A meaningful existence

(My most viewed post since I started The Opting Out Blog. Reposted from March 6, 2015)

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 than 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.

Living my dream

(Second most viewed blog post. Reposted from January 23, 2015)

For the past two years I have been employed by a project, a project, which is ending in exactly one week. I have met and had the pleasure of working with some fantastic people during these two years, and for that I am grateful. I have had quite a bit of flexibility and have had a lot to say about how, when, and where I’ve worked – all things that I’ve found are very important to me – but still I have to admit, this wasn’t exactly what I had imagined when I opted out.

But that is the thing about opting out. When you opt out in order to opt in to the next thing, it isn’t forever. That is a misconception people have about opting out. If someone opts out to become a stay-at-home mom, or if they opt out to change careers or to adopt a completely different lifestyle, people generally think it’s forever. But nothing is forever, and opting out and in is only until one’s wants and needs change again.

The people I have talked to who have opted out all say this. While many of them say they finally feel like they are exactly where they should be, they also say that this is good for now and that they are fully aware that their situation not only might, but will change before long and that they will want to, or have to, figure something else out.

This is the thing about life. Nothing ever stays the same, and in a way that can be comforting. For those of us who are parents, children grow and become more independent. Or maybe we realize that we weren’t quite done with the lives we opted out from, maybe we want to opt back in again. And maybe opt out again further down the road.

I wrote a paper with two colleagues of mine a couple of years ago and we used landscapes as a metaphor to describe what careers really look like (instead of the dated linear career model that so many companies still idolize but that really doesn’t correlate with how people really live their lives). In a careerscape you can walk forwards, backwards, sideways, up mountains, and through valleys. Sometimes the sun shines, and sometimes natural disasters strike. And most things are hard to plan.

Just because a person takes another path than the one up the mountain for a while, or decides they need to wait out a storm, doesn’t mean they aren’t ambitious or they don’t want a career. It just means something else is going on in their lives right now, that needs their energy and attention.

What does this have to do with my project? Well, even though this wasn’t how I envisioned the new life I opted in to, this project came at a good time. Just the fact that I had a job set up when I finished my PhD and didn’t have to scramble to find one was pretty great. And also, the project made me realize that I wasn’t completely done with the career I had opted out of. Who knows, maybe before long I will opt back in to another job like the one I have been doing for the past two years. But either way, I’m quite excited that in one week I will be able to go back to living my dream. To living and working the way I originally wanted when I opted out and in. For how long I can and will want to do that remains to be seen. But it doesn’t matter; it’s where I want to be and what I want to be doing right now. Until something else comes along.

Opt Out or Lean In?

(Tied for third most viewed. Reposted from December 12, 2014)

Many people seem to think that leaning in and opting out are opposites – either you lean in, or you opt out. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be either or, you can do both.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes, “I have written this book to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential.” And then later, “I hope they [my children] end up exactly where they want to be. And when they find where their true passion lies, I hope they both lean in – all the way.”

Now that sounds an awful lot like what the women who opt out do. They opt out in order to opt in to a way of life and working that allows them to be who they are and to work to their full potential on terms that work for them.

I have talked to women who have opted out of jobs or career paths that hold them back. Women are still discriminated in the workplace (although now-a-days it’s generally harder to detect than it used to be) and still get bypassed by their male colleagues. I have talked to women who feel they just can’t be themselves in a corporate environment where they have to keep parts of themselves hidden. It’s ok for work to spill over into the private sphere – we’re expected to answer emails when we’re at home with our kids – but ironically it doesn’t go the other way. Women are expected to keep whatever issues they may have at home or with their children invisible in the workplace.

While Sandberg calls on women to lean in and make a difference, many women don’t feel the effort of trying to change a workplace or working culture to suit them and their needs is worth it, nor do they want to take the risk that it may entail. Not only do they think it’s a lost cause, but they are also genuinely worried that it would harm their careers and their reputations.

One might think that they therefore choose opting out as an easy solution, except that opting out is never easy. It’s a path these women have been compelled to take in order to create a working environment where they have more control over their professional lives, where they can work to their full potential, while seamlessly combining work with other areas of life. In other words, they do this so that they can lean in all the way.

All the women I have talked to have been ambitious and have wanted their work to be meaningful. They want to lean in, but on their own terms. After opting out, these women did not necessarily work less, nor did many of them spend more time with their children. The difference was they had more control over how and when they worked, and how and when they were with their children. Having more control, in turn, entailed less stress. It allowed them to feel passionate about their work, and being passionate about what you do tends to automatically make you want to lean in.

So by all means, do both, opt out and lean in!