Clarity comes with action

I’ve been a bit under the weather during the past few days, and as a result haven’t really had the energy to see a lot of people nor have I read as much as I usually do; two activities that are my greatest source of inspiration. And since I haven’t had a lot of new impulses, I find that I’m sort of at a loss of what to write about on my blog this week.

While I was working on my thesis, whenever I would feel stuck and just sit there staring at the blank screen, not knowing how to even start, my husband would say, “Read something!” He had noticed a pattern, which I just hadn’t seen. When I read other people’s work I would get ideas and feel inspired, and it would help me get started. So now a days that’s what I do, whenever I find myself stuck, I take a break and read. Sometimes, however, I forget and have to be reminded.

I horseback ride in my free time. Sometimes if I’m doing a particularly difficult exercise with the horse, and if I keep getting it wrong, my instructor will say “If you get it wrong and continue doing the same thing over and over again it’s going to continue going wrong in the same way again and again. Try doing something differently, anything – your posture, the position of your hands, how fast you’re going – anything.” She is right of course and although this is so simple it is sometimes hard to see. And the same goes for life. If you want your life to be different, you’re going to have to do something differently, and if you don’t know what, just start with something, anything. If you continue doing what you have always done, your life will be what it has always been.

I’ve mentioned before how I often get asked for advice on how to opt out, or rather how to find a new lifestyle to opt in to. People want to hear about what other people have done, thinking maybe they will hear a story that they can adopt or duplicate. But it isn’t that simple. Finding what it is that is going to feel meaningful and work in one’s own life is so individual. And there are no short cuts.

But the advice that I sometimes do give when pressed (because although I’m something of an expert on the opting out phenomenon, I’m not an opting out coach or consultant) is that clarity comes with action. And when you’re looking to change your life, there are two things that I think are important.

First, talk to people. Talk to anyone really about your thoughts, your dreams, about what you think you want to do, or just that you want to do something different but you don’t know what. Who knows, someone may have ideas, or even know of opportunities, but also saying things out loud usually helps you see things in a new light and clarify what it is you really want.

And second, try different things. If you don’t do anything differently, if you don’t try anything new, like my riding instructor says, things will continue being the same as they have always been. Again, who knows, one day you might actually try something that you love that turns out to be the thing that you end up opting in to. But if you never try anything new, you will never find anything new.

To be honest, I had no idea how much I was going to love doing research when I opted out and in. I knew I wanted to study more sociology and social psychology, but it wasn’t until I actually started working on my PhD that I realized I wanted to be an academic.

The same can be said about this blog. I was thinking that I should have some sort of platform where I could write and talk about opting out, but honestly I felt reluctant to start blogging. I had never done it before, and although I had been on social media to a certain degree, I really hadn’t been very active. Unexpectedly, this blog has turned out to be a great source of energy for me. I like writing, and as an academic, writing non-academic texts is not only fun, it feels incredibly liberating. Also, the comments I get from my readers here on the blog, on other social media, and in person give me the energy and inspiration to keep writing. It’s exciting to be involved in debates and discussions around the topics that I feel are relevant to this phenomenon that we call opting out, and to how we will organize and reinvent our private and professional lives in the future.

So, now that I’m better, I’m looking forward to inspirational lunches and discussions again. How about it, you know who you are!

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Saying no

I am in a very good place right now. I’m basically writing full-time this spring, which I love. I’m happy to be involved in so many exciting writing projects with talented colleagues. I’m happy to be doing work that feels meaningful. I’m also happy that, at the moment at least, my professional life allows me the leeway and freedom to really be there for my kids and other loved ones when they need me.

Unfortunately despite all this freedom, or maybe because of it, I also feel a little tired because no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to replicate myself and be in many places at the same time. Nor do I have the magical powers of the likes of Hermione Granger to jump back and forth in time in order to maximize my potential (yes, I have been reading Harry Potter recently). This of course is unfortunate because I also seem to have trouble saying no. Or I think I at least need to get better at it.

