It’s a state of mind

A while ago I published a blog post titled The five main myths of opting out. Looking back, I now realize it should actually have been called The six main myths of opting out; I forgot one myth! But since it’s never too late to make what’s wrong right, here it is:

Myth #6: Opting out is forever

Many people think that when you opt out and in it’s forever. That you finally find the real you and figure out what it is that you want to do with the rest of your life, which you then set out to do forever. But nothing is forever; things change. We change, our lives change, our preferences change, and our needs change. For those of us who have children, they grow and their needs change. And sometimes we just want or need to take a break, leave temporarily and get some distance, so that we can then come back and get on with it. And sometimes we just change our minds, and that has to be okay too.

What I have found is that opting out and in isn’t so much about what you do; it’s about adopting a different mindset. It’s about a certain attitude to work and life.

People who opt out think long and hard about what their terms are. They want to live and work on their own terms and not according to social expectations or corporate norms. They want to do things in a way that is good for them, and they have usually gone through some tough times to get to where they are, so what other people think of their choices doesn’t matter to them quite as much as it used to.

In research we differentiate between subjective and objective success. Objective success includes things like raises and promotions while subjective success is more about personal satisfaction. Many people who opt out give up prestige and high salaries to do things a bit differently, but even though that might not seem successful out of an objective perspective, they personally feel very successful and satisfied. For them, creating a life where they can thrive, where they can do meaningful work without feeling like they have to give up a part of themselves, and where they feel better physically and mentally, is a huge success.

After I opted out and in to work on a PhD I was doing pretty great. I was happy, I was satisfied, and I felt fulfilled. And then I was offered a job and I sort of freaked out. The reason I freaked out was that I had thought long and hard about what was important to me, and what it was in my previous lifestyle that hadn’t been working for me. I was worried that the second I started working in an organizational environment again, everything that I had worked so hard to achieve would be blown away in an instant as I once again got assimilated by what is acceptable working culture.

Well, I was at dinner with good friends of mine and I was discussing this with them when one of my friends said something really important. She said, “But Ingrid, you have your terms, just don’t forget what they are.” And she was right. I went into the working relationship remembering what my terms were, and some of them were worked into the deal. I took the job and I didn’t lose myself just because I was employed again. What I’m trying to say is that it may seem hard but there are different ways of working and pursuing a career, even in a corporate culture. And I’m convinced this is something we’re going to see more of in the future. We just need to be brave and remind ourselves what our terms are and what we are and aren’t willing to give up. At the same time, especially in times of economic insecurity, making demands may seem risky. But maybe you can start small; it might make all the difference!

2 thoughts on “It’s a state of mind

  1. Very strong arguments, Ingrid. I started thinking about the implications from a corporation point of view. Publicly, career paths are often thought of and communicated on using the objective success criteria you mention. However, behind the scenes senior management often recognize that after a certain level, i.e. a salary rise is forgotten quickly. Instead, added challenges, possibility to influence or even define your work, as well as peer recognition rank higher. But it’s all very template-based, and within what I would think is “objective success”. So, how chould management start to uncover employee subjective success criteria/trigger? What kind of a company culture is a prerequisite for this, and what would be the first steps/acts?


    • Thank you Jonas! Yes I think you are right in that while senior management thinks that they are providing employees with individual or tailored solutions really they are usually still very template-based, as you put it, or standardized. They fall within the parameters of how we think we should work and understand success. Now regarding your question, that is a very good and very important question and I am sorry to say that at this point I don’t really have any quick answers for you. However, I would like to be involved in thinking about and developing that. Maybe that should be my next step?


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