It’s personal

One thing I often hear when interviewing people about opting out, is that they didn’t really feel like they could be themselves in their previous jobs. There were aspects of their personalities and their lives that they felt they had to keep hidden. Children, care responsibilities, health issues, personality traits… just to name a few. This is one of the reasons they generally feel so good about the work solutions they opt in to instead. Many of them choose or create workplaces where they don’t have to keep these things hidden, which is one of the reasons they finally feel like they are exactly where they are meant to be. Why they experience such a profound feeling of authenticity.

I mean, how many times have we not heard, ‘it’s not personal, it’s just business’?

That seems to be some sort of a mantra in the business world; that and the idea that that which is personal needs to be kept separate from work. Well, I beg to differ. Work – like all aspects of our lives – is highly personal.

The reason it is personal is that we are people. Businesses are made up of people and we a come to work carrying our selves and our lives with us. Granted, we are often encouraged to leave all that at the door, which I think is actually part of the problem.

It is problematic on many levels. First, whatever is going on in our lives affects us and our performance, even when are encouraged not to talk about it at work. Of course it does. If we can talk about whatever is going on, whether it is positive or negative, if we can share that with colleagues (who we, by the way, spend most of our waking hours with), then we can also support each other at work. Not surprisingly, research has shown that this has a positive impact on performance.

But not only that, if we share whatever is going on with us at work, people will also know where we are coming from when we react in certain ways, which just makes it easier to communicate, collaborate and be understood. Knowing where the other one is coming from is key.

However, there is yet another aspect. I often talk about how I time and time again hear about how organizations are reluctant to give their employees control over where and how they work, because if they can’t see them, how do they know they are working? (Yes, this is true, I hear this all the time.) The problem is trust. If people say that, they simply don’t trust their employees enough. However, the better you know someone, the easier it is to trust them. So if we really get to know an employee, we can also feel confident knowing that they are working when they say they are, even though they aren’t in our line of sight. Communicating about work issues and about how it’s going also becomes easier, which again, makes it even easier to work together and to trust each other.

We have to get to know each other better at work, and when we do, it will change working life as we know it.

We have to be allowed to be whole human beings, not just employees. We have to want to know more about each other. We have to really talk to each other without being worried about opening a can of worms. If really getting to know someone means also hearing about the hard stuff, then so be it. As compassionate human beings we will know how to react. Besides, often it doesn’t even involve reacting, just listening, and we can all do that.

Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, the authors of Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations, argue that compassion, which has always been considered a “soft” value, is anything but. It’s a strategic value, which organizations need to focus on to become truly successful:

”Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities…  Without compassion, workplaces can become powerful amplifiers of human suffering.”

All this is on my mind as I set up my Art Place. I want the place to be personal. I want it to look nothing like conference rooms business professionals are used to spending time in. I want it to look like me, and I want people to be struck by this when they walk through my door.

Since talking about work is highly personal, I want to invite people to talk about work in a space that is just that, personal. We are people, and people are personal, and once we can see that we can create more compassionate workplaces. We can create places where people don’t have to worry about not being able to be themselves, where personal isn’t considered the opposite of professional, and where people can thrive.

So let’s do it!

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Following my heart, but taking my brain with me

I own 48 champagne glasses. You may wonder why. The reason is that after getting my PhD (in Australia) in 2014, I organized a seminar in Finland where I spoke about my research and served sparkling wine to toast my hard-earned degree. The department, where I worked at the time, wasn’t in the university main building and having the catering company in charge of the cafeteria bring champagne glasses over to the next building was surprisingly expensive. Way more expensive than just buying glasses from IKEA. And, having spent the past four and a half years applying for grants to cover tuition, living costs etc., the more affordable version seemed like the way to go.

So here I am, the proud owner of 48 champagne flutes. They have been put to good use. I have used them myself when organizing events, and friends and family have borrowed them on occasion. This spring alone they have been at a wedding and a high-school graduation party. And I tell people not to worry if any should break. God knows I have more than enough, and as you already know, they really weren’t very expensive.

But still, they are special to me. They are symbolic of good things to come.

After I graduated, a friend and I fantasized about what the perfect work place for us would be. I mean, I had just written a PhD on opting out, and I was spending a lot of time thinking about work places, sustainable working cultures, toxic environments, good work routines, and basically just what does and doesn’t work for me personally. My friend and I fantasized about one day having an office together where we would do everything on our own terms. We hadn’t quite figured out what our business would be, but we did know what we wanted and we didn’t want, what practices we did and didn’t appreciate. We dreamed about this fantasy place and I jokingly told her that I already had the champagne glasses for office celebrations.

And so, these 48 glasses, became symbolic of my future – my future office, my future business – a place where I would work with what I love, in a way that I love. I didn’t really know if that was ever realistically going to happen, but the glasses have been a reminder that it could. You never know, right?

