Tolerance doesn’t do the trick

Times have changed, thank goodness. Sometimes we take a few steps forward, sometimes a few steps back, but all in all our world is becoming increasingly tolerant. In Finland same sex couples now finally have the legislated right to get married. A bit late in the game I have to say considering how progressive my country has been compared to others when it comes to issues like gender equality, to name one. Although also in that area we sometimes take steps forward and sometimes backward. But the general direction is still, thankfully, forward. In the US, however, we see threats of backsteps on many fronts, and although this is really worrying, not to mention scary, and something many of us are painfully aware of, that is not what I am going to write about today.

I’ve been reading a book about choice, namely The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. Choice is an interesting thing. It is one of the concepts that defines the very fabric of being in our individualist society. How much choice we really have or whether we just think we have complete freedom of choice is constantly up for debate, but the rhetoric and idea of choice is, either way, central in contemporary society.

Choice gives us a sense of agency, a sense that we have control over our lives and how we live our lives, which according to Ivengar is important for our sense of wellbeing. Although it’s worth mentioning that research has also shown that too many choices can have the opposite effect. It can just be overwhelming and create anxiety over whether or not you’re making the right choice. But still, on a whole, the idea of free choice is something that appeals to most of us.

So how ironic isn’t it then, that so many people are still reluctant to let other people exercise this concept that many consider a fundamental right? I’m thinking about people in the HBTQ community for example. The message they often get is you can choose what you want as long as you make the same choice as everyone else. I hate to break this to you, but that’s not freedom of choice.

But as interesting as this book on choice is to me, there is one thing that Iyengar writes about tolerance that in all it’s simplicity was so profound to me that I had to underline it:

“While tolerance is certainly better than judging every other culture from the fixed point of one’s own, tolerance has severe limitations. Rather than promoting conversation and encouraging critical self-reflection, it often leads to disengagement: “You think your way, I’ll think mine, and we don’t have to interfere with one another.” … We cannot tolerate one another by shutting the doors because our spaces, real or virtual, intersect as never before.”

And isn’t that just the truth. All this talk about tolerance is good to a point, but it’s not enough. Tolerance is ‘you do what you want and I won’t bother you as long as I don’t have to be a part of it.’ Do you see the problem? It’s not going to make people get to know others who are different from them. It’s not going to help integrate people in the community. It’s not going to make sure everyone has the same fundamental rights. In short, it’s not going to help people understand, just tolerate.

Tolerance just won’t do.



Flexibility is the future, so what are we waiting for?

I read an article in the New York Times the other day, about how job flexibility is the answer to closing the gender gap. This was great for two reasons. The first reason is of course the fact that articles like this prove that there at least seems to be some interest in closing the gender gap. The other reason is that it makes me very pleased that people more and more seem to talk about – and argue for – increased flexibility in the work place. Flexibility makes it possible for people to have a life not just a job, and it provides them with a sense of coherence and control, which is essential for their sense of well-being. And this is exactly what the article argued: how people want and need to have more control over their time.

The problem, however, is that this need for flexibility is seen mostly as a women’s issue, and this article was also mostly about women. The argument was that if women had more flexibility they could better combine work with children, which, in turn, would mean that they could compete for the top jobs they previously may only have dreamed of.

But here’s the catch. If it is only women who are considered to need flexibility and if only they are provided with this possibility, they will continue to be seen as deviants, people who for whatever reason don’t live up to corporate expectations. As a result, most of them will most probably not be able to compete for those top jobs after all. Because let’s face it, there are still a lot of companies who do not offer flexible solutions, not to women and especially not to men. A real man will just do the job, right?

No, that’s not right, but that’s the norm. However, the article did also mention that 48% of fathers rate flexible work schedules as extremely important. That’s right, that’s almost half. Despite popular belief there are many fathers who want to be able to be with their children more, and many of them have wives or partners who expect no less. So you see the problem here. Many men value flexibility, but as long as we only speak of it as something women need, it will not be offered to men, at least not readily. And as long as we continue to create solutions only for women so that they can combine a career with children, we continue to set them apart from men – they will continue to be seen as an exception – and men will continue to work the long hours that do not really make it very easy for them to be more present in their children’s lives. And as long as we do that, the gender gap will certainly not be closed.

But we’re in the 21st century. We need to break out of a mold that was created decades ago in a time long past. Creating more possibilities for flexibility, for combining work with other areas of life (because you know what they say about all work and no play), and making it possible for people to create their own individual solutions for how they can do that, is something we need to make available to everyone – men and women. If we do that, we create the possibility for men to be more involved in their children’s lives without the risk of seeming unmanly or not serious about their jobs. Like Anne-Marie Slaughter says, it is only if men also start doing more non-paid care work, will we stop devaluing it so much, and only then will the amount of men and women doing different kinds of work in the public and private spheres be more balanced.

