming, and if I fail there, the ones in my work inbox won’t mean anything.

* * *

What does “making it” mean to you? In the past year. I’ve worked with people who lived in homeless tent encampments who seem more content than people of my salary range. Possibly because the people of my salary range are looking up to millionaires. And then the millionaires who make more are looking up to the billionaires who fly into space. It’s enough to make you wonder if anyone, at any level, is ever satisfied.

“If you don’t enjoy what you have,” is how an old saying goes, “how could you be happier with more?” 

I became a writer because I wanted to go to Baltimore Orioles games for free. I obsessed over the team and going to games, so when I learned people got paid to sit and watch them, I lined up a sports writing career.

By high school I wanted to write for The Washington Post. By college it was Sports Illustrated. Then Esquire. The typical staircase to those jobs blew up shortly after I entered the field, as newspapers struggled and magazines did, too. I adapted, recalibrated goals, learned new skills. Now I manage the editorial for one of the more successful local media outlets in the country, Axios Charlotte. On weekdays I write a newsletter for 100,000 subscribers. It’s fun and fulfilling, but not at all part of what was the plan. 

I’m almost 42, now 20 years into this career, hopefully with another 20 or 30 left. By the time I retire, I imagine writers like me will probably just be transferring words from our brains to yours through some digital worm.

So I focus on the relationships, not the mechanics. I’ve accumulated a heap of close friends who happen to be some of the best writers in America. I’ve won awards and written big national stories. I have a book coming out in November (ahem, The Vote Collectors) that’s receiving kind reviews from people I respect. The other day my publisher spilled the news that it would be their lead title for the fall. How about that? 

By many measures I’ve made it. I grew up in a middle-class home, the son of a Chesapeake Bay fisherman who melted lead to make his own sinkers to save a few cents. 

Fifteen years ago I made $22,500 a year working the night shift on a small-town sports desk. The next job paid $33,000. It progressed from there, each “made it” a little closer to “making it,” wherever I was going.

But now I’m starting to wonder if making it isn’t so much a fixed place in life but a drug. 

* * *

The X-ray technician wore a Superman apron when she rolled the machine into George’s hospital room.

This was Memorial Day Sunday (another three-day weekend). I’d been patting out burgers when I heard thumps against the floor behind me. Laura had missed the bottom step while carrying George. A hero since the day he was born, she managed to keep his head from hitting the hardwood. But her leg landed on his leg. He wailed the saddest song, and we went straight to the children’s emergency room.

As we checked in, I thought about those stairs they’d fallen down.

The house we live in now is one of only two I’ve ever lived in that’s more than a single story. We’d moved into this place in December 2020, for all the reasons people moved into bigger homes during a pandemic—more space, a designated office. Boring, practical stuff.

We loved the old home, a sweet 1947-built brick house with dogwoods out front and oaks in back. Our dog thrived at finding dead animals to roll around in. Our neighbors were generous souls. But it was small. We couldn’t watch the news without waking George up, couldn’t go to the bathroom without everyone in the house knowing. So just before Halloween, Laura showed me a listing for a brand-new three-story townhome with one of those stainless-steel hoods over the stove, and other things I’d only seen at wealthier friends’ houses or on HGTV.

We put the sweet brick house on the market on Election Day 2020. It happened to be the first day George went to daycare, too. We had three showings before he got home. We had an offer by the time the polls closed. It felt good to have a house someone wanted, but it also makes you wonder what you’re giving up. 

A month later, after we’d finished moving our things, we scrubbed the old house and took a few pictures of ourselves out front. Before we locked the door for the last time, Laura penciled a faint note above the door frame inside the guest closet: “We brought our baby George home to this house, March 2020. A special home.” 

There’s nothing written on the walls of the new townhouse. We’re the first residents. It’s blocks away from one of the most vibrant neighborhood centers in one of the fastest-growing cities in America. As I write this, I’m on the balcony and can hear music from one of the venues down the street. George likes to watch the city bus go by from this perch and hold his arm to the heavens and say, “Ahhh.”