Well, let me tell you something. On August 1st, I am moving the 48 glasses into my new place. Take that in for a second, I can hardly believe it myself.

You see, I have a vision. I want to be involved in changing working life as we know it, and I want to bring people into a space that doesn’t look like an office to talk about work. I think we have to be taken out of our usual environments and see alternatives to more effectively challenge our mental models, and that is what I plan to do.

I have three legs that I stand on: research, consulting and painting. I’ve been doing research for the past ten years, but I also have a background in consulting and I want to take my research back to the business world where my findings belong. And then I have my painting. My painting is my passion and it has snowballed into a second job during the past couple of years. It has expanded to the point that I simply need a bigger place to paint, and I figured I could combine my three legs in one space. Not only that, after looking for a place for some time, I have finally found my perfect space and I signed the lease just a couple of weeks ago!

I call it ‘The Art Place’ – a place to paint but also a space for reflection and dialogue. A place to talk about and practice the art of change, of leadership and of reinvention. A place to think about alternative solutions for work and different ways of understanding work in a space that doesn’t look anything like an office. It will look like me and all three parts of me. I will be my space.

When I try to describe to people what it is I’m doing, it’s hard to do in just a few words. Yesterday, on Instagram, I saw a quote that said it all:

“Follow your heart, but take your brain with you.”

That, my friends, is precisely what I’m trying to do. So please stay tuned – more soon as I start setting things up!

“At least for now” – nothing is forever and why that’s okay

One of the things people often wonder when I give talks on my opting out and in research is, what happens further down the line? What happens after a few years, maybe this new lifestyle or way of working proves to not be so wonderful after all and maybe my interviewees will opt out again?

They often say it in a way that suggests that they suspect that I may have missed something, or that I am romanticizing opting out and in and have an unrealistic image of what is really going on.

Well, I’m always glad when I get asked this, because the fact is that this is exactly the thing: the new lifestyle is not forever. It’s good for now, and the people I have interviewed are generally aware of that.

The reason is that things change. Situations change, we change, our needs change, and we invariably adapt our lives accordingly. Some people will opt on to the next thing, someone might even opt back into what they opted out from in the first place, and that’s fine because that is what they want or need to do at that particular time in their lives. The difference is that once you have embarked on an opting out and in journey, you become more attuned to your needs and keep revisiting your situation to check that things are still okay. You remind yourself of what your terms are, terms which change and evolve over time.

I was talking to a new friend of mine the other day. Although we live on different continents we share a similar story. She opted out of a corporate career to become an artist. We were talking about her new lifestyle and when I told her she seemed right in her element, she responded with “at least for now.” Don’t misunderstand, she has gone all in. She sells her creations, she is passionate about what she does and she is good at it. Still, she knows that this is “at least for now.”

Realizing that it is good for now is a strength. It is a strength to understand that things not only might but will change. That doesn’t mean we don’t value what we do now, nor does it mean that we don’t do it full heartedly. It just keeps us open to new opportunities when they present themselves, and it keeps us able to rethink our terms and our lifestyles when needed.

And it’s the same for me. I love where my life is going professionally at the moment. It’s great – at least for now.

 

How do we design technology that actually enhances our quality of life instead of making us lonelier?

I’m reading a book* about iGen at the moment. iGen is the generation of kids who have grown up with the Internet, computers, smart phones and the like. In other words, my kids’ generation. It’s fascinating reading and they are a remarkable generation in many ways. They are tolerant and sensible and instill hope for the future, at least for me personally. I like the book’s approach, the way it says their values and ways of life are not good nor bad, they just are. I like that because we spend so much time judging iGen kids and comparing their ways to the reality the rest of us had when we were the same age, even though the realities they deal with now are completely different from what ours were in many ways.

One thing that strikes me though, yet again, as I read about those who are young today, is the issue of loneliness. They are a lonely generation, and as research has shown in a number of different countries, loneliness among young people today is a huge and rising problem. And one of the problems is, of course, social media. I think no one is surprised by that.

While social media is supposed to connect people, it has especially young people meeting online rather than face-to-face. They have friends who they socialize with, but due to many reasons, they mostly socialize with them on social media platforms. And, as may also not come as a surprise, chatting on social media does not fill the same function as meeting in person. Humans need relationships, we need intimacy and closeness. We experience connections on a deeper level when we meet and have conversations with people in person, which we just don’t do in the brief chats and messages we exchange over social media. These deep connections provide meaning and a sense of community that we as humans all need.

Not only that, research has also shown that even when they are at home with family, iGeners will often rather be alone in their rooms on their phones with their doors closed, than be with the rest of the family. So even though loved ones may be there on the other side of their bedroom doors, they are still often alone.

