Enough is enough

A good friend of mine said something very interesting the other day. She said that people just don’t know when it’s enough. She was talking about exhaustion and how someone she knew was on the brink of burnout and had actually already approached her boss to say that if she takes on any more she will break. My friend’s comment was that she, in reality, wasn’t on the brink of exhaustion anymore, she was already beyond that. You don’t generally go to your boss before you have too much to handle. Because the threshold to bring it up at work is so high, you only approach someone after it’s gone too far.

She sees things very clearly sometimes, my friend; I admire her for that, and this time I think she really hit the nail on its head. As a society, we really don’t know when enough is enough. We kind of go overboard with most things, whether it’s consumerism, depleting our planet of its natural resources, health trends, makeovers, parenting, or just simply work. How do you know at work when you’ve done enough? When you’re good enough? Your employer will take whatever he or she can get and you as an individual are responsible to draw the line. But in this age of major and multidimensional insecurity, how do you know you’ve done enough to stay safe and stay in the game? With an employer who is always asking for more it’s impossible to know.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague a while back. He was recounting an interview he had seen with Rod Stewart, I think it was, or someone equally rich and famous anyway. And Rod was talking about how he wakes up every morning, thinking, “Am I comfortable yet?” And he’s a multimillionaire! This sounds pretty idiotic, but it kind of epitomizes the fear of disposability we suffer from that I wrote about last week. Even (or especially?) a talented, rich, and famous rock star doesn’t feel comfortable with the fleeting nature of success and security. The fact is, in this day and age things can change very fast.

So how can we possibly know when enough is enough if we don’t feel secure or comfortable in our jobs? When we constantly try to live up to unrealistic expectations?

Well, that’s a rhetorical question. In the meantime I’m going to try to recognize when enough is enough in my life, and actually slow down enough to enjoy the holiday season with family and friends. I’m going to take some time off from my blog and will be back after the New Year. Until then Happy Holidays and all the best for 2016!

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Sometimes you need to fail in order to succeed

A few days ago I found out that I didn’t get a job I applied for. For a while it seemed very promising and I was already mentally preparing to accept this job and considering the practicalities I needed to figure out in order to do that. But then I came second, so alas, no job.

Writing this I realize what a long way I have come. Not too long ago I wouldn’t have breathed a word to anyone that I was applying for a job much less announced globally that I didn’t get it like I’m doing now. I just wouldn’t have broadcasted my failure. Only it wasn’t a failure. It was actually a very good process for me. First of all it made me really think about what I want to do and what I can imagine myself doing. And I realized that I could actually imagine myself going back and working in an organization again. My own opting out and in experience continues to evolve, it is not static, and like so many people I have interviewed I also realize that the choices I made when I opted out weren’t forever. So that was good to really have a chance to think about my situation, my terms, and what I want to do. Also, although I would have been very happy to have gotten the job, I’m actually also very happy to be able to continue living the life I’m living right now the way I do. So what initially felt like a waste of energy since it didn’t really lead anywhere was actually quite meaningful. And besides, as an academic I deal with a lot of rejection all the time so in a way I’m kind of getting used to it. Scary as that may sound.

But this question of success and failure is interesting. I’ve decided to make a point of sharing my failures and rejections, because it’s important that people know that everyone experiences failures, and actually the people who are very successful usually are because they worked very hard and failed over and over until they succeeded. Their secret is they didn’t give up.

We have a very low tolerance for failure in our society, and organizations especially aren’t very forgiving, which is extremely unfortunate. The thing is, it is from our mistakes and failures that we learn and develop and if we’re terrified of making mistakes, and as a result maybe even getting laid off, we won’t ever dare do anything out of the ordinary or take any risks, which is bad both for personal and organizational development and learning. As inventor Regina Dugan says, “We can’t both fear failure and make amazing new things.”

But overcoming the fear of failure isn’t very easy in this day and age. Zygmunt Bauman talks about something he calls the fear of disposability – a fear of being expendable, of becoming redundant – which is a direct result of the constant flux that is our reality in this fast-changing economy. Organizations and individuals alike need to stay lean and flexible in order to survive the ever more competitive global market. Well, it’s a viscous circle if you ask me.

