Keep calm and opt out

“A master has failed more times than a beginner has even tried.”

I read that on Facebook the other day. I can’t remember whose quote it was, but after having received my second rejection in two weeks it spoke to me. That is not to say that this spring has been all bad. I’m not getting rejected on all fronts; after all, I did land a position at the university where I’ve been teaching on short-term contracts, and the work on my opting out book is developing nicely. But it’s funny how we tend to remember the negative bits – the critique and rejections – better than the positive. In part it’s because it just takes so much mental willpower and emotional strength to keep getting up after getting knocked down again and again, and although I feel like screaming at times I keep doing it. Keep getting up. Though I do sometimes ask myself just how dreamy this living my dream business really is.

As I write this I look up longingly at a silly postcard I have thumbtacked to the bulletin board above my desk. It says: “Keep calm and opt out”. It offers me a bit of solace. Not because I’m planning to opt out again. No, but because I started to opt out about seven years ago and I’m still continuously doing so every single day, or at least the card reminds me to. Opting out is not a one off thing. It’s a process. It’s a state of mind. And it provides a feeling of control when everything else seems to be spinning out of control.

The academic world works according to rules that I’m sure frustrates most academics, at least some of the time. And many are very critical of it, but at the same time they shrug and say that’s just the way it is. If you want an academic career you just have to play according to the rules.

But if so many dislike the way things work, then why don’t we do something about it? Maybe the reason is we don’t all dislike it? Maybe we can’t imagine an alternative? Or maybe it’s just that we feel unable to do anything about it? Social theorist and psychoanalyst Paul Hoggett makes an interesting observation. While Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory holds that anyone who is capable of reflecting over his or her situation is also able to change the structures in which he or she exists, Hoggett argues that there are in fact a lot of people who are able to reflect, but that at the same time are painfully aware that there really doesn’t seem to be much they can do about their situations. He calls this state ‘self as reflexive object’. Maybe that’s the problem? Maybe that’s why some, especially early post-docs, opt to leave academia? Maybe it isn’t only the lack of funding or positions, maybe it’s the feeling that you have no control over your career and thus your life, and that there is nothing you nor anyone else can do about it?

I sometimes jokingly say that I’m a tourist in the academic world. Partly it’s because I’ve had this whole other career before I started doing research and I obviously have that to fall back on, or to go back to should I decide to. I feel like I’m standing with one foot in the academic world and one foot in the business world, and I really like it that way. It’s kind of my way of opting out. I mentally refuse to be assimilated (although I am dedicated, one doesn’t exclude the other) and I resolutely hold on to the ability to critically recognize what works and what really doesn’t, in both worlds. And it gives me comfort, because when I feel powerless to change what doesn’t work, and when I keep getting hit by rejection after rejection, it keeps me from losing my sense of self. It allows me to still be me.

I think that’s the main issue here, whether it’s about frustrated academics or mothers of young children or managers who long for a simpler life. The hectic pace, the rigid rules, and the lack of control over our lives makes us feel like we’re losing ourselves, and our sense of dignity.

A while ago I wrote a blog post where I explained how I don’t advocate opting out, because what would the world look like if we all opted out of jobs, of organizations, of society as we know it. While I still stand by my words, I’m also thinking what a narrow view I had of opting out in that moment. Because opting out doesn’t have to mean leaving the work you’re doing. It’s a state of mind. It’s hanging on to who you want to be. It’s living and working in a way you can live with. It’s an ability to prioritize and put things in perspective. And perhaps, most importantly, it’s creating alternative solutions and changing the rules by refusing to adhere to them. Today at least I feel that maybe we all should opt out. Keep calm and opt out. Maybe it isn’t such a silly postcard after all.

Mindfulness on my mind

I attended an interesting research seminar yesterday on mindfulness in the workplace. I have to admit, I was skeptical. I don’t really believe in the mindfulness and positive psychology hype we’re seeing pretty much everywhere (see The search for happiness or Help that just isn’t helpful). And although mindfulness can be good in many ways, I just don’t believe that it is the answer to everything.

