Don’t sweat the small stuff

My father passed away a few weeks ago. We were close and I miss him terribly. This is the first time I’ve lost someone this close to me and although I’ve lost beloved grandparents and other people from my extended family, it’s just different when it’s your parent. The grief is acute and physical and it just feels hard to comprehend.

But it really puts things into perspective.

I think about all the people I’ve met during my journey from the business world to academia. The people I’ve talked to about opting out, whether casual discussions at parties or conferences or interviews I’ve conducted for my research. A common denominator for all opting out stories is that something has happened in these people’s lives – a crisis of some sort – that has helped or pushed them to take the step and make a real change instead of just talking or dreaming about it.

And it’s true, a crisis or traumatic event may propel a person to make a change as well as trigger some serious soul searching. If everything goes well (and this is important because let’s not romanticize crisis here; we have to remember that a crisis is no walk in the park and some people don’t recover) it may trigger personal growth and create a feeling of authenticity. As a woman I’ve interviewed said, “ You just don’t waste time on anything that doesn’t matter anymore.”

I’m finding that I can really relate to that right now. I just can’t be bothered sweating the small stuff. Intrigue at work? Not interested. Disagreements and misunderstandings? Can’t be bothered. Students who complain? I refuse to let it get to me. Really though, I’m dealing with more important stuff in my life right now.

And although I’m sad, I’m also finding that I quite like not getting fazed by what’s not important. I feel like I see things more clearly. I just hope it lasts and that I continue being able to put things into perspective. Although I suspect as time passes I will gradually slip back into getting stressed over work and deadlines like I usually do. Because that’s life, nothing is constant and opting out isn’t forever, it’s cyclical.

I wish I could put perspective in a jar and then in the future, when I need to, breathe some in and not sweat the small stuff again.

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Sleep your way to the top

Now this week’s title must have made you a least a little curious. I have to admit, thinking up catchy titles for my posts – titles that will actually make people curious enough to click through to my blog – isn’t always my strong suit. So I’m especially pleased with this one. Although before you get too excited I have to confess that this blog post is not about sex. It’s about sleep, among other things.

I saw a video clip of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In interview with Arianna Huffington the other day, and ‘sleep your way to the top’ are Huffington’s words. According to Huffington we all sleep too little due to the constant pressure and need to be efficient. However, and the experts all agree on this, a lack sleep does not lead to efficiency. Sacrificing sleep in the name of productivity actually makes us less productive. So if you really want to succeed – if you want to make it to the top – you really need to get enough sleep.

Another thing Huffington brings up is that organizational culture is designed by men and fueled by burnout. Well, I’m very familiar with the concept of masculinist career models and working cultures. It’s true, prevalent career models have been designed by men for men. Whether they represent how all men want to work is a different question, but this is fact. However the idea that it is fueled by burnout was a new thought for me, and a very disturbing one at that. I know working culture can be extreme, and I know that in this day and age the ever more hectic pace and financial uncertainty take their toll. In fact according to the Kelly Global Workforce Index about half (!) of the world’s workforce is reportedly unhappy, mainly due to downsizing and uncertainty, and according to the Harvard Business Review middle managers are among the most unhappy. So I guess it should come as no surprise that also burnout is a real problem.

Huffington goes on to explain that because of this, sleep is a feminist issue and that it is women who need to lean in and reach top positions in greater numbers so that they can change working culture from the inside. So instead of opting out, according to Huffington at least, women need to stick around, gather in greater numbers, and change the environment.

That’s good, I do agree. Corporate life needs to change and we need to change it. I’m unsure of whether women alone can change it however. Women so quickly get assimilated by the culture and need to adopt masculinist norms and ideals in order to make it to the top, and because of this women aren’t necessarily good role models for other women. And the reason women don’t help each other enough as much as you’d hope may also be related to this. In part it’s due to a fear of being stigmatized in an environment where women constantly need to prove themselves worthy.

But either way, I don’t think this is only a women’s issue. I think both women and men need to and will change corporate culture together. Masculinist work cultures don’t suit all men either and like many including me argue again and again, they just haven’t kept up with the times. So yes, it’s a feminist issue, it’s a women’s issue, and it’s also a men’s issue. It’s a question of wellbeing.

But just the thought of whole societies sleepwalking through life is simply horrific. Let’s get more sleep people! Let’s sleep our way to the top. Or wherever it is you want to go.

P.S. Watch the video clip. Huffington says some very wise things about napping too. As a matter of fact, I think I might just take a nap myself.

The illusion of control

One of the things that comes up again and again in my research is control. Before opting out there is a feeling of having little or no control over one’s life and career. People talk about how they are drawn between work and family, they never seem to be in any one place enough – never at work enough, never at home enough – and the hectic pace simply becomes hard to keep up with. There’s a feeling of being stuck – in a job or a lifestyle – with no idea of how to break free. Because the fact of the matter is, although you want to break free, seeing or imagining what you could do instead can be hard.

And then something happens and you do finally take the step. You opt out, you leave that lifestyle that that you haven’t been able to break free from, and you feel like you’ve managed to take control over your life. You have a sense that you can finally be you.

It’s no coincidence that so much seems to revolve around the idea of control. It’s so deeply embedded in contemporary culture, in how we talk and think. We want to control everything, and we develop technology to do so; to control nature, our bodies and our health (although ironically a consequence of this is a loss of control – just consider global warming for example), and this goes hand in hand with the concept of choice. The rhetoric of choice has become one of the corners stones on which Western culture stands. By being able to choose, we believe that we can control not only our lives but also our destinies.

It reminds me of a former colleague of mine who liked to talk about the ‘illusion of control’. Before meeting clients or kicking off a development project, he would check with the team, “So do we have the illusion of control?” he would ask, and if we did we were good to go. Because you can never really have control, you can only have a feeling or an illusion, and that’s how ready you will ever be. And that’s good enough when opting out and in as well.

In fact, that has been one of my main findings. After opting out and in, people recognize that they really can’t control their lives and their surroundings, no matter how hard they try. Before opting out many of those I interviewed reported being control freaks and pathologically organized. After opting out and gaining a sense of control, they felt less need of actual control. Many became forgetful and some became rather disorganized, but in a way that they recognized as healthy.

One of the most powerful stories of letting go came from a woman who was terrified of flying. After opting out she boarded a plane to Spain, only to be informed that there was something wrong with one of the engines, but that they were working on it and hoped to be able to take off shortly. This is scary for anyone, but for someone who is afraid of flying this is definitely not good news. But instead of having a panic attack, she surprised herself by just leaning back and thinking “Well these people are professionals, I’m sure they know what they’re doing.” The difference was dramatic.

So the concept of control is important, but it is rather the idea of control than actual control. When we feel like we have control, we don’t as acutely feel the need to control. Instead we can just let go. And letting go, it seems, adds to a sense of sanity and a sense of peace. It adds to our wellbeing. Maybe that’s what we should be doing more of – letting go.