This is somewhat ironic since I did opt out and I did manage to say no to a lifestyle that wasn’t working for me. But I have also found that although I have thought long and hard about what my terms are, how I want to work, how I want to live, and what I am and am not willing to give up, sometimes sticking to these terms, or even remembering them, can be difficult. And much of the time, I just get so excited by prospective collaboration, projects, and activities, that I sometimes forget what this really entails time wise. Though, to be honest, that does feel like a luxury problem.

But this issue of not being able to say no isn’t only a luxury problem. It’s also a cultural and societal phenomenon. According to Kevin Ashton, author of How to Fly a Horse – The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, we are not taught to say no. Actually we are taught the opposite, to not say no, because no is rude, it is, and I quote, “a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.” However, according to Ashton, the most creative and successful people regularly say no, that’s what gives them time to be creative and successful.

Being taught never to say no is especially true for women and girls. As a girl, I remember being taught how important it is to be pleasant and agreeable. To the point where still today, as an adult and professional, I sometimes feel guilty and worry about disappointing people and letting them down. I go to great lengths to be diplomatic; it has become second nature. I’m sure this is a good trait, but it doesn’t help to be diplomatic in all situations. Especially if you’re trying to assert yourself and get the job done.

According to Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, it gets even more complicated. Growing up, girls are taught not only to be agreeable, they are also taught to provide limitless emotional support to others without expecting anything in return. They are taught to attract boys and pay breathless attention to their needs, and as a result they don’t really have any authority to express their own needs and desires, which in turn places them in a submissive position in society.

Yup, that’s pretty bad. And completely at odds with what is expected when building a career. Not only do women have gender stereotypes, glass ceilings and what-not to overcome, they also have to rewire their brains and unlearn these deep-rooted socially taught behavioral patterns.

Well, I need only to look myself in the mirror, because I can definitely recognize this unhealthy ingrained need to be a ‘good girl’, and I also recognize that this is something that we need to shake because it really isn’t getting us anywhere. So to finish, I will simply say, here’s to saying no! Sometimes at least…

The search for happiness

After writing last week’s blog post A meaningful existence, I was inspired to finally read a book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years now: Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich. I bought it because I was interested in the pathological search for happiness and need to think positively in Western society, but there are so many good books to read that I just didn’t get around to it (and to be honest, I didn’t need to read this particular book to finish my thesis). Lately, however, I feel like I am being bombarded with happiness advice on the Internet. I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say that I see posts, articles, interviews etc. on how to be happy in my Facebook newsfeed several times a week, if not daily.

This bothers me, because this obsession to find happiness is missing the target. Yes, I as much as anyone else want to be happy, who wouldn’t. But happy doesn’t happen on its own. It’s a feeling that is the result of something else. I believe that it is the result of meaning and fulfillment. That is what Professor Catherine Sanderson, who I quoted in last week’s post, was getting at when she says that happiness comes from figuring out what you’re good at and finding ways to do it. That is what Barbara Ehrenreich, who I quoted in my post The irony of work-life balance, meant when she talked about losing oneself in one’s work. Having a meaningful existence is gratifying, doing meaningful work – paid or non-paid – is fulfilling, and when we feel fulfilled, we also feel happy. Suddenly the rest, the things we may think will make us happy, like the perfect body, the latest fashion, the perfect house, or whatever else, doesn’t matter so much anymore. It can be nice to have nice things, I as much as anyone else like nice things, but these things are an extra bonus, and not instrumental in making us happy.

Searching for happiness on its own is like searching for a great sensation, a great taste for example, without realizing that what we really need to look for is the food that provides the great taste.

In Smile Or Die, Ehrenreich takes a critical look at the positive thinking and the search for happiness that has become such a great part of our culture in the past decades. At the end of the 1990’s, the positive psychology movement was instrumental in making happiness and positive thinking a collective obsession. Happiness and optimism were linked to everything from health to career success, and perhaps not surprisingly became a great hit in the media, not to mention among motivational speakers. Happiness became the solution to all mundane problems, and wasn’t particularly difficult to sell, I mean like I said before, who wouldn’t want to be happy.

