My definition of success

Have you noticed how when you meet new people, the first thing they tend to ask is “What do you do?” I remember a woman I interviewed once who was very frustrated by this. She had opted out but not yet figured out what she was going to do next, and in the meantime she was temporarily at home with her kids. This question frustrated her so much because she couldn’t identify with being a stay-at-home mom, she felt an acute loss of identity and extremely self-conscious about not living up to expectations. ‘Just’ being a stay-at-home mom didn’t feel important enough.

Well, the fact that we don’t really value nonpaid care work is very problematic. I mean, anyone who has been at home with children knows that being a stay-at-home mom is definitely not doing nothing, even though those posing the question aren’t just wondering what you do, but what you get paid to do outside the home. But that aside, I have to say that in a way I really get why there’s an interest in what it is you spend most of your time doing, because aren’t we sort what we do? And now I don’t mean professionally, I mean in general. Without activities and actions, what would our lives really consist of?

Inspired by last week’s post, I’ve been thinking about what exactly it is that makes my life successful. First I thought about my work. I’ve managed to negotiate a pretty good deal for myself at work and in a way I guess that should make me feel successful. But to tell you the truth when I really think about it, having a deal that reflects my worth is actually more of a hygiene factor than anything else. If you come from the business world, you’ve probably heard of Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation. There are hygiene factors like working conditions, a salary, and job security, and then there are motivators, which include recognition, a sense of achievement, and personal growth. You feel dissatisfied if your hygiene factors aren’t fulfilled, and if they are fulfilled you just feel neutral – neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. It is only if your motivators are fulfilled that you actually feel satisfaction.

And although I should feel pretty satisfied about getting a good deal, especially considering that women are generally underpaid and as research has shown not as good at negotiating or knowing their worth as men, getting what I deserve is really just a hygiene factor. Anything less would simply be unsatisfactory. What motivates me and makes my life and work a success is something completely different.

As clichéd as it sounds, I came to the conclusion that it is all the things I do and the people I have in my life that bring me joy that make my life feel meaningful and successful. I love that I can make a living reading and writing about things that interest me and that I feel are important. I have so many wonderful meaningful relationships with people close to me and I love that I have the time and flexibility to nurture these relationships, not to mention all the laughter and good conversation! I have produced two of the most delightful human beings I know and watching them grow is definitely one of my favorite things. Also, having a good relationship with them feels like a huge success. I love that I have the peace of mind to slow down enough every now and then to see all the fantastic beauty around me – that is just good for the soul. And I am able to have the most satisfying hobby that challenges me while also allowing me to cuddle with half a ton worth of furry creature (horse-back riding).

Notice how all of these things are activities? It is the things I do and the people I’m actively with which make my life meaningful, and yes also successful. None of the things I’ve listed are about money or prestige. Don’t get me wrong, money is important, we need money to live and to eat, and it is important to get that raise when you deserve it. But for me at least, these are just hygiene factors. It is rather the things that bring me joy that make my life successful.

What is success anyway?

I’m reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business at the moment. You might remember Anne-Marie Slaughter; she was the one who wrote that famous article in The Atlantic titled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’. The title of her book refers to the feminist revolution, which she argues isn’t finished yet. And I do agree, there is still work to do. Despite so much progress having been made for women, gender equality still hasn’t been achieved. I mean I come from Finland and Finland is considered to be one of the most gender equal nations in the EU (and in the world for that matter) although it is also one of the most gender segregated. However, although Finland is one of the most gender equal countries, there are about 25% women in top management positions and about 27% on corporate boards. The question is, is that gender equality?

I’m actually working on a paper at the moment with a set of interviews of gender equality workers in Finnish organizations. These workers have lead projects in their organizations to make them more gender equal. What I’m finding is that there is a lot of gender fatigue in Finnish organizations today. People don’t really want to talk about gender equality anymore; they think it’s a non-issue. The result is complete disinterest in whatever it is these gender equality workers have to say. No outright resistance; they’re not rude and people generally know what’s politically correct. No, it’s just total indifference, which is worse in a way. I mean if resistance comes in the form of indifference, it’s really hard to fight. You don’t really know what you’re up against. And not only that; it kind of makes the gender equality workers and what they do invisible and that’s just awful.

One of the reasons behind the gender fatigue we see in Finland is that people think that since things are so much better for women in Finland than in many other countries in the world, we need to just give it up and be happy for what we have. Well, I find it hard to argue with people who say that, it’s hard to make them see. But the fact of the matter is that if we say we shouldn’t keep striving for gender equality because we have it so much better compared to others, it’s like saying that we shouldn’t bother about high quality education in schools because in our country children at least get to go to school. Ok, so I’m not sure that was a very good comparison, but you catch my drift.

But back to Unfinished Business. One of Slaughter’s main arguments in her book is that we will never achieve complete gender equality until we start valuing care work. It is women who continue to do the brunt of care work in society – both in countries like Finland and elsewhere. And as long as women continue to be the main carers in society, this will come in the way of having a career on the same terms as men who don’t have as difficult a time juggling work with having a family. As long as this is the case, women will just not be able to have it all.

But if we start to value care work, Slaughter argues, if we start to value also other things than paid work and objective and traditional definitions of success, only then will men also take on other responsibilities and roles in greater numbers. This, in turn, will make it possible for all – both men and women – to care for a family (which is important!) and to have a career without feeling like they’re on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

When Slaughter had her crisis and quit her high status, sought-after, dream job in foreign policy to go back to her university position, she says “I was forced to confront what was important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want, or perhaps what I had conditioned myself to want.” And that’s the thing. That’s what women who opt out do. They start questioning the objective definitions of success, and they create their own subjective definitions instead. They realize that maybe the high status, high salary, corner office and company car really aren’t what will make them happy. Like one woman in Lisa Belkin’s column ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’ said, the raises and promotions may have meant a successful career, but they didn’t necessarily mean a successful life.

So maybe that’s what we should all do. Maybe we need to think about what success is for us. I mean what it really is, not what we think it should be or what others say it is. What exactly is it that makes your life successful?

Exciting news!

I received exciting news last week. I’ve been applying for funding for my research on men opting out and on the new meanings of work, and finally funding has been granted! Not only that, I got the mother of all funding: three years full-time funding from the Academy of Finland, which in Finland is a really big deal. In fact, it’s only just starting to sink in.

To be able to focus full-time on research is a dream for any academic, and for me it’s especially amazing since this is what I’ve been planning ever since I started working on my PhD several years ago. I want to research opting out as a societal phenomenon, not just a women’s phenomenon, I want to be the first (as far as I know) to include men in the discussion on opting out, and I want to be involved in uncovering and creating new definitions and solutions for work. This is the future and it’s happening now!

I think one of the things that worked in my favor in this round of applications was that I have already started this research. I was frustrated last year when I couldn’t seem to convince funders of the importance of this topic, so I decided to start interviewing men on their opting out experiences anyway without funding because I knew this is what I wanted to do. As a result I’ve already conducted about 10 pilot interviews and could share preliminary impressions and results in my application.

So if there is one learning to take away from this, it is that if there is something you really want to do, don’t wait for permission, just do it!

I’m going to miss teaching though, I was just getting into it and I really liked it. But you win some and you lose some, and in this case the win is pretty amazing. Post-doc research project, here I come!

Oh right, and I also need more men to interview. So if you are a man who has opted out to adopt a new lifestyle or way of working, or if you know of someone who is and who would be willing to be interviewed, please contact me:

All emails are confidential and will be treated as such.