Go ahead surprise yourself!

Last week I actually celebrated one year as a blogger! I almost missed it, then I noticed and I thought whatever. But then I reconsidered and decided no this needs to be celebrated! There are many reasons; one being that I have a whole year worth of texts collected which is a pretty great achievement. Although writing is one of the main things I do in my job, producing texts can be hard, sometimes downright painful. But here I’ve managed to produce about 70 pages worth of blog posts somewhat effortlessly. Except for a couple of times this fall when I was completely bogged down with work, I haven’t really had to struggle at all to get my thoughts down for The Opting Out Blog. I’m not sure exactly why. I think it’s because I mostly write when ideas come to me. If possible I stop everything and jot them down on anything handy, like a napkin or a receipt, so I don’t generally sit and stare at my screen thinking I should but I can’t. Also, since this is my blog I can write about anything I want, so whatever comes to me is what gets posted. My blog posts don’t get reviewed and accepted or rejected by anyone, nor do they need to meet any particular standards, and that takes some of the pressure off. But despite that, or maybe because of that, I think some of my posts are among the most clearly communicated texts I’ve produced (and my blog has probably helped me with my academic writing as well). But still, I have to add that it’s not that I don’t feel any pressure at all. I do because I have readers and all of a sudden I’m not doing this just for me, I also don’t want to disappoint you. So there is some pressure, which is actually good because it’s what makes me want to keep writing and posting.

So that’s one reason to celebrate. Another reason is that I’ve kept at it for a year, and I’ve found a medium that I really enjoy. I think I’m generally quite tenacious, which I actually didn’t think about myself before. I used to think I was the kind of person who gets easily bored, but it’s not true. I guess I just hadn’t found my thing. At a certain point this fall, I did sort of wonder if my blog is getting old. In this culture of constant reinvention, do I need to reinvent The Opting Out Blog after only a year, because is a year actually a really long time in this age of short-termism and quick fixes? And what would that be? And then I started getting new readers, especially in South America, which is very exciting as this is a continent where my blog really hasn’t been very widely read. And I realized no, as long as I think this is fun, I’m going to keep doing what I want to. It’s my blog after all.

And that brings me to the thing that I think deserves to be celebrated the most: the fact that I actually am a blogger. It’s something that I have been struggling to make a part of my identity because I just haven’t seen myself as a blogger. I don’t know what I think blogging really is, but apparently I’ve had an idea that it is something different than what I’m doing. But funny as it may sound, I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that not only do I have a blog, I also am a blogger. The thing is, I never, ever thought that about myself. I never thought I would blog; the thought of being that public scared the hell out of me. I was telling a friend about this the other day and she said, “and yet you started, how did that happen?” And really, looking back it’s beyond me. How did I sit down, create a blog and actually start publishing posts, which I was so completely terrified of doing? I don’t really know, but I did. I think the most important thing was that I got so much support and encouragement from friends, and I just jumped. So that is definitely the biggest reason to celebrate this one-year anniversary: I managed to surprise myself. I’m doing something I honestly never thought I would, much less like, and it turns out I love it and it makes my life so much richer. So in the spirit of dishing out feel good advice (which I try to avoid, but hey I’m celebrating here), go surprise yourselves! You might just find out you’re capable of things you never dreamed of. And besides, you never know, you might even have a passion out there just waiting to be discovered!

The jealous employer

The other day while I was conducting an interview, I was told what I every so often hear, that in a family both partners can’t pursue a career. It’s either one or the other because a career is so time consuming and someone needs to take care of the kids. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now, and I guess I reluctantly have to admit that this person had a point, considering the 24/7 commitment we expect of our employees, at least the ones that are headed for the top. It has been argued that prevalent career models aren’t created for only one person but for one and a half: the one with the job and the one that takes care of everything else. How this is supposed to work, especially in a country like Finland where I live, where there is a tradition of both partners working, and where nannies are rare, escapes me. Who takes care of the work that is supposed to be done by that extra half person? Even though Finland is one of the most gender equal countries in the EU (which is not to say that Finland is completely gender equal), it is often women who do most of that half person’s work. So we have women who not only have the all-consuming career, they also take care of most of the care and household chores, and as a result they are often exhausted. If I remember correctly, I think I read somewhere that in Sweden about 80% of the people treated for exhaustion are women. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the numbers were similar elsewhere.

A while back, a good friend of mine – a friend with a high-powered career – talked about this, about how completely exhausted she was. She’s very good at what she does; she simply had too much to do at work. I once heard someone say that if you want something done you should just ask someone who already has too much to do. I guess there’s some truth to that. Either way, it made me think about Sheryl Sandberg and what she says about women needing to draw the line. In her book Lean In, Sandberg explains that companies take what they can get and it’s up to the individual to say when enough is enough. Now I’ve been a bit critical of that because that may feel risky for a person who is well aware that if he or she doesn’t do the job, there are plenty of others who will – we are all replaceable, right? And besides, we have a structural problem on our hands, not an individual one, and trying to create individual solutions doesn’t solve much in the long run, or for anyone else for that matter. But I was thinking, that for someone as senior and appreciated as my friend is, drawing the line and setting some terms of her own is probably possible. We’re so worried what might happen if we say no, but maybe the sky won’t fall if we try. Still, I’m the first to admit, that it is hard to do, even for someone like me who has a pretty clear idea of what my terms are.

