Literally and metaphorically, we define it as “the distance traveled.”
But not all mileage on life’s many road trips is equal, nor are all distances even perceptible. While some of our journeys beg for acknowledgement, others we prefer to travel under (emotional) cover.
Crossing a finish line, recovering from illness, giving birth, publishing a book — all observable, and anyone paying attention can easily see and appreciate the miles — both where we started and how far we’ve come. Recognition, even applause, is implied and often expected for certain labors. These miles have what I think of as two-way visibility. Easy to witness another’s joy (or pain) from the outside, easy to feel witnessed on the inside.
But there are other journey’s that are more of an “inside job” — times we each need to make our way through certain dark forests in what feels akin to the middle of the night. This is mileage where the emotional complexity calls for privacy and anonymity. We are the sole decider of what to reveal, and when (if ever.) This is analogous to one-way visibility — only we know our true circumstances, despite what iceberg tip can be seen from outside. We might be beset with rage, grief, chagrin or despondency, but no matter how high or low the volume internally, to the world we go dark and quiet for a spell. Nearby “witnesses” have to make nuanced decisions about how to express empathy, knowing that the “walker” has signaled social hibernation.
Of course, we are both “walker” and “witness” at any given time.
As the walker, the need for recognition — or, conversely, secrecy — is threaded to a complex web of what being “seen” in our mileage (then) means. Do I want people to know about my journey? What part? How much?
How we witness others in their respective miles traveled also bears some responsibility. How do we appreciate, identify, raise a glass? What is “enough”?
But, because visibility isn’t always two-way, it’s not simply the fork-in-the-road I’ve presented above. For one, there are the invisible miles — the kind we long to be seen in but (logistically or otherwise) can be hard for others to observe (and acknowledge).
Paperwork. Consider all the onerous admin you do for work-life or home-life, for the benefit of everyone involved. Bills paid, insurance claims filed, disputes waged — these get little (if any) credit. Necessary work, but largely invisible.
Future-planning. If you’re the magical fairy who books the vacation, invests the dollars, anticipates the waitlist — the forethought tasks, I call them — you know that while everyone appreciates them when they bear fruit, the months and weeks beforehand go largely unnoticed.
Housework is a famously underappreciated exertion that needs no explanation.
Maybe more significantly, but less discussed, is emotional labor. Are you always the one to make amends, investigate the feeling, anticipate the gift, manage the client/in-law/tricky friendship? Do you hold space where someone else sucks up air?
Invisible work can be classified as, “effort that’s hard to see or measure.” Some people need more appreciation for invisible work than others. But voiced or not, most of us wouldn’t mind more noticing here.
But there’s another, even more convoluted dimension to the mileage conversation: What happens when we agree on two-way visibility (we both think we’re seeing the same kind of mileage), but perception of miles traveled is still vastly different?
One of my favorite, (okay, irksome) examples of this gap is what I like to call, “the Great Start problem.”
As a copywriter, I work with creative agencies on strategy and messaging projects. Because of my role in the process, I am often the first person on the team to put ideas to paper — to press “send” on one of several rounds of words and concepts. This initial thinking — my first draft — can take days or weeks.
Whether the work is bullseye or not, being the first to submit work calls for a little egoic Teflon. I still have butterflies when I submit the words, even two-decades down the road. But what I’m (at least) sure of is that my mind has collected enough mileage over the years to assume my first draft is part one of a strong creative iteration.
So, when a creative director or other agency lead says the following words, I feel an emotional road flare go up. Those two words are, “great start.”
Seems innocent enough.
Surely, they mean to be encouraging.
But, what I actually hear is:
“You’ve barely touched the problem we’re trying to solve.”
There’s a mileage gap here (regardless of whether my perception of “great start” is valid or not.) The beginning for them isn’t at all the beginning for me, ten-plus hours (+20 years) into the work.
“Great start” underestimates what it takes to make meaning from a blank page.
“Great start” presumes minimal effort, despite maximum (if early) thinking.
But this is not a writing rant.
Imagine looking at early sketches for what will become a watercolor and telling the artist, “great start.” Unless this is a student who started two hours ago, it’s a bummer.
Think of a child at work on a sandcastle — whether it’s award-winning or dilapidated. Unless you know it’s only been 10 minutes of building, “great start” may offend the kid who started on it three hours ago.
The architect of effort/creative output, whatever her experience level, may not resonate with (the potentially condescending) “great start.”
There’s no mal intent in it, but there is a misunderstanding of miles traveled. The consequence? It’s defeating.
A defeated creative doesn’t want to stay on the project.
A defeated employee doesn’t want to show up for work.
A defeated child/spouse/friend doesn’t want to try… at all.
It’s interesting that it’s not just that we are seen, but that the depth and breadth of the work we put forth can be met with right-sized mileage.
So, how to be a more valuable witness to the miles invested — even when they are impossible to see?
Assume generously. The beginning for one is rarely the start for another.
Be specific in recognition. The best shout-outs include something that could only be said to that person — not the general public.
The luckiest among us have a handful of astute witnesses who are truly therapeutic in this sense. They reliably see us. Recognize them for that gift.
As for me, the “walker” in this case, I’m working on a better internal response to “great start.”
Miles traveled? I’m calling it a slow start.