However, this obsession with positive feelings and happiness can also have a dire effect on our personal development and our relationships with others. For one, it leads to self-absorption. Also, refusing to have anything to do with anyone who doesn’t trigger only good feelings about ourselves, not only cuts us off from reality, it also effectively protects us from any deeper insights into ourselves or our lives. For that we need the whole scale of emotions, both god and bad. Plus, there is of course the risk of ending up very lonely.

Ironically, research has shown, that this obsessive search for happiness hasn’t made people any happier.

Ehrenreich ends her book by dishing out her own happiness advice. And no, she doesn’t succumb to doing what she is criticizing. It is all condensed in one paragraph:

“Happiness is not, of course, guaranteed even to those who are affluent, successful, and well loved. But that happiness is not an inevitable outcome of happy circumstances does not mean we can find it by journeying inward to revise our thoughts and feelings. The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the “first responders”! We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, but – if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness – we can have a good time trying.”

And I couldn’t agree more. Let’s not look for happiness. Let’s look for meaning and let’s feel good about what we do. Only then will we be happy.

A meaningful existence

A friend of mine once asked me if I don’t get tired of people always coming up to me at parties to tell me their opting out story. And the honest truth is no, I never get tired of it. I wish more people would tell me their stories.

It’s true; people often come up to me to talk about opting out. The other day, a woman in my kids’ school asked me if I was the one with the thesis (I had recently been interviewed for our local newspaper), and told me that she is also one of those women. This happens to me quite a lot.

I think it’s wonderful that people recognize themselves in my research, and that it touches them somehow. I feel honored that many want to share their experiences with me. I often hear that I have put words on feelings they haven’t been able to verbalize or analyze themselves. I take this as a great compliment and a sign that my research is close to reality and has managed to capture shared experiences. Because that is what they are, shared experiences. We experience similar struggles in our lives when, for example, trying to combine work with family, or simply trying to manage in an ever more hectic working environment, even though we seldom talk about it. Unfortunately it has been a bit of a taboo to admit that maybe we aren’t doing great when we’re trying to have it all. Many people seem almost surprised that others seem to feel the same way, that they aren’t unique in their frustration, their fatigue, and their turmoil.

Another thing people often want to talk about is what these women opted in to after having opted out. Many women I meet dream of opting out, but don’t know how to go about it, nor do they know what they could do instead. And that is the thing, it is hard to imagine anything other than what we know – it is hard to imagine alternative ways of living and working, which is what people who long to opt out are looking for. Their current lifestyle might not feel meaningful, maybe the stress they experience has a negative effect on their wellbeing, or maybe they are just simply overwhelmed. At the same time there is all this hype and advice on how to be happy, so we expect more of life that just struggling to get by. And rightfully so; this is our only life, we might as well make the most of it.

But unfortunately there is no recipe for opting out and in to new meaningful and manageable lifestyles. The women I have talked to opted in to everything from housewife to entrepreneur. Some have taken top positions in organizations – but on different terms – some have gone back to school and then embarked on a new career. Different people obviously want very different things in their lives and some people want to opt in to types of work that others want to opt out of. The bottom line is that people who opt out, are doing so from a certain way of living and working that is expected of them but that just isn’t working for them in order to adopt a way of life that not only works for them, but that allows them to thrive.

We are all susceptible to other’s expectations and to what other people think we want, or should want. We don’t always realize that we may be living other people’s dreams and not our own. People who opt out typically spend a lot of time soul searching before they actually take the step, and when they finally figure out what it is they are going to opt in to instead, they are pretty clear on who they are, what is important, and what they are and aren’t willing to give up.

Unfortunately there is no magic recipe, but I did read something that I think really hit the nail on its head. Among all the advice on how to find happiness circulating on the Internet, I saw one post that really resonated with me. According to Professor Catherine Sanderson one way to be happy is simply to “figure out what you do well and find ways to do it.” When you do something well you generally feel good about what you do, which in turn feels meaningful. And a meaningful existence really helps when dealing with whatever it is life hands you.

(Read more about Professor Sanderson’s thoughts on happiness here.)