So what do we do about it? Well like so many other things, this too is organizationally driven. If organizations become more forgiving, they will help create a more forgiving culture, where we can be more accepting of failure. And not only that, I’m convinced that these very organizations will be the big winners in the long run, because people – their employees – will dare and have the space to be more creative, and they will make amazing things, as Dugan says. But in the meantime, I think we should just all become more forgiving as individuals, of ourselves and of each other. And we should be more open about sharing both successes and failures, and not just instagrammable versions of ourselves and our lives.

Let’s change working life as we know it!

I read another article yesterday about new meanings of work and how organizations need to start offering people new or different solutions and ways of working to better meet their preferences and needs. I always do a little victory dance (okay, not literally) when I see articles like this. For one it sort of confirms that I’m on to something, but more importantly, it supports my argument that things are finally happening on that front. We are at a crossroads of sorts and now is the time to redefine work as we know it. And the best thing about this is that we can all be involved in this change together.

One thing struck me, though, when reading this article. Although the arguments were good and valid, they really didn’t offer much in the way of concrete solutions or ideas for how this change is going to happen. Or indeed what these new solutions for work could be. And to be honest, I get that a lot too.

The thing is, these new solutions need to be developed together. In other words I have no quick ready-made solutions that organizations can instantly adopt. After all, we’re breaking new ground here. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the changes we need really aren’t that major. When people opt out, it isn’t that they don’t want to work, it’s that they don’t want to work the way that they have been. The biggest problem in the jobs they opted out of was that they lacked a sense of control over their lives and their time.

I’m sometimes approached by career coaches who help people find their true self and calling, wondering if we could perhaps work together somehow. I’m all for coaching, I think that coaches do very valuable work and help a lot of people in many different ways. However, in my research I have found that the biggest problem for people who opt out is not that the job they did wasn’t their true calling. Rather it’s the structures and working cultures that cause a lack of coherence and agency (a feeling that one has very little power and control to affect one’s situation), which in turn has a negative effect on wellbeing. After having opted out and in to a new lifestyle and way of working, they report feeling like they are finally doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, which could be understood as a true calling. However this sense of authenticity really isn’t about the job they’re doing, it’s actually a result of finally being able to control their time better; that they can be themselves and don’t have to hide certain aspects (like children who are generally expected to be kept invisible in the corporate sphere, especially for women); and of the sense of coherence that they get because they have more control. In fact, most of them loved what they did before, that really wasn’t the main problem.

So the change that I’m calling for isn’t a change in tasks or areas of responsibility, or even workload. It’s rather a change in systems and policies that allow for more autonomy and control over when, where, and how people work. This means different solutions for different people – some want more autonomy and some want less – but that really shouldn’t be impossible; we have the technology. In practice it will mean setting clear and concrete goals and being able to follow up on these so that it doesn’t become a question of whether or not we trust people to actually do their jobs if we can’t see them. Measuring work in hours as we generally do today really isn’t the answer. I mean just because you sit in your office for eight hours doesn’t mean you’re actually working or creating added value for the whole eight hours.

So the good news is that this really isn’t rocket science; it’s all very doable. It’s rather a question of mindset, which of course can be tricky to change.

People who opt out think long and hard about what works for them and what doesn’t, and based on this they develop terms. I also have terms, which I’ve thought about a lot lately, and I’ve found that I need to keep reminding myself what these terms are, because sometimes I forget. The reason is that organizational culture as we know it is so strongly embedded in our consciousness, that we are very much affected by what we think is expected of us. The terms we develop really aren’t that outrageous because we think we will probably have to compromise to hold down a job (which we need to do because we all have to eat, right?). So these terms and ideal solutions for work that we develop are still very much colored by the understanding we have of what is acceptable. However, being cautious and thinking in terms of old rules and regulations do not a revolution make.

So I would like you to join me in dreaming up what your ultimate solution for work really would be if you didn’t have to take into account organizational cultures, rules, regulations, and traditions. If you could work in any way you wanted (and now I want you to really think out of the box and not worry about what is and isn’t possible) how would you work? What is important to you; what is your ideal set up? Would you do things completely differently, or maybe just change a small but strategic detail? Or maybe not change anything at all?

I would love to hear from you. Please comment or send me an email at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com (emails will be treated confidentially).

It’s time for a change. Let’s create that change together!