Is opting out trendy?

I have a few friends with whom I always have the most interesting and inspiring conversations. I meet them every now and then for lunch, after which my mind is always bubbling with ideas for blog posts, and I was lucky enough to see one of those friends just a few days ago.

This particular friend has also opted out and in. We had a conversation about ‘opting on’ and the blog post I wrote not too long ago. I told her how interesting it has been because after sharing with the world that I myself plan to opt on again, I have gotten so many really positive reactions.

And it’s true, I have gotten comments and messages from people – both from the academic world and from the business world – who have told me how happy they are that I am opting on. Although I’ve been thrilled by these reactions, I also find them extremely interesting. Especially since most of them seem to just be happy in general rather than specifically for me.

I’ve been thinking about what that might mean. I think maybe for academics there is a frustration regarding the way many things work in academia and the fact that someone is critical of it might be intriguing to them. But what about non-academics? They don’t have a bone to pick with the academic system. Maybe it’s just the thought of someone doing their own thing on their own terms and breaking free from predetermined paths that appeals to them?

Judging from the reactions people who opt out generally get from others this is probably true. Many wistfully say that they think the person opting out is brave and that they wish they could do it too, although I speak for many when I say that bravery often doesn’t have anything to do with it when you opt out. Opting out is often just something you feel like you have to do.

So my friend and I were discussing this and suddenly she says that opting out is, after all, quite trendy. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that, but it just seems so strange to me because opting out and in is not an easy thing to do. It isn’t something people do lightly. It’s usually a result of some kind of crisis that pushes a person to make such a big change. Without the push and a feeling that continuing that way they have just isn’t an option, they are generally not able to leap into the unknown, which opting out often is.

Still, opting out is romanticized, especially in the media. We have a romantic notion of what it is like and think that people who opt out do so bravely and happily in order to opt in to their dreams, where they can be the best versions of themselves. Although that sounds wonderful, that doesn’t necessarily provide us with a realistic picture of what is really going on.

So one of the things I came to think of when lunching with my good friend, was that if that is true, that opting out has become trendy, and if it is something that people not only long to do but think that they should do in order to be happy, then that is really quite troubling. Because since opting out is hard, and really isn’t something that most people do just because it is so hard, aren’t we setting people up for disappointment by creating a trend that really isn’t very easy to adopt even if we wanted to?

This actually goes hand in hand with the notion that happiness is something that we should strive for in order to be just that – happy. The problem is that if you search for happiness it is always going to elude you. I want to be happy as much as anyone else, but happiness is the result of other things. It is a result of a meaningful life filled with meaningful relationships and activities.

If we always dream of something else, we will never be happy with what we have. So instead of making opting out trendy, maybe we should rather focus on making being happy with what we’re doing now cool? Just as it is okay to opt out if that is what you need to do, it also needs to be okay to like your job and your life just the way it is.

So on that note, I’m going to stop here. In front of me I have a cup of coffee. The cup was a birthday gift from my husband and it very appropriately says, ‘Love what you do’. Pretty good advice if you ask me.

Advertisements

Keep your reminders

As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk looking at a flower in a glass bottle. A flower that is the sole survivor of a wilted birthday bouquet I got about a week ago. It wasn’t the prettiest flower in the bouquet, but on my desk it looks quite stunning, and it serves as a reminder of all the relaxing days I had over my summer break.

I had a wonderful vacation. I managed quite well to stay off my work email, email in general actually. I wasted time frivolously and extravagantly, sat around drinking coffee, engaging in good conversation, and taking in the beautiful scenery without checking my watch or being stressed about all the things I should be doing. And that was probably the best part of my vacation, wasting time, or rather using it any way that I wanted.

I had time to think and, as you may know if you read my blog post from a few weeks ago, I imagined exciting futures and new beginnings. Now, however, I’m back at my desk, working on on-going projects and faced with a long to-do list, as always. As I’m getting sucked in to the drudge of everyday life, I easily forget my thoughts and plans for the future. Still just abstract and fleeting, they so easily get pushed into the background and forgotten, and if I’m not careful I’ll forget I had the thoughts in the first place.