I was discussing these thoughts with another good friend of mine, and ironically (because I think I don’t generally generalize) I was accused of generalizing! I was explaining how companies take everything they can and he interrupted me and said no all companies don’t. He apparently actively tells his team members they need to stop and rest and take time off. Which often throws them, ironically; they are so set on working long hours and looking busy because that’s what all important career people do, right? Well, I was impressed and I honestly think he must be a pretty great boss who really cares about his people, despite maybe just seeing wellbeing as a means to efficiency, which in turn is good for the company. But I do wish more bosses were like him because we really need to understand that working people harder isn’t necessarily better. Quantity is not the same as quality.

In Sweden some organizations are experimenting with six-hour days, as opposed to the standard eight, but for the same pay. This has been quite controversial, but the organizations trying this have apparently had very positive results. They say that their employees get the same amount done, if not more, because they don’t get so tired during a six-hour stretch. And then when they finish work they still have half an afternoon and a whole evening left of the day, which means they have time and energy for all the other things they want and need to do. Sounds like these employees have a much more well rounded life than most. Because despite what my friend says about not all companies sucking their employees dry being true, a lot of companies still do.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we have to stop assuming that working more means working better. I don’t know why we think people have to dedicate their whole lives to work. Just because they have other things that are equally important to them in their lives, it is not a threat to how well they do their jobs, so why do we make it so difficult for them? It’s like the employer is a jealous friend who doesn’t want you to have any other friends. Put it like that and it just sounds ridiculous.

Stop assuming!

When I give talks on opting out, one comment I sometimes get is yes fine but most people don’t have the luxury to dictate their terms or to create their own solutions for work. And that is certainly true. The people I’ve studied, and continue to study, are people who are privileged in many ways. Many have opted out of high-powered careers, which means they can actually afford to pause and breathe for a second and think about what they want to do with their lives (even though most also need to continue making a living). And they might work in areas that allow them the flexibility to create alternative solutions that work for them. Actually, I’m usually very quick to remind people of the danger of generalizing; that there is a whole population out there living different realities that one’s own.

But having said that, this comment still frustrates me a bit. I’m not trying to create an all-encompassing model for contemporary working life, nor am I claiming that my research is representative of the whole population. After all, I am the one always talking about creating different solutions for different people with different needs. But when people say that what I’m talking about is interesting but just not relevant or can’t be done for other people in certain professions, they are kind of making it impossible to even try. When things have been a certain way for as long as we can remember (and honestly, a lot of us have really short memories, so it might not be as long as we think) they become ‘truths’, and because they we think they are ‘truths’ we lose the ability to question them. But all ‘truths’ or practices were, after all, created by someone at some point and just because something has been done in a certain way for a relatively long time, doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do things, nor does it mean that it is the best way to do things. It is just the way we are used to.

This happened a few weeks ago when I was speaking to a group of women at a seminar about juggling work and family and returning to work after maternity leave. We had a fantastic discussion, and then someone commented that yes this is interesting but of course it wouldn’t apply to daycare personnel for example; they can’t create different solutions for work nor can they even dream about working on their own terms because they have to be there at certain times to carry out their work. And yes that is true, they have to be there in addition to sometimes being understaffed and often grossly underpaid. The nature of daycare work is obviously very different from managerial work and we can’t duplicate everything. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t borrow ideas nor does it mean we can’t create working environments where employees – even daycare workers – can feel like they have more control over their lives and their time. So when people say, ‘ah, but that is not possible’, we need to question that. Is it really not possible or do we just assume it isn’t possible? I’m willing to bet that nine times out of ten we’re just assuming, which is unfortunate because it effectively blinds us to any alternative ideas or solutions.

A colleague at the department where I work, Liisa Välikangas, who is an expert on innovation, talks about creative destruction. She argues that most people have a natural, built-in resistance to new solutions as long as the old ones still seem to work well enough, which makes it very hard for organizations to change. Creating something completely new is therefore much easier that changing existing structures. But in order to change we need to do this – that is, dismantle old structures – because otherwise there is no room for the new. So not only do we need to create, we also need to destroy.

And I’m arguing that we need some creative destruction when it comes to our assumptions. We need to say “Really? Why?” even in the most obvious situations. Because it is especially the obvious and the ‘truths’ we have been taught that are the most difficult to question, and the most important. And only if we can do this, can we help organizations and working cultures join the rest of us in the 21st century.

So every time you find yourself knowing or assuming, stop and question. And instead of assuming this is the way it has to be done, try living on the wild side for a second and assume that it doesn’t. And then see if new possibilities suddenly appear.