It’s on everyone’s lips everywhere. Workshops get organized; consultancy companies specialized in mindfulness seem to pop up right and left. And although I sort of automatically get put off if everyone is doing or talking about something (I know it’s silly, but it’s true…), curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know what exactly we’re dealing with here. And, in addition, since I research contemporary society and social change, I figured I really need to find out what this mindfulness craze is all about. Why exactly does it appeal to people so much? And why now?

Well, I have to say, I’m glad I went because I really enjoyed the talk. And the fact that the speaker had us meditate in our seats in the middle of an otherwise busy day was an extra bonus. But what struck me was how many parallels there are between my research on opting out and the speaker’s research on meditation and mindfulness. There are three things in particular: choice, control, and crisis.

He talked about being able to break our automatic behavior and choose our responses. He talked about the ability to control our attention, our reactions, our thoughts, and our feelings. And then he talked about crisis; about his own crisis that lead him to start practicing meditation, and the crises of the people he interviewed for his study. They had all experienced a personal crisis that led them to start meditating.

Now, this isn’t rocket science and you may find it obvious, but for me it was extremely interesting because these are exactly the things that keep coming up in my research on opting out: choice, control, and crisis.

The rhetoric of choice is very strong in our society. In a reality that often feels chaotic and overwhelming, the idea of free choice is an attractive one. It provides us with a sense of agency – a sense of control in a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control. And in a society where individual choice is key, where we believe that we are what we make of ourselves, and where we alone are responsible for that, the idea of choice has become a part of the very fabric of who we are.

But crisis is also interesting. Yes, a crisis will often lead to a re-evaluation of one’s lifestyle, and maybe push someone to opt out or start meditating, but there’s more. Contemporary life is defined by constant crisis. According to Anthony Giddens (author of Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives) crisis today is no longer simply an interruption, but an on-going state. We live in a risk society, where we are painfully aware of all the risks we face globally, in part due to media broadcasting every catastrophe and every act of violence in full color to all corners of the globe. This is despite the fact that contemporary life in many ways is less risky that it was before, but that is not how we perceive it.

So if mindfulness promises choice and control, maybe it is not so surprising that more and more people are becoming interested in it.

And I have to say, I did enjoy the seminar. I do admit that mindfulness or meditation can be good in some situations. It is just that in this day and age, we sort of go overboard with everything – moderation isn’t exactly our strong suit – and we do this with the idea of mindfulness too. All of a sudden it has become the answer to everything. But it’s not.

So to finish I will just say, too much of the good is just that: too much. Even when it comes to chocolate.

No time to waste

I made a new friend a couple of days ago. She’s a woman I’ve known for years, but not very well. She’s a friend of the family, and I see her on occasion at family gatherings, although we have never gotten a chance to really get to know each other. I’ve always found her very intriguing, and a little intimidating too I have to admit. She comes across as very strong, intelligent, and opinionated, and she definitely doesn’t sugar coat things.

A couple of months ago we were at a family lunch and once again she and I were seated at opposite ends of a long table. During the meal I would sometimes glance at her, and as usual I felt sort of mildly bummed that others were getting to talk to her and not me. Well, guess what. As the lunch was drawing to an end, she came up to me as she was leaving. She told me that she suspected that we have a lot in common but that we never get to talk to each other at these things. Yes, that’s right, that’s what she said! And I told her I felt the same, although what I was really thinking was ‘I think you are so interesting’ rather than ‘I think we have a lot in common’, but whatever. Details…

We agreed that we should meet up for coffee and get to know each other a little better. And so we did. I didn’t want to put it off for very long, I mean the woman is well into her 90’s, and it kind of felt like if I’m going to get to know her, it’s now or never. And I wasn’t disappointed, and I don’t think she was either. We had a lovely chat and we exchanged phone numbers and hopefully we will talk over coffee again sometime soon.

But it got me thinking. How many of you see family or friends all too seldom? I certainly do. I have some close friends that I haven’t seen for ages. We tell each other that we really should get together at some point, but since there’s no sense of urgency we just don’t seem to get around to it. We’re so busy and overwhelmed in our every-day lives – juggling work and family and whatnot – that we don’t get around to making time for each other. Even though it’s seeing friends and family that kind of makes every-day life worth living. So maybe we need to make more of an effort, even though we’re not pushing 100 just yet.