But what strikes me is that even though social media may exacerbate loneliness among iGeners, possibly even cause it, it isn’t really social media as such that is at fault. Social media is just technology that we humans have developed. It is how we have designed and defined it, and how it has been programmed to be used that is the problem.

The same goes for AI (artificial intelligence). Many feel threatened by it, and worry what it may or may not do to our lives. But the fact is, that it is we humans who decide what it should be and what it should and should not be able to do. The threat is not social media, it is not AI, it is how we humans decide to define and develop it.

There is so much happening in society now. Life as we know it is being redefined as we speak, and we need to make sure it is done in the right way. Social media can be great. AI can change our lives for the better in uncountable ways. We just have to make sure that it is developed to do so, and not to harm us and our wellbeing.

So instead of having social media designed to isolate us and make us lonely, as it seems to be today, how about we design technology to bring us together rather that to keep us apart? How about reinventing social media so that we actually interact with each other more in person and not less? How about using technology to actually enhance our quality of life, and not isolate us and make us lonelier?

This is for all you programmers and developers out there. Please design technology to be the resource it could really be.

*iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant and Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) by Jean M. Twenge, PhD

Tell yourself you can and you will

One of the things that my own opting out and in journey has brought me is a whole bunch of firsts. When I opted out of my career in consulting to work on my PhD, I was flung out of my comfort zone as I navigated new worlds and ways of doing things, and it has continued ever since. One reason is of course that whenever you embark on a new profession or way of life, you are bound to do many things for the first time. But another reason is that once you get in the habit of doing new things, the threshold to saying yes to new ideas and opportunities becomes lower. You simply become more open to trying things you never dreamed you would do.

Let me tell you about one of my firsts. A couple of years ago, my son, who has been following my research and the attention it has received from the sidelines, asked me if I could write a book about my research that he could actually understand. My research was just kind of hard to grasp for a ten-year old.

At first, I was just mostly flattered that he was interested in what I do. But I come from a long line of readers and I’ve read more books to my kids than I can count, so the idea of writing something that a ten-year old could read actually felt quite intriguing. It tickled my imagination and I started getting ideas regarding characters and plots, and what I would want the message to be, that is what main thing about my research I would want to convey.

I didn’t get a chance to write any of this down because, of course, like many other things, there just wasn’t time for anything else than what I was already working on. But he kept asking. Every once in a while, he would ask me if I was working on it yet. He was very persistent, so finally I told him yes, I would do it. I mean how do you say no to something like that anyway?

But still I couldn’t seem to find the time and still he kept asking.

So finally, last summer, during my summer holiday on the island, I started working on it. For two weeks I sat at the kitchen table in the sweltering heat as my family went on about their lives around me, and I wrote. I experienced flow like I have never experienced before and I was having so much fun.

After two weeks, I had a story about a girl and a boy dealing with questions of gender, identity, diversity, and the need to do things on terms that work for them. That meant that when I returned to work, I had most of a first draft done. I put in some extra effort; I finished it and edited it with the help of my daughter (for which I am so grateful), and then I let it sit. As with all creative endeavors, this was also one filled with self-doubt, but I tried to ignore that and focus on how much I enjoyed writing it instead, and how attached I had become to these two characters I had created.

Now, during my Christmas break, I finally got it out again, reread it and did some final edits. Although it was scary to say the least, I decided to quickly send it to a publisher before I changed my mind because a fundamental truth is that a text that is never sent never gets published either. Besides, I needed an expert’s opinion. Was I any good?

So that’s what I did. I sent it last week and get this, I got a response after just a few days, which in itself felt like a major accomplishment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. By now you’re thinking it was accepted and that I will soon be the author of a children’s book. I mean I’ve been building the suspense for the last 700 words and why else would I share this with the world? But that isn’t what happened. It was rejected, but since I have made it my mission to share not only my ups but also my downs to give a more accurate picture of what success, or hard work rather, really looks like, I decided to write about it.

Yes, it was rejected and I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed. But it was also a very nice rejection. I got many positive comments, constructive criticism, and encouragement to keep writing. And I was also told I’m welcome to submit a new manuscript in the future.

I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about the manuscript. I suspect I will keep working on it, although not right now. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I have another book that needs to be written, so maybe next summer when I’m on the island again?

In the meantime, I’m going to read it to my son (who is older now but the story was originally for him so he will just have to deal with it). But also, by writing about this I’m taking this rejection (a nice rejection but nevertheless) and actively choosing how I make it a part of my narrative. Now it’s not just a rejection, it’s a part of the story of how I continue to develop as a writer.

Because we should never underestimate the power of what we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we failed, we will feel like failures; but if we tell ourselves that we can do it, we will. And I can do it, I just need a little bit of practice first.

Michelle opted out too

I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. It was a Christmas gift and I really love the book. I love her story and her storytelling. And she writes in a way that is so accessible that I feel like she’s writing to me. I feel like I know her, or rather wish that I did.