A few months ago I participated in a seminar where a representative of DNA, a Finnish telecommunications company, presented their new HR solutions. They had turned conventional rules regarding time and place of work upside down. They had given their employees complete freedom in deciding where they wanted to work. They did not have to come in to the office at all if they didn’t want to.

This is quite unusual because many people I’ve talked to in the business world say that this is something you just cannot do. You can’t give employees complete freedom when it comes to where they work, because then no one would ever come in to the office. But this is not what happened in the case of DNA. You see, most people, despite not being forced to, really do want to come in to the office to work several days a week. Some might appreciate keeping work separate from their private life, some want to come in to meet colleagues, and then there are things like meetings that tend to gather people anyway. It is just that most people really appreciate the ability to choose, to have the option to spend some of their time working offsite, wherever that may be, when they want or need to.

This new arrangement naturally meant that the managers of DNA also needed to develop new management routines. After all, if all your employees aren’t physically in front of you at all times, you need to adjust to that. And they had the technology, but more importantly they had the will.

Another argument I often hear from companies is that if you have people working offsite, how do you know that they are actually working? Well, to be honest, how do you know that they are working when they are in the office? Just because they are there physically does not mean that they are working. Besides, I once heard someone say, if you can’t trust them, why did you hire them in the first place?

The ironic thing is that what seems to be a giant leap of faith for organizations, doesn’t necessarily mean that dramatic a change in practice, as most people will continue to come in to work regularly anyway. Although it will mean some new routines, the main difference is that this freedom provides employees with a sense of control, and a possibility of combining their work with the other areas of life that people invariable have, whether their employers like it or not.

Research has shown this is what a lot of people want, and that it is especially true for Millennials. Flexibility and individual solutions are the future, people. So come on, what are we waiting for?

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.

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.

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 (emails will be treated confidentially).

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

Stop assuming!

When I give talks on opting out, one comment I sometimes get is yes fine but most people don’t have the luxury to dictate their terms or to create their own solutions for work. And that is certainly true. The people I’ve studied, and continue to study, are people who are privileged in many ways. Many have opted out of high-powered careers, which means they can actually afford to pause and breathe for a second and think about what they want to do with their lives (even though most also need to continue making a living). And they might work in areas that allow them the flexibility to create alternative solutions that work for them. Actually, I’m usually very quick to remind people of the danger of generalizing; that there is a whole population out there living different realities that one’s own.

But having said that, this comment still frustrates me a bit. I’m not trying to create an all-encompassing model for contemporary working life, nor am I claiming that my research is representative of the whole population. After all, I am the one always talking about creating different solutions for different people with different needs. But when people say that what I’m talking about is interesting but just not relevant or can’t be done for other people in certain professions, they are kind of making it impossible to even try. When things have been a certain way for as long as we can remember (and honestly, a lot of us have really short memories, so it might not be as long as we think) they become ‘truths’, and because they we think they are ‘truths’ we lose the ability to question them. But all ‘truths’ or practices were, after all, created by someone at some point and just because something has been done in a certain way for a relatively long time, doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do things, nor does it mean that it is the best way to do things. It is just the way we are used to.

This happened a few weeks ago when I was speaking to a group of women at a seminar about juggling work and family and returning to work after maternity leave. We had a fantastic discussion, and then someone commented that yes this is interesting but of course it wouldn’t apply to daycare personnel for example; they can’t create different solutions for work nor can they even dream about working on their own terms because they have to be there at certain times to carry out their work. And yes that is true, they have to be there in addition to sometimes being understaffed and often grossly underpaid. The nature of daycare work is obviously very different from managerial work and we can’t duplicate everything. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t borrow ideas nor does it mean we can’t create working environments where employees – even daycare workers – can feel like they have more control over their lives and their time. So when people say, ‘ah, but that is not possible’, we need to question that. Is it really not possible or do we just assume it isn’t possible? I’m willing to bet that nine times out of ten we’re just assuming, which is unfortunate because it effectively blinds us to any alternative ideas or solutions.

A colleague at the department where I work, Liisa Välikangas, who is an expert on innovation, talks about creative destruction. She argues that most people have a natural, built-in resistance to new solutions as long as the old ones still seem to work well enough, which makes it very hard for organizations to change. Creating something completely new is therefore much easier that changing existing structures. But in order to change we need to do this – that is, dismantle old structures – because otherwise there is no room for the new. So not only do we need to create, we also need to destroy.

And I’m arguing that we need some creative destruction when it comes to our assumptions. We need to say “Really? Why?” even in the most obvious situations. Because it is especially the obvious and the ‘truths’ we have been taught that are the most difficult to question, and the most important. And only if we can do this, can we help organizations and working cultures join the rest of us in the 21st century.

So every time you find yourself knowing or assuming, stop and question. And instead of assuming this is the way it has to be done, try living on the wild side for a second and assume that it doesn’t. And then see if new possibilities suddenly appear.