Is that making it? Or am I just one review away from losing it? 

As the doctors rolled the wrap over a splint over George’s stress-fractured leg, I wondered whether we were all moving too fast, turning corners too soon, working too much, adding too many stairs.

* * *

My performance review was fine, by the way. Turns out I’m harder on myself in the self-eval than my peers and bosses are on me. 

But I grade myself on a different set of standards. I have, since the first essay I wrote for this magazine, been on a fruitless quest not for achievement but for balance. A friend who raised two sharp young men tells me that fatherhood is about being “present not perfect,” and that makes sense.

My father never brought home more than a few thousand dollars a year from his fishing business. But he was always there to pick us up from school or coach a ball team. He could choose his own schedule, and he chose to put us first.

Now Laura and I send George to daycare from morning to evening, mostly so that we can work to afford to send him to daycare. Such a sentence would baffle my father. But it goes like this: I get up at 5:20 a.m. to meet our copyeditor to send that morning’s newsletter at 6. George wakes up like a robin, each day at 6:05. We watch Sesame Street, eat bananas and yogurt, and then we’ll put him in the car seat at 8 and we’re off. Laura picks him up around 4:30. If it’s a busy news day, I’ll be working until close to bath time that evening. I’ve never minded working long hours, but missing even a half-hour with George bruises me.

Now that it’s time to set a new set of goals for the next six months, I’ll be honest: I’m still trying to figure out how they all align, the ones at work and the ones at home, and if it’s possible to be a satisfied daily journalist and a satisfied daily parent.

A memory sometimes flashes across my mind. It’s of me and my brother on the floor playing with matchbox cars. Dad’s in a recliner and mom’s on the couch. We’re making too much noise and Dad’s frustrated that he can’t hear the television. Then my mom asks, “Are you happy, Freddie?” I don’t know if he truly was, but I remember what he said: “Of course. I’ve got you, and I’ve got these two boys. What else do I need?” I remember bounding across the floor with the toy cars, feeling rather accomplished as a son.

Stuff like that sticks. Now I want to get home at 5:30, because bedtime’s at 7. I want to exercise enough to be able to run with him one day. To be there when he throws a sock at his foot because he now knows that’s where it goes. And, of course, I want to be there to spend time with Laura. 

* * *

One weekend after the performance review, we secured our first overnight babysitter and drove up to the mountains to see a concert. A few songs in, we were the warp-brained parents who started talking about how we wished our toddler was there.

More than hugs or kisses or anything else, music is George’s medicine. Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” is his go-to. No matter what, when the acoustic guitar takes off, he stops crying and goes off bobbing his head around the house.

“Well the road rolls out like a welcome mat,” the first lyric goes, “to a better place than the one we’re at.”

And the chorus: “It don’t matter to me, wherever we are’s where I want to be.”

“Wow,” a doctor said while checking out his splint in the hospital, “he really likes that song.” 

George had trouble accepting the news of the stress fracture. He’d just figured out how to walk, and now his leg was failing him. For the next couple of weeks, each time he’d stand he’d fall down again and weep.

He didn’t sleep. He ate less than usual. He’d sit on his bottom with the most confused face you ever saw, a freelancer who wasn’t free.  

He ripped off the splint on the first night. And he kept trying — rising and falling and crying. Until one Thursday afternoon about two weeks later, we watched him push himself up and stand with his hands out for balance. This time he didn’t cry or fall. Instead he took a wobbly step. Followed by another. And then he started laughing, having made it.

During an acoustic-heavy song that first overnight date without George, I looked over at Laura and she started imitating his head bob. I recognized it right away. It’s goofy. It’s earnest. It’s his. I doubled over laughing at how life exceeds expectations in those rare and precious moments when you’re wherever you want to be. 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by @crystalmariesing/Twenty20

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Michael Graff is the editor-in-chief of Charlotte Agenda. His work has appeared in publications around the country, and he's been a notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing. Reach him at [email protected].

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