What I realize though, now that I am about half way through the book, is that Michelle Obama is a fellow opter outer! She doesn’t call it opting out though. Besides, she did it before the term was even coined (in 2003 by New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin). She calls it swerving; swerving from your path. But nevertheless, opting out (and in) is what she did. She was on a straight path towards becoming a partner in a law firm when she realized that she just didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She just didn’t want to continue doing what she had been trying so hard to achieve for years of education, training and hard work. It wasn’t an easy process, as opting out processes rarely (if ever) are, but she felt that her job and lifestyle didn’t provided her with meaning, nor did they allow her any time for anything else. Her work schedule meant she wasn’t able to be there for people who were important to her when they needed her. It didn’t feel right and it didn’t feel worth it.

Everywhere I turn, there are stories of opting out and in. Everywhere I go, I’m met with people who long to do it themselves, in case they haven’t already. It happens when I go to the doctor, to the bank, to meetings. People ask me what I do and when I tell them about my research, they, in turn, tell me about their journeys, what their terms have been (my doctor) or stories of how they long for change and are thinking about what their next step should be (the bank).

People sometimes wonder if it doesn’t worry me that someone like my doctor who is supposed to be taking care of my health longs to opt out, but it doesn’t. The reason is that I know that it is human to want and need a coherent life story and I know how hard doctors work. And just because you long to opt out, or you maybe already have on some level, it doesn’t make you any worse at what you do or any less professional.

If anything, I feel honored that they feel comfortable sharing their stories with me and pleased that I seem to be on to something. And also somewhat amused that it happened again, that I yet again met a person with whom my research resonates.

Those who doubt that opting out is something we will see more of in the future, simply don’t understand what it is really about. It’s not about dropping out. It’s not about not wanting to work. It’s not about not wanting or being able to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg argued in her book. It’s about doing it on your own terms in a sustainable way that is meaningful. I think in the case of Michelle Obama it becomes quite clear, don’t you? She opted out and just look at her now!

Controlling the uncontrollable and the art of letting go

A feeling of not having control is difficult to deal with. In my research I have found that when people cannot control things they try to compensate for it and create a feeling of control by controlling other, smaller issues. For example, when people feel they have no control over their lives or their time, they tend to be control freaks (pardon the expression) regarding things like organized cupboards, clean homes and excel spreadsheets where they keep track of family members’ whereabouts every moment of the day. I have seen this in my research, and I have also seen how people let go of the small things when they gain a sense of control. People have laughingly told me that after having opted out they became so disorganized because they just didn’t feel the need to control the minutiae anymore.

I have experienced this too.

However, an interesting thing I realized when I started analyzing my passion for silk painting (yes, I know, I am capable of overanalyzing just about anything) was how, when I go between a feeling of control and feeling of not having control, I can actually see it in my painting.

One thing that I really love about silk painting is the way the paints interact with the fabric. It’s almost magical. The paints tend to spread like crazy along the threads of the fabric, and there are different ways of trying to control that, if that is what you want to do. Because there is something so satisfying about letting the colors spread and merge and in a way dance together on the silk and just see it happening before your eyes. You can drop water or alcohol on the colors or use salts to create different effects and the exciting thing is that you never really know what you will end up with. After the paint has dried, you see what you have and then you take it from there.

Sort of like in life. You never really know what you will end up with, but you invariably end up with something and then you have to accept that in order to be able to take it from there. It’s called working with what you have.

Well, during this past year, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of controlling the uncontrollable. I like painting without using gutta, a paste-like material that creates borders over which the colors won’t spread. I like it when the colors spread and I like being able to control this without the help of techniques like gutta.

This past year I have noticed a change in my style of painting. I’ve moved away from big sweeping brush strokes and abstract color schemes to create exact lines through colorful florals or black silhouettes. Only when I have been mad or frustrated have I deviated from this (that’s when I’ve taken my frustration out on the silk, and it works like a charm). But on the most part my painting has been very controlled.

Thinking back, this has coincided with a year of searching and wondering what I should do with my life, where I want to go next. I have been feeling unsure and I have lacked a sense of control, and it suddenly became so clear to me that I, in part, have been compensating for that in my art.

Now, however, I have a plan. I’ve figured things out and once again feel like I am on the track towards my future. I have gained a sense of control and, correspondingly, I see the result of this in my painting. This summer, when the pieces started falling into place, I started yearning for less control in my painting, for larger brushstrokes and more improvisation.

But ironically, even when I try to control my painting, it’s still just an illusion. You can never really have full control, just an illusion of control. With silk paints, as in life, you never really know what will happen and where you will end up. But you have to accept what comes at you because only then can you move on to the next thing, in an informed and sustainable way. It’s just easier to let go when you feel safe.