So I keep reminders. One is the flower. Another is one of my silk paintings that I’ve decided to keep for myself. When I painted it, I experimented with a style and technique I came up with myself and created something unlike I had ever painted before. The concept became an instant hit and it reminds me of how anything can happen and that everything is possible. It hangs on the wall in my living room and I can see it from several points in my house, and every time I see it, I remember.

Because I tend to forget. I tend to get caught up and sucked in. I get so busy that I forget my plans on opting on. And if I do, I won’t. Opt on that is.

So the painting literally jogs my memory every time I see it and inspires me to keep going and work on making my dreams and plans reality. Because the truth is, they won’t happen by themselves. I need to make them happen.

“Keep going, keep going, keep going”

I have learned something important during the past year. I’ve learned that when an opportunity presents itself, you should just jump on board, even if it seems crazy. Because if it seems like a fun thing you might like, it probably isn’t crazy at all, it’s just that your self-doubt is telling you that it isn’t something you ‘do’. And that is one of the things I have learned. That just because you don’t usually do something it doesn’t mean it isn’t your thing. It just means you haven’t discovered that it could be your thing because you haven’t been ‘crazy’ enough to try.

I’ve been there. I’ve had Doubt sitting on my shoulder whispering loudly into my ear. I haven’t tried things I might like because how could I <insert here something you’ve always dreamed of doing> since I’m not formally trained, I’m really not that talented, there is so much competition in that area, I already have a job…. or all of the above. But this year I’ve tried things. I’ve jumped on board and I’ve ignored my self-doubt, even though it’s there. And it’s true, we all doubt ourselves at times, all of us.

One was of course my silk painting. By now it has snowballed into something quite exciting simply because I allowed myself to just go with it. And honestly, I still don’t know where it will lead, but it has gone from being a private hobby to becoming something of a small side business.

Another is a project that I’m working on right now, which I am really excited about. It’s still too early to talk about, but let me just say that it’s an idea that presented itself and I decided why not give it a try. I never really thought it was something I would be able to do, but I’m finding I’m better at it than I thought and not only that, I’m really enjoying it, despite many moments of doubt. And let me tell you, there have been many.

But the only way the crazy opportunities can lead anywhere – the only way you will succeed – is if you keep going despite the doubt. Last week I read Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham (a seriously fun and feel-good read, by the way) and she talks about this. She talks about what the secret to success is, to accomplishing a lot, and this is how she sums it up:

“Ignore the doubt – it’s not your friend – and just keep going, keep going, keep going.”

This, my friends, is my new mantra.

Opting on

During the summer, I spend as much time as possible with my family on an island in the beautiful Finnish archipelago. We love to go boating, and when you’re on a boat surrounded by little else but glittering waves, you really have a lot of time to think. And as I think, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that an academic career isn’t for me. It isn’t going to help me achieve what I have set out to do.

As many of you know, I’ve been on my own opting out and in journey for the past few years. I came to academia from the business world and in a way, ever since I started working on my PhD, I’ve felt a bit like a tourist. Maybe it’s all the baggage I carry with me from years in business, but I’ve never really started feeling like a native academic.

Part of it is the system. The rigid structures and organizing in no way reflect the innovative, cutting edge research and thinking that goes on in academia, nor does it support the amazing work that researchers do. As a former management and leadership consultant, it is actually quite painful to see how unhappy and frustrated so many academics are due to appalling management and support systems and processes, as well as policies that just don’t support the nature of academic work.

But most of all I now clearly see how pursuing an academic career and everything that entails won’t enable me to do what it is that I really want to do. It won’t help me make an impact where I want to make it.

I want nothing less than to change the world. I want to help change organizational cultures and create work environments that are sustainable and where people can and do thrive. Publishing in academic journals is not going to help me do that. However, publishing on platforms that are accessible to practitioners and working directly with organizations is.

I had coffee a while ago with a person who contacted me through my blog – a fellow opt-outer (you can check out his blog here). We met up to talk about opting out and in and we had a very meaningful conversation. We talked about how opting out isn’t the same as dropping out, and that it’s cyclical. Once you’ve been through an opting out and in process, it sort of becomes a state of mind where you’re continuously evaluating and re-evaluating what you’re doing, what your terms are, and what’s important to you. He really hit the nail on it’s head when he said that as a term opting out is actually quite inadequate, that really it should be called opting on.

And that’s what I’m doing; I’m opting on. I’m not leaving academia completely, I still love doing research and I still want to be a part of the amazing work done by my academic colleagues (and I have a research project to finish). However I also want to do more hands-on work with organizations and use my research and knowledge to make a real difference in everyday lives. To do that, I need to opt on, and I feel really excited by the prospect of embarking on the next phase of my journey.

Impossible! Or is it?

It never ceases to amaze me how hard it is to question what we take for granted. I notice this in my everyday life when I feel stuck. When I’ve organized my life or my routines in a certain way, I become so used to them that imagining a different way to go about things is surprisingly hard.

Let me give you an example. About a year ago I started painting more again, after years of really not painting very much. A friend wanted to buy a few paintings, which really inspired me and before I knew it, it had snowballed into a second job. I desperately needed a place to set up a painting studio, and I wanted to do this in my home but there was just no space. Every inch of our house was pretty much taken, not to mention all the rooms with enough natural light. So it seemed like a mission impossible. I did finally set up a table in a corner of a room where I painted for the first few months. However, this space was completely inadequate. It was cramped and the light was pretty bad. Every once in a while I would carry what I was working on outside to check how the colors really looked. Not to mention how unergonomic the space was, my back was not happy!

But I was stumped. There was just no other space to set up my paints.

Well, in this situation what usually happens to me is that it takes a while but eventually I start considering the impossible. I need that one moment when I realize maybe the impossible could be possible after all.

The solution eventually came to me. I have a study at home where I write and my desk is actually a dining room table with a lot of space for piles and piles of books and papers. But my study was absolutely off limits. I mean, my research and writing! That’s my job. It’s how I make a living. There is no room in my study for anything else.

But then one day I thought, or is there?

In a moment of clarity I realized that if I turned my desk 90 degrees there would be room to extend it (it has a built-in extension) and not only would I have space to write on it but to paint too! My study could be a combined study-studio! Not only that, it has plenty of natural light.

It was like an epiphany. What had just been impossible was suddenly the solution and I set about rearranging my stuff right away. I made room in my bookshelf for the piles and now only keep what’s absolutely necessary on the table. And it’s perfect. I no longer have to carry paintings in and out of the house to see what they really look like and my back is also thanking me.

But symbolically the change meant even more. My second job got a place of its own in my study-studio and suddenly it became a very real part of what I do. It’s actually quite mind blowing and opened up even more possibilities in my mind. Who knows where this will lead? Maybe the minor rearranging of furniture will turn out to have a much greater effect than I ever imagined?

The point is, in my mind the impossible became possible. This particular story is about my painting, but it works for just about anything. Think about it: are you stuck with no imaginable way forward? If you think it is impossible you might just need to ask yourself, or is it?

Pretty darned great

I have always loved to read. Books have been a huge part of my life every since I was little. My parents read and my sisters read. They read to themselves and they read to me. And after I learned to read I started reading too just as much as they did. We always had books at home and it was one thing we were allowed to indulge in as much as we wanted. Not at the dinner table, however, but my sisters and I would still constantly try to sneak in books to read on the sly under the table because we just couldn’t put them down. And we always got caught but still never stopped trying the same trick over and over again.

Growing up with books, I always thought that the single most awesome thing must be to write a book. I never really though I would because it seemed like an unattainable dream that was just granted very few special people. Little did I know that one day this would actually happen to me.

Even as I started doing research and planning a book based on that research, I still sort of felt that writing and publishing a book was the ultimate thing. Then one day I started writing a book proposal and it became the first step in quite a long and slow process. The book contract was a long time coming, and then after I finally submitted my manuscript, there was the slow and sometimes tedious and frustrating process of copywriting, cover design, checking indexes… and the process was so slow that that somewhere along the way publishing a book no longer seemed like it was going to be the magical thing I thought it would be.

It actually turned out to be more of a non-event than anything else to tell you the truth. I had been notified of an approximate publishing date of the hardback, but then months in advance noticed by accident that my book was actually already available for pre-order through numerous online bookstores. Since it was an academic book (even though I made sure to write it in a way that made it accessible to anyone, so anyone could enjoy it) the first hardback version was also so expensive that I realized that few people would actually be prepared to spend that much money on a book – even a good book if I may say so myself. I have filled it with stories of women who have opted out and in, and made it a good read, but still. So that was quite disappointing, although I was learning a lot about publishing.

But I had a more affordable paperback version in my contract. I was happy about that since I know I have readers who are interested in the book. But it seemed so far away. And it really was a long wait. So long that I was starting to wonder whether or not I would actually be able to muster the energy to even get excited about it when the time finally came.

Well guess what. Last week I received news that the paperback version is going to be published in August. It is set at an affordable price, which I am absolutely thrilled about, because, as I said, my intention was all along to write a book about opting out and in that was accessible to a wider audience. And you know what? Now that it is finally happening, it sure feels pretty darned great.

So check out my book: Opting Out and In: On Women’s Careers and New Lifestyles by Ingrid Biese

You can already preorder it. Click here for more information.

How to create sustainable solutions for work

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago where I, among other things, attended an event on good work and alternative organizing. It caught my eye in the conference program, as it sounded pretty much exactly like what I am currently researching and spending most of my time thinking about. That is, what constitutes good work and how we can create different solutions for work that are sustainable but that also cater to the diverse wants, needs, and objectives of the people who make up the work force?

The event was basically a panel discussion between scholars who research different types of organizing and much of the discussion revolved around work cooperatives. A work cooperative is an organization that is owned and self-managed by its workers. Either the workers are all democratically involved in the decision-making together, or they elect a person to manage the cooperative and make decisions for them. The work cooperative follows certain principles like democracy, training, and control, which provides meaning and is also one of the reasons it might appeal to people as a solution for organizing.

This struck a chord with me because control is one of the major issues that comes up in narratives of opting out and in. People experience little or no control over their lives and their time before opting out, but once they have opted in to new lifestyles, mindsets and solutions for work, they gain control over when, where, and how they work, which not only is important to them, it also adds to their sense of authenticity and wellbeing. (You can read more about that here and here.)

Another thing that I found interesting was that the researcher who had been studying cooperatives was obviously very intrigued by this way of organizing. When talking about cooperatives, she confessed that she was almost reluctant to admit that work in cooperatives can also be problematic as it can be precarious and lack security. In other words, it is not always a good solution for everyone. She was reluctant because she kind of really wanted it to be.

As someone who researches opting out and in, I can recognize that feeling. One of the things that is symptomatic of opting out and in, is that people generally come out the other end of their journeys – which can be very difficult and troubling experiences – feeling happy and better about themselves simply because they have more control and they feel like they can finally be themselves. Because of that they typically feel that their journey has been a successful one, and it becomes easy to think that maybe it could be a solution for everyone. But it isn’t.

Success is actually quite a complex and multifaceted issue. When we speak of success, we have to ask ourselves, out of whose perspective? When people opt out of successful careers, they often give up their high salaries, which, in turn, may have a direct effect on their pensions later on in life. This is something they seldom think of at the time. It might also entail an increased dependence on a spouse, which makes a person more vulnerable should something happen (for more about that, I can recommend The Feminine Mistakeby Leslie Bennetts). And then there is of course the societal perspective. If women, for example, opt out of power positions in society by choosing not to have careers, how will that effect gendered structures and gender equality?

No, even though opting out and in can be a wonderful and emancipating experience in many ways – I should know, I’ve been on my own opting out and in journey for the past decade – it’s not a solution for everyone, nor should it be. And to have an increasing number of people opt out is, in the long run, certainly not a sustainable solution out of a societal perspective.

So the answer isn’t to abandon all traditional ways of organizing. The answer is to change organizations from the inside. We need to help organizations create sites for good work, where people can have a sense of control and wellbeing so that they won’t feel a need to opt out or choose precarious work in order to feel authentic and find meaning. That will of course mean different things to different people, but what it would mean for organizations is that instead of just talking about it, they would have to really embrace diversity in the real meaning of the word.

That is what we need to do to create sustainable solutions for work, solutions that are sustainable not only for the employee, but for the employer and for the economy as well.