Imagining it is the first step towards change

I was at lunch the other day with two good friends of mine, and over sushi we had a conversation about what is considered an acceptable way to work – acceptable not only by society or according to organizational norms, but what we ourselves consider acceptable. We talked about how this may hold us back from creating a lifestyle that we truly want and can live with.

In organizational culture, there is a relatively narrow view of what a good or successful career path looks like. Mainstream careers are still quite linear and as an employee you are expected to be committed, constantly available, and to want to advance according to a certain pattern and timetable. I, as well as others, have argued that the career models that prevail in organizations today haven’t really kept up and don’t necessarily correspond to how contemporary individuals want to work, nor do they accommodate our needs.

However, talking to my friends made me realize that, not only do prevalent career models and working cultures hold us back, we also do it ourselves. A person may opt out of a certain job or lifestyle that isn’t working for him or her, simply to opt back in to more of the same because we have been taught, and are conditioned to believe that we need to follow certain norms and ways of working. We may feel guilty or pressured by this hectic culture in which we live to follow these norms, instead of investing time, and perhaps money, in creating the lifestyle that we really want. We need to allow ourselves to slow down, even when we are expected to rush off and be busy, in order to create the new lifestyle we want.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, talks about how people are individually responsible for setting a pace at work that they can live with. She says you need to just say no if it’s too much, because your employer won’t. Your employer will always ask for more. I have argued that it can’t only be the employee’s responsibility; the employer must also take responsibility for not working their people into the ground. Not everyone is as senior and established as Sandberg, and saying no may feel like a big risk.

But Sheryl Sandberg also has a point. Maybe it isn’t only the outdated, and for many people inadequate, career models that are holding us back from leading lives that are balanced and that give us energy. Maybe it’s also us. We’re so conditioned to work in a certain way – to have a certain work ethic – that it’s hard to break out of that pattern. However, there is hope.

According to philosopher and social theorist Cornelius Castoriadis (and his work on the social imaginary), people have a capacity to imagine something new that does not already exist in society. And if you can imagine it, you have already enabled the change. So that’s what we need to do. We need to continue imagining what our lives should be like, and then ignore possible inner voices that tell us that it isn’t good enough.

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How do you decide to opt out?

Researching opting out has been incredibly inspirational for me in many ways. It’s been a very personal project – I opted out of my own business career in 2009. But it is also because of all the interesting and exciting discussions I’ve had on opting out over the past five or so years. I don’t think I’ve met a single person who didn’t have at least some thoughts or opinions on opting out. When people find out what I do, they often want to talk about it. They either know someone who has opted out, they might have done it themselves, or they just wish they could do it too.

However, even though they may want to or dream about it, most people don’t opt out. If so many people want to opt out, why aren’t more doing it? I don’t think the main answer here is money. Yes, money plays in, and quitting your job is a risk. But we have to remember, according to my definition of opting out, opting out means opting in to doing something else, to another way of working or living. One opting out myth is that it is only women with rich husbands who opt out. The truth is, most people who opt out need to be able to support themselves and continue to do so after having opted in to a new lifestyle. Many of the women I interviewed were married to husbands who could support them if needed, but I have also interviewed single moms, women who are single and don’t have children, and women who were the main breadwinners in their family before opting out.

No, there is another reason, and that is that opting out is a huge change, it is stepping out into the unknown and that is scary. It is hard to imagine anything other than the way of life you know. In my research I have found that people don’t opt out until they have some sort of defining moment – a crisis of some sort – that pushes them to take the step. It can be health problems, a conflict of interests at work, an identity crisis, a death, anything really, but it is a moment when they realize they can’t go on this way. There is a sense of urgency and they opt out without having any grand plan, and figure it out as they go.

People ever so often ask me for advice on how to opt out. Opting out is romanticized in the media, you often see stories of happy people who have changed their lives and started doing something completely different. There is no shortage of self-help books on how to change your life, how to find your authentic you, how to be happy, and there is a huge market for life coaching. But still, people don’t know how to opt out, and I can’t very well tell them to go and have a crisis and the rest will figure itself out…

A friend of mine posted a quotation on Facebook a while ago: “Never be afraid to fall apart because it is an opportunity to rebuild yourself in the way you wish you had been all along.” – Rae Smith.

I find this worrisome, how can you glorify falling apart? A lot of people who fall apart don’t manage to put themselves back together. How can it be that you need to have a crisis in order to create a life that you can live with?

What if we lived in a culture that didn’t make us want to opt out in the first place? What if working cultures allowed us to be ourselves and embrace who we are, and to combine work and other areas of life in a way that felt meaningful? What would that look like?

Welcome to The Opting Out Blog

I recently finished my PhD on opting out. For those of you who follow the media, especially in the US, there has been quite a lively debate on opting out during the past decade or so. However, based on these debates it seems the jury is still out regarding whether or not opting out really is a phenomenon, or whether this just is something created by the media, as yes, it’s a good story and it sells. Especially in this age of reinvention, of finding your dreams, of longing to be somewhere else doing something else.

However, the debate has largely missed something very important. While the debate has mostly been about women who leave their careers to stay home full time with their kids, it’s completely missed that this might, in fact, be a contemporary and societal phenomenon. Actually, I tend to agree with the skeptics that claim that there is no evidence that women are opting out in any large or rising numbers to quit work altogether. I think the trend is about something else.

It’s about both men and women, and it’s about leaving mainstream, sometimes traditional ways of working and living to create lifestyles where one can live and work on one’s own terms, creating one’s own definition of success. I think contemporary individuals increasingly don’t want to do things in a certain way just because that’s the way it has always been done or because that is what is expected of them.

For the women in my PhD, this meant opting out of masculinist career models in order to opt in to new ways of living and working (some became entrepreneurs, some went back to school to retrain and then work in another area, some stayed in the corporate world but with a completely new mindset and attitude, and some started working on a PhD…) in a way that felt meaningful, where they had a sense of control over their lives and their time, and where they felt that they could finally be themselves.

So I received my PhD from the University of South Australia and as a result I have gotten quite a bit of media attention in Finland, where I live. This seems to be a topic people are very interested in, so I decided to start this blog about opting out, about doing it on your own terms, about creating your own definition of what it means to be successful. It’s about the changes we see in society, about creating workplaces that don’t just follow old structures, but that make room for new and different ideas of how to work and how to combine work with other areas of life.

I plan to update this blog regularly, so welcome to The Opting Out Blog. I hope this can be a platform for thoughts, ideas, and